the body

“This is where peace is found”

Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.

Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy

Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.

The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.

So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?

Why are we so drawn to distractedness?

Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.

So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.

Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness

Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.

Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.

It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.

A practice for retraining the mind

So as a practice, I suggest the following.

First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.

Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.

As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.

On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:

  • This [the body] is where happiness is found.
  • This is where peace is found.
  • This is where patience is found.
  • This is where joy is found.
  • This is where calm is found.
  • This is where ease is found.
  • This is where security is found.
  • This is where confidence is found.
  • This is where contentment is found.
  • This is where love is found.
  • This is where awakening is found.

As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.

How this works

Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.

Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.

In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.

In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.

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Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat — without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What Is Interoception?

Interoception is the ability to sense your internal states — sensations arising from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes an awareness of the heart.

Many people find it hard to detect their heartbeat at all, or can only do it with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers aren’t well developed. For others, detecting the heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not a lot of people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first encountered it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t come across it before.

You’re probably going to hear it a lot more in the future, because it’s become obvious that there are drawbacks to having poor interoception.

Not being able to sense the body’s inner states leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine you were driving a car with no fuel gauge. You’d probably keep running out of fuel, because vital information about the state of your vehicle wasn’t available to you.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body is giving you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. By the time you’re aware that you’re anxious, for example, you’re already really anxious. Being able to detect those signals sooner means you’re able to decide earlier to do something to help stay calm.

Interoception and Depression

Low interoceptive ability is related to depression. In a study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety), showed lower ability on the heartbeat test than a control group did.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they reported experiencing in their lives.

Interoception and Poor Decision-Making

And this had an interesting knock-on effect. Low interoceptive awareness is also correlated with difficulty in making decisions. The reason for this is that decision-making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake is more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not whether we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely on the basis of how we feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, then we can’t easily make decisions. In fact if we can’t feel our feelings, then we might well be more prone to making bad decisions — e.g. trusting someone who’s untrustworthy, or choosing a job that’s likely to make us unhappy.

Interoception and Anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do the heartbeat detection test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart at all. I don’t know if there’s research supporting this, but I suspect that certain people can only feel their heartbeat when they’re already anxious, and because they’re not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feeling their heart beat in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really wrong — which precipitates yet more anxiety.

She may be atypical, though: people who suffer from anxiety disorder typically are more aware than average of interoceptive signals from the body. What may be going wrong is that those signals (increased rate and strength of the heartbeat, intestinal queasiness, and so on) are misread, and taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It’s possible, in fact, to become anxious about being anxious.

Meditators are Better at Interoception

Meditation, in the Buddhist tradition at least, emphasizes awareness of the body, which means paying attention to the body’s sensations. Many meditators, myself included, will report that training in meditation has helped to sensitize them to the body.

For myself, this has been like going from a black-and-white line drawing of the body to a full-color image. Any time I bring my attention to the body now I experience currents of energy, tingling, and pleasure—which is called pīti in Pāli and prīti in Sanskrit. That’s very different from how my body used to be experienced. But that’s anecdotal evidence.

Dancers Versus Meditators

In one study I’ve long found fascinating, in a study in 2010, published in Emotion, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotive, film clips to experienced meditators (their average time practicing was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people, and also asked the study participants to indicate their ongoing feeling state (from very negative, through neutral, to very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess to what degree the self-reported experience of the members of each of the three groups matched (or was “coherent” with) their physiological states.

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It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of coherence (that is, their self-reported feelings matched what was going on in their bodies), with the dancers being intermediate, and the control group having the lowest coherence.

Additionally, when it came to self-reported visceral awareness (how well they could feel their feelings), the meditators reported the highest levels, the dancers were intermediary, and the controls reported the lowest levels.

So it does seem that meditation training does improve internal awareness, which is what you might expect. Of course it could be that people with greater visceral awareness are more likely to be drawn to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked to see if there was a correlation between length of practice and body awareness. They didn’t find any significant correlation, but then the sample size was too small for them to draw any definite conclusions.

Interoception Can Be Learned

More recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism tend not to be good at interoceptive tasks. For example they’re not good at counting their heartbeats. At the same time they tend to over-emphasize the internal sensations they do experience. In other words, they’re over-reacting to signals from the body.

The researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism to perform better on heartbeat detection tasks, and that this would in turn help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Amazingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of the participants no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for Interoception

Many approaches to mindfulness of breathing meditation tend to focus narrowly on the breath – that is, the sensations of air touching the passages as it moves in and out of the body. This helps with learning interoception in only a very limited way.

My own approach has been increasingly to encourage an awareness of the movements and sensations of the breathing in the whole body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” helps you to sense the entire body breathing — including subtler sensations you might habitually ignore. Please try it, and see how you get on.

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A “mantra” for the in-breath: “Energize, inspire, enjoy”

Person's head against a dark background. The space around him seems to be filled with bubbles of light.

Recently I offered a mantra that can accompany the out-breathing: Release, Rest, Reveal. These words encourage us, respectively, to let go of unnecessary tensions in the body, to let go of unnecessary mental effort, and to be open and receptive to whatever is arising in our experience.

I’d like now to offer a corresponding mantra for the in-breathing: Energize, Inspire, Enjoy. As with the previous mantra, each of the words has a specific function.

“Energize” connects us with the natural energy of the in-breath. Inhalation is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system, which isn’t always about “fight or flight” but is involved in any physical or emotional arousal. It’s no coincidence that we take a sudden in-breath when we’re startled, and the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

In our normal (non-startled!) breathing pattern, the sympathetic nervous system is active. Each time we inhale there is a subtle but noticeable sense of energy. The body becomes oxygenated and the heart beats a little faster. The body becomes more open and upright, and is more ready to act.

Also see:

Saying the word “energize” as we inhale is a way of encouraging us to notice the gentle but arousing physical effects of the in-breath.

Saying “Inspire,” connects us with the same physiological processes, but it directs our attention more to the qualities of the mind and how they change as we breathe in. Just as the body becomes more alert and energetic on the in-breath, so does the mind. There’s a subtle but perceptible increase in our alertness, and the mind becomes brighter.

The word “Enjoy,” as you might expect, reminds us to appreciate any pleasure and happiness that are arising in our experience. This brings together everything: the out-breathing and the in-breathing; the body and the mind. Relaxing on the out-breath can be very enjoyable; so can feeling the energy of the in-breath. Resting the mind can be delightful; so can feeling the mind becoming brighter. Saying “Enjoy” as we breathe in encourages us to appreciate what’s positive in our experience. It encourages us to let happiness arise in response to the simple act of noticing the rhythm of our breathing.

Don’t try to do anything as you say these words. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just say the words, and let them have an effect.

Paying attention only to the out-breathing is calming, but in the long-term it tends to make us dull and sleepy. Paying attention only to the in-breathing is energizing, but we can easily become over-excited and distracted.

These are three things the in-breath shows us: Energy in the body. Inspiration in the mind. Joy in the heart.

So if you’re going to use these two sets of mantras, use them skillfully. You may want to start a meditation with the mantras of the out-breath—especially if you need to calm the mind—and then move on to the mantras of the in-breath. But since this latter practice can lead to excitability, there will come a point when we need to drop the mantras and focus just on the breathing, and when we need to focus on the continuity of the breathing process—sensing it as an unbroken stream of sensations—without particular emphasis on either the breathing-out or the breathing-in.

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Settling the Mind: You Have Allies

Friends showing support for each other by placing their hands together.

Meditation means settling the mind, but if you try it you’ll quickly find that this is easier said than done. Our minds are often busy and like to keep thinking about the things that stimulate and interest them. So what are our allies in settling the mind?

 Preparation

Settling is a process. You can’t sit down after you have been rushing around and expect to be calm and quiet straight away. So, if it’s possible for you, take time to prepare for meditation. Make sure the place you are sitting is tidy and beautiful. Light a candle, perhaps. Then spend time carefully setting up your meditation posture. Notice how it feels to be making this transition.

The Present Moment

Many of the thoughts that distract us are connected with the past (things that we have been doing, memories, regrets), or the future (plans, worries, fantasies). Settling the mind means focusing our attention on things that are happening right now, in the present moment. This simply means noticing the sense experiences that are arising right now: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. It can also mean noticing the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now without being carried away by them.

Checking In

Give yourself the space to recognise, as sensitively as you can, how you are feeling and what is going on in your experience. What thoughts are present? What is your overall state of mind? That helps us see what we need to do next in the practice.

 The Body

Meditation doesn’t mean thinking about our experience; it isn’t something that happens in our heads. Awareness of the body is direct and it’s a way to become aware of our emotions and our energy, which are often wrapped up in the body. That’s why it’s a key to meditation.

Finding a Focus

We settle the mind by paying attention to something in particular: the meditation ‘object’. In principle, you can use anything, but in mindfulness meditation we usually use the breath, which is always with us and usually has a calming influence. To start with, it’s a good idea to make the object as clear and specific as possible, noticing, in detail, a particular area of the body that is affected by the breath. Your attention, awareness and energy can gather around that.

The Breath

The breath is a powerful object of meditation because it’s naturally soothing and refreshing (unless you have breathing difficulties). We all know that taking a deep breath helps you calm down. The breath connects us to the body, the environment and to the most basic elements of being alive, so it’s a key ally when we want to settle our minds.

Letting Go

Becoming quiet and settled means letting go of the busy ‘doing mode’. Even when we sit quietly, our thoughts keep going because we are still in the same mode and our minds are drawn to the stimulation and urgency these thoughts bring. Letting them go means gradually disengaging from these thoughts and feelings and finding a way to settle into our experience without trying to change it.

Interest

Our minds usually find it easy to engage with plans, activities and worries. Engaging with meditation is subtler. We need to become interested in the process of settling the mind. That might mean noticing the detail in our experience of the breath and body and it might mean including our feelings and emotions.

Finding Your Key

As you become more experienced in meditation, you will get to know the things that help you become more calm, whole and settled. That might mean the breath or the sensations of the body, as I have suggested. Or it might be something that is quite personal to you: a word or a phrase; an image; a certain kind of breathing. Some people like to count the breaths, others contact a sense of kindness. So explore what will help you connect each time you sit down to meditate.

Patience

Because settling is a process, it requires patience. When the sea is full of waves, you need to wait for the wind to die down before it will become calm. Gently, kindly, just keep bringing the mind back, again and again.

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For people who hate their bodies

Image adapted from a Creative Commons licensed photograph by reway2007Not many people like their bodies. The typical reaction from looking at oneself naked in the mirror lies somewhere on a spectrum from mild disappointment to outright revulsion, with a bit of disbelief thrown in (how did I get so old? where did those wrinkles come from? where’s my hair gone?)

I had a little epiphany the other day, though. I’d been talking with my girlfriend, who I adore. She’s beautiful. Really beautiful. And she’s also afflicted by doubts about her attractiveness. So when we were talking she was going over some of the things she didn’t like about her appearance (wrinkles, etc) and I’m, like, “I don’t care. I love those things about you. You’re beautiful.” Well, you know what it’s like when you love someone unconditionally. There’s just a complete acceptance of the whole of them. So that’s one thing.

Then I walk into the bathroom to get ready for bed, and see myself naked in the mirror. And a quick series of criticisms of my body flashes through my mind. Some bits are too skinny. Some bits are too flabby, too hairy, not hairy enough… My overall response could be summed up in the word “Yuck.”

And then I caught myself. Why can’t I give myself the same uncritical love that I give to my girlfriend? I mean she thinks I’m attractive, so why can’t I just accept that?

So I started telling bits of my body that I love them. I patted my belly fondly and said “I love you.” I did the same as I touched my thinning scalp. And as I laid a hand on my man-boobs.

And you know something? It feels great saying those things. Criticizing ourselves is almost as painful as being criticized by others, but giving ourselves affection, appreciation, and acceptance is often even more moving than receiving those things from other people, because it’s something we so rarely do. So I’ve been doing this ever since. You might want to try it too.

If there’s an inner voice telling you that this is silly or doubting that you can really love those bits of yourself that you tend not to like, don’t suppress that voice or try to argue with it. Just let the thoughts come and go.

Bear in mind that this is something you might want to repeat often. After all, you might have criticized your body tens of thousands of times, so perhaps it’ll take you a while to get into the habit of doing the opposite. But do try it. I’d love to hear how you get on.

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There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on. (day 89)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve been explaining how the practice of upekkha bhavana isn’t really about equanimity, and how upekkha itself isn’t really equanimity, but the desire that beings experience peace. It’s the desire that we and others experience the profound peace of enlightenment or awakening (bodhi).

In the upekkha bhavana — and in other ways in our lives — we cultivate peace through developing insight. And then we wish that others attain that peace. Now it doesn’t matter if we’ve not actually experienced the peace of awakening ourselves; we can still know that it’s a beneficial and desirable state for others, and develop the desire that they find the peace of awakening.

There are actually many angles on developing insight and the peace it brings. The main approach is to observe the impermanence of our experiences. And so I’m going to talk about how we can do this, beginning with the body.

We tend to assume that the body we inhabit, or the body that we are, or the body that we have (our perspective changes moment to moment) is something quite permanent and stable. Sure, we know it changes, but we tend to assume that the changes are quite superficial; the body moves, gets fatter, gets thinner, gets sick, gets better, but there’s some underlying stability and continuity.

But if you let go of your ideas and assumptions about the body, you’ll start to see something quite different. If you let your eyes close, and let an awareness of sensations that are arising in the body become more prominent in your mind, there might at first be a hang-over of that assumption of permanence. There’s the pressure of your bottom on your seat. There are your hands resting on your lap. There is your tongue in contact with your teeth. There are the sensations of the breathing.

But take any one of these sensations, and you’ll see that it’s changing, moment by moment. Take your breathing: you notice an in breath, and then an out breath. The in breath has a beginning. At one point the in breath didn’t exist. Then it started, at some point that it’s hard to define exactly. And it continued for a while, and then it ceased, again often at a point that’s hard to define, and then there was no more in breath. So the in breath was an impermanent experience. And then the same happens with the out breath It didn’t exist, it began, it continued, it ceased, it was no more. It was impermanent.

But then you can zoom in a bit more, and start paying attention to each moment of the in breath or out breath. Because you’ve been assuming that there was this “thing” called an in or out breath that came into being and then existed for a while. But when you look closely and see what’s happening in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, you recognize that each moment is a new constellation of experiences. Each moment is something new. Each moment is a birth and a death. The thing that you called an in breath or an out breath was not a thing at all, but a series of ever-changing moments.

And you can do the same with any other part of your body — say your hands. And you assumed that there was some “thing” there that you call your hands. But when you look closely you’ll start to see that there’s just this same moment-by-moment eternal newness. “The hands” dissolve into a tingling, buzzing, ever-changing cloud of sensations.

The sensation that you thought of as “the pressure of your bottom on your seat”? It’s the same. There’s nothing more substantial than the weight of your body resting on a solid surface, but actually it’s not at all substantial. The pressure, when you look at it closely, changes in every moment. Sensations of pain are just the same as this. We take them to be real; “There’s an ache in my knee.” But as you closely watch the sensation of pain, you discover that it’s actually many sensations: pulsing, throbbing, pressure, heat, cold, stabbing, tightness. And each of these sensations comes and goes in every moment.

As you continue doing this, the entire body can start to dissolve. We can lose that assumption of solidity that we habitually carry around (our assumptions, too, as impermanent). The body seems more like a cloud of sensations in space. We can start to realize that we don’t have a body, but merely experience sensations that arise and pass away.

We can apply this with sensations arising from the outside world: the light coming through your closed eyelids creates an ever-changing kaleidoscope of red, blue, green, yellow speckles, dancing in your visual field. Sounds: that hum of the refrigerator is not just impermanent because it starts and stops, but because in every moment it is a new sound. Waves of pressure are rising and falling in the air hitting your ear-drum. Sound can only be heard because it changes moment by monent.

And you can notice the same with feelings. You label something “anxiety” but it’s not just sitting there like an unchanging lump of solid matter. It’s not even one things, but is composed of buzzing and trembling and fluttering and pounding.

Thoughts? Where’s the thought you had a moment ago? The same thought may seem to come back over and over again, but it’s a different thought with every appearance. And each thought, however much we like it or dislike it, vanishes all on its own, without our needing to do anything. We watch all this closely.

Even your awareness itself is changing all the time. One moment you’re aware of the pain in your knee, and the next your attention has flipped into noticing the sound of a barking dog, and then it’s back to your breathing. Your mindfulness is there; then you have no mindfulness, and you’d distracted by some thought.

There’s nothing that isn’t constantly changing.

That fear you have that something will change? That fear appears and vanishes, and while it existed it was always changing. The fear you have that something won’t change? That’s changing too, moment by moment. It’s not even there while it’s there.

And so there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to gain; nothing to lose. There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on.

“Monks, suppose that a large mass of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a mass of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?”

There’s a vast space of consciousness, and in that space experiences arise and pass. And the more you let go of trying to hold on to anything that’s arising and passing (the trying will change!) the more peace you’ll experience. This peace is the result of the “close watching” of upekkha.

And when you turn your mind to others, watching them closely with the love and the compassion and the rejoicing in the good that you’ve cultivated in the other brahma vihara practices, you’ll want them to experience that peace too.

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Look in the mirror. What do you see? (Day 72)

100 Days of LovingkindnessAs we get toward the end of our period of exploring mudita, or joyful appreciation, I wanted to share this clip from Luc Besson’s “Angel-A” (2005). “Angel-A” is about an angel, played by Danish actress Rie Rasmussen, who intervenes to rescue André (Jamel Debbouze), a self-loathing scam artist on the verge of killing himself, and teaches him to love himself.

“Look at your body, battered by the lack of love and trust. Don’t you see it deserves a little care from you? Don’t reject this injured body which has supported you so long, never complaining. Tell it that it’s important, that it has its place. Give it what it deserves.”

(“Regarde ton corps meurtri par le manque d’amour, de confiance. Tu ne vois pas qu’il merite qu’on s’occupe un peu de lui? Alors ne le rejete pas se corps blessé qui t’as supporté depuis si longtemps sans jamais se plaindre… Dis-lui qu’il a son importance, qu’il a sa place. Donne-lui ce qu’il mérite.”)

Can you look in the mirror and love what you see? Can you say to yourself, “I love you”?

I suspect this is a practice of appreciation that we could all benefit from.

PS. You can see a list of all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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10 unexpected ways to meditate every day

Sophia Breene, Health: Ready to get Zen? Meditation can do way more than people think—and it’s not just for hippies. Practicing meditation regularly has legitimate health advantages, especially for the brain. Studies suggest meditation can do it all: reduce anxiety and sensitivity to pain, make us smarter, ward off sickness, and prevent stress. If carving out an hour to sit on a cushion doesn’t float your boat, there are many unexpected ways to meditate every day. Get the benefits of meditation by trying out an alternative style from the list below.

Standing meditation. Standing instead of sitting to meditate can relieve lower back…

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About Taoist meditation

Kate Bradley, Demand Media: Taoist meditation evolved in China over thousands of years and is one of Taoists’ most important tools for achieving the ultimate goal of inner peace by focusing on the body, mind and breath. While methods and goals vary somewhat, Taoist meditation generally aims to improve the creation, quality, and circulation of internal energy through certain movements, chants, and breathing techniques.

Key Ideas

There are two primary components of Taoist mediation: Jing (meaning “calm” or “still”) and ding (meaning “focus” or “concentration”). Taoist meditators seek internal stillness that will allow them to focus entirely on their purpose…

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Love yourself, and your self will love you back

Boy looking at his own reflection

This post is part of our 100-Day Meditation Challenge.

This week one of my students described how she tends to talk to herself in a very harsh tone of voice — much harsher than she’d ever use with other people. And that’s a very common experience. In our own minds we often describe ourself as “an idiot,” tell ourselves that our actions were “stupid,” or limit ourselves by telling cruel stories about how people don’t like us and how we’ll never be good at the things we do.

We tend not to talk this way to others, or at least to a much lesser extent. Of course if we do there tends to be a backlash. We cause hurt, anger, fear. We probably wouldn’t have any friends and we’d be very unpopular with our colleagues if we talked this way to others as often as we do to ourselves.

Sometimes, though, we do talk harshly others. We feel free to speak in harsher ways to those we’re closest to. Maybe we feel that we can be ourselves, or perhaps we just can’t keep up a pretense of “niceness” for the length of time we’re with our families. Oh, and mostly your family’s not going to leave you if you’re harsh to them. Your children can’t (not until they’re older) and your partner probably won’t because they’ve invested too much in the relationship.

And some bosses feel they can behave this way. They have a power imbalance on their side. And once again subordinates are not likely to walk out of the door; they need the paycheck.

So it’s mostly when we’re with people a lot, and when the other people can’t leave, that we let rip with the negativity.

Well, who else are we with a lot? And who else can’t leave? Ourselves, of course.

I don’t think we ever quite get used to the abuse we give ourselves. I don’t think we ever quite manage to let it slide off like water off the proverbial duck’s back. I think on some level there is hurt, anger, fear every time we berate ourselves. And along with that goes physical tension, and unhappiness.

It’s very interesting when we consciously practice sending ourselves love. Say, for example, you’re meditating and you’re becoming aware of the body. And instead of judging the body for being tense, or for being in pain, or just for not feeling good, we do the opposite and send love to the body. We have what I call a “loving gaze” and look at the body the same way we would look at a sleeping child, or a lover. What happens? Generally the body produces pleasant sensations. There can be tingling, or feelings of energy, or pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure is local, and like a tingling flow of electrical current. Sometimes it buzzes throughout a whole muscle, or group of muscles. Sometimes it shoots around the body, like a firework display. Sometimes it fills the whole body, like a vibrant, pulsating cloud of physical delight.

I think this is the body loving us back. It’s like when a cat purrs when you’re stroking it. The cat is happy to be shown appreciation. And it shows appreciation back. When we love the body, the body loves us back.

Now it might seem odd to talk about the body as if it was a thing that is “not us.” But this is what Buddhism teaches. All of our experiences, and every part of us, is to be seen as “not me, not mine” (taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi). We think of “the self” as being a unitary thing. And how can a unitary thing relate to itself? But our selves are not unitary. The self is a collective of different parts, different modules, that coexist and cohabit, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes being in conflict. And when one part of ourself sends love to another, the other loves back.

We probably think, on some level, that being harsh on ourself is good for us, that if we punish ourself for “not being good enough,” we’ll start being “good enough.” But if this works at all, it comes at a price. Just as making colleagues or family members fearful, tense, or angry in response to your harshness doesn’t make life pleasant for you in the long term, so making yourself fearful, tense, or angry in response to your harshness isn’t going to bring happiness.

So try loving yourself. Love yourself, and your self will love you back.

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