thoughts & feelings

How to recognize, respect, and love your inner demons

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.

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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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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What to do when you feel unloved

lonely tree

Someone recently wrote to me, saying that she was lonely and felt unloved, and wondering whether the metta bhavana practice (the meditation for developing kindness) would help. I thought I’d paraphrase and expand on what I’d said to her.

The metta bhavana practice can certainly help with feelings of loneliness. In particular, self-metta and self-compassion — showing ourselves the same kindness, support, and encouragement that we show to others that we care about — would be helpful.

Think about that thought, “No one loves me.” You might say things like that to yourself, but would you tell a friend who was lonely, “No one loves you”? How would that make her feel? Would it help her? I’m guessing the answers are “no,” “terrible,” and “of course not.”

So why do this to yourself? When you’re lonely, why not treat yourself as you would a dear friend who was experiencing the same thing. What might you say to such a friend? Perhaps you’d say things like, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. It sounds really painful. I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and that I care about you.”

How might that make you feel? Better?

Treating ourselves with kindness and compassion reduces our suffering. It doesn’t necessarily make it go away—nor should it—but it makes it more bearable. And in the case of loneliness, this helps free us up to connect more with others, and to care more about them. And that can replace our sense of loneliness with a sense of connectedness.

Going further, cultivating kindness for others and then putting it into practice through acts of caring and kindness (without expecting anything in return) will help you to feel more connected. For example, we could express appreciation or offer support when someone feels down. If we take a genuine interest in that person’s wellbeing, then we’ll be more emotionally connected. If, however, we do those same things with the assumption, “I’m doing something nice for them, so now they should do something nice for me, and then I’ll feel good about myself,” you’re still acting in a self-absorbed way, and you’ll perpetuate your loneliness.

Breaking out of self-absorption is painful, because part of your brain thinks that obsessively telling stories will help you, and it therefore sees dropping the story as a threat. So if it feels uncomfortable when you try to take a genuine interest in others, that’s OK.

My main teacher, Sangharakshita, said that when we feel unhappy, we should do something for another person. Most forms of intense unhappiness are self-absorbed; we get so caught up in our own suffering that we don’t make an effort to connect with others. And when our suffering comes from loneliness, we end up exacerbating our isolation by withdrawing our interest in others. Our suffering isolates us. The way we respond to our suffering isolates us more.

The solution to loneliness is not as simple as “getting out more.” Most people who are lonely feel that way even when they’re surrounded by other people. Loneliness is being emotionally disconnected from others.

My correspondent said that she “felt unloved.” “Unloved,” however, is not a feeling, but a thought or story. A feeling is a sensation in the body. When we’re lonely, we have sensations such as heaviness or an ache around the heart, low energy, etc. “No one loves me,” or “I am unloved” is not a sensation, but a story. It’s something we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our feelings.

It’s vital to distinguish between actual feelings and stories that we use to explain those feelings—because our stories can either reinforce or reduce unpleasant feelings. You might feel lonely or sad or hurt, but you tell yourself that you are unloved, that no one cares, etc., and this makes you miserable. Becoming aware that you’re telling these stories, and that they’re unhelpful because they make you feel worse, is a valuable practice, because whether we take a thought seriously is something we have a choice over. We can also deliberately cultivate more useful thoughts, such as the self-kindness and self-compassion thoughts I suggested earlier.

We need to accept feelings of loneliness. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that if we’re lonely, there’s something wrong with us. We’re defective. But in feeling lonely, you’re showing that you’re a perfectly functional human being! We’re social animals. We’re designed to feel pain when we’re not connected in a web of empathy. Your feeling of loneliness is just a signal that your mind is sending, telling you that you need to connect. Feeling lonely is normal.

Being caught up in thoughts actually prevents us from really seeing our feelings of loneliness. When we drop the story and turn toward our feelings, what do we find? We find sensations in the body. We find sensations that we experience as emptiness, darkness, heaviness, and so on. Maybe the feelings are painful, but also beautiful, warm and intimate. Maybe they’re tender. Maybe they’re tingling, like twinkling energy in space. Maybe they’re mysterious and intriguing. Maybe they’re no longer scary, but contribute to a sense of our aliveness. Can you say “yes” to these feelings? Can you allow them to just be?

Empathizing with ourselves in this way opens the way for us to empathize with others.

If loneliness is a lack of felt connection with others, then perhaps we need to connect with ourselves in order to move past feeling lonely. Connect kindly and compassionately with your loneliness, and it will connect you with others.

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How to create calmness by observing thoughtspace and feelingspace

I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.

Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just because you get distracted. In fact, under such circumstances your practice is going just as it should.

Many years ago I found it useful to watch what you might call “thoughtspace.” Thoughtspace is the physical location of your thinking. Now you might not have thought of your thinking as having a physical location, but try paying attention right now as you say something to yourself internally. I think you’ll find that your thoughts emanate from a particular place (probably inside your head). If you watch that part of your experience closely — if you monitor your thoughtspace — you’ll think less.

This helps to calm the mind. Except … I also found that there was a kind of secondary thoughtspace. Over and over I’d find that I was watching the primary thoughtspace (the one you just identified) carefully, only to become aware that there was a subtle background whispering coming from somewhere else. The thinking that came from the secondary thoughtspace seemed quieter and less obtrusive, however. The primary thoughtspace seemed to give rise to the kinds of thoughts that completely threw me off track and led into unmindful absorption in daydreams and fantasies. The secondary thoughtspace gave rise to subtler, more whispery thoughts, which co-existed with mindful attention so that I could be observing the breathing (or my primary thoughtspace) and still have a running commentary going on. However, those thoughts could shift to become the center of my attention if I wasn’t attentive enough.

You might want to try watching your thoughtspace and see if the same happens in your own experience.

Having just the whispery thoughts of the secondary thoughtspace is a lot better than having the more “in your face” thinking that normally goes on, but sometimes I like to calm and stabilize the mind even more. So one way to do that is to simultaneously observe your thoughtspace and what you could call your feelingspace.

Feelingspace, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, is a name for the area in the body where feelings arise. The point of observing the feelingspace is not to stop feeling arising! It’s just to observe what’s there. Now feelings can arise in many parts of the body, including the solar plexus and the heart. but most often they manifest in the solar plexus, just south of your sternum.

I don’t mean to imply having a narrow focus. If I were to start my meditation just by noticing the space where my thoughts arise and the solar plexus, for example, then this would feel very constricted and might even lead to a kind of “backlash” where my thinking increased. So although I may be focusing on the solar plexus I’m actually aware of most of the area in the body where feelings arise—basically most of the chest and abdomen. Within this, I’ll have a lightly-held focus on where I tend to be experiencing feelings the most at that particular time.

What I’ve found is that if I observe both the thoughtspace and the feelingspace at the same time, the mind becomes even quieter. The mind may not become completely silent all the time, but there are longer periods of calm.

Whatever you do, don’t get attached to the idea of getting rid of thoughts altogether! You can’t control the arising of thoughts, and they will tend to bubble up. If you have the idea that you’re only “succeeding” when there’s no thinking, then you’ll get frustrated. Just try doing the practice and see what happens. It may take you a while to feel your way into it, since there are a bunch of skills I’ve mentioned that you may have to work on developing — e.g. including two different parts of your experience in conscious awareness at the same time. Some people initially find this tricky since they have the habit of focusing narrowly (although not necessarily mindfully!)

The following things are all excellent outcomes:

If you’re making a gentle effort to observe both thoughtspace and feelingspace at the same time. If you’re able to do so, or getting better at doing so. If you find that you’re a bit more aware of your thinking without getting caught up in it. If you find that periods of distraction still arise but they don’t last as long. If your thinking seems lighter and less compelling than it was before. If you notice periods of time, even brief ones, where there appear to be no thoughts arising. If you’re more aware of the area of the body where feelings arise. If you notice your feelings more. If you notice the interaction between thoughts and feelings.

Basically, any increase in awareness of what’s going on inside you is good. Any movement, however slight, toward peace and freedom is welcome. But mainly what you’re doing is just being mindful of the body, of feelings, and of the mind. It’s about process, not outcomes.

You might want to give that a try and see if it works for you.

I’ve generally found that observing two physically separate parts of my experience has a profoundly calming effect (I call this “the perceptual stretch”) but the fact that feelings and thoughts interact with each other may also help this approach to be effective in calming the mind.

Just one last point, when you have a single candle in a large room, it’s not going to light up the whole space; appreciate the light you have, rather than cursing the darkness that remains. Value any moments of calmness that emerge, rather than lamenting the fact that thoughts are still arising. By valuing calmness, you encourage it to grow.

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Meditation can help children learn to manage emotions

wildmind meditation newsDr. Manoj Jain, The Tennessean: This summer’s Disney-Pixar movie “Inside Out” makes us think about our thinking. But, I wonder, first of all, “can we even think about our thoughts?”

In fact, over the summer with campers ages 6 to 13, I was teaching them how to observe their thoughts: a course in mindfulness and meditation for children.

We begin by sitting up tall, like a tree. Then we become still, like a mountain. Then we “go inside,” like a turtle in a shell. By this time the children are sitting upright, cross-legged on the floor or with feet hanging on a chair, motionless as statues …

Read the original article »

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Is mindfulness dangerous?

wildmind meditation newsDerek Beries, Big Think: In his 1961 book, Psychotherapy East & West, the philosopher Alan Watts wrote,

If there is to be a battle, there must be a field of battle; when the contestants really notice this they will have a war dance instead of a war.

As is popular in South Asian poetry, such imagery aptly describes a social as much as a psychological state. For example, the slim volume of karma yoga lessons, the Bhagavad Gita, treats the metaphorical field of battle as both a reflection of Indian society and an introspective mirror held up to one’s brain.

Humanity’s battle against its …

Read the original article »

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Separating feelings and thoughts

White isolated zipperOne of the participants in our current 28 Day meditation challenge reported that she was experiencing stress because of a new job.

New jobs can be very challenging and bring up a lot of self doubt. I remember that well.

She talked about “feelings of inadequacy and uselessness,” and I could instantly see a practice that would help her deal with the challenges of her new job. The practice is to distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, inadequacy and uselessness are not feelings. Actual feelings that we might experience in a challenging new job include anxiety, or fear, or confusion. “I am inadequate” and “I am useless” are thoughts. They are interpretations based on our feelings. “Inadequacy” and “uselessness” are stories that we develop in order to make sense of the feelings of anxiety, confusion, etc. that we’re experiencing. Buddhism calls this prapañca, or “proliferation,”

We’re always trying to come up with stories that “explain” what’s going on in our lives. Stories like “I am inadequate” or “I am useless” serve to intensify our fear and confusion because we’ve “explained” our feelings by creating a story in which there’s something wrong with us that makes us incapable of dealing with the job. But these so-called explanations of why the job’s stressful just make us feel even worse.

The practice here is to separate our feelings from our stories. So we can feel anxiety or confusion but not create stories around them. Or if stories arise automatically (“I can’t do this, I’m useless”) we can acknowledge them and recognize that they’re just stories, and not facts. We let go of the stories, and just return our attention to our present-moment experience.

And having chosen to let go of our stories, we’re free to have other responses to our feelings, like regarding our discomfort with compassion. We can acknowledge our difficult feelings and accept them as a normal part of the learning process; if you’re stretching yourself to take on new capabilities, then of course you’re going to be confused at times, and of course you’re going to feel uncomfortable. We can share with other people how we’re feeling so that we don’t feel ashamed and don’t have to pretend that we understand when in fact we don’t. (Honesty is less stress-inducing than dishonesty, in most cases.)

Separating feelings and thoughts in this way is a key part of Buddhist practice, and it’s a very powerful tool.

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Cultivate goodwill

As the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Cultivate Positive Emotions
In general, really nourish and develop positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and peacefulness. For example, look for things to be happy about, and take in the good whenever possible. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, create a buffer against stress, and foster supportive relationships – all of which reduce ill will.

Practice Noncontention
Don’t argue unless you have to. Inside your own mind, try not to get swirled along by the mind-streams of other people. Reflect on the neurological turbulence underlying their thoughts: the incredibly complicated, dynamic, and largely arbitrary churning of momentary neural assemblies into coherence and then chaos. Getting upset about somebody’s thoughts is like getting upset about spray from a waterfall. Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind.

Be Careful About Attributing Intentions
Be cautious about attributing intentions to other people. Prefrontal theory-of-mind networks attribute intentions routinely, but they are often wrong. Most of the time you are just a bit player in other people’s dramas; they are not targeting you in particular.

Bring Compassion to Yourself
As soon as you feel mistreated, bring compassion to yourself – this is urgent care for the heart. Try putting your hand on your cheek or heart to stimulate the embodied experience of receiving compassion.

Meet Mistreatment with Loving Kindness
Traditionally, loving-kindness is considered the direct antidote to ill will, so resolve to meet mistreatment with loving-kindness. No matter what. A famous sutra in Buddhism sets a high standard: “Even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw… you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate’” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 223).

Personally, I’m not there yet, but if it’s possible to stay loving while being horribly mistreated – and from some of the accounts of people in awful circumstances, it clearly is – then we should be able to rise up in lesser situations, like getting cut off in traffic or being put down yet again by a teenager.

Communicate
To the extent that it’s useful, speak your truth and stick up for yourself with skillful assertiveness. Your ill will is telling you something. The art is to understand its message – perhaps that another person is not a true friend, or that you need to be clearer about your boundaries – without being swept away by anger.

Put Things in Perspective
Put whatever happened in perspective. The effects of most events fade with time. They’re also part of a larger whole, the great majority of which is usually fine.

Practice Generosity
Use things that aggravate you as a way to practice generosity. Consider letting people have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, their one-upping. Be generous with forbearance and patience.

Cultivate Positive Qualities
Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

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“Now I Know That Silly Hopes and Fears Will Just Make Wrinkles on My Face” by Sally Devorsine

This lovely children’s book has been test-driven by my five-year-old daughter, and found to be engaging and illuminating. In my amateur estimation it would be suitable for children considerably older — at least up to the age of eight or nine.

Now I Know (the full title is “Now I Know That Silly Hopes and Fears Will Just Make Wrinkles on My Face”) is the first of a series, also called Now I Know, described as a “Collection of Retro Cool Wisdom for Kids.” This series of children’s books is written and illustrated by Sally Devorsine, who lives in Bhutan, where she teaches a western school curriculum to young monks.

Title: Now I Know That Silly Hopes and Fears Will Just Make Wrinkles on My Face
Author: Sally Devorsine
Publisher: Chocolate Sauce Books
ISBN:
Available from: Chocolate Sauce Books as a e-book or hardback, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The series and endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the first book includes a brief commentary by the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who is a well known author in his own right, and a friend of the Dalai Lama and of neuroscience researcher Richie Davidson.

The Now I Know Collection intends to apply ancient wisdom “to help kids young and old solve real-life issues in today’s complicated world.”

We follow the adventures of Megan, a young girl who loves meeting new people and who has a strong streak of kindness and consideration toward others. When a new girl, Hazel, arrives in class, Megan is quick to befriend her and to show her around, but unfortunately she neglects her existing friends.

As part of her “induction tour,” Megan introduces Hazel to the “Testing Tree,” which the local children use in competitions in order to see who can climb the highest. When Hazel succeeds in climbing higher than anyone before her, she suddenly becomes the “popular girl,” and Megan feels isolated and resentful.

Fortunately Megan has a kind and wise advisor in the form of her teacher, Ms. Sage, who helps her to understand that she has built up a “storyline” in her head, in which Hazel is her “best friend” who has abandoned her. But Hazel has made no such promise, and is unaware of Megan’s hopes. Ms. Sage helps Megan to see that her thoughts about the situation, rather than the situation itself, is what’s causing her suffering, that her old friends are missing her, and that in fact she did a good think by helping Hazel adjust to her new school.

Once she lets go of her resentment, Megan actually talks to Hazel and finds that their friendship still exists (it always has, except in Megan’s head!).

Now I Know is well-written, lively, and beautifully illustrated. There are some questions at the end to help children reflect a little more deeply on the lessons of the story, and also a quote from the 12th century teacher, Langri Thangpa, on seeing those who hurt us as our teachers (although of course in this case it was Hazel who hurt herself.

The book manages to convey a message without seeming preachy. The tale effectively illustrates how we can create our own suffering through the storylines we spin for ourselves. Of course in this particular tale, no one did anything harmful to another person. Hazel never purposely abandoned her friendship with Megan, and so no betrayal was involved. Some readers may play the “yes, but…” game, where they wonder how this teaching would apply if Megan really had been deserted by her new friend, or if her old friends had shunned her permanently. And indeed such things are a daily reality for many children. But one children’s book can’t address every painful situation that can arise in young people’s lives, and it would be unfair to do so here. The basic principle that our thoughts can create suffering from nothing, or magnify a genuine suffering, can be applied by parents as they help their children to navigate life’s emotional challenges.

The fact that one children’s book can’t address every painful situation that can arise in young people’s lives is a good reason for having a series like Now I Know, and I look forward to reading other books in the series to my children.

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Petting your inner lizard

I’ve always liked lizards.

Growing up in the outskirts of Los Angeles, I played in the foothills near our home. Sometimes I’d catch a lizard and stroke its belly, so it would relax in my hands, seeming to feel at ease.

In my early 20’s, I found a lizard one chilly morning in the mountains. It was torpid and still in the cold and let me pick it up. Concerned that it might be freezing to death, I placed it on the shoulder of my turtleneck, where it clung and occasionally moved about for the rest of the day. There was a kind of wordless communication between us, in which the lizard seemed to feel I wouldn’t hurt it, and I felt it wouldn’t scratch or bite me. After a few hours, I hardly knew it was there, and sometime in the afternoon it left without me realizing it.

Now, years later, as I’ve learned more about how the brain evolved, my odd affinity for lizards has started making sense to me. To simplify a complex journey beginning about 600 million years ago, your brain has developed in three basic stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

Of course, the brain is highly integrated, so these three key functions – avoiding, approaching, and attaching – are accomplished by all parts of the brain working together. Nonetheless, each function is particularly served by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it. This fact has significant implications.

For example, in terms of avoiding harm, the brainstem and the structures just on top of it are fast and relatively rigid. Neuroplasticity – the capacity of the brain to learn from experience by changing its structure – increases as you move up both the evolutionary ladder and the layered structures of the brain.

Consequently, if you want to help yourself feel less concerned, uneasy, nervous, anxious, or traumatized – feelings and reactions that are highly affected by “reptilian,” brainstem-related processes – then you need many, many repetitions of feeling safe, protected, and at ease to leave lasting traces in the brainstem and limbic system structures that produce the first emotion, the most primal one of all: fear.

Or to put it a little differently, your inner iguana needs a LOT of petting!

To begin with, I’ve found it helps me to appreciate how scared that little lizard inside each one us is. Lizards – and early mammals, emerging about 200 million years ago – that were not continually uneasy and vigilant would fail the first test of life in the wild: eat lunch – don’t be lunch – today.

So be aware of the ongoing background trickle of anxiety in your mind, the subtle guarding and bracing with people and events as you move through your day. Then, again and again, try to relax some, remind yourself that you are actually alright right now, and send soothing and calming down into the most ancient layers of your mind.

Also soothe your own body. Most of the signals coming into the brain originate inside the body, not from out there in the world. Therefore, as your body settles down, that sends feedback up into your brain that all is well – or at least not too bad. Take a deep breath and feel each part of it, noticing that you are basically OK, and letting go of tension and anxiety as you exhale; repeat as you like. Shift your posture – even right now as you read this – to a more comfortable position. As you do activities such as eating, walking, using the bathroom, or going to bed, keep bringing awareness to the fact that you are safe, that necessary things are getting done just fine, that you are alive and well.

Throughout, keep taking in the good of these many moments of petting your inner lizard. Register the experience in your body of a softening, calming, and opening; savor it; stay with it for 10-20-30 seconds in a row so that it can transfer to implicit memory.

Some have likened the mind/brain to a kind of committee. Frankly, I think it’s more like a jungle! We can’t get rid of the critters in there – they’re hardwired into the brain – but we can tame and guide them. Then, as the bumper sticker says, they wag more and bark less.

Or relax, like a lizard at ease in the sun.

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