The Buddha

Made a New Year’s resolution to meditate daily? Here’s how to make it happen

Illustration of a New Year's resolution list, with one item on it: "Quit making New Year's resolutions."

It’s early January, and many people who made New Year’s resolutions are already going “Oops!” as they realize they’ve already missed a morning at the gym, binged on something unhealthy, or forgotten to meditate.

It’s very hard to change habits.

The habit I’m most interested in is daily meditation, which is something I nailed a long time ago. Mostly my interest is in helping other people to establish that habit. It’s something I struggled with for many years, until finally I had a breakthrough. I’ve shared that breakthrough with many people, and it’s helped them too.

The breakthrough doesn’t consist of just one thing. In fact the breakthrough involves recognizing that there is no one thing that will get you to the point where you’re what I call a Rock-Solid Daily Meditator. What we need is to build up an interlocking suite of tools and strategies that support daily meditation.

Also see:

None of those tools and strategies relies on willpower. In fact, willpower is fairly useless. One study showed that a six-week training course in self-control failed to help participants to change any habits whatsoever in their lives. Even worse, participants noted that the main side-effect of the training was that they felt emotionally drained. Researchers have also found that people who are good at resisting temptations are those who don’t feel tempted in the first place, meaning that they don’t even need self-control. For example, those who apparently have good self-control tend to avoid putting themselves into positions where they need to resist temptation. Rather than walk past the donut shop and end up battling themselves, they simply walk down a different street. They put the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that they aren’t tempted to stay in bed.

The theory behind willpower is that you can change a habit based on wanting it to change. If you can just wish it hard enough, then it will be so.

The Buddha offered a hilarious illustration of the absurdity of this proposition:

Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder — because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people — rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?

Well, I think it’s hilarious!

What the Buddha points out is that if you want something to happen, it’s not enough just to want it. You have to do the things that support that thing happening.

So here are some of the key points that I teach people who want to meditate daily.

Set easily attainable goals

You go to a meditation class and do 30- or 40-minute meditations. And the teacher tells you that you should practice every day. So you try to fit a 30- or 40-minute meditation into your already busy lifestyle and find — surprise, surprise — that it’s hard to do this.

Yes, some people are able to carve out that amount of time each day for a new habit, but most people can’t. And it’s not because of a lack of willpower, any more than not being able to get your size 8 feet into a pair of size 6 shoes is because of a lack of willpower. You’re simply trying something that’s almost impossible.

So instead, aim to sit for just five minutes every day.

Yes, it’s not a lot of time. But that’s the point. Everyone has five minutes to spare every day. If you’re pressed, you can head to the bathroom at work and meditate in a stall. You can meditate for five minutes after you’ve finished reading your child to sleep. You can meditate in the car when you arrive at work, or meditate on the bus or train.

I’m not saying that five minutes is enough. Sure, it can be enough to bring about a little more calm, but it probably isn’t going to change your entire day.

But what it does do is to help you create and sustain a powerful habit. Because once you’re meditating for five minutes a day, you find that it’s not that hard to increase it to eight minutes, ten minutes, fifteen, twenty … and now you’re doing something that really can change your whole day, and even your whole life.

Hack the meaning of the word “day”

A day, for the purposes of meditating daily, is not the 24 hours between one midnight and the next (a “clock day”), but is the time between waking and going back to sleep again (an “organic day”).

This gets us around the problem of going to bed after midnight and realizing that you haven’t sat yet. If you’re counting by clock days, you’re screwed. If you’re on organic days, you can pull off a quick five minute sit and you’re still on track.

Plan

All the above is vital, but even more vital is that you actually do need to have the intention to meditate daily. I don’t mean simply having a vague thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I meditated every day, instead of just every now and then.” I mean “It would be good to meditate every day; how can I make that happen?”

So we’re back to doing the things that support the habit of daily meditation, rather than trying to “wish” it into existence.

To meditate daily requires planning. Planning makes manifest your intention. It takes the idea or desire, and brings it into the world as an actual thing.

So you need to plan. When are you going to meditate? For how long? How are you going to time it? Are you going to use a guided meditation? Are you going to do it with someone, even if they’re not physically present with you, but instead you’re on a Zoom call or phone call with them?

If you don’t plan, but hope that you’ll somehow fit your five minutes in sometime, you’ll fail. You’ll forget. You’ve don’t have even a wish at that point, never mind an intention.

Beware of the inner voice that says, “I don’t like planning. I want to be spontaneous!” That’s the part of you that doesn’t want to meditate speaking. It wants you to spontaneously do something other than meditate.

So be clear in your planning.

Plan again

Planning is great. But there’s a saying along the lines of “You make plans, and the universe laughs.”

Events are going to crop up that get in the way of your meditation. You’ve decided to sit before you leave for work, and one of your kids gets sick, or there’s a work emergency that means you have to leave early, or your alarm doesn’t go off, or someone knocks on the door asking you to support some cause or other. The permutations are endless.

Research shows that people who have a Plan B are vastly more likely to stick at their habits. They anticipate what they will do if Plan A is frustrated. They have a backup plan that’s just as specific as Plan A was.

One implication of this is that if your Plan A is to meditate just before going to sleep, then you can’t have a plan B. So that tells you that planning to meditate last thing at night is okay as a standby in emergencies, but it’s not good for a regular practice.

Hack your sense of self

Once you have a few consecutive days of meditation under your belt, you can bring on the most powerful strategy I know of for supporting a daily meditation practice. It’s a simple mantra, to be repeated frequently:

“I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

What this does is change your sense of who you are.

If you’ve tried and failed to set up a daily meditation practice before, you build into your sense of self the idea, “I am the kind of person who can’t keep up a daily meditation practice. I lack the willpower.”

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you can’t meditate daily, you won’t. You’ll hit one of those times when you don’t really feel like meditating, and because you think of yourself as someone who can’t meditate every day and doesn’t meditate every day, you’ll cave and end up missing a sit.

When you repeatedly say “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am,” this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hit the same crisis point where you really don’t feel like meditating, but you say to yourself, “Snap out of it! I meditate every day. It’s just what I do.” And you sit.

It’s this tool more than any other that’s kept me meditating daily. And I know that some of my students have found themselves meditating for several thousand straight days as a result.

But prepare for slip-ups

I felt terrible the first time that I missed a day after many months of meditating consistently. I felt like I’d failed. Like I should give up.

With me it was the result of being very busy with work and having two young kids to take care of. I was so frazzled that I forgot to create a Plan B, went to bed without even realizing I hadn’t sat, and work up the next morning feeling the way I would if I’d accidentally driven over a beloved pet.

Fortunately I pulled myself together and kept going, although I know others haven’t.

I think of missing a day as a slip-up, not a failure.

I think of missing a day as an opportunity to learn. Have I been forgetting my mantra? Have I forgotten to plan? To have a Plan B? If a day were to come up again that was as crazy as that one, how would I do things differently?

Other strategies

I have a ton more strategies, but I can’t cram them into one already very long blog post.

If you want to learn more, I have a Get Your Sit Together online course running at present, which you’re free to join. I also have a four-week live Get Your Sit Together course through the New York Insight Meditation Center coming up (it’s on Zoom), and you can register for that through their website. Both of these include community support, and if I’d had time to write about one more strategy above, it would have been the power of friendship and community.

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“Soft eyes, kind eyes”

close-up of a stone buddha head, focusing on its soft, half-open eyes.

The Buddha said that it was possible to dislodge unhelpful thoughts (those that make us suffer unnecessarily) with the use of more helpful thoughts. He compared this to the way a carpenter could dislodge wooden peg out of a hole by hammering a smaller peg against it.

This principle is incredibly useful in meditation, and it can be employed in a large number of ways. One popular application of this is the use of mantras, which can be chanted out loud or repeated in the mind. A mantra such as Om Mani Padme Hum, when repeated in this way, leaves less mental space for thinking. The mantra is a thought that, like a small pin applied skillfully, dislodges the larger pin of thoughts that are unhelpful because they’re expressions of worry, resentment, self-doubt, and so on.

Also see:

While you’re chanting a mantra you might not notice much happening, but afterward you feel calmer and more relaxed because you’ve given your brain and body a break from habitual patterns of thought that chip away at your sense of well-being.

Sometimes the pegs we use as tools are not traditional Sanskrit mantras, but are phrases in English. I find that these are most effective when they point us toward our experience.

A set of phrases I use a lot is “Soft Eyes, Open Field of Attention; Kind Eyes, Meeting Everything With Tenderness.” I’d like to explain why and how I use those four particular phrases.

First, the Why

“Soft Eyes”: If you know anything at all about my teaching from the last ten years or more, you’ll be aware that I almost always start a guided meditation by reminding people to soften the eyes.

“Soft eyes” means letting the muscles around the eyes be at ease, and letting the focus in the eyes be soft. You can try that right now, although you might want to look away from the screen. You’ll probably find that this is almost instantly relaxing, and that your mind becomes calmer very quickly.

Our minds are often on edge, roaming restlessly, looking for some problem that we need to pay attention to. In other words they’re controlled much of the time by the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” reflex. Much of this problem-seeking involves the eyes, which stay narrowly focused and which are in constant motion.

Softening the eyes (soft focus) and letting them be still (the muscles around them being at rest) triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings our system back to calm, rest, and relaxation.

With tight eyes, and the sympathetic nervous system active, we find that even in meditation the mind is still problem-solving. It’s restlessly picking through various aspects of our lives, looking for those things we’re worried about, angry about, depressed about, and so on. There’s lots of distraction.

With soft eyes, and the parasympathetic nervous system activated, the mind feels safer and loses its restlessness. It no longer needs to find problems to solve. And so it does less thinking. There’s less distraction.

So this is why I say, “Soft Eyes.” It’s a reminder for us to let the eyes be soft.


(The video above introduces the practice of “soft eyes.”)

“Open Field of Attention”: The habitual tightness we carry around in the eyes, with its narrows focus, leads to us fixating on a very narrow part of our visual field. When we close the eyes in meditation, we maintain this narrow focus in our inner field of attention.

I’ve often asked meditators to “draw” over the surface of the body what it is they’re observing when they’re doing “mindfulness of the breathing.” Because they have tight eyes and a narrow focus. most indicate a very small area, which doesn’t offer enough sensation for the mind to become fascinated by and absorbed in. And so they find they get distracted a lot.

When the eyes are soft, our inner field of attention is gentler and more open. Our attention is more expansive and receptive. We find that we’re able to sense many sensations of the breathing at once. We may even find that we can be aware of the whole body breathing. This is a very rich experience. it’s fascinating and we find it absorbing. It’s easier for us to keep observing the breathing without getting distracted all the time.

“Soft eyes” triggers an “open field of attention.” One follow naturally from the other. Nevertheless, it’s good to remind ourselves to notice what’s in our open field of attention.

Saying “Open field of attention” is a reminder to let our inner field of attention be expansive and receptive, and for us to notice the incredible richness that’s arising there.

“Kind Eyes”: Saying “kind eyes” is a way of bringing kindness into our present-moment experience. We can recall a time we looked with love — at a child, a lover, a friend, a pet — and let the eyes become kind now, as they were then. After a while we no longer need to access that kind of memory. We can simply remember what it’s like to have kind eyes, and drop back into that experience.

In saying “kind eyes” we’re directing our attention back to the eyes, reminding ourselves to connect with kindness.

“Meeting Everything With Tenderness”: Just as the eyes being soft changes our inner field of attention, causing it to be more open, expansive, and receptive, so letting the eyes become kind changes the way we pay attention internally. In this case it brings warmth, patience, kindness, compassion, and acceptance into our experience. We can find that we meet our distractions, our feelings, and even painful sensations with warmth.

Saying “meeting everything with tenderness” reminds us to bring kindness deeply into our being.


(The video above uses slightly different phrasing. More about that below.)

The How

I use the breathing to pace how quickly or slowly I drop these phrases into the mind, and to help keep my mind on track.

Pacing means balancing saying and listening.

Saying the phrases directs our attention to these various parts of our experience: softening the eyes, noticing the richness that’s arising in our open field of attention, letting kindness arise, and and bringing kindness into our whole being.

But if we’re speaking all the time, we might not be allowing ourselves to actually be with those experiences. We might not really notice them. We might not be allowing ourselves to go deeply into them.

We’re basically just talking to ourselves, and not letting ourselves have a chance to feel.

So generally I’ll say one of the phrases on an out-breath, and then leave two or three cycles of the breathing where I say nothing, and instead simply observe the experience that the phrase is pointing to.

Then I’ll drop in the next phrase, and so exactly the same thing. And I’ll continue like that through all four phrases, and then repeat.

However, if I’m particularly distractible I’ll tighten up the pacing. If I’ve been dropping in a phrase every third breath and keep getting distracted, I’ll start dropping in the phrases every two breaths. If I’m really distractible, then I might say a phrase on every breath. As I said above, this has the drawback that it doesn’t leave much time for being with our actual experience. But it’s better to do that than to get continually distracted.

Conversely, if things are going well then I might drop in the phrases less often. I might get to the point where I don’t even say the phrases; I just do what they’re describing (noticing soft eyes, noticing the body, noticing kindness in the eyes, bringing that kindness to meet every experience).

So there’s scope in this practice for fine-tuning as you go, adapting to changing conditions.

I also sometimes change the phrases. Sometimes instead of “soft eyes, open field of attention” I’ll say “soft eyes, body alive.” It’s basically the same thing, except that in the second case I’m more explicitly directing my attention toward the contents of the open field of attention. And sometimes instead of “meeting everything with tenderness” it’ll be “meeting everything with love” or “meeting everything with love.”

Although people sometimes assume that all thinking in meditation is to be avoided, thinking can be used consciously as a tool. Thoughts can direct our attention toward our immediate sensory experience. Thought can help drive out thoughts and quiet the mind.

You can play around with this tool as well. Make it your own. Find out what works for you.

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The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

See also

But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What are we training for when we do spiritual practice? What is the point of practice? The point of practice is to have better lives, and to help other people to have that experience as well. It’s to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a faith claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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Are you afraid of joy?

Image of the Buddha in the style of a colorful painting

On the way to enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be spent many years avoiding pleasure and strengthening his ability to tolerate discomfort. Along with many other people at that time, he practiced austerities, or tapas. This word literally means “heat,” because one form of ascetic practice involved meditating under the hot noon-day sun, sometimes also surrounded (just to make things even more intense) by four fires.

This kind of thing seems weird to us now, but back then it was all the rage among a certain set of spiritual seekers. They understood pleasure and happiness to be inextricably bound up with the weaknesses of the flesh, and believed that to find liberation the mind had to completely master the body. The Buddha-to-be bought into this for a while and did things like holding his breath until he was racked with pain, hauling out his hair and beard by the roots, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and starving himself with extreme fasting. According to his own account he got nothing much out of all this except for bringing himself close to death.

Also read:

After he’d realized the futility of these tapas practices, he began to reflect on where he’d been going wrong, and on what he might try next. The answer came to him in the form of a memory from childhood. As a child he’d been sitting under the shade of a tree, watching his father plow a field, and he’d slipped into a natural meditative state of calm, alert joy. Looking back, he realized that although he’d been afraid of the pleasure that can arise in meditation, this pleasure was in fact completely wholesome. He asked himself:

‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities.’ [Mahāsaccaka Sutta, MN 36]

It struck him that there was something powerful about this state of easeful, non-grasping happiness. In fact, he wondered if this might be the path to the spiritual awakening he’d been seeking, and the moment he asked himself this question, his intuition told him in no uncertain terms, “Yes, this is the path to awakening!”

Although I said that the ascetic practices of ancient India strike us as weird, but there’s something of the spirit of the ascetics of the Buddha’s time in the modern habits of working long hours, feeling guilty about having downtime, and depriving ourselves of sleep so that we can be more productive. The ancients and many of us today both believe that a long-term goal (enlightenment in one case, and “success” in the other) can be achieved by accustoming ourselves to pain and self-denial in the present moment. It’s true that sometimes we have to do things that are challenging in the short term, because they bring future rewards. But sometimes we’re simply misguided, and the pain we subject ourselves to now is a down-payment on future ease and happiness that never actual arrives.

Now you might be thinking, “Wait! So, the Buddha was against asceticism, and yet he and his monastic disciples ate other people’s left-over food, wore rags, wouldn’t listen to music, slept under trees, and owned nothing but their robes and begging bowls? What’s that about?” Let me explain.

The way of life of early Buddhist monastics was certainly austere. They didn’t live in organized monasteries at that time — that was a development that came much later — and as I’ve described they lived very simply. The point of this, however, was not self-punishment. They were trying to keep life simple so that they could focus on spiritual practice. They weren’t afraid of pleasure or happiness as such, just the pleasure and happiness that came from sensual attractions that would draw them into family life and away from a life of full-time mindfulness and meditation.

The Buddha, remember, had come to the realization that he didn’t need to be afraid of pleasure and joy, that there were forms of these things that were skillful, and that the pleasure and joy that come from meditation are in fact the path to awakening. Speaking from my own experience, the times I’ve been consistently happiest have been those when I’ve been on retreat, living a life of extreme simplicity, very little verbal communication and plenty of opportunity to meditate, and with few responsibilities but lots of time to walk silently in nature. What a contrast that is from the stressful business of providing a taxi service for my children, paying bills, and juggling full-time work with maintaining my house and its yard.

The austere life that the early monastic community lived had its challenges. Many monks and nuns missed family life and sexual activity, and this was one of the main reasons that people disrobed. But it was for many others it was a deeply joyful life. They lived in a way that was calm, and full of love and appreciation. Meditation was a part of this.

Although meditation is meant to be enjoyable, lot of contemporary meditators don’t experience it that way. So it’s worth our asking ourselves whether we bring elements of asceticism into our meditation. Do we regard it as “work” — in the sense of a task done dutifully, where its lack of pleasure proves its worthiness? Do we regard it as one of those things that’s not very joyful but will somehow lead to joy arising in the future?

If we wonder about the lack of pleasure in our meditation at all, we may think that some sort of advanced meditation technique might be needed for our sitting practice to be enjoyable, or that perhaps we are in need of some sort of psycho-therapeutic breakthrough. In most cases all we need to do, though, is to let ourselves relax a little and stop taking ourselves so seriously. A question I often ask myself is, “Is there anything I’m doing right now that’s suppressing joy?” In the wake of that question I might notice a slight tension in the body, and let it soften. I might notice a seriousness in my attitude, or a striving after results, and let go of it. And as soon as those things happen, joy arises. It’s as if it’s always been there, waiting for me to relax enough to notice it. And it’s wonderful that joy is so easily found, because when meditation if joyful we find ourselves wanting to return to it, again and again.

Try regarding joy as being always present, waiting for you to find it. Ask yourself, “Is there anything I’m doing right now that’s suppressing joy?” Try this in meditation, and in daily life as well.

Wildmind is supported by a community of sponsors who get access to more than 40 meditation courses I’ve developed in the past, plus opportunities to practice together online. To learn more, click here.

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A meditation for accepting aging

A man's hand reaching out to touch its reflection in a mirror.

An elderly friend of mine once said to me, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” She was talking mainly about the physical difficulties of getting older, and especially the aches, pains, and difficulty in doing things that were formerly easy.

To add insult to injury, though, we often feel critical about our appearance as we age, as if it were a sign of weakness instead of an inevitable part of living. Getting older is not a personality defect; it’s an inherent part of being human.

The Buddha talked about aging a lot. He listed it as one of the descriptions of dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

See also:

He also talked about youth as something we get intoxicated with. We become convinced when we’re young that we’re of a different nature from those who are old, forgetting that we’re all on a continuum. But because of this intoxication, which becomes a kind of addiction, we have difficulty accepting the fact of aging.

Today I led a meditation from in front of my bathroom mirror. I’m going to explain what i did, so that you can practice it as well.

To do this meditation you’ll have to be in a place where you can see yourself in a mirror. You should be able to see at least your face, but preferably your whole upper body. My bathroom mirror was ideal.

One thing that’s important but not obvious is that the place where you do this should be brightly illuminated. You don’t want to do this meditation in dim light, because looking for a prolonged period of time at your own face in a dark place can confuse your brain’s visual circuitry, leading to odd illusions. Let’s avoid that.

You could be sitting or standing depending on what’s convenient for you.

We’ll be meditating with the eyes open. And let the eyes be a little soft, by allowing the muscles supporting the eyes to be at rest.

You also shouldn’t stare, but should let there be a gentleness in your focus.

Also, don’t keep your eyes fixed on one spot. The image is your object of mindfulness, so let your eyes gently explore it.

With the eyes soft, notice the sensations of the breathing. And perhaps also seeing the rise and fall of the breath in the mirror.

And let your eyes be kind as well, remembering what it’s like to look with kindness, and reconnecting with that experience. And you might be able to see that kindness in your own eyes as you’re regarding your reflection.

Now, most of us judge our own appearance more harshly than we do the appearance of others. So we focus on blemishes, wrinkles, gray hair, and flesh that’s no longer as firm as it used to be. And we tend to judge those things.

When you see them in another person, they’re just part of that person’s appearance. They could have exactly the same blemishes and wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy parts as we have and we think they’re a beautiful person. We might love those features that they have.

So just see if you can appreciate the texture and the detail of your own appearance, without judgment, in the same kind and appreciative way that you would if this was another person you were seeing.

You can even drop in some words of appreciation. So seeing a wrinkle, a grey hair, or some other feature of the face, you can say to yourself:

“How beautiful that is! How beautiful is this sign of humanness!”

Repeat this a few times.

And you can say to yourself, to yourself as a whole now, not just talking to a feature as you did a little while ago:

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

Repeat this a few times.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

And there’s one more phrase I’d like to suggest, that we can say to ourselves. It’s

“May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

So repeat that a few times as well:

“May I support myself with kindness as I age. May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

And so you can just continue in this way for the rest of this period of practice, however long you’ve chosen to meditate for. Just keep regarding yourself with kind eyes, and be accepting and appreciative of signs of aging and other imperfections.

Guided Meditation

The following meditation is “Sitting With Bodhi”-style. This means that although the recording is ten minutes in length, you’re invited to continue for longer. I’d suggest that before you begin you set a timer for at least 15 minutes.

This recording is one of those I’ve recorded for Wildmind’s sponsors. If you’d like to find out more about what that means, click here.

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What the heck is “the unconditioned”?

close up of a sparkler, with two blurred hands in the background

I often hear Buddhists talking about “the unconditioned.”

I’m extremely suspicious of this expression. In fact think it’s positively unhelpful, in that brings about a sense that Enlightenment is something that happens far, far away. “The unconditioned” becomes a sort of mystical realm — some kind of mysterious entity or metaphysical reality. Sometimes people call it “the Absolute.”

Why I’m Skeptical of the Unconditioned

I started thinking about this when I made the discovery that a well-known Buddhist teaching on suffering: that there is ordinary pain, the suffering of reversal (e.g. loss) and the suffering inherent in “conditioned existence” said no such thing.

Actually, the teaching says that there are (in this order) inevitable physical suffering (the first arrow), suffering we create through reacting to the first kind of suffering (the second arrow), and suffering that hits us if we try to immerse ourselves in pleasure as an escape from these other forms of suffering (I call this “the third arrow”).

A Calamitous Error

My own teacher, Sangharakshita, makes what I regard as a calamitous error when he says “there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.”

But there cannot be two realities. Only one of these things can be real, although one single reality can be looked at in different ways, and perhaps that’s what he meant.

The habit Sangharakshita had — shared by many others — of capitalizing “Unconditioned” reinforces this idea of the term referring to something very special and abstract. If you say “in reality” you’re simply describing what happens. If you say “in Reality” there’s a very different implication. We start wondering where and what this “Reality” is.

See other articles in the “Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma” series:

What Is this Term?

Let’s look at this  expression, “unconditioned” or “the unconditioned,” or even (heaven help us) “the Unconditioned.”

One of the key places it’s found are in translations of a famous Udāna verse:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

There are several other places in the scriptures where this saying is found.

This passage is invariably interpreted in a metaphysical way — as if the Buddha is talking about different worlds. “The unconditioned” sounds even more mysterious now, because it’s accompanied by other terms: “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made.” How mystical! Surely the Buddha is talking about some otherworldly realm, other than the one we find ourselves in — the world where we are born, brought into being, etc.

What Does It Really Mean?

Remember, first, that there’s no direct or indirect article in Pāli. The text just says “there is not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned.” That already sounds quite different.

These four terms (not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned) are synonyms, so asaṅkhata, “not-conditioned” or “unconditioned”) means the same as “not-made.” Saṅkhata can mean “made” or “produced” and so asaṅkhata here can simply mean that something hasn’t yet come into being or no longer exists.

In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha actually explains what he means in using the term “uncreated” (asaṅkhata).

“And what, bhikkhus is not-created? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called not-created.”

So now we have states of mind that are “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.”

Creating or Destroying Mental States

It’s actually, I think, a very practical statement that the Buddha is making. He’s simply saying that things (specifically the experience of suffering, which is what he was most interested in, and the mental states that are the causes of suffering) are sometimes created, and sometimes they are not. They can be “de-created.”

What he’s saying is that because suffering can be not created or destroyed that the experience of suffering can be escaped. If we can create suffering, then we can also not create suffering.

If we had previously created certain mental states of suffering, like craving or hatred, and, through practice, we let them die away. They’d no longer be “born, brought-to-being, made, created,” but would now be “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.” And that would be the state of nibbāna, which is literally the “burning out” of suffering. When suffering’s fuel burns out, suffering burns out, or is “not-created” (asaṅkhata).

“The Unconditioned” is not a thing.

“The Unconditioned” (asaṅkhata) is not a thing. It’s not some kind of “absolute.” It’s not a “reality.” It’s not even “the unconditioned,” because both the “the” and the “unconditioned” parts aren’t right. What it refers to is the  “non-creating of things that would otherwise be created.” Practically, it’s the non-production of suffering, through the non-production of that which causes suffering.

I think that’s all the Buddha is saying.

The Traditional Interpretation Is a Distraction

All this metaphysical stuff about “the Unconditioned” is a million miles away from how the Buddha actually taught, and presumably also from how he thought. I want to know the mind of the Buddha. I want to see things they way they saw him. And having a goal which is not the Buddha’s goal just isn’t helpful in that regard. In fact it’s a positive distraction.

Making the Buddha’s teaching metaphysical leads us into realms of nebulous speculation. It takes us away from the here and now. It takes us away from our direct experience. It diverts us from actually practice.

We don’t need to try to conceive of, let alone strive to attain, some mystical state called “the unconditioned.” We just need to keep working on letting greed, hatred, and delusion die away, so that they are no longer things that are born, brought-to-being, or made within us. Instead they are not-born, not-brought-to-being, not made.

To be very simple and concrete, we stop creating greed, hatred, and delusion, and destroy them instead.

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Honoring five Wildmind authors who are no longer with us

Parinirvana Buddha. Photograph by Ankur Panchbuddhe.

Parinirvana Buddha. Photograph by Ankur Panchbuddhe.

Today, February 15, is known as Parinirnava Day in much of the Buddhist world. It commemorates the anniversary of the Buddha’s death, or Parinirvana. It’s a time for bearing in mind the essential truth of change, instability, and impermanence (anicca).

It’s traditional on Parinirvana Day to read the scriptures concerning the Buddha’s death: especially the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. It’s also traditional to visit temples to meditate, and to remember that our own lives here on earth are limited. Parinirvana Day is also a time for remembering friends and family who have passed, and often we’ll place their images at the foot of an altar.

For me, this blog often acts as a kind of memento mori, or reminder of death. To the best of my knowledge five people who have shared articles here have passed away: two of them I knew personally, while others I’d only exchanged emails with. I wanted to take the opportunity of Parinirvana Day to bring them to mind, to say a little about them, and to encourage you to read their articles.

Suvarnaprabha

Suvarnaprabha

The first is Suvarnaprabha, whose name means “Golden Radiance.” That was a great name for her, since she had a vibrant personality, full of humor, although she preferred to go by “Suvanna,” finding her Sanskrit name a bit combersome. She could be deeply serious, but she often laughed and inspired laughter in others. I vividly remember going with her to see Robin Williams perform in San Francisco, where she lived, and us spending the evening with tears running down our faces.

On Wildmind’s blog she wrote an advice column called “Ask Auntie Suvanna.” The original intent was for this to be a humour endeavor, but as time went by the requests for help became sadder and sadder. Suvanna’s responses were always kind and wise, though, and were often hilarious. I’d suggest starting with her pieces on the Buddhist approach to excess body hair, and On eating vegetarian monkey brains.

She also wrote a piece about teaching meditation in prison, which was very close to my heart as I was doing the same thing at the same time.

Suvanna documented her experience with cancer in two blogs, the first of which detailed her initial diagnosis and treatment, and the second of which, Crap, I’ve Got Cancer, took up the story of the cancer’s return.

Saddhamala (Nancy Nicolazzo)

Saddhamala

Saddhamala (“She who is garlanded with faith”) was someone else I knew personally. We first emailed each other around 1998, when I was at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana, and she was at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, although at that time she wasn’t yet ordained and went by her birth name, Nancy Nicolazzo. A few years later I moved to Newmarket myself, and I saw her a fair amount.

She was known as Nancy in her work as a chaplain and volunteer coordinator at a hospice, and it was in a hospice that she passed away. She’d had cancer that had metastasized. Knowing that death was inevitable she’d decided not to seek treatment. She was a talented woman who’d also worked as a consultant. In fact I once employed her to help me make my office space more pleasing and efficient, and the results were wonderful.

Saddhamala wrote many articles for Wildmind. She had done a lot of teaching and tended to distill her suggestions into lists of tips for practice. Sometimes, though, she wrote more personally, for example when she discussed her family background.

Marcus Hartsfield

Marcus Hartsfield

Marcus wasn’t someone I knew personally, and I must have met Marcus on social media. He was a therapist in California, and practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center. One of the striking things about Marcus was the number of tattoos he had — many of them Buddhist themed. I asked him to write an account of his journey on Wildmind’s blog, and so he wrote, Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos, illustrated with a number of photographs.

Marcus passed away in 2013, I think. Not being a friend of his, I never did learn how Marcus died. Someone who knew him said he’d been ill, but she didn’t know anything beyond that.

Hazel Colditz

Hazel Colditz

Hazel Colditz was another Wildmind contributor I never had the good fortune to meet in person. I’m sure I would have liked her. Hazel was a talented photographer, documentary maker, and sculptor of rock and metal. She lived in the Arizona desert. We met on social media when she offered to review a book for me. She ended up writing three reviews in total, for “Taneesha Never Disparaging” by M. LaVora Perry, “Sitting Practice” by Caroline Adderson, and “Jake Fades” by David Guy. I always enjoyed her perspectives, and she was a joy to work with. She passed away in January, 2012, having battled an aggressive form of cancer for several months, and having endured multiple major surgeries.

Navachitta

Navachitta

Navachitta was part of the Auckland, New Zealand sangha of the Triratna Buddhist Community. She was ordained into the Order in the summer of 1990 in Taraloka, in Shropshire, England. I never new her personally, although we corresponded periodically by email for many years, and I always appreciated her support and encouragement.

Navachitta was a therapist who worked in private practice and was very active in the recovery community. You can read more about this aspect of her work in an interview she did with a representative of North West Buddhist Recovery.

One wonderful anecdote: While living in Britain, Navachitta once went to a builder’s merchant, saying she was looking for sacks. But hearing her New Zealand accent, the men she was talking to unfortunately thought she was looking for “sex.” Hilarity (although to the best of my knowledge no sexual intercourse) ensued.

Before her untimely death she only had time to write three articles and reviews for Wildmind’s blog. One, entitled From drama to Dharma, was on addiction to drama. Her second piece, Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction, is about the connection between addiction and the potentially beneficial trait of novelty-seeking. Her final piece was a review of a book of poems by a fellow Order member, Satyadevi. The poems were inspired by natural and industrial disasters that had taken place in New Zealand.

Navachitta passed away in London at the age of 62 from a severe bacterial and viral infection.

***

I hope these stories have encouraged you to explore the work of the five individuals I’ve drawn attention to.

But on a deeper level, all five of their deaths were unexpected. I know I make assumptions about how long I’ll live (late eighties to early nineties?) and how I’ll die (either in my sleep or in a hospital bed?), but none of us ever knows when our time will come. It could be today.

And so the Buddha encouraged us to be mindful that death can come at any time, not so that we become afraid or depressed, but so that we be inspired to make the most of this precious opportunity to practice.

Life is swept along,
next-to-nothing its span.
For one swept to old age
no shelters exist.
Perceiving this danger in death,
one seeking peace
should drop the world’s bait.

We’re also asked to bear in mind, even more pithily, the remembrance, anicca vata sankhara : “Impermanent, indeed, are all created things.” Let’s mourn our losses, while tempering them with an awareness of their inevitability. And above all, let’s take them as an inspiration to live the best lives we can create.

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The Candy Crush Sutta

book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone. Image is generated by an AI.

This is a bonus post, following from yesterday’s, in which I interviewed the artificial intelligence known as ChatGPT about meditation.

This time I gave the AI the prompt, “Write a Buddhist sutta, in the style of the Pali canon, in which the Buddha tells Ananda to stop playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.”

See also

Here’s what ChatGPT came up with.

Once, the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. And at that time, the Venerable Ananda was addicted to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.

The Blessed One approached Ananda and said, “Ananda, what are you doing?”

Ananda replied, “I am playing Candy Crush, Lord.”

The Buddha spoke: “Ananda, this is not the path to liberation. The playing of such games only leads to craving and attachment. To achieve true peace and wisdom, one must let go of such distractions and engage in virtuous and meaningful actions.”

Ananda listened to the Buddha’s words and put down his iPhone, vowing to let go of his attachment to Candy Crush. He turned his attention to the Buddha’s teachings and soon realized the path to enlightenment.

And so it is said:

“Just as a bird is freed from its cage
when the door is opened, so too one is freed
from the bonds of ignorance and craving
by practicing the path taught by the Buddha.”

Appropriately, the image above was generated by another AI (Craiyon: formerly DALL-E Mini), using the prompt, “book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone.”

Coming back down to earth, ChatGPT’s predecessor was prone to using vile racist and misogynistic language, because its database of information was drawn from the web, and the web is full of that sort of stuff. For the latest version of the AI, a program had to be developed that could recognize and screen out the toxic material. In order to do that, Kenyan workers were paid as little as $1.32 an hour (via a subcontractor of OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT) to read and categorize the text. Workers were traumatized by reading, for example, graphic descriptions of bestiality and pedophile sex.

The contract between OpenAI and the subcontractor ended after an article was published showing that Facebook had employed the subcontractor to screen content. In this case, Kenyans were required to view images and videos of executions, rape and child abuse for as little as $1.50 per hour. This is traumatizing work.

AI and social media are fun, but there’s a dark and exploitative side to it as well.

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Grief as a spiritual practice

My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

For a life to end is a strange thing. All those memories, those unique experiences, feelings, thoughts; all gone. We are left, holding our end of a relationship, and yet our love has nothing to connect to. I’m not surprised people like to believe in an afterlife (Fiona did, having lost her youngest child) but that’s not my thing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in my book, This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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How to recognize, respect, and love the demon, Māra

This is the first time I’ve posted here in a while. Virtually all of my energy is going into supporting Wildmind’s community of supporters — people who make a financial contribution every month in order to support me to explore and teach meditation and Buddhism. This article is condensed from a couple of pieces of writing I’ve done for them. If you enjoy this, and you’d like to support Wildmind, you can read about the many benefits that our sponsors get by visiting this page.

I’d like to share one of the most powerfully transformative practices I’ve evolved over the years.

Have you heard of Māra? He’s a figure from Buddhist mythology. He’s often portrayed as having conversations with the Buddha and his monks and nuns. These encounters always end with Māra being recognized, at which point he vanishes.

Sometimes Māra is portrayed in art as a demon, but in the scriptures (and in the image above) he’s a good-looking young man. He’s often royally attired, and sometimes holds a lute. We can take this to mean that Māra is a smart smooth-talking Machiavellian.

The name Māra comes from the Sanskrit root, mṛ, which indicates death and destruction. That’s also where we get our words “mortality” and “murder.” Māra is the destroyer or murderer of spiritual practice, and the murderer of peace and joy.

See also:

In the scriptures he appears to spiritual practitioners, including the Buddha himself, trying to tempt them out of practicing, or sometimes distracting them or making them afraid. As well as appearing as a young man he can also appear as a fearful animal, such as a snake or wild ox. He can do things like throw boulders down a mountainside in order to cause fear. Or he can make loud and distracting noises happen. He can also create an unpleasant physical sensation.

Māra has lots of ways of distracting people, but he never, as far as I’m aware, actually harms anyone physically. I assume by this that even the earliest Buddhists regarded him as a psychological projection.

Recognizing Māra

If you recognize Māra, he simply vanishes. One time he challenged the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā, who was meditating under a tree, and tried to make her feel afraid that she might be sexually assaulted:

“You’ve come to this sal tree all crowned with flowers,  and stand at its root all alone, O nun. Your beauty is second to none, silly girl, aren’t you afraid of rascals?”

She recognized him, though, and showed him that he was out-classed:

Even if 100,000 rascals like you were to come here,  I’d stir not a hair nor panic. I’m not scared of you, Māra, even alone.  

Māra then disappears. This represents the way in which mindfulness can dispel unskillful or unhelpful thoughts.

And this has become my own practice.

When I’m getting annoyed, or despondent, or impatient, or anxious, just saying “I see you, Māra” — simply recognizing that Māra was trying to trick me — was enough to break his spell and return me to a sense of calmness and balance.

I’d highly recommend trying this. Whenever you’re suffering, or caught up in anger, despondency, worry, and so on, observe the thought processes that are taking place. Observe the feelings arising within you. And then say, “I see you, Māra.” Recognize the forces that are at work within you, trying to throw you off balance. And refuse to let them fool you.

Appreciating Māra

But there’s another aspect of this practice that I’d like to draw out. It’s an aspect that’s very important to me: acknowledging how clever Māra’s tricks are.

As above, the experience of unhelpful emotional arousal acts as a trigger for recognizing Māra. Any of the emotions I described above, and any others that lead to a sense of suffering, are signs that Māra is at work. Even mild distraction in meditation can be a trigger.

Now, rather than just saying, “I see you, Māra,” which is what people do in the scriptures, you can say something like “Nice try, Māra!” This is a way of letting those disruptive inner forces know that I’m onto them, and that I’m refusing to be manipulated.

You can marvel at how convincing Māra’s tricks are. After all, he had you totally fooled! The story that was causing you suffering was totally believable. It seemed that you had to respond with anger, or fear, or despondency, or whatever it was. Someone criticizes you? Well, of course you have to be annoyed and defensive. Money’s tight? Well naturally you have to worry. Something hasn’t worked out as planned? Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

And then the feelings you had were so vivid. They’re like really good special effects in a Hollywood movie. The crushing weight of despondency, the jangling buzz of anxiety, the hot upwelling of annoyance. Those feelings are not just vivid, but are powerfully compelling. It’s as if you had to act on them.

So you can applaud Māra. “Great special effects, Māra! You really had me going there!” Admire the whole process of reactivity. It’s amazing!

There are a couple of reasons that I think this act of appreciation for Māra’s work is important and powerful. One is that appreciation is a skillful state of mind. Even if what you’re appreciating is Māra (who is not skillful), the appreciation itself is still skillful. (It’s not like you’re approving of what he’s doing.) Since appreciation is a skillful state of mind, this helps reinforce your new-found freedom from Māra’s (unskillful) world of delusion.

The other reason that appreciating Māra’s work is helpful is is that you’re appreciating it as a delusion.  You’re recognizing that the feelings that motivate you, and the thoughts and emotions that arise from those feelings, are all illusory.

Seeing the illusory nature of reactions while they’re actually happening is a powerful and liberating practice.

This perspective finds support in teachings like the one where the Buddha compared form (this includes forms we perceive in the world and also those we imagine in the mind), feelings, perceptions, emotions, and consciousness to various illusion-like phenomena:

Form is like a lump of foam;
feeling is like a bubble;
perception seems like a mirage;
emotions like the non-existent core of a banana tree;
and consciousness like a magic trick.

(I’ve tweaked the translation here for the sake of clarity.)

These are the famous “five skandhas (aggregates)” which constitute our experience and which we take to be our “selves.”

Feelings have no substance. Neither do thoughts or emotions. They’re like mirages, dreams, bubbles, or conjuring tricks. They arise within us only as patterns of sensation, caused by the firing of neurons. Why be scared by a bunch of neurons firing?

In talking about the skandhas in the above quote, the Buddha doesn’t mention Māra. Elsewhere, though, he says that they are Māra:

How is Māra defined? Form is Māra, feeling is Māra, perception is Māra, emotions are Māra, consciousness is Māra. Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, emotions, and consciousness.  

It’s by seeing the illusory nature of the skandhas — seeing them as tricks, designed to make us react — that we’re able to disengage from reactivity and find peace.

That’s what’s happening when I admire Māra’s tricks.

Sending Love to Māra

The other night I woke up from an anxious dream in which the US had turned into a fascist state. Once again I recognized Māra and offered him congratulations on how vivid and convincing his special effects were. It wasn’t just that the dream was realistic. It was that the feelings of anxiety in my body had convinced me that something was really wrong.

But at this point I brought another aspect into my practice, which enriched it even more

Māra isn’t literally a demon who’s out to get me. Our inner demons aren’t demons. They’re us. Marā’s a part of my mind, and he’s trying to help, within his definition of help. To this particular Māra, fascism isn’t just something I should be concerned about. He thinks I needed to panic about it. He thinks I needed to be in a state of fear. He thinks he needs to give me good dose of suffering to help me get motivated. He’s misguided in this, but he doesn’t know that. So he’s not my enemy. In fact he needs my compassion. So I regarded Māra with loving eyes, offering him kindness.

Now, even though I was watching the anxiety from a  place of calm and peace, and didn’t feel touched by it, my body was still reacting as if it was in danger. So I embraced it within my loving gaze as well.

Now I felt completely at peace. And although the anxiety that had arisen could conceivably have kept me awake for hours, I was at this point so at ease that I fell back to sleep within minutes.

So I’m going to suggest that every time you feel upset by something or know that suffering it present, recognize that Māra is at work. Don’t just recognize him, but feel some honest appreciation for how convincing his attempts are to get us to suffer. And don’t just admire him, but offer him compassion, and offer your whole being compassion.

And as the scriptures say:

And thereupon that disappointed spirit
Disappeared right on the spot.

And within two or three minutes of being woken by an intensely anxious dream, I fell sleep again, and was untroubled for the rest of the night.

Again, if you find this helpful and you’d like to benefit from more of my teaching activity, please read up on Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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