dukkha (suffering)

Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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A “feeling crap” meditation

woman with her hands crossed over her heart

I’m sure that sometimes you feel crap.

The other week I was feeling particularly crappy. I have an idea what was causing me to feel that way, but that’s not particularly important. The thing is that I was feeling crap, by which I mean I felt sad, tired, and sometimes despairing.

The last thing I wanted to do, really, was to sit in meditation and experience how crap I was feeling. But I know from past experience that that’s the most helpful thing I can do. And so I sat on my meditation bench so that I could find a better way to relate to feeling crap.

Also see:

I settled in to meditate, I noticed the dark, heavy feeling around my heart. I noticed that there was an attitude of resistance around this feeling, since I didn’t particularly want to experience it. But it’s best if these things are allowed into experience. So I let go of the resistance as much as possible, and turned to face the darkness.

My meditation practice kind of has a life of its own. Sometimes I really have no idea what’s going to happen. I just have to see what my subconscious comes up with. This particular day, as I let go of my resistance and turned my attention toward the discomfort, a mantra of sorts appeared.

The mantra: “It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

I said to myself, “It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I said to myself, “It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

And so on.

As these words appeared, I recognized what they were doing.

“It’s OK…”

This is offering reassurance. It’s as if these words encode the message, “It’s OK to feel this way. It’s OK to turn toward the feeling. You’re on the right track. You got this. Deep down there’s really nothing to fear. Keep going.”

“…This is just how you’re feeling…”

This is saying that in a way, feelings are sensations like any other. If you touch something warm, you’ll feel warmth. Touch the point of a thorn, you’ll feel pain. If you’ve wanted something and you didn’t get it you’ll feel disappointed and sad. And if you’ve been criticized you’ll feel hurt. It’s just how things are. You’re not failing for feeling these things.

This is also a reminder that resistance, as they say, is futile. Resisting your pain—that sense of wanting desperately to not be experiencing it—doesn’t help. In fact it’s worse than unhelpful. It actually creates more pain. Resisting pain is like responding to having a stone in your shoe by pounding your foot with a hammer.

Sometimes you find that 50% of your pain is coming from the resistance, and sometimes you discover it’s more like 95%. The way to find out is to let go of the resistance.

So in saying “this is just how you’re feeling,” you’re facing how you feel as a fact, rather than as something to be resisted. And so you can start to drop the resistance and experience whatever discomfort remains, which becomes more bearable the more you are able to face it without trying to run away from it or make it go away.

“…Right now”

Feelings change. Everything changes. Remember that time many years ago when you felt awful because you got dumped? And that time you were really worried about money? Those feelings are gone now. Even if they’ve been replaced by similar feelings, those new feelings won’t last. “No feeling is final,” as Rilke said.

So that was my meditation the other day. I sat with “feeling crap,” and as I repeated the mantra the feeling lifted. It didn’t go away entirely, but that was OK. I’d realized that it was all manageable. I didn’t need to resist anything. I could experience it fully, without being overwhelmed.

And then just yesterday I guided a couple of friends through this same meditation, because one of them was feeling really crap.

And we went a bit further

We put our hands on our hearts, where the crap feeling was strongest, and we talked to our suffering: “I just want you to know I care about you, and I’m here for you. I love you and I want you to be happy. It’s OK. We’ll get through this. You’re doing OK. I know you’re feeling bad, but I’m going to take care of you.”

My friend who was feeling crap said she felt less crap after doing this. And that made me feel happier. The other friend suggested I should call this my “feeling crap meditation,” and so here we are…

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Breaking the cycle of resentment

Most of our suffering is self-inflicted.

When we call to mind some resentment from the past, we often assume that it’s the other person who’s making us suffer. And perhaps they did hurt us at some point. But unless they’re still in our lives doing the same thing that hurt us before, right now it’s our own thought processes that are causing us pain.

There’s a 5th century text by a monk called Buddhaghosa, “The Path of Purification,” that discusses reflecting on this very thing as a way of getting rid of resentment. He suggests we ask ourselves why, if another person has hurt us, should we then hurt ourselves?

So when resentful thoughts come into the mind, we can be aware that we’re causing ourselves pain. Now our problem with a person we have a grievance about is that they caused us pain, and yet here we are doing the same thing to ourselves!

Reflecting this way is probably not going to stop the whole process of resentment straight away. But it lessens the stream of resentful thoughts enough that we can start to think straight again.

Implicit in the practice that Buddhaghosa is suggesting is that we become aware of the way that feelings and thoughts affect each other. When we have resentful thoughts, this triggers feelings of pain, hurt, anxiety, etc. And those feelings in turn trigger further resentful thoughts. So our resentment becomes cyclical, which is one reason it becomes such a problem for us.

The Buddha talked about this in terms of two arrows. He said that being hurt is like being shot by an arrow. That’s obviously painful, but the stream of thoughts that springs up in reaction to our pain hurts us even more. He said that it’s like being shot by yet another arrow. Actually, each thought is an arrow. And because we can have a thousand resentful thoughts in reaction to being hurt, we often fire many more arrows at ourselves than the other person ever did.

Buddhaghosa offers some other reflections as well. He points out that in your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness. So why, he says, should we not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable?

He also suggests that if another person has done something we disapprove of, then we should reflect on why we are doing something (like getting angry and resentful) that we would also disapprove of them doing? We should hold ourselves to the same standard we hold other people to. He’s suggesting that we practice integrity.

Buddhaghosa further points out that if someone wants to hurt you, why give them satisfaction by joining in? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself.

These are all just ways of tapping the brakes.

I find that a very useful and important practice is to notice where thoughts appear to come from, which you’ll probably find is up in your head, and where feelings arise, which is probably down in the body, mainly around the heart and the gut.

Once you’re aware of this separation, you can more easily see the dynamic that’s in operation between those two parts of our being. You can see how a thought affects how you feel — for example causing you to be afraid or feel hurt or despondent — and how those feelings can affect how you think — provoking you to have further resentful thoughts.

When we do this we can start to see the whole cycle in operation.

Now lovingkindness practice is very important here, because we can find ourselves becoming aware of the cycle of resentment, and start criticizing ourselves. In practicing lovingkindness, however, we’re learning how to be more supportive, gentle, and understanding toward ourselves. So we can recognize that we’ve been caught up in a cycle of resentment. We can recognize the pain of knowing that we cause ourselves suffering. And we can offer ourselves kindness: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be free from suffering.”

None of these practices I’ve mentioned is a quick fix, but they help us to soften around our resentment, and this in turn helps us to let go and be at peace.

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The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.

Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.

So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.

3. Recognize when you are suffering

When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.

4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it

It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.

9. Learn to reframe

When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.

I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.

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To be happier, think beyond yourself

It’s natural to assume that the more we focus on ourselves and our own problems, the happier we’ll be. But consider this: in a study of language used by poets, it was found that those who used the words I, me, my, and mine were much more likely to commit suicide than those who used we, us, our, and ours.

In fact, poets who killed themselves used self-referential words more and more often as they approached their premature deaths, while those who lived long lives used we-words more and more often.

This relates to the problem of rumination, where our own thinking acts to amplify our suffering. Many of our thoughts containing I, me, my, and mine are connected with feelings of distress: I’m worried about this, I don’t like that. No one cares about me or considers my feelings. And so on.

“I” thoughts reinforce our sense of aloneness. We see ourselves as broken, as worse than others, and therefore separate from them.

Thoughts of “we” connect us, reminding us of our common humanity. Our individual sufferings are seen as being shared by others, and as being part of the difficulties we all have in being human. Our sufferings are not a sign of us being broken, but of us belonging to a greater whole. Our sufferings connect us with others, rather than pushing us into a sense of separateness.

Cultivating compassion is one way of moving from I-thinking to we-thinking, and research in fact shows that compassionately considering and responding to the sufferings of others brings us many benefits, including becoming happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical, and more emotionally resilient.

If it seems paradoxical that taking on board others’ sufferings can make us healthier and happier, this is simply a reflection of the fact that we forget that we are intrinsically social beings, that we are therefore more fulfilled when we connect with others, and that we also gain a sense of meaning and purpose from helping others.

Compassion can be cultivated. And it’s a simple thing: compassion is simply kindness meeting suffering. In compassion meditation we first connect in a kindly way with ourselves, and then extend our concern to others.

Practicing in this way trains us to take into account not just our own well-being, but that of others, too. This has the effect of reducing the amount of self-focused rumination we do, decreasing our tendency to freak out, and increasing our happiness.

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If you want to be happier, drop the mind-reading

An essential part of being human (and in fact of being a primate) is what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intentions, desires, plans, knowledge, thoughts, and so on—to others. When you have to give bad news to someone, for example, you know that they may become upset, and you take this into account in the way you talk to them. If you’re explaining something to another person you may anticipate certain questions they might ask. This is you employing a theory of mind.

This is such a basic part of our lives that we don’t give it a second thought, but that in itself can become a problem, first because sometimes our assumptions about what other people are thinking are wrong, and second because our faulty assumptions can end up causing us to suffer.

For example, my hair has been thinning for years, and for a while I assumed that people would judge me for having hair loss. I imagined them finding my receding hair ugly or ridiculous. And yet, when I started to question that assumption, I realized that when I met men who were much balder than I am I didn’t give it a second thought. In fact, often I would think of them as looking perfectly normal. In many cases a totally bald head would be striking, good-looking, impressive, and cool! So I was able to correct my initial, faulty, theory of mind, and replace it with one that’s more accurate.

This kind of fear regarding our appearance is very common. We obsess about the size and shape of our noses, our chins, our ears, about the texture of our skin, our weight, and so on. Most of the assumptions we make are negative: we assume that others are judging us.

Now there certainly is a lot of judgement in the world, and some people are very prone to judging others, but we tend to assume that people in general are much more harsh and judgmental than they really are. This causes us to suffer.

Now as I’ve said, having a theory of mind is an important skill. It’s one that develops as we mature. The problem comes in when we don’t check to see if our assumptions are correct: when we make an assumption (especially a negative one) about what someone’s thinking and then remain convinced we are correct without checking to see if that’s the case.

Psychologists use the term “mind-reading” to describe our tendency to make unquestioned assumptions of what others are thinking.

Often we go around, apparently convinced that we have an infallible knowledge of what others think, feel, and believe, as if we think we have mind-reading abilities. I can think of times I haven’t asked someone for help because I’ve assumed they’d say no. Mind-reading! I’ve sometimes assumed that people who behave in a friendly way to me secretly don’t like me. Mind-reading! I’ve jumped to the conclusion, with no evidence, that certain people find me boring. Mind-reading!

Mind-reading exacerbates our tendency to freak out because we’re intensely social creatures who feel safe and happy when we’re accepted by others. When we’re rejected or judged — or when we assume we’re being rejected or judged — then we suffer anxiety and depression. So it’s good if we learn to recognize our own mind-reading and question the assumptions we’ve been making about what others think.

The antidote to mind-reading is what the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn called “don’t-know mind.” Seung Sahn encouraged us to drop opinions and assumptions, and to accept not-knowing. This is a very deep practice that can take us all the way to spiritual awakening, but one very basic application of this principle is simply to recognize when we’re jumping to conclusions.

So keep watching your thoughts. Notice when you’re attributing thoughts and judgements to others. Realize that this is not knowledge, but simply your own fear that you’re projecting onto others.

Ask yourself: “Can I be absolutely certain I know what this person is thinking?”

Now you’re in “don’t-know mind.” And from there, you can either just drop your assumptions of what others are thinking or check in with them to find out what’s really going on.

Drop the mind-reading, and you’ll find you’re less prone to freaking out.

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Five ways science says to handle difficult emotional situations

wildmind meditation news

Kira M. Newman, Yes Magazine: A mentor of mine recently passed away, and I was heartbroken—so I tried my best to avoid thinking about it. I didn’t even mention it to my family because I didn’t want those sad feelings to resurface.

In other words, I took the very enlightened approach of pretend it didn’t happen—one that’s about as effective as other common responses such as get angry, push people away, blame yourself, or wallow in the pain.

Even for the relatively self-aware and emotionally adept, struggles

can take us by surprise. But learning healthy ways—a collection of skills that researchers call resilience—to move through adversity can help us cope better and recover more quickly, or at least start heading in that direction.

The Greater Good Science Center has collected many resilience practices on our website Greater Good in Action, alongside other research-based exercises for fostering kindness, connection, and happiness. Here are 12 of those resilience practices (squeezed into five categories), which can help you confront emotional pain more skillfully.

Read the original article »

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The neuroscience of suffering – and its end

Jeff Warren, Psychology Tomorrow Magazine: It was 1972, and Gary Weber, a 29-year old materials science PhD student at Penn State University, had a problem with his brain. It kept generating thoughts! – continuously, oppressively – a stream of neurotic concerns about his life, his studies, whatever. While most human beings would consider this par for the course, par for the human condition (cogito ergo sum), Weber wouldn’t accept it. He was a scientist, a systematizer, a process guy. He liked to figure out how things worked, and how they could be tweaked …

Read the original article »

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Turning towards the sting of suffering

Tattoo of three arrows on a man's back, surrounded by inflamed skin

Suffering is the beginning of the path.

What is suffering? It’s traditionally described as an ill fitting wheel on a chariot. I tend to think of a buckled wheel on my bicycle. It’s a bumpy unsatisfactory journey from A to B. However suffering can be an invitation for us to do the work.

The Buddha has done the work for us. All we need to do is practice. When the Prince became distressed at the sight of aging, sickness and death, he stepped onto the path. He was inspired by a mendicant who was radiating peace and begging for alms. With great energy, faith, meditation, concentration and wisdom, he found an end to suffering and laid out the map of the four noble truths and the eightfold path.

While these teachings may seem too much to take on, we can begin doing the work by turning towards the unpleasant. When we turn towards the unpleasant, it takes the longevity out of suffering.

However, many of us find it difficult to face the sting of unpleasantness. Somebody gives us feedback, and there is the sting of sensations arising in the body, if we face the unpleasantness that arises in the body, the stinger will dissolve with time.

When a bee stings us, the best thing we can do is turn towards the sting and pull the stinger out. We must do the same when we have been stung by an external or internal action. We must embrace the entire experience of the human condition.

If we turn away from the sensations in the body, the stinger will calcify and our suffering will multiply.

Turning away from the sting of unpleasantness is limited, because when we do, we are resisting our pain. Shinzen Young says Pain x Resistance = suffering. Our resistance is manifested in our choice of distractions.

In the short term, the bottle of booze, the line of coke, the shot of heroin, even the blast of rage, may seem to take the sting out of the unpleasant. And it does for a while, as we become numb, but once the effects have worn off our suffering has multiplied.

When we turn away from our experience of sensations it put us on the wheel of becoming, the wheel of cyclic existence, the wheel of life. This wheel is a traditional Buddhist teaching on birth, death and our existence in Samsara. Samsara being the total confusion and creation of our inner and external worlds.

At the hub of this wheel is the pig that represents ignorance (delusion). In India it was seen the pig slept in the dirtiest places and ate what ever was fed to it.

Some of us with addictions have slept in some the dirtiest or most dangerous places and have eaten what ever has been fed to us. And that includes dirty drugs, or drinking methylated spirits.

The pig chases the snake. The snake represents aversions/hatred. It’s said that snakes will strike or be aroused at the slightest of touch. Many of us are like this too, we can blow up at the slightest thing and live our life on edge. The snake chases the cock.

The cock represents attachment/greed. The cock is symbolic of those birds that are often attached to their partners. Those of us with addictions are attached to our choice of distraction.

The cock chases the pig, the pig chases the snake and the snake chases the cock, as if they were on a vicious cycle of suffering. They move around and around the hub chasing each others tails.

Every time we turn to our choice of distraction we become one of these creatures running around and around chasing our tails.

Liberation from the Wheel of Life does not mean escape, the Buddha implied. It means clear perception of oneself, of the entire range of the human experience.

Prince Siddhartha vowed to find an end of suffering. He did not vow to gain enlightenment. We must stop chasing enlightenment, those blissful highs, and turn towards our own suffering if we are to gain liberation.

Join me online in July – A course working with our feelings, thoughts, awareness and addictions.

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com.

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Stepping out of compulsive thoughts, and into freedom

Gold Fish Jumping to Empty Bowl

The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.

This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.

These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual reality drama in which we’re mindlessly immersed. When we’re distracted in this way we’re in an altered state of consciousness, in which we lack self-awareness: we’re not aware we’re distracted, we’re not aware we’re fantasizing, and we’re participating in the drama of our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing our experience.

Especially for those who are relatively new to meditation, there can be a tendency to be disappointed, annoyed, or self-critical when we emerge from these hypnotic bubbles. But with practice we can learn to cultivate patience and kindness as we accept that the mind wanders, appreciation as we value our return to mindfulness, and persistence as we bring the mind gently back to the breathing. People who’ve been meditating for a long time can get pretty good at relating to distractions in that way. They maybe are (sometimes) a little less distracted, but they’re a lot less bothered by the distractions they do have.

But there’s one other thing that I’ve recently been bringing in to my meditation at the point where I realize that I’ve just emerged from a dream-like period of distraction. What I’ve been doing is I note the fact that the train of thought I was immersed in seemed compelling when I was, so to speak, inside it, and yet now that I’m viewing it from the outside it appears undesirable and unsatisfying.

When we’re inside these hypnotic, dream-like states, they entirely capture our attention. They hold us spellbound. They’re irresistibly compelling. And yet, when the bubble eventually bursts, I find them to be rather lame! Noticing this lameness helps me to stay more disengaged from them. Of course other distractions will come up, and I’ll get lost in those too, but noticing the unsatisfactoriness of my distractions immediately after they’re over helps my mindfulness to have more momentum. I feel clearer. Sharper. More empowered. More content.

And just as my distractions appear more unsatisfactory, so the simple richness of my present-moment experience seems even more satisfying by contrast. I realize that this is where I want to stay. The calmness seems calmer. The body feels more alive. Yes, this is home.

Observing the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions also works with the less compelling thoughts that flit through the mind without causing us to lose our mindfulness altogether. We can watch them go by and realize that they have nothing to offer us but disappointment and frustration.

This practice is one of “noting” the characteristic (lakkhana) of dukkha (which can mean unsatisfactoriness, suffering, or even pain.) It seems to fit rather neatly with verse 278 of the Dhammapada: “All fabricated states of mind [sankharas] are unsatisfactory [dukkha]. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering [dukkha].”

The word dukkha is used in two senses here. First, our distractions (sankharas, or “fabricated states of mind”) are seen as unsatisfactory. Second, seeing the unsatisfactoriness of our distracted states of mind — craving, irritation, anxiety, avoidance, doubt — helps us to turn away from the dukkha (suffering) that these kinds of thoughts give rise to. For all of these distractions have the effect of reducing our levels of well-being.

And so, seeing that our distractions are unsatisfying—indeed are incapable of providing real satisfaction—we turn away from the suffering they bring. Noting the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions is, in fact, an insight practice. It takes us closer to awakening.

I’ve suggest trying this practice for yourself. Very simply, just notice, as you emerge from each distraction, how the train of thought appears to you now. Does it seem alluring? Does it seem unpleasant? Is it something in between?

Do note that there may be some part of your mind that is still drawn to the distraction. This isn’t surprising, since moments before you’d been entirely absorbed and seduced. But on the whole you may find yourself turning away from the distraction, seeing it as it really is — unsatisfying. And you may find yourself, unexpectedly, with a fuller appreciation of the present moment.

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