thoughts in meditation

“Show me what you’ve got, Māra!”

Milarepa was a famous Tibetan meditation practitioner and Buddhist teacher who lived from 1052 to 1135. He said, “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”

What a wonderful image!

Your Mind Like a Dog

First, the mind being like a dog. Isn’t that so familiar? Dogs aren’t very reflective. Neither are we, most of the time. A thought appears in our minds, and our attention goes chasing after it automatically. Like a dog chasing a stick, we pursue the thought, take it up, and chew it over.

In meditation, thoughts arise quite often, because even though part of you intends to meditate and quiet the mind, other parts of your brain are scanning your experience to see if there are any threats to your well-being that need to be dealt with.

Also see:

If, as is usually the case, there’s nothing threatening going on in your immediate experience, these parts of your brain will comb through memories of things that happened in the past, or look at your future itinerary, and look for things that might be of concern. And so, for example, you might dredge up an encounter where your feelings got hurt, and you replay the events, often in multiple ways, “workshopping” various scenarios. Or you might think about something coming up that’s maybe a bit scary, and start imagining all the things that might go wrong.

You more from a simple thought — maybe just a snippet of a conversation, or a snapshot image — to a full-on drama.

Buddhism talks about this as prapañca, or “proliferation.”

Your Mind Like a Lion

But then there’s the lion. Your mind is like a lion when it sees the stick of a thought flying by, and instead of chasing the stick, it turns toward the stick thrower. It lets the thought pass. It recognizes that an attempt has been made to distract it. It is not taken in by that attempt. It is curious about what this entity is that is trying to manipulate it. And so it turns and looks.

The Stick Thrower

Who is throwing the stick? In Buddhist terms we’re back to Māra. Māra is a mythological personification of distraction. He’s the mental trickster who wants us to be distracted and reactive. He wants us to chase the sticks he throws. Māra is that part of us that’s always trying to throw us off-balance.

How to Do This

Maybe turning to face the stick-thrower isn’t something you’ve ever done. So how to we get started?

It can help to feel the lion quality of your mind. Think of a lion’s steady eyes. Its low growl. Its strength. Its fearlessness. Let those qualities fill your mind and your body. Try it right now, as you observe the space of your mind. If you’re anything like me, it probably feels pretty good.

So sometimes when I’ve seen my mind go chasing sticks in my meditation a few times, I’ll turn toward the place where thoughts come from. And I’ll observe it, waiting to see what happens.

But then I go further, and dare Māra​​​​ to tempt me.

Calling Out the Devil

I’ll say something like “Come on, Māra. Show me what you got. Show me what you’re made of.” And then I’ll just watch, like a lion, and see what he comes up with. The watching is imbued with lion energy — a sense of strength, confidence, and courage. I feel this energy in my body as well.

I can remind myself that the sticks, or thoughts, are really illusions. They’re not real events that I have to deal with. They’re mental fabrications.

Usually after a few of Māra’s sticks have flown past me, my inner dog will make an appearance again. And so I have to keep on summoning the inner lion, and turning back to face the stick thrower.

And so I’ll say, once again, “Good one, Māra! Clever trick. Your illusion fooled me that time. For a while. So, what else do you have?”

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“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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The power of intention

I’ve been very aware recently of what a difference setting an intention can make to the quality of my meditation practice. This was even before I recorded the most recent series of Sitting With Bodhi, which is on the theme of intention. In fact it was because I was rediscovering the power of intention that I decided to create that course.

The act of setting an intention brings a heightened sense of clarity to our practice. Setting an intention for a period of practice helps us to catch our distractions earlier and even to avoid distraction altogether at times.

An intention is something we have to keep coming back to over and over again during a period of practice. It’s not just a question of setting one and then you’re done! That’s part of the strength of intentions, though. They give us something specific to focus on. They give us an opportunity to check in repeatedly to see if we’re still on track. Having an intention is like having a compass to help you navigate. The point is to periodically check your bearings to make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Conscious and Unconscious Intentions

What happens is that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions.

The mind, after all, is rarely purposeless. We bring our emotional preoccupations to the cushion in the forms of anxieties, things we’re irritated about, things we’re longing for, and so on. So when the mind is turning over a potentially worrisome situation it’s in the grip of an intention. But it’s not one we’ve consciously chosen. It’s the direction that our mind wants to head in by default. Our distractions are unconscious intentions.

Some of our unconscious intentions involve the body as well as the mind. You’ve probably had the experience of suddenly finding that you’re scratching an itch. The intention to scratch has arisen and caused your body to move before you’re even aware or it. You’ll probably have had the experience of your posture having slumped. You didn’t consciously decide to slump. You just notice at some point that it’s already happened.

How Do We Set Intentions?

In theory we always have some kind of intention in meditation. We have the intention to always return to the breathing or to cultivate kindness, for example. But often that’s just not enough, and we need an intention that’s a bit more precise and specifically tailored for us.

For a relevant and effective intention to arise we usually need to bring together two things: knowing where we are and knowing where we’d like to go.

Knowing where we are means paying attention as we’re setting up for meditation, settling into our posture, and so on. We develop an awareness of what’s arising for us. Are we tired, irritable, fidgety, lacking confidence, trying to hard? Are we happy, relaxed, inspired, or focused? We need to know what’s going on. If we’re not sure how we are then that in itself is an important thing for us to know.

Knowing where we’d like to go doesn’t mean grasping after some experience, or having an expectation that certain things are going to happen in our meditation practice (“In this meditation I’ll experience joy, or I’ll die trying!”) It’s not about having an expectation, but is about having an aspiration. It’s not about getting to a certain place, but is about knowing what direction we’d like to head in.

Usually those two things are organically related to each other. And your intention arises from an intuitive sense of how to move forward, often in a very simple way.

An Intuitive Leap

If you’re fidgety, for example, then you might want to head in the direction of stillness. So it might become clear that your intention is to sit still.

If you’re feeling critical or irritable, then you might want to head in the direction of appreciation. And so you realize that an appropriate intention is to meet every experience, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, with appreciation.

If you’re feeling kind, then you might want to deepen your attitude of kindness. And so a specific intention might be to meet every distraction that arises with kindness.

Be Specific

You might notice that the form of words I’ve chosen allows you to know whether or not you’re following through with the intention. If in a given moment you’re fidgeting, then you’ve forgotten your intention to sit still. But if you’re sitting still then you’re following through with it. If you get annoyed or disappointed about getting distracted, then you’re not meeting your distractions with kindness. But if you have an attitude of acceptance, patience, and benevolence when you notice you’ve been distracted, then you know you’re following through with your intention. A vague intention such as “be kinder” or “be more mindful” isn’t very helpful. In any given moment that you check in with yourself, are you “being kinder” or “being more mindful”? It’ll be hard to tell! So choose a specific intention.

It’s All About Karma

The Buddha said that karma is intention. Why? Well, first of all, karma isn’t some kind of mysterious cosmic force, dealing our punishments or rewards depending if you’re on the naughty or nice lists. Karma literally means “action.” The original sense was “building,” “constructing,” or “fabricating.” Karma is the action that shapes our life: that shapes who we are. And actions start, internally, as intentions.

So, remember when I said that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions? Our lives are always shaping themselves because we’re constantly exercising behavioral habits. And I’m taking the word behavior here to refer not just to physical actions we make in the world, but to the way we speak and the way we think. These things are very, very habitual. And the more we exercise a habit, the more we reinforce it.

When we have a conscious, skillful intention (“sit still,” “meet every distraction with kindness”) we’re introducing something new into the mix. We meet our unconscious, usually unhelpful habits with more conscious, more helpful ones. If we keep making that kind of gentle effort then those conscious habits start to weaken the unconscious and unhelpful ones.

Our new intentions can, in time, become quite automatic. They’re just how we act.

In other words, by choosing intentions, we shape our life. We shape who we are.

And if our positive intentions have been chosen wisely, then we’ll become happier. We’ll be more at ease. We’ll become more at peace with ourselves. This is the power of intention.

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Seeing experience as a movie

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

In my last post I said I’d been teaching meditations based on a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball or Honeycake Sutta. This teaching is about relaxing our sense of being separate from the world.

On one level it’s about simply being with our experience rather than reacting to it. That’s the approach to this teaching that most people adopt. On another, deeper, level it’s about not identifying with any of our experience being me or mine. We don’t think “this is my experience” or “this is me here, having an experience.” This when there is experiencing going on, without any sense of there being an experience or something that is experienced. It’s a radically simple practice once you find a way in to it (and helping people find that way in is what I try to do).

As often happens, my meditation practice went off in an unexpected direction as I taught these meditations based on the Honeycake Sutta. My meditation practice often isn’t something I do, but something that happens within me. It has a life of its own. And it’s always interesting seeing where we end up.

Toward the end of the series I found myself regarding my experience as being like a movie. This opened up some interesting perspectives, but before I share that I’d like to say something about another teaching from the Buddha that cross-pollenated, so to speak, with the Honeycake. This is a discourse called the Phena-Pindupama Sutta. Phena means “foam.” Pindupama means “lump.” So this is the “Discourse on the Lump of Foam.”

In the Phena-Pindupama Sutta the Buddha is on the banks of the Ganges river, talking to the monks about the way in which our experience is, in a sense, illusory in nature. Being beside a river, he starts off by using water metaphors. The physical forms we see, he says, including our own physical form, are like a lump of foam drifting downriver: just as someone with discernment could examine that foam and find that there’s no substance to it — that it’s “empty, void, without substance” — so, as we examine form, we find it’s exactly the same.

What does this mean? Isn’t it obvious that our bodies are solid and substantial? Well, when in meditation we take our attention deeply into the body, what do we find? Do we actually experience any solidity or substance? All that we can ever know are sensations. We have sensations that the mind translates into concepts like “substance” and “solid” but those are still just sensations. The sensations that we think of as representing contact with something solid are nothing more than sensations of resistance. And when we look very closely at those or any other sensations they’re anything but solid. They’re nothing more than pinpoints of perception. They’re not stable, but wink in and out of existence, moment by moment. This is something that any of us can verify, although it does take some investment of time in developing the relevant observational skills.

Feelings, the Buddha tells the monks, are like bubbles appearing and disappearing rapidly as a heavy raindrop slams into the river’s surface. Here too, we can train ourselves to look closely at the nature of feelings. We may think of feelings as persisting over time, but if we look closely we see that they are simply internal sensations. During a rainstorm there are always splashes on the surface of water. But each splash lasts for just an instant. Feelings, examined closely, are like that too: pinpoints of sensation, suspended in space, winking in and out of existence with incredible rapidity. “What substance could there be in feeling?” the Buddha asks.

From this point on the Buddha seems to have run out of river metaphors: thoughts and concepts are like a mirage shimmering over hot ground; emotional impulses are like the pith of a banana tree, which, onion-like, has layers and layers that can be removed, leaving nothing, since this kind of tree has no heartwood; consciousness is like an magic trick—an illusion created by a conjurer. All of these things lack substance. And this can be confirmed in our experience as well. What substance is there in the sounds and images that we experience in memory and imagination? What substance is there in anger or desire? In consciousness itself?

The metaphors that the Buddha chose were apt for his times, and are still useful for us. But in my own life, the most appropriate, simple, and helpful analogy is borrowed from the illusion that we call “cinema.” My physical, emotional, and mental experience is like a movie. My body fabricates sensations. My brain fabricates feelings in the body. My mind fabricates sounds and images and conceptual categories within itself. And all of these things are insubstantial. And they are things that I can observe, like a movie.

And, like a movie, our experience can be profoundly absorbing. When my feelings are hurt, I think of the hurt as a real thing. Anger appears, and I think that’s real too. I believe all the stories I tell myself about how the person who hurt me is selfish, or bad, or clueless.

But what if I realize that I’m watching a movie. What then?

Once I start to accept that my body and mind are fabricating a movie for me, I take it all less seriously. Watching the movie of my experience, I can experience pleasure and discomfort in the body, and it’s all something to be appreciated, the same way I appreciate the tender and the tense moments in a film. I can experience my feelings, and whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant I find I can enjoy them just the same. Impulses arise, and if they are unloving or unhelpful can I let them dissolve like the unreal things they are: I don’t need to take them seriously. I recognize that my thoughts, my memories, and my imaginings of the future are simply movies that run in the mind.

It’s all a movie. To see things this way is simple. It’s effective. And it’s new to me, so it’s work in progress. Please excuse if my explanation lacks coherence in any way.

And I know, from messages I receive from damaged people, that there’s a possibility that some will mistake what I say to mean that nothing matters. But that’s not true. What matters is to love everything—especially the parts of us and of others that take the movie to be real. For those parts need our love and compassion. This gives life meaning. Love and meaning are part of the movie too, but they are ultimately what the movie is about. We don’t have to believe this: it’s simply how things are and our task is simply to see it. This is what we are to see: our true nature is connectedness and compassion.

So if we don’t have a sense of meaning, purpose, and love in our lives, it would be unwise to embrace this this perspective of seeing our experience as being like a movie created for us. When there’s a healthy sense of love and meaning in our lives, disillusionment is a positive experience. Without those things it can be devastating. But once we do have a basis of love, appreciation, and purpose, then to see life as a movie is a way of deepening those skillful qualities even further. It’s a way of liberating ourselves from investment in the beliefs and clinging that obscure the reality of connectedness and compassion, which is what we truly are.

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Breaking the cycle of resentment

Most of our suffering is self-inflicted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are all just ways of tapping the brakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

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

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

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

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

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

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

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

3. Recognize when you are suffering

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

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

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

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

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

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

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

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

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

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

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

9. Learn to reframe

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

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

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

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

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

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

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

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

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The mind knows its own way home

cat looking through hole in wooden door

When we’re first learning to meditate, one of the things we have to get used to is that the mind wanders much more than we might expect.

We discover, perhaps, that we can’t go more than two or three breaths without the mind latching on to some thought that’s appeared and going for a long trek through our memories, fantasies, expectations about the future, and so on.

At first this might be frustrating. We get annoyed with ourselves, or with our minds, for being so distractible. We perhaps blame ourselves, and suspect that we’re not cut out for meditation, or worse at it than other people. Meditation seems a bit like hard work.

We learn, though, that this level of distraction is common. In fact, research shows that while doing activities with low objective demands on our attention (things like showering, waiting for an appointment, or driving a route we know well) we might expect to be distracted up to 80 percent of the time. And meditation is in this category: there is no compelling external task for us to be engaged with.

It’s not a personal flaw that results in our distractibility, but the way the nervous system has evolved. The mind likes having input. In the absence of stimulation, the mind will create stimulation for itself, in the form of memories, fantasizing, etc.

We learn to be more patient, and to simply let go of distracted thinking when we realize it’s been arising. We stop reacting so much. Distractedness becomes just a fact — something neutral that we don’t place any negative value upon.

But I think we can do better than that. Even though we may no longer react emotionally when we realize we’ve been distracted, we may still carry around a chronic sense that our minds aren’t “good enough.” That they have this regrettable tendency, this bad habit, of going off wandering.

We don’t ask our minds to get distracted. We don’t decide to get lost in thought. That’s out of our control. And I think that on some level we often find it uncomfortable to have “a mind that has a mind of its own.”

Here’s the thing, though. Every time the mind goes wandering, it comes back home again. Sure, we don’t ask our minds to go wandering. It just happens. But we also don’t ask our minds to come home to mindful awareness again. That just happens too!

Think about it. How do you come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction? You don’t really know, do you? It just happens. One minute you’re on automatic pilot, lost in a daydream, with no awareness of where you really are and no ability to choose what you’re doing. You’re not even capable of deciding to be mindful again. Then the next minute you’re back in mindful awareness, knowing that you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, free to choose what you pay attention to and how you’re going to pay attention to it, free to choose to be kinder and more patient with yourself.

Your attention simply returns to mindfulness, over and over again. And you don’t have to make this happen. It happens all on its own. Isn’t that encouraging? Your mind knows its own way home. It will always come home to mindful attention. Focus on that automatic success, not on the supposed “failure” of the mind’s wandering.

Maybe we could think of the mind as being like a cat. It likes to go roaming, but it also likes to come home. What kind of welcome do you give it when it walks back through the door again? Maybe you don’t get annoyed. Maybe you just treat the return home as a neutral event. But how would it be if you were to give the house cat of your mind a warm reception when it comes home again? Do you think it would feel more at home, more welcomed? Do you think it might be more inclined to stick around?

Give it a try. When you find yourself emerging from a period of distractedness, welcome your attention back home again. Regard it with affection. Let it feel the warmth of your heart. Let it know it’s valued, cherished. Maybe, just maybe, your attention will feel like sticking around more, instead of wandering so much. And maybe your meditation will feel less like hard work and more like an act of love.

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Enjoying the play of your inner toddler

child playing

We can experience different kinds of distracted thinking in meditation.

There are obvious, compelling, and “in your face” thoughts in which we tend to become completely immersed. These are the full-blown distractions where we completely forget that we’re meant to be meditating, and instead become submerged in our inner dramas. We dip in and out of these all the time in meditation, returning to the practice every time mindful awareness reappears.

Then there are lighter background thoughts that babble on in the background, even as we continue to pay attention to the meditation practice. So we’ll be following the breathing, for example, while random thoughts keep popping up. Perhaps these thoughts take the form of a commentary on our experience, or perhaps they are completely unrelated to the meditation practice. But they’re not usually so emotionally compelling that we get caught up in them.

I mainly want to talk a little about this second kind of thinking, and how we can relate to it.

Regard your inner chatter fondly, as if you’re listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing.

So, if you’re aware of an inner voice chattering away while you follow your breathing, you can try regarding that voice fondly, as if you were listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing. When a child talks like that it’s usually charming and funny and endearing. It’s not the kind of thing we tend to get upset about.

The way we relate to our inner talk is often more of a problem than the thoughts themselves. When we start resisting our thoughts, wishing that they would go away, the resistance itself is a painful state of mind, and it’s also likely to give rise to distractedness. Our thoughts of “I wish this would stop” throw us off-balance, and we find that suddenly we’re back into becoming seriously distracted again. Our distractions resist our resistance, and before we know it we find they’ve “tricked” us into being unmindful.

Just allowing those babbling thoughts to be present helps us to prevent this happening. It also helps us to be more kind and accepting.

Taking a tolerant and playful attitude toward random thoughts, which is what you’re doing when you regard them as being like the sounds of a young child playing, lets you simply get on with the meditation. The thoughts are still there, but they no longer bother you. In fact you not only don’t mind them, but can be amused by and feel fondness for them. This is immeasurably more enjoyable and helpful than resisting them!

Of course this doesn’t work so well with the first type of thinking I mentioned — the compelling kind. Those thoughts tend to be emotionally loaded, which is why we find ourselves repeatedly drawn into them. What helps there is to give our compelling thoughts plenty of space, and I discussed in a recent article.

When the mind is constricted our thoughts seem larger, and they’re harder to resist. It’s a bit like being trapped in a long car-ride with a child’s constant demands for attention. It drives us crazy! To quiet the inner child down, you need to give it plenty of space to play. Once you’ve done that, you’ll often find that it just quietly gets on with its own thing, and you can enjoy its babbling as you get on with doing your own thing. Eventually, perhaps, the toddler will take a nap, and you can enjoy the refreshing calm of a quiet and spacious mind.

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The most important thing right now, is right now

tree blossoms

The problem with distractions is that they’re compelling. They make us think that they’re important. They draw us into their stories. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is what you need to be thinking about right now.”

And so, over and over, we end up immersed in stories driven by anxiety, anger, desire, and self-doubt.

These distractions come from relatively primitive parts of our programming, which evolved as protective mechanisms. As mammals who suffered from predation, we needed to be anxious and alert for potential physical threats to our wellbeing. When such threats became actual—a stranger approaching our camp, for example—we might respond with displays of anger in order to invoke respect or fear in the other party. Living in an environment where resources were scarce, our sensory desires motivated us to seek and hold on to food and other essentials. Self-doubt promoted caution, so that we didn’t recklessly put ourselves in danger, and also helped us fit into a hierarchical social group where not everyone could be the leader.

Although we still do face threats, uncertainties, scarcity, and so on, for the most part the kinds of mental states I’ve been describing don’t really help us in modern life. In fact they hinder us in many ways, and rather than protect us they mostly cause us to suffer. The circuitry in our brains connected with these states is still there and keeps looking for things to get anxious, angry, greedy, or doubtful about. Sometimes that circuitry gets out of control and has a destructive effect on our lives, as with stress, social anxiety, and depression.

Even outside of pathological conditions, though, these mental states diminish our wellbeing. We’re always happier when we’re mindfully attentive to whatever we’re doing, even if it’s just our breathing, than when the mind is off wandering.

The thing, then, is how do we convince ourselves that our distractions are not actually important for our happiness, and that mindfulness is what’s truly important?

The Buddhist tradition offers lots of ways to do this, including reflecting on the drawbacks of our distractions (“Anxiety doesn’t solve my problems, it just makes it harder to tackle them”). But one of my favorite approaches is to drop in a gentle reminder that it’s valuable to disengage from distracted thinking—that it’s important to be mindful.

In the past I’ve used the phrase “But right now … right now.” I’ve also used “It can wait.” I’ve found them both to be very useful.

My current phrase is, “The most important thing right now, is right now.” This is a simple reminder of priorities. In a sense there’s nothing “wrong” with anxiety, doubt, and so on. Having those things show up isn’t a sign of failure. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad person. They’re simply part of your old programming, and tend not to make you happy or bring you a sense of contentment. Instead, they stir us up emotionally and create worlds of pain. What is a higher priority, what is important for us to do, is to be mindful of our present-moment experience.

The second “right now” in “The most important thing right now, is right now” is pointing to everything that’s arising in our direct sensory experience. Sounds, light, the body, our feelings are all arising right now. Paying attention to those in a mindful way allows the mind to calm, our body to let go of tensions, and our emotions to come to rest in a sense of contentment, or even joy.

This “mantra” suggests exploration. What is “right now?” That’s for us to find out, through mindful exploration.

So as you find yourself coming out of a period of distracted thinking in your meditation, and re-emerging in a more mindful state, try dropping in the phrase “The most important thing right now, is right now,” and let it direct your attention to what’s truly important, which is your immediate sensory reality.

One student, Zia, wrote to me to let me know how the words had changed as she practiced with them:

Over several days, the reminder “The most important thing right now, is right now” has morphed in my mind into “All that matters right now is right now”. At some times, it further morphs into “ALL that matters right now is right now”. The capital “ALL” brings more of a sense of the vastness, the divinity, that is contained in the present moment and that becomes more accessible through attention.

This is a beautiful reminder that we can treat phrases like these as living things that you’re inviting to share your life, rather than objects that you keep around. Let them adapt, grow, and evolve.

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The best way to calm your thoughts is to give them plenty of space

wheel of life hub

The ancient Romans had a special punishment for those guilty of parricide, which involved sewing the guilty party into a leather sack and tossing him into a river or the ocean. This, according to Cicero, symbolized how the heinousness of the offender’s crime sundered him from the realm of natural law.

This punishment evolved over time, with the addition to the sack of animals such as a viper and a dog. Eventually four animals were used, and this became the classical form of this punishment, which was known as the poena cullei.

It’s hard to imagine how horrible this would have been. Suffocating would be awful enough, but throughout the ordeal you’d have two terrified animals working themselves into a panicked rage as they clawed and bit each other, as well as you.

This image came to mind last week when I was at a meditation class and people were talking about trying to manage the restless thoughts that intruded into the meditation practice. People mentioned various ways that they try to calm their thoughts, such setting an intention to stay focused on the breathing. But it struck me that this is a bit like trying to calm down a dog and snake that are tied in a sack with you.

It’s difficult to calm your thoughts when you feel trapped with them in what feels like a confined space.

What I find works best for calming thoughts is to develop a sense of spaciousness. This is akin to opening the sack and setting the dog, the snake, and yourself free in a large meadow. You’re all still together. But there’s less pressure, less fear, and therefore more calmness and ease.

What does this mean, to develop a sense of spaciousness?

Although beginners to meditation often think about noises as being distractions, these sounds are simply sensations that we can be mindful of. In other words, rather than being distractions from meditation, sounds are opportunities to practice meditation.

So, right now, try being aware of the sounds around you. (You might want to close your eyes.)

As you pay attention mindfully to these sounds, notice how they are inherently spacious. The sounds you hear may come from several yards away, or even from miles away. This is a much larger space than the tiny “leather sack” of your head, where you may often feel you are suffocating with your thoughts.

As you’re mindfully paying attention to the sound and space surrounding you, notice what’s been happening with your thoughts. They will probably still be there, but it’s likely that they’re no longer bothering you. The snake and dog of your thoughts are off doing their respective things, and aren’t causing a disturbance.

Now, let your attention narrow again until it’s inside your skull, and you’re focusing on your thoughts. How does this feel? Does it feel constricted, tight, and unpleasant?

Broaden your awareness to the sound and space around you once again, and notice how that feels. Perhaps it’s more relaxed, calm, and easeful?

Try alternating in this way a few more times, to reinforce the fact that whether you let your awareness be expansive or contacted is a choice. Also, you can reinforce that an expansive and calm awareness, even if it’s unfamiliar to you, is someplace you can feel at home.

Trying to negotiate with our thoughts can sometimes work, but often it’s as futile as trying to calm trapped and panicky animals. It’s better broaden your attention—to open up the leather sack—and to let your thoughts exist in a spacious field of awareness, where they will naturally and spontaneously find peace and calm.

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