thoughts & feelings

Separating feelings and thoughts

Partly opened zipper

One 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.” Prapañca increases our suffering.

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

Two young girls showing each other affection

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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Actions have consequences — reflections on karma

Man casting shadow

‘We act, and positive or negative consequences will follow. Just as our bodies move in the world, our shadow will follow us too. Just as we are born, death will follow too. We cannot escape this law of cause and effect, it is with us in every breath that we take.’

From the new book, Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teaching to Overcome Addiction, Publication date 2014, by Valerie Mason-John (me) and Dr Parambandhu Groves

Speak and you have spoken. As soon as you have spoken your words have been heard.

Think a thought and you are thinking. As soon as you think a thought you have acted, creating grooves in your mind.

Wish a person harm and you have harmed. That person may never know, but you will know.

And don’t be fooled! When you harm a person, you may think you’re not harmed, but when you harm a person, and then turn to a drink, or food, or some other distraction to take your mind of your thoughts and actions, you are harming yourself.

Karma is what we create ourselves and not what some demon throws at us.

  • Let feelings arise and cease without emoting
  • Let thoughts arise and cease without thinking
  • When a thought arises let it come down into nothingness
  • Trust in the law of gravity
  • Take time to reflect

If somebody heard all your thoughts what do you think they would do?

How many of your thoughts would you be willing to share with people you work with, or socialize with or who you live with?

Who would you be without your thoughts?

It has been said that the only thing we own in this world are our thoughts. Are your thoughts full of kindness, love and compassion?

If not, it may be the reason why you are unhappy in your life. It may be the reason why you experience resentments, anger, jealousies, hatred, and other toxic emotions.

Change your thinking and you will change your karma.

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On practicing mindfulness of hunger

apple being held in someone's hand

We all know about mindful eating: Don’t do anything else, like reading or watching TV. Take your time, really experience the sensations of lifting food to your mouth, putting it inside, chewing, swallowing. Notice the thoughts and feelings you have.

I have to confess I don’t do it very often. Last week I only really ate mindfully twice, and that’s because we undertook to eat mindfully at least twice as part of a meditation class. And it was actually quite hard to restrain myself from reading while eating. It’s quite a powerful habit!

But an interesting thing I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks is being mindful of hunger.

I’ve noticed some things.

I find it easier to practice mindfulness of hunger than mindfulness of eating — perhaps because mindfulness of hunger is a new thing?

Also see:

Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, I’m not. It’s just craving.

Television is a trigger for fake hunger. (I don’t actually have a TV, but I watch shows on Netflix on my laptop.) In particular, the theme tunes of TV programs induce craving — that desire to rush to the fridge to see if there’s something I can snack on.

If I simply pay attention to this craving, it’s manageable, and I can resist eating unnecessarily.

When it’s real hunger, I can mindfully pay attention to the sensations in the body.

When I’m mindful of my hunger, the sensations change. It’s less localized in the stomach and becomes a more general sensation throughout the abdomen.

When I feel real hunger, I tell myself, “This is how my body feels when it’s losing weight.” This also helps change the feeling-tone of the hunger. It ceases to be an unpleasant sensation. It’s just a sensation, like any other. If I tell myself, “This is the sensation of my body burning off fat,” I feel happy, because my brain now interprets the hunger as a good thing.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I don’t feel that I have to jump up immediately and eat something. It stops being a signal that something is “wrong” and needs immediate attention. It’s a bit more like the fuel gauge on a car pointing to 1/4 full — it’s a sign that I’m going to have to find fuel soon, but not necessarily right now.

Without mindfulness, my brain treats even mild hunger as if it were an emergency: “You have to eat right now!” It’s more like the scary feeling you get when the low fuel light comes on in your car, indicating that you should head straight to a gas station or you’re going to end up stranded by the roadside.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I can comfortably be with the hunger for an hour or so. Sometimes it even goes away for a period of time. When I’m unmindful, I want to get rid of the unpleasant sensations right away.

I’ve lost about 4 pounds (1.8 kg) in the last couple of weeks.

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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

Cute lizard staring directly into the camera

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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Emo Philips: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

Emo Philips

Given that it’s the mind that makes up the stories with which we try to make sense of the world, perhaps it’s not surprising that the mind tells us the story that it is the most important part of ourselves.

We think of ourselves as distinguished from other animals by our thinking. When we think about what makes us uniquely us (as opposed to another individual human being) we often point to our memories — another brain function. And that’s all, in some sense, true. Our thinking faculties are well-developed compared to other animals. But often we seem to over-privilege our thinking, and even lose touch with other aspects of ourselves. People often confuse, for example, experiencing the breath in meditation with thinking about the breath. And often we get so much caught up in thinking, and identify so strongly with our thinking, that we lose touch with how we’re feeling.

In Buddhist teachings what we call head and heart are seen as being so closely connected that they are in fact one faculty, the heart-mind, or citta (pronounced “chitta”), and so there has been less of a tendency to privilege either the mind or the heart, reason or emotion, as has happened in the west. The essential unity of the heart and mind has been observed by hundreds of generations of meditators, and is also being recognized by modern neuroscience. The pathways in the brain that process emotion also process thought — the two seem (as Buddhism has always pointed out) to be inseperable.

Thoughts exist interdependently with feelings and emotions. The next time you’re in an irritable mood, notice how your thoughts arise from that mood. An irritable emotional state conditions the mind to look for things to criticize. We’ll even find fault with things or people that a short while before were praising as being wonderful. When you’re in a good mood your thoughts are bright, appreciative, and optimistic. So our thoughts are conditioned by our emotions.

It’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization

Similarly, our emotions are conditioned by our thoughts. For example, if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a conversation with a very critical person – say someone who is good at finding fault with others – we might well find that through speaking in a critical way (and speech after all is just an externalized form of thought) we start to experience a negative state of mind. Our words — our thoughts — have given rise to an emotion.

Of course this works for positive emotions and constructive thoughts as well. If we encourage ourselves to look for things to appreciate we’ll cultivate a more positive emotional state, while a positive emotion will tend to give birth to constructive and appreciative thoughts.

This in fact is the mechanism for the metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness, practice. In this meditation we consciously call to mind thoughts such as “May I be well, May I be happy, May I be at peace,” repeating them mindfully. What tends to happen is that over time a shift in our emotions takes place. Thoughts such as these evoke a positive emotional response from the heart.

And emotions (and the thoughts that are bound with them) are deeply conditioned by the body. You can usually tell when someone is depressed just by looking at their posture. The chin is down, the chest is slumped, the movements are slow. Similarly with fear or aggression, the physical manifestations are obvious. Change your posture and you change how you feel. When we begin to relax tensions in the body, as we often do at the start of a session of meditation — taking our awareness around the body and letting go of unnecessary effort — the mind becomes calmer and the emotions more positive.

Children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking

The link between the body and citta is now being studied by neuroscientists. It’s been shown, for example, that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking, and if you learn something while sitting at a desk it’s easier to remember the information when you’re once again behind a desk. Actors find it easier to memorize lines while they’re walking around.

We have a peculiar tendency to see parts of an interconnected whole (the mind/heart/body) as separate (the mind, the heart, and the body) and then, moreover, to play the game of “which is most important.” For most of in the west, the head (thought, rationality) is seen as top dog (it’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization).

But those of us who meditate often come to realize that the intellect cannot be relied upon alone. While the mind has a wonderful ability to construct opinions, to imagine the outcomes of actions, and to speculate about the past, we need to check out our thoughts against the more physical and emotional faculties of feeling, instinct, and intuition. It’s through testing our thoughts in this holistic way that deeper insights emerge. Feelings in turn should be subjected to analysis. We may feel rage, for example, and consider acting upon that emotion, but our thinking faculty can imagine the potential consequences of our actions, helping to dampen our ire.

One of the functions of meditation is for us to pay attention to all of our experience and to see how it all interrelates (thoughts and feelings, body and emotions, thoughts, and body). It’s fascinating to notice how, as we start to notice and value this interconnectedness, we begin to appreciate ourselves as a whole, rather than as a collection of disparate parts. Through mindfulness we become more integrated and more complete, and more balanced. We become more intuitive. We even become more wise. And while the brain may still tell us it’s the most wonderful organ in the body, it will also recognize that it’s just one wonderful organ amongst many.

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Meditation and insomnia

Baby yawning as it goes to sleep

Meditation’s about “waking up” to reality, but can it help us get a good night’s sleep? Bodhipaksa indulges in some pillow-talk about four ways meditation can help with insomnia.

Like most people I’ve sometimes had periods when I’ve found it hard to sleep (or to get back to sleep). In a word: insomnia. It’s not that anything external is keeping me awake, but simply that I’m wide awake with my mind both tired and over-active.

Over the years I’ve tried various things, like reading, getting up and making a cup of tea, etc, that have been useful in breaking into any unhelpful mental patterns that I may have. And often those things work well. Insomnia (in my case at least) generally involves being caught up in a loop of thinking that stirs up emotion, and that cycle of thinking in turn stirs up emotion which causes more thinking. That cycle needs to be interrupted for sleep to take place. Even getting up and making a cup of tea (a stimulant!) can be enough to interrupt the cycle and allow the natural sleep process to kick in. And I’ve found that reading provides an alternative thought-stream (I have the author’s words in my mind rather than my own thoughts) and can help lull me into unconsciousness.

But I’ve also found some meditative techniques that have never failed to work, and I mostly prefer to use these. The times when I’ve chosen not to use them are when I’ve been on a creative streak and I haven’t actually wanted to sleep because my preference has been to “go with the flow” and do the writing (or whatever) that’s been buzzing around in my mind.

The reason that I decided to turn to a more meditative approach is that sometimes wanting to get to sleep will actually keep you awake! What happens is that you lie there awake, but wanting to sleep. At some point you start to drift off, and some dream imagery may start to well up into the mind. Then the part of your mind that’s still awake gets all excited because it sees signs of sleep, and this excitement wakes you up again! This is classic craving, or grasping, in which your mind tries to grab hold of something it wants. But sleep by nature involves letting go, and so the act of grasping will prevent sleep from arising. This happens in meditation too, of course. When we try to recreate enjoyable meditative experiences we often find that we prevent them from occurring — the reason they occurred previously was that we’d stopped grasping and had simply relaxed into our experience.

There are four different meditative approaches that I’ve found to be useful in dealing with insomnia.

1. Mindful breathing

This is as simple as you can get. Basically, just meditate! But there are a few caveats. Not all meditative techniques will help you to sleep. Some will actually cause further stimulation and keep you awake.

So, lying in bed, keep your awareness focused on the sensations of the breath in your belly, observing the rise and fall of the abdominal muscles. It’s important to keep your awareness focused on the belly rather than any other part of the breathing process, because this is the most calming place to observe your breathing. The sensations in the chest, throat, and head are actively stimulating, and so observing the breath in those places would be counter-productive.

Also, pay more attention to the out-breath rather than the in-breath. The classic way to do this is to count at the end of each out-breath. You could also say the word “out” as you exhale. The out-breath is more relaxing, while the in-breath is more stimulating.

The other methods I use are based on an observation that there are three things that keep me awake: thinking that is comprised primarily of “inner chatter,” thinking that is composed mainly of vivid mental imagery, and physical arousal where there is restlessness in the body.

2. Dealing with inner chatter

Sometimes we can’t sleep because we’re talking to ourselves so much — internally, of course. There may well be some inner imagery (see the technique below) but mainly we’re caught up in hearing inner discussions.

If you have a lot of inner self-talk, try making the voice or voices in your head become very s-l-o-o-o-w a-a-a-n-d d-e-e-e-e-e-p, like a vinyl record that’s been unplugged. The trick is to notice the stream of inner chatter and to take control of the flow, slowing it down. You may have to do this a few times, but you’ll notice that as the voices slow down you’ll almost immediately start to feel more sleepy.

3. Dealing with vivid inner imagery

Sometimes our stories are primarily visual. There will of course be an inner soundtrack that accompanies the movie we’re showing ourselves, but it’s the images we’re mainly caught up in and that are keeping us awake.

I’ve found that the most effective approach under these circumstances is to make the imagery go dark, and then to fade in some images of natural scenes. I prefer to visualize leaves on trees, moving slowly in a breeze. The slowness is important. It’s also important that the images be of something relatively unstimulating and restful, which is why nature images work. But a mundane scene, like rain dripping off of leaves, is more effective than inspiring mountain scenes, which are likely to keep you awake.

I often make the weather bad. As I mentioned, rain dripping off of leaves is effective. The fact that it’s raining means that the imagery is duller than usual, and the lack of stimulation is the key to getting back to sleep.

With the techniques of slowing down mental chatter or calling to mind calming (and even dull) imagery, what you’re doing is taking charge of your mind. Rather than letting an uncontrolled stream of images and dialog run through your mind, keeping you awake, you’re deciding what you’re going to think about.

4. Dealing with physical restlessness

Lastly, one of the things that can keep us awake is physical restlessness. This can happen to me when I’ve been exercising too late in the evening. Even though my mind is tired my body is very much awake. If you find that you have a lot of physical energy, then imagine that your body is becoming very heavy, and that you’re being pressed down into the mattress. I sometimes pretend to myself that gravity is variable, and that someone has turned the gravity dial up to “high.”

This uses the same principle as slowing down your inner chatter or making your mental imagery dark and restful. When you’re naturally tired the body feels heavy. When you reverse this process, imagining that the body is heavy, you become tired.

You may have to use all four methods. I use method one to start with, and then the others as required. It has always worked! Sometimes I’ve been lying there thinking, “Nope, it’s not going to work this time,” and then suddenly it’s time to get up and I realize that I’ve slept the whole night through.

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Lyman Abbott: Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

Lyman Abbott

Once when I was listening to the Dalai Lama talk in Edinburgh, he was asked a question that went something like this: “You keep talking about changing the world through meditation and compassion, but isn’t anger faster?” His Holiness answered to the effect that it’s precisely because anger acts so swiftly that we have to be wary of it.

His Holiness’s reply reveals Buddhism’s ambivalent attitude to the emotion of anger. Anger’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can accomplish a lot of good in the world. Anger can simply be a passionate response to something that we know in our hearts is wrong. His Holiness has himself admitted that he frequently feels angry when he thinks about injustice, and particularly the way that the Communist Chinese have treated his homeland and his people. It’s natural — and even right — for us to feel anger in such circumstances. We’d scarcely be human if we didn’t.

At the same time, anger can be such a powerful force that we lose our mindfulness and find that the heart has become filled with ill will or hatred, which is a desire to hurt others. We move from being angry to wanting to punish or wanting revenge. Just as the Dalai Lama says he experiences anger towards the Chinese, he also says he holds no hatred for them in his heart.

The difference between hatred and anger

Hatred, with its inherent desire to hurt and damage others is never seen in Buddhist practice as being an appropriate response. Anger may be passionate and fiery, but it simply wants to remove an obstacle or to change things for the better, not to hurt.

Yet although anger and hatred are different emotions — one potentially skillful, the other very definitely unskillful — many people fail to see the distinction. The experience of being angry — the sense of physical arousal, the quickened pulse, the tingling in the hands as we prepare for action — is in many ways very similar to the experience of hatred. And anger, once aroused, can easily lead to the less healthy emotion of hatred, just as a campfire can lead to a forest conflagration.

Seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger

So how can we teach children — and ourselves — to experience anger in a healthy way? Here are seven steps to a healthier relationship with anger.

1. Accept your anger

First, we can learn to accept that anger is a normal, healthy, and potentially creative form of energy. Too often we’ve been taught, as Abbott suggests, that anger is something to be avoided and believe that we’ve failed when anger has stirred. When we try to confine our anger it’s inclined to burst out uncontrollably, or to gnaw us away from the inside, as resentment. When we accept our anger we can relate to it in a more healthy way.

2. Breathe

Second, breathe! Create a sense of space between you and your emotions by breathing deeply into the belly. Connecting with the body helps stop our emotions spiraling out of control, keeps them in perspective, and helps us to calm down so that we don’t do or say anything rash. If you’re angry when you receive an email, don’t reply at once but wait until you’ve had time to quiet your mind and reflect more calmly.

3. Take responsibility for your anger

Third, we can appreciate that our anger is our anger. Other people don’t make us angry. Our anger is not their fault. Our anger, rather, is our response to our interpretation of our experience. We need to own our anger and to see that it’s something we’ve given rise to, ourselves.

4. Distinguish anger and hatred

Fourth, we can learn to recognize the difference between anger and hatred. To do this requires a great deal of introspective practice, especially since it’s harder to be mindful when our energy is aroused in anger. We have to examine our motivations, our thoughts, and our words: Do we have a desire to hurt? Do we use belittling, condescending, or insulting language? Are we fixated on winning at any cost? Do we distort the truth? Do we still feel a basic sense of sympathy, friendliness, and compassion towards our opponent?

5. Acknowledge your hurt

Fifth, we can acknowledge our hurt. Often anger arises in response to a sense of hurt. Even when someone else has suffered an injustice, this can lead to a sense of hurt arising in our own experience. And that in turn can lead to anger. When we mindfully acknowledge the sense of hurt that we ourselves are experiencing we find that we’re less inclined to lash out.

6. Let go

Sixth, we have to be prepared to let go of our anger. Healthy anger arises quickly and departs quickly. It doesn’t hang around and fester.

7. Cultivate lovingkindness

Seventh, and lastly, we can cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice and in daily life. As we go about our daily activities we can repeat phrases such as “May you be well; may you be happy; may you live in peace.” The basic sense of sympathy that this practice helps cultivate makes it easier to avoid anger in the first place and makes it possible for us to experience anger “cleanly,” without it slipping into hatred.

These seven steps can help us to experience anger less frequently, less intensely, and more cleanly. Rather than experiencing anger as a destructive force we can use it creatively. Rather than our anger hurting people it can become a powerful tool for putting our compassion into action.

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Chogyam Trungpa: “Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface”

Chogyam Trungpa

Trungpa said, “In the practice of sitting meditation you relate to your daily life all the time. Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface rather than hiding them at the bottom of our minds. It enables us to relate to our lives as something workable.”

Meditation is not escapism. In fact one could argue that burying ourselves in daily activities with no time set aside for reflection is a classic escapist activity. When we meditate we’re thrust into an awareness — often a very challenging awareness — of exactly what’s going on in our lives. There’s no escaping who we are: as we sit, thought after thought, emotion after emotion, wells up inside of us.

When we’re busy rushing from one task to the next there simply isn’t time to process our thoughts and emotions, to put things into perspective, to think things through. Our hopes and fears end up being, as Trungpa puts it, hidden at the bottom of our minds. And so we need time out: time to re-collect ourselves, time to let the hidden parts of ourselves begin to show themselves. These experiences that we have in meditation are aspects of what’s been going on in our daily lives: the fears, hopes, annoyances, dreams, and desires to which we’ve given rise but to which we all too often pay little attention.

Some of those hidden parts do start to reveal themselves very quickly indeed, although others can — because we’ve become well-practiced in keeping them hidden — take much longer to emerge. But as, in their own time, they emerge we begin to give them our attention and respond to them appropriately.

Sometimes all we have to do is acknowledge them as we watch them pass by (perhaps just a stray thought about something we forgot to do). Sometimes we need to meet them head on, as when a major volley of ill-will arrives and we respond with a counter-blast of lovingkindness. Other times we need simply to sit and explore our experiences in a kind and patient way, giving them space to reveal their stories, reminding ourselves that it’s alright to experience discomfort.

So in these kinds of ways we deal with our “stuff,” working with each thought and emotion as it arrives, and in an appropriate way. And in so doing we start to notice that the quality of our lives has improved: there are fewer conflicts with others, we’re kinder, we’re quicker to let go of grievances and less prone to take offense, and we’re more relaxed.

Often the best way to work with our lives is to take a step back and sort out what’s inside of us first. One we’ve started doing that, life seems to take care of itself.

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