The why and the how of life

woman walking on a road

You have two big decisions to make in life.

  • The first is, Where do you want to go?

This is your life’s “why” — your purpose.

  • The second decision is, What are you going to do to get there?

This is your life’s “how.” How are you going to live? What choices are you going to make that are in line with your purpose and that take you in the right direction? How are you going to navigate life’s dilemmas? How do you make choices? To what are you going to say “yes” and to what are you going to say “no”? Who are you going to travel life’s journey with?

Get the why and the how in the wrong order and you’re in trouble. And most of us make that error. If our how is not informed by our why, then our lives are unlikely to be meaningful, purposeful, and satisfying, and will instead have a haunting sense of meaninglessness, of going up blind alleys, and of a persistent, nagging sense that something, at a very fundamental level, isn’t right.

The trouble is that most of us do indeed plunge into the how without thinking much about the why. In fact, my guess is that most of us devote little or no time to clarifying what our values are, and so we stumble blindly through life, often guided by other people’s values and expectations, or living in a disjointed way, guided by different purposes in different circumstances.

The purpose of Find and Live Your Purpose is to help you both to clarify what are your values and purpose (your why) and also the how — how to live a life that’s congruent with and organized around your core principles.

Our purpose is not something we create. It’s something that is already within us. It’s something that is to be divined. The aim is to help you clarify your core values, and to live them, so that you become more authentically you.

This is work that’s dear to my heart. Back in the early 1990’s, when I was running a retreat center in the Highlands of Scotland and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the task I was charged with, I happened upon a book by the late Stephen Covey — “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.”

This book had been recommended to me years before, but I’d avoided it because I assumed that Covey’s “success” was defined in material terms — gaining power, making lots of money, living in a big house, and so on. But I came to learn that Covey’s idea of a successful person was one who lived with awareness — an awareness that in every moment we face choices, and that those choices matter.

On deeper exploration, I found that the first three of Covey’s Seven Habits corresponded closely — even exactly — with the first three fetters that the Buddha said had to be broken in order for insight to arise. The breaking of these three fetters doesn’t represent full awakening, but the first stage of wakening, and it’s a highly significant event in our spiritual life.

I found the synergy between these two systems to be powerfully transformative. The clarity I gained at that time set up my life’s direction from that point right up to the present moment (and, I presume, beyond).

The aim of Find and Live Your Purpose aims to help you have a deep sense of faith that you’re doing the right thing, heading in the right direction, and to be whole, complete, and happy.

But this course ultimately has as its aim helping you to move closer to Awakening.

As we explore our life’s purpose we’ll draw on Buddhist teachings leading to insight, as well as on some of the overlapping principles that Covey outlines in his book (which are the same principles, but in different language).

You don’t have to have read Covey’s book (although it may help) and you don’t have to be that familiar with Buddhist teachings (although that, of course, wouldn’t do any harm). The guided meditations, the daily readings, and the reflections you’ll be doing in your own time will, i hope, together help you to make progress on the path to waking up to reality.

If you’re interested in joining this online course, which will included guided meditations as well as daily teachings by email, you can click here to learn more.

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When your meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…

Buddha statue head embedded in a tree

I often hear from people who are worried because their meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think it’s good to be aware of the different ways that change happens when we meditate since your practice hitting a plateau may not be a problem, but just part of a natural process.

Sometimes change happens rapidly. This may happen early on, or at any point in your practice. One striking example was told to me by a friend who owns a health club. One of his employees was very prickly and hard to work with, but my friend realize that this woman had really mellowed out, almost overnight. She was now relaxed and friendly. The prickliness and aggression had just gone. He asked one of his other employees if the woman was on medication, and was told, “No, it’s meditation!” This woman had only been meditating for a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

Also see:

This isn’t just a phenomenon that affects beginners, though. Sometimes you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice and change happens rapidly. At those times there can be a sense of excitement about getting on the cushion.

But people are equally likely to find that change comes slowly, or appears not to be happening at all. The meditation itself may be OK, but there’s no sense of it going anywhere. And that can be boring, or downright worrying.

So here’s what I think’s going on during those phases of fast and slow change.

First, we often have untapped resources in the mind. For example there may be pathways that allow us to regulate our emotions, but we’re not aware that they’re there, or that we can use them, or we simply forget to use them. Perhaps quite suddenly, we realize that we have choices about how we think, act, and feel. Maybe a word that we can drop into the mind, or the sensations in a particular part of the body, remind us to come back to this mindful state of awareness in which we are able to regulate ourselves and in which we feel more relaxed, spacious, calmer, kinder — whatever it is that’s changing.

But after this period of rapid change, things settle down. They might settle down in a good place, but there isn’t the excitement of rapid change.

Second, there’s the slow, gradual change of developing a habit, in which new pathways are being established in the brain, old pathways and habits are being unlearned. Some parts of the brain are developing new neurons, while other parts of the brain, because they’re being misused, are shrinking away. This is the result of regular practice — working at developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, for example. Day by day, habits becoming, on the whole, stronger.

Some people are fine with slow, gradual progress. The Buddha described this as being like a tool wearing away over time. In any given day you don’t see much change, but over a longer timescale you see transformation taking place. But some people feel frustrated, and think that there’s something wrong with them or with their practice.

So you can accept that change is sometimes slow. If you’re putting any effort at all into your meditation practice then it’s working. Change is happening, but on a slow scale. If you glance at the hour hand of a watch you don’t see it change, do you? It looks like it’s just sitting there, unmoving. You need to look away and them look back a while later if you want to see any change. So you can learn to trust the practice; trust that intelligent effort plus time equals progress.

If you think that meditation should be exciting, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing in life is always exciting.

Slow change and fast change are not unrelated. Sometimes the slow change of laying down new pathways in the brain takes you eventually to a “tipping point.” Possibly what happens is that you realize that you’ve developed new abilities, or you have a new-found clarity about what you’re working on in your practice — and so we’re back to the fast change of realizing that we can act and feel differently. Then that’s exciting for a while, but then inevitably things settle down again, and you’re back to the slow construction project of daily meditation.

But you need to make sure that you are, in fact, making an effort. You need to make sure you are clear about what you’re doing in meditation. You need to have a purpose, or goal. And you need to be making some effort to realize that purpose or goal. Without that, you may not even be on a plateau; you might just be coasting downhill.

So the takeaway message is this: practice will have its ups and downs. It’ll also have flat, boring stretches. Don’t thing there’s something wrong because you’ve hit a boring patch, but do make sure you have a clear purpose and are actually engaging with your practice rather than just coasting. Things will change.

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Sampajañña: unraveling lifelong habits with mindfulness

It’s discouraging, isn’t it, to watch ourselves fall repeatedly into our same old habitual traps. We try to practice mindfulness, but it can be frustrating. Do you ever have days where you’re so caught up that you realize only at night, despite your best intentions, that you weren’t mindful for even one moment?

And it’s especially hard when we’re face to face with lifelong tendencies that resist change in a big way.

But don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean you’re no good at this. After all, you NOTICED that you weren’t being mindful. That noticing is a positive event. Even though it happened after the fact, you observed something you probably weren’t aware of before. This is a good thing! This is progress. And it’s this emerging awareness that’s going to pull you through.

There’s an aspect of mindfulness from the traditional scriptures that applies here. It’s sampajañña, which is Pali for something like mindfulness of purpose. Sampajañña means always keeping our sights on where we want to go, our intentions. It introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves.

See also:

We look at these things not as a way to beat ourselves up, but to keep our sights on where we want to go. We all have some image of how we’d like to be – whether it’s more confident, peaceful, kind, whatever. Maybe today, right now, we didn’t do things the way we would have liked. When we see how we don’t measure up, applying sampajañña means not giving up on ourselves. We may have fallen short today, but we still have our intentions. We still keep our eyes on the prize. We keep moving ahead.

And what if we feel stuck and clueless about what to do? For starters, we could stop taking our self-doubting thoughts so seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. They’re not doing anything to help us move forward, are they?

We could also try doing SOMETHING, and see what happens — as an experiment. It’s more fodder for cause-and-effect learning. Sometimes when we’re lost, it helps just to walk around the bend to get a different view – maybe it leads to a clearing that helps us to see further ahead.

Or we might simply stay still for while, not thrash about so much – mentally, emotionally, or actively. It’s analogous to when you’re in water over your head. Thrashing about can make you sink, but if you lie still you’ll float easily on the surface. It’s a similar idea here. Sometimes it’s our own overreacting that creates problems for ourselves. Can we let go of our anxiety and fears, and just be? And allow some clarity to settle in on its own?

So mindfulness isn’t something to achieve. It’s not about “getting it right” and reaching for some ideal state of mental clarity. I think for most of us, that’s a near impossible standard. I think mindfulness, especially in the context of sampajañña, simply means being there for ourselves over the long haul, and never giving up on ourselves. It’s an attitude or an approach to life, not an endpoint.

What ultimately help us unravel our lifelong habits is doing the best we can, wherever we are now. And accepting that the pace of change is often beyond our control. The time and circumstances might not be ripe yet. But we can trust that everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the future. We can still be an active participant in our lives. We can still show up for ourselves. And isn’t that really what’s going to get us through?

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Remember what matters most

fall leaves, arranged in order of color

In every life, reminders arrive about what’s really important.

I’ve recently received one myself, in a form that’s already come to countless people and will come to countless more: news of a potentially serious health problem. My semi-annual dermatology mole check turned up a localized melanoma cancer in my ear that will need to come out immediately. The prognosis is very positive – this thing is “non-invasive” – but it’s certainly an intimation of mortality. Hopefully this particular bullet will whiz by, but it’s an uncomfortably concrete message that sooner or later something will catch up with each one of us.

Personally, I am doing alright with this. It’s like there are three layers to my mind as I write here, just a few days after I got the news. The top is focused on problem-solving. Beneath that there’s a furry little animal that’s upset and wants to curl up with loved ones. The bottom feels accepting, peaceful, and grateful.

Naturally enough, after the bullet passes – maybe taking a bit of your ear with it! – you reflect on your life, both past and to come. Of course, you don’t need a health scare – which in my case is small potatoes compared to what so many people around the world must deal with – to consider what you care about most. Then you appreciate the things you’ve honored so far, and you see where you could center yourself more in what’s truly important to you.

While it’s good advice not to sweat the small stuff, we also need to nurture the large stuff.

There are many good reasons to do so, from simply enjoying yourself to recognizing the truth that one day you’ll have just A Year to Live, the title of Stephen Levine’s haunting book. You’ll never know when you step over the invisible line and the countdown begins – 365 days left, then . . . – but you can know, before and after you cross it, that you’ve remembered the big things.

How do we do this?

A Few Questions

In this life, what do you really care about?

Looking back, what has mattered to you? Looking ahead, what do you want to keep on the front burner?

Consider this well-known suggestion: imagine resting comfortably in your last few days and reflecting on your life; what do you want to be glad that you felt and did, that you made a priority?

Some Big Things

I’ll offer here some things I’ve been thinking about lately. See what fits for you, and add your own. Here we go.

You. The sweet soft vulnerable innerness upon which both the chocolate kisses and sharp darts of life land. Your own well-being. What you make of what the poet Mary Oliver has called “your one wild and precious life.”

Love in its many forms, from compassion and small acts of kindness to passionate romance and profound cherishing. The people who matter to you.

Tasting – with all your senses – whatever is delicious in this moment: a ripe banana, birdsong, the curve of a highway railing, the lips of a lover, being alive . . .

Practice. Helping yourself routinely to deepen in awareness and to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of your mind.

Karma yoga – a Hindu term that means skillful action toward wholesome ends, engaged as practice, imbued with a sense of union with whatever is sacred to you. This includes taking care of details that matter, and appreciating the power of little things to add up over time for better or worse.

Letting go. Exhaling, relaxing, changing your mind, moving on, disengaging from upsets (while also standing up for things that matter).

The thing(s) you keep putting off – perhaps speaking your mind to someone, writing that book, returning to the piano, making time to exercise, or seeing the Grand Canyon.

Being, making time for hanging out with no agenda. Rather than doing, the addiction of modern life. Doing crowds out being like cancer cells crowd out healthy ones.

Remembering to remember the big things. And to act upon them. Before it’s too late.

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Mindfully navigating through overwhelm

to-do list

I have to confess, I’m a busy-holic. I’m often balancing at the knife-edge of being TOO busy. But everything I do is important to me, and I don’t want to give anything up. Recently, I started taking a different perspective, which is really helping me cut through the crap. Here’s what I’m doing differently.

There’s always something I want to do. I’m not only self-employed, I love my work and I’m eager to keep learning and growing personally and professionally. I’m constantly doing things with and for my Buddhist sangha. And I sing with my a cappella group, the Silk Tones. My calendar is always very full.

I know many of us feel oppressed by all the things we have on our plates … slowing down doesn’t seem like a viable option for many of us.

Yes, I’m happy with everything I do, but the sword cuts two ways. And recently I’ve gotten TOO busy. I knew I was in trouble when I was starting to lose the pleasure in singing. I found myself squeezing in my practice times at night when I was really too tired, and cramming music into my head just to get the damned thing memorized and done with. A lot of things were starting to feel dry and lifeless. I was starting to feel like that hamster on a wheel – churning from one thing on my to-do list to the next.

I bet you can relate. I know many of us feel oppressed at times by all the things we have on our plates. Maybe you don’t see a whole lot of choice. Maybe you need to work full time to earn a living to support your family, and maybe you have aging parents to care for, too. Whatever your circumstances, slowing down doesn’t seem like a viable option for many of us.

Knowing that feeling overwhelmed is a state of mind, I kept going back to that classic verse from the Dhammapada:

Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cartwheel follows the hoof of the ox … If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.

I knew it was me that had created my own unsatisfactory situation, so what could I do to change it? If I’m not willing to cut back, then how could I take the negativity out of the picture? What might a pure mind look like?

Here’s the key thing I’ve started doing differently. I shifted my perspective. I stopped thinking of time as a scarce resource that there’s never enough of — which kept me trapped in a “never enough” state of mind. Instead, I started seeing it as vehicle for expressing myself in the world. It’s my way of giving the best of myself. How I spend my time tells the world who I am and what I think is valuable. It’s not an easy shift, but it’s starting to bring more spaciousness into my days. And that’s priceless.

Every Monday morning, I now set aside about 30 minutes with a blank sheet of paper, away from my computer and “stuff,” to get a big picture view of what I’d like my week to look like.

In practical terms, this is what I do differently. Every Monday morning, I now set aside about 30 minutes with a blank sheet of paper, away from my computer and “stuff,” to get a big picture view of what I’d like my week to look like. How can I use my time this week to reflect the kind of person I want to be?

My focus isn’t on what needs to get done, but on ME, and what it would feel like to take my stand about what’s important to me this week. That includes taking good care of myself. Thinking this way obviously doesn’t do anything toward getting through my list faster. And that’s probably a good thing. Instead, it forces me to take a hard look at my priorities. If I spend my whole week on “stuff I should do,” I’m telling the world that I’m OK with letting others tell me what to do. Well, that’s not OK by me anymore!

Once I have that perspective in mind, then I go into the explicit list-making and prioritizing of my to-do list. Starting this way helps me to go about it with more clarity and sense of purpose. It keeps me more grounded and present, less likely to fly off into a race to get to the next thing. I’m also finding that I don’t cram as much in. Instead, I feel satisfied with an intuitive sense of what’s “enough” for each day and week, because it’s not about reaching for some elusive time when everything gets done (which of course never happens). It’s really about finding intrinsic satisfaction in everything I do.

Starting this way helps me to go about it with more clarity and sense of purpose. It keeps me more grounded and present, less likely to fly off into a race to get to the next thing.

Don’t get me wrong. We all have things we gotta do that we really don’t want to. I’m not saying we should chuck them out the window. What I mean is that everything we do is ultimately our own choice. I don’t particularly enjoy housecleaning, for example, but it’s still my choice to do it. It’s important to me to live in a clean, clutter-free, aesthetically pleasing home because it helps keep my mind in a similar state. So rather than resenting having to clean and getting through it as fast as possible, I do it while being mindful that I DO feel better when the kitchen counters are spotless. And I stay mindfully present and appreciate that feeling while I clean.

During the week as I work my way through the list, I try not to think in terms of “getting things done.” True, it’s unavoidable to some extent. But I try to stay mindful of why I chose to do each thing, and why it’s important to me. I end up doing things with more enjoyment and care. It takes the harried feeling out of the day. And when those inevitable interruptions and disasters happen, well, I’m still in touch with my larger intentions and can make a thoughtful choice on the spot. It’s like an improvisation. The interruption can become a part of my intentions. Or not, if it doesn’t fit. It’s my choice.

I stopped thinking of time as a scarce resource that there’s never enough of. Instead, I started seeing it as a vehicle for expressing myself in the world.

Sure, there are still times when I end up feeling a bit overwhelmed. After all, I did say I’m a busy-holic with a perpetually full calendar. But at least I recognize more quickly when things are out of balance, and then take time out to rejuggle things. I’ve also noticed that by being more present to what I’m doing (and not in a tight, self-referential, and task-focused state of mind) it leaves room for other unexpected possibilities to open up. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how often a possible solution to an intractable problem suddenly comes out of nowhere. I’ve lost count of how many times a chance meeting with someone points me to exactly what I need, for example.

I’m aware that some of you might be in situations that feel impossibly busy and unsustainable. Maybe following this approach just doesn’t cut it. Even so, I really do think the Buddha was right — we do create our worlds with our thoughts. We really do have a choice. Do you really HAVE TO do all the things you say you do? Do you really want to keep telling the world that everyone else’s demands are more important than your own well-being?

I urge you to take a more thoughtful stand and tell the world who you really are. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by what happens.

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In the moment, in the sweep of time

Sunada sometimes hears skepticism about the idea of being “in the moment.” Does it really mean we should cut ourselves off from our past and future? Are we to drop all our cherished memories? Should we naïvely stop planning for our future? No, she’s quite certain this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he taught about mindfulness. So let’s take a closer look at what it might really mean.

In the Buddhist scriptures, mindfulness is described as having several different aspects. One of them is sati, which is Pali for recollection, memory, or recalling to mind.

we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).

When we’re present with ourselves, we don’t just pop into existence at that moment. We also come with a whole lifetime of learning, experience, skills, and knowledge, all of which are manifesting in some form for us at that moment.

For example, right now, I have all that I’ve learned from my Buddhist studies at my disposal. I don’t discard that in order to be in the moment. They are PART of my being in the moment. My past informs and gives a cumulative shape to my present. And my past is what has equipped me with all the skills and experience I have at my disposal NOW, to act on things in the moment. So as you can see, we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).

Another aspect of mindfulness is sampajañña, which translates to something like “mindfulness of purpose.” This is about being conscious of where we’re headed — a sense of direction or where we intend to go.

It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future.

Intention could simply mean, for example, a commitment toward being kind and compassionate toward others. It doesn’t have to be anything as grand as a life purpose. It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future. Without it we’d drift aimlessly like an idiot sitting smelling the roses, having no clear sense of values or direction. But at the same time, it’s quite a different matter from living in the future – such as wishing for things we think we lack, or worrying about dangers that we think lie ahead.

So in the course of our daily lives, returning to the breath and coming back to the present doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from our past and future. Rather than limiting ourselves down to a tiny, stunted slice of ourselves, I think it means quite the opposite. It means seeing our full breadth and depth clearly within a broad sweep of time, but from the standpoint of where we are now.

It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience.

By analogy, it’s sort of like stopping during a hike up a mountain and taking in the panorama of the trail behind and ahead of us. Of course, we want to be fully present and take in the view – after all, that’s what hiking (and life) is all about. At the same time, we stay aware of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, without getting caught up in either. And with all that in mind, we make informed choices about what steps to take now – including which trail to take, the pace of our walk, and so on – to reach our destination safely and enjoyably.

So with this definition of mindfulness, I think “staying in the moment” is a tremendously helpful, but challenging thing to do. It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience. Clear seeing also means understanding what we can and cannot change, and maintaining the wherewithal to make wise choices in the midst of it all. Wouldn’t you agree that this is how we’d like to be ALL the time?

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