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Loving your inner critic (Day 15)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We all have an inner critic that tells us we’re not good enough. Sometimes it tells us far worse things than that — that we’re worthless, that no one likes us, that we’re essentially unlovable. In cultivating metta we’re supposed to love ourselves, but the inner critic is a part of us; how do we love that? And how to we stop listening to the inner critic long enough to experience any love for ourselves?

Actually all practice helps deal with our inner critic. Any mindfulness practice helps because as soon as you’re mindful of the brain’s “self-hatred module” you’re no longer being self-hatred. Self hatred is at its worst when we think that the voice it speaks with is “us.” But you’re not speaking with that voice as long as you’re standing apart from it and relating to it in some way. You’re hearing the voice, not being the voice. To relate to the inner critic in any way — even if it’s just mindfully listening to its words — is to stand apart from it. That distance, however slight to begin with, is crucial.

And like in the cute story about the two wolves (too well known to bear repeating), you’re choosing which wolf to feed — the wolf of love or the wolf of hatred. And your brain being an economical sort of organ, unused parts will start to atrophy so that your body’s resources can be used elsewhere. Your brain is malleable and adaptable and the part of it devoted to self-hatred will wither away.

Your lovingkindness practice helps because you can take this “standing back” a bit further. You’re standing back and you can wish the self-hatred module well. And you can become aware of any pain that your inner critic gives rise to and give it compassion too. This is all very healing.

There’s another effect of metta too, which is that you’re learning a more effective strategy for relating to yourself and finding happiness. Self-hatred is, oddly enough, a way of seeking happiness. The idea behind it is that if you criticize yourself enough for “making mistakes” you won’t make them in the future, and therefore you’ll be better, more popular, happier. It doesn’t work, of course, so it’s a very ineffective strategy. But it’s helpful to recognize that your self-hatred actually is based on a desire to be happier and to avoid suffering. Its motivation is fine — it’s the strategy it uses that’s messed up.

Mindfulness and metta give us different and more effective ways to deal with our “faults” — our unhelpful habits that cause suffering for ourselves and others. We can be more forgiving and kinder. We can want to change, but not be so punitive about it. Self-hatred assumes it’s necessary for our well-being, but we can live perfectly well without it.

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Metta-blast to the past (Day 4)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

A lot of us have trouble feeling kindness (metta) for ourselves. We’ve been brought up, or have learned, to think of ourselves as unworthy of love, or for some reason think it’s wrong to have kind feelings toward ourselves.

One way to get round this is to imagine that you’re a wiser, kinder, more compassionate version of yourself — you as you might be after another ten, or fifteen, or twenty years of practice. And you’re thinking of the present day you, with kindness and with a forgiving and understanding appreciation of the conditioning that he or she is struggling with. Perhaps there’s a feeling of tenderness, as you might have when thinking of yourself as a young child.

Imagine that you could meet yourself at a young age — perhaps at the age of five. Wouldn’t you wish your past self a happy life? So the future self, that you’re imagining yourself to be now, would have the same kind, patient, compassionate attitude to the you of today. Let the love flood back in time…

And now switch back to being the you of today, receiving this warm lovingkindness and compassion from your future self. How does it feel?

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post]
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“Never underestimate what you can accomplish”

I came across this video on Facebook recently and wanted to share it. So do a lot of other people. On YouTube alone it’s been viewed over six million times!

Arthur Boorman was a disabled veteran of the Gulf War, and was told by his doctors that he would never be able to walk on his own, ever again. After 15 years he found a yoga teacher who was prepared to give him instruction (long distance!) and Arthur’s life changed. Watch the video and see this transformation in action…

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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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Becoming a rock-solid regular meditator

Two carved stone Buddha statues, one standing, one lying down

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.

See also:

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.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported  Meditation Initiative. Bodhipaksa is supported by numerous sponsors who generously donate each month to help him explore and teach meditation. Wildmind’s sponsors get access to an online community and to a large number of  meditation courses Bodhipaksa has developed over the years. Click here to check out the Meditation Initiative.

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Know you’re a good person

For many of us, perhaps the hardest thing of all is to believe that “I am a good person.” We can climb mountains, work hard, acquire many skills, act ethically – but truly feel that one is good deep down? Nah!

We end up not feeling like a good person in a number of ways. For example, I once knew a little girl who’d been displaced by her baby brother and fended off and scolded by her mother who was worn down and busy caring for an infant. This girl was angry at her brother and parents, plus lost and disheartened and feeling cast out and unloved. She’d been watching cartoons in which the soldiers of an evil queen attacked innocent villagers, and one day she said sadly, “Mommy, I feel like a bad soldier.”

Later in life – whether in school or adulthood – shamings, moral indictments, religious chastising, and other criticisms come in many shapes and sizes. Feeling morally compromised – the essence of not believing you’re a good person – is fed by related though different experiences of worthlessness, inadequacy, and unlovableness: as my ranch-born father would say, “feeling like you’re the runt of the litter.”

I’ve also known people – including myself – who have done bad things, or said them or thought them. Things like hitting an animal, risking the lives of their children while driving buzzed, being mean to a vulnerable person, stealing from a store, feeling contemptuous, or cheating on a partner. These don’t need to be felony offenses to make one feel guilty or ashamed.

In effect, to simplify, it’s as if the psyche has three parts to it: one part says, “you’re not good”; another part says, “you’re good”; and a third part – the one we identify with – listens. The problem is that the critical, dismissive, shaming voice is usually much louder than the protecting, encouraging, valuing one.

Sure, there is a place for healthy remorse. But shining through our lapses of integrity, no matter how great, is an underlying and pervading goodness. Yes it may be obscured; I am not letting myself or others – from panhandlers to CEOs and Presidents – off the moral hook. But deep down, all intentions are positive, even if they are expressed problematic ways. When we are not disturbed by pain or loss or fear, the human brain defaults to a basic equilibrium of calm, contentment, and caring. And in ways that feel mysterious, even numinous, you can sense profound benevolence at your core.

Really, the truth, the fact, is that you are a good person. (Me, too.)

When you feel deep down like a bad soldier – or simply not like a good person – you’re more likely to act this way, to be casually snippy, self-indulgent, selfish, or hurtful. On the other hand, when you feel your own natural goodness, you are more likely to act in good ways. Knowing your own goodness, you’re more able to recognize it in others. Seeing the good in yourself and others, you’re more likely to do what you can to build the good in the world we share together.

How can we recognize our own goodness?

I’ve learned five good ways to feel like a good person – and there are probably more!

1. Take in the good of feeling cared about – When you have a chance to feel seen, listened to, appreciated, liked, valued, or loved: take a dozen seconds or more to savor this experience, letting it fill your mind and body, sinking into it as it sinks into you.

2. Recognize goodness in your acts of thought word and deed – These include positive intentions, putting the brakes on anger, restraining addictive impulses, extending compassion and helpfulness to others, grit and determination, lovingness, courage, generosity, patience, and a willingness to see and even name the truth whatever it is.

You are recognizing facts; create sanctuary in your mind for this recognition, holding at bay other voices, other forces, that would invade and plunder this sanctuary for their own agenda (such as the internalization of people you’ve known who made themselves feel big by making you feel small).

3. Sense the goodness at the core of your being – This is a fundamental honesty and benevolence. It’s there inside everyone, no matter how obscured. It can feel intimate, impersonal, perhaps sacred. A force, a current, a wellspring in your heart.

4. See the goodness in others – Recognizing their goodness will help you feel your own. Observe everyday small acts of fairness, kindness, and honorable effort in others. Sense the deeper layers behind the eyes, the inner longings to be decent and loving, to contribute, to help rather than harm.

5. Give over to goodness – Increasingly let “the better angels of your nature” be the animating force of your life. In tricky situations or relationships, ask yourself, “Being a good person, what’s appropriate here?” As you act from this goodness, let the knowing that you are a good person sink in ever more deeply.

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Letting go of limiting self-views, embracing our potential

Recently a woman wrote to me to tell me about her meditation practice. One thing she said was very interesting. She said “I can’t connect with lovingkindness meditation.” We hear this kind of statement all the time, and most of us use this kind of language frequently: “I can’t…”

  • I can’t stop worrying
  • I can’t sleep
  • I can’t make friends
  • I can’t talk to anyone about this
  • I can’t relax

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it represents a very fixed view of ourselves. These statements purport to define the speaker. Moreover the definition is a very limiting one. Once we say that we “can’t” do something we’ve made it less likely that we ever will. Once you’ve said something like “I can’t sleep” you’ve moved from description to something more like a declaration of intent. You might as well say “I won’t sleep.”

I’m not saying that every use of the words “I can’t” or “I can never” is always self-limiting. “I can’t run a mile in three minutes” or “I can’t be in two places at once” are just simple statements of fact. But very often these words suggest that the speaker has lost faith in him or her self. When we speak this way we suggest that we are passive victims of circumstance — that we real have no choice, because there are no choices open to us. We’ve given up.

When I hear people using “I can’t” language, I usually suggest that they try out a different way of expressing themselves and see how that feels. So compare the feeling tone of the following statements with those above:

  • I haven’t yet found a way to stop worrying
  • I haven’t yet found a way to get to sleep
  • I haven’t yet found a way to make friends
  • I haven’t yet found a way to talk to anyone about this
  • I haven’t yet found a way to relax

Do you see how these “I haven’t yet” statements are more open? They inherently recognize this possibility of change, while “I can’t” statements suggest that change isn’t possible. The “I haven’t yet” statement also suggests that we’re actively seeking change, while the “I can’t” statement suggests that we’ve given up (which we probably, on some deep level, have not, since we haven’t found peace or acceptance within our imagined limitation).

Who’s more likely to find a way to relax: the person who says “I can’t relax” or the one who says “I haven’t yet found a way to relax”?

There can be added complications. Take the statement “I can’t meditate.” This one represents an extra problem. It limiting, in the same way that other “I can’t” statements are limiting, but it’s not quite adequate to say “I haven’t yet found a way to meditate.” Why is this? It’s because the statement “I can’t meditate” is a compounded error. Not only is it limiting us by defining ourselves (saying that we have a lack of ability), but it goes a step further by falsely defining meditation.

What does it mean to “meditate”? When someone says “I can’t meditate,” they probably really mean to say something like “When I tried meditating I didn’t like the results I experienced.” They have an idea of meditating (it’ll be blissful and I’ll be able to stop the flow of anxious, angry, restless thoughts) and what they experience isn’t like that. So they think they’re doing meditation wrong. Having decided they’re doing meditation wrong, they assume that they are incapable of doing it right: hence, “I can’t meditate.”

But the thing is, it doesn’t mean you’re not meditating properly just because you’re experiencing lots of thinking and don’t feel happy. In meditation we have to start where we are, and work from there. So if there are lots of thoughts, there are lots of thoughts. If you’ve noticed that fact, that’s not failure. It’s success. So the person who says “I can’t meditate” has actually been meditating; it’s just that they’ve assumed that they weren’t. They’ve had unrealistic expectations. They hadn’t yet found a way to accept their experience while meditating.

So sometimes we need to dig a little deeper, and to uncover other false assumptions that lurk behind that innocuous-looking “I can’t.” Sometimes we need to peel away the onion-skins of self-definition, and to liberate ourselves from limiting self-views.

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Learning to love ourselves

Young girl in a green jacket catching a bubble

It happens so often among spiritually-minded people. We give our all to love and care for others, and yet when it comes to ourselves, we’re full of criticism and judgment. Sunada shares her experience of working with the practice of loving kindness, specifically learning to love herself.

It’s important to note that when the Buddha taught how to practice compassion, he always began with ourselves. This isn’t selfish. After all, if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others? Any reticence, anger, or doubt we carry — no matter how hidden – will color all our relationships. As a colleague aptly puts it, “we can’t be the solution until we stop being part of the problem.”

if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others?

Somehow we’re never good enough. I admit I often think this, though I’m getting a lot better about it. I’ve spent many long hours on my meditation cushion learning to love myself. The practice I’ve done is called the metta bhavana, or the Development of Loving-kindness. And I’ve spent a lot of time on that all-important first stage, which focuses on myself. The whole practice has never been easy for me, and to this day I still find it generally more elusive than Mindfulness.

I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned through this practice. What I describe is something I did in the context of a formal meditation (and specifically as the first stage of the metta bhavana), but I think it could also be done as an informal contemplation outside of meditation.

We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves.

First of all, it’s important that we find a time when we can quietly just sit and do nothing for a while. So don’t do this while jogging, doing yoga, or eating dinner. I mean we literally sit still with no other agenda.

We begin by bringing our awareness inward to ourselves. As a warm up, it’s helpful to start by sensing all the parts of your body from the inside, one by one, from your toes all the way up to your head. We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, relaxed, and open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves. This is a great start!

Next we notice how we’re feeling. Literally just notice. We don’t need to analyze, judge or change anything. Is it a good feeling – happy, easy, content, calm, or peaceful? Or an icky one – restless, angry, impatient, bored, or depressed? Or is it sort of gray or blank, with no particular feeling tone at all? Maybe you’re feeling “something,” but you can’t put words on it. That’s fine. Any of this is fine. We’re just noticing.

We … accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

What we’re doing is opening up to and receiving whatever we’re feeling RIGHT NOW. The degree to which we can be mindfully aware of what state we’re presently in, the better off we’ll be. How clearly are we seeing it? How willing are we to be with it, and not try to push it away or fix it, judge it as “bad” or “good,” but just be openly present with it?

Because we think this is supposed to be a practice of loving ourselves, we might be tempted to try to make ourselves feel happier and more lovey. Or that we somehow shouldn’t be feeling any of the bad feelings that might be there. In the traditional method, it’s suggested that we repeat the phrase, “May I be happy” to ourselves. That’s never worked for me, because it feels like I’m trying to change whatever bad feelings that are there. So I don’t do it. We need to start by simply accepting ourselves right now, in this moment, as we are, in whatever way works for you. There is no right or wrong.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way.

Once we have a clear picture of what’s happening, then what’s our response? Is it kind, positive, helpful? When we practice the Metta Bhavana, on one level we’re learning to see the difference between what we can and can’t change. We need to accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

So then what if we can’t stop the judgmental, critical thoughts, or that “I must fix this” sort of feeling? Well, how would we respond if we found our best friend in that state? Would we tell her she’s being bad? Or tell her to just stop it? I doubt it. I’d want to sit down with her and be supportive, find out what’s underneath all those thoughts, and why she’s feeling that way. I’d want to at least just listen and let her know I care. Can we do that for ourselves? Now THAT is a practice of kindness.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way. It’s not an admission of failure. I’m not condoning my critical thoughts, but I AM forgiving the person who is having those thoughts.

When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion.

So the whole idea here is to learn how to BE kind, right now, and not to try to shape myself into some future-oriented image of what I think I should be. The more we practice the act of being kind now, the more it becomes natural to us. This is the practice.

The Buddha was right. He said that in all things, when we eliminate the cause, the result ceases to exist. When we stop our negative responses, our habitual negative tendencies begin to weaken and fade away. When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion. Like water flowing downstream into a lake, it eventually settles to a naturally calm, clear, and peaceful state. Effortlessly.

And that’s how I’ve begun to learn how to love myself.

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Mark Twain: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol…”

Mark Twain

Bodhipaksa explores the relationship between hats, iPods, desires, and needs. And also figures out what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” is. Oh, and he also offers a radical approach to dealing with distraction in meditation.

In a piece called “What Is Man?” Twain wrote: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment.”

Twain argues that when you find yourself desiring, say, a hat, it’s not actually the physical object that you want but something else: perhaps something like the admiration you’ll get from your friends for having such a fine hat. If it turns out that your friends don’t like the hat and think it makes you look stupid, then it’s likely that you won’t think the hat is so splendid after all. The hat hasn’t changed, but its meaning has. (Another possibility, which Twain doesn’t point out, is that you might ditch your friends and stick with the hat, which has now become a symbol of how rebellious and independent you are.)

Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.

Twain’s is a valid point, and I recognize the phenomenon in myself. I’m not just a person who owns an iPod Touch, I have an iPod Touch because I want to be the kind of (cool) person who owns an esthetically pleasing, well-designed, practical accessory like an iPod Touch. I’m not so much interested in approval from others; even if no one else ever saw my iPod Touch I could take pleasure in knowing that I’m cool enough to own such a wonderful piece of hardware. In fact that self-validation is more important to me than any admiration I might get from other people. Every time I take out my iPod I’m confirming my sense of self; I’m reminding myself of who I think I am and who I want to be.

The “contentment of spirit” that the iPod offers me is strictly temporary, of course. Sooner or later something better (even just an updated version of the same device) will come out and make mine look old and shoddy. Or it’ll simply keep accumulating dings and scratches to the point that I’ll notice it’s flaws more than its marvelous abilities. In fact, right now my iPod is behaving strangely, with odd flashing lines appearing on the screen, and I’m already thinking that I need a cooler, more up-to-date model. Sic transit gloria technologiae.

The things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs.

I’d go further than Twain, however, and argue that even the non-material things we crave are symbols. Say I do get approval and admiration from my friends because of my wonderful hat (or iPod). Why is that approval important to me? I’d argue that it’s just another symbol — this time a symbol for a number of deeper needs. I have a need for connection with others. I have a need for love. I have a need to love myself. The admiration I receive because I have a new hat/iPod stands in as a replacement for those needs. I feel connected to others when they admire me: and after all admiration is easier to attain than genuine communication. Admiration may not be love, but it still feels good. When others give me admiration I like myself more because I reckon that if they like me I must be worth liking. And while that’s not me loving myself for who I am, at least it’s something.

So these things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs. An unmet need creates a kind of “thirst” (what’s technically called trsna in Buddhism), and that thirst looks for satisfaction. Unfortunately, because we’re deluded we’re often not very conscious of our thirsts, and we don’t understand what it is we really need. We may need to like ourselves better, but we end up with a new hat!

The principles I’m outlining here have helped me enormously in my meditation practice. Every time we close our eyes to meditate, up pops a flood of thoughts about things we desire to have or to happen and things we desire not to have and not to happen. And some of our thoughts just seem random, but they’ve hooked onto some object or other. I believe that all of these distractions are the “thirsts” generated by unmet needs. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • One time I was leading a meditation and I happened to notice my Palm Pilot in front of me (this was a few years back). Before the meditation I’d been reading a Buddhist text out loud to the retreatants and I’d placed the Palm Pilot on the little stand that held the meditation bell. Then I found myself wondering what “Palm Pilot” would be in Pali. I was just coming up with a possible answer (talanāyaka) when I came back to mindfulness. And so I wondered what need might I be trying to meet by wondering about such a ridiculous thing. My intuition told me that what I was getting out of this speculation was fun, and that what I needed was to have a sense of playfulness. Having identified what I needed, I was then able to bring more of a sense of playfulness and enjoyment into my experience by relaxing my effort and appreciating the wonder of the present-moment. And I was able to go back into a state of enjoyable concentration.
  • Another time I kept finding my mind turning to critical thoughts about some bad driving I’d witnessed. And a few moments’ reflection helped me realize that my need to feel safe and secure had been violated. What’s more, I hadn’t been empathizing with my own needs, and instead of wishing myself well I was wishing others ill. So I turned my attention from thoughts of the driver who had almost hit my car to the sense of pain I had in my heart. I offered lovingkindness, warmth, and protection to my heart, and soon I found that I felt secure and safe and that the fear and anger had gone.

I could offer a hundred such examples. I don’t think I’ve found a simple instance of distractedness where I couldn’t identify some need that was not being met, and where I couldn’t find some other way to meet that need from my own inner resources. I don’t want to suggest by this that we never need look outside of ourselves in order to get our needs met. Some of our needs, for example for support and for closeness, involve other people. Some needs you can fulfill from your inner resources, while in other cases you need to find the inner resources to seek the fulfillment of your needs from outside.

But I’d suggest you try thinking about your thoughts and feelings as being merely symbolic. Not just symbolic — they point towards our true needs. If we’re prepared simply to sit with our distractions and see what we can learn from them about ourselves, those distractions become teachers. We can follow the trail of our thirsts back into the less-conscious part of ourselves where our needs reside. This takes a little skill and practice. We need to learn not to react to our distractions: not to judge them. We need to learn to identify what our needs are (and the insights of Nonviolent Communication are very useful here), and we need to learn or find ways to meet our needs. But I believe that this approach to meditation offers a powerful tool for finding inner peace, and for letting go of the idea that there is some “thing” we need that will bring happiness. Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.

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