thoughts in meditation

Getting the dead dog off of your shoulders

Woman wearing a fur hood.

What kinds of things do we get up to when we are meant to be meditating, but have become distracted? Most people will say they “think” or “fantasize,” but that’s not very specific. What kind of thinking is going on? What kinds of desires drive our fantasies?

There are five traditional hindrances to meditation. Speaking very non-technically, what we tend to do when we’re distracted is one of the following:

  • Getting annoyed about things we dislike
  • Fantasizing about things we like
  • Worrying and fidgeting
  • Snoozing and avoiding challenges
  • Undermining ourselves with stories about what we can’t do

These are the five hindrances in very non-technical language. Each of them is a form of mental turbulence that prevents us from experience the natural calmness and joy of the undisturbed mind.

The Buddha suggested a number of ways to calm the mind by dealing with the hindrances.One approach, which we could call “reflecting on the consequences,” uses thought to calm our thinking.

He suggested that we reflect on the disadvantages of continuing to be caught up in the hindrance that is currently dominating our minds. For example, we can ask, What will happen if I continue to let my mind be dominated by anger or doubt? Will it make me happy? Are the consequences of these mental states with those that I want to live with? By consciously reflecting in this way, we bring alternative visions of the future into our present consciousness. We thus create the possibility of choice. We are then able to experience an emotional response to each of the alternatives we’ve imagined.

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So, if you imagine that continuing to indulge in angry states of mind is going to lead to isolation and conflict, then the emotional response to that imagined future outcome may well be one of aversion. And generating aversion to the outcomes of anger will tend to lead to aversion to the anger itself. (This is a useful aversion to have!) And we may imagine being calm, confident, and kind, and this exerts its own emotional pull, making it more likely that we’ll choose the path that leads us there.

The Buddha used a very colorful image to describe this antidote. He said it was “like a young woman or man, in the flush of youth and fond of finery, who would be ashamed to have the carcass of a dog or snake hanging round his neck.” I like this image. It reminds us there is beauty already present beneath the hindrance, and that the hindrance itself is something that mars our inherent spiritual loveliness, and that is relatively superficial and extraneous.

So, when you notice you’re in an unhelpful state of mind, see where that’s leading you by reflecting on the consequences. Become aware of the unwholesomeness of the negative mental state that you’re experiencing, and allow a natural and wholesome aversion towards it to emerge. But also be aware that there is an inner beauty just waiting to be revealed.

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Does meditation have health benefits?

wildmind meditation newsFred Cicetti, LiveScience.com: Meditation definitely reduces stress. And too much stress is bad for your health.

There is some research that indicates meditation may help with: Allergies, anxiety, asthma, binge eating, cancer, depression, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, sleep difficulties and substance abuse.

I started meditating in 1976, when Dr. Herbert Benson published his book, “The Relaxation Response.”

The techniques he advocated work. In the years since, I’ve found that, when I forget to meditate, I get a stress buildup. As soon as I meditate, I feel better. And the effects of the meditation carry through the day.

I studied Zen Buddhist …

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Always craving chocolate? Meditation could help

wildmind meditation newsEmma Innes, MailOnline: Buddhist mediation could be the key to cutting chocolate cravings, new research has revealed. A study found that achieving ‘a sense of detachment’ through mindfulness mediation can reduce cravings. The Canadian researchers say identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts – without judging them – weakens chocolate cravings among people with a sweet tooth.

‘There is now good evidence that mindfulness strategies generally work at managing food cravings, but we don’t yet know what aspect of mindfulness and what mechanisms are responsible for these effects. This is what motivated this research,’ said lead study author Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University. …

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Stroke, meditation and insight

wildmind meditation newsMartin LeFevre, Costa Rican Times: “Thoughts That Can’t Be Spoken” is a fascinating piece about a writer’s experience of a stroke. Alberto Manguel describes what happened after “a blood clot in one of the arteries that feeds my brain had blocked for a few minutes the passage of oxygen.” The essay offers much unintended insight into the neurological basis of the meditative state.

During and after his stroke, the Manguel said that it was as if “thought had become demagnetized and was no longer capable of attracting the words supposed to define it.” Declaring that “thought forms itself in the mind by means …

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Words of kindness, words of compassion

Indian cave wall painting of Avalokiteśvara as Padmapani, Ajaṇṭā Caves, 6th century CE.

There are many ways to develop metta (kindness, or lovingkindness), which is the desire that beings, ourselves included, be happy. Kindness arises from a basic realization that all beings want to be happy, and that their happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own happiness and suffering are to us. Recognizing those facts, and knowing that we ourselves want to be happy, we naturally wish happiness for others.

Kindness is inherent in us all, and in the meditation practice we’re strengthening what’s already there, not bringing something entirely new into being.

The most well-known way to cultivate metta is drop phrases into the mind that strengthen and develop our kindness. When I was taught the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) meditation practice, the phrases I was given were: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.” (In the first four stages “all beings” is replaced with “I” or “you.”)

These are excellent phrases, although not everyone finds that they resonate and there’s no need to stick to those exact words. I’ve often encouraged people to experiment and to find phrases that are effective in evoking a sense of kindness and love. I’ve still tended, on the whole, to stick with those particular words, though. They’re deeply embedded in my mind, since I was taught them over 30 years ago and have repeated them probably hundreds of thousands of times.

But in recent years I’ve seen that there’s a good reason to change the phrases I use, and nowadays I tend to use, and teach, the metta phrases like this: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”

The reason I stopped using “May all beings be free from suffering” and started using “May all beings find peace” is because I’ve been doing more exploration of a practice related to the metta bhavana: the karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and the karuna bhavana is the meditation practice in which we cultivate compassion.

Metta (kindness) is the desire that beings be happy; karuna (compassion) is the desire that beings be free from suffering. The relationship between the two is simply that when we want beings to be happy and are aware that they suffer, we want their suffering to be removed. Kindness naturally turns into compassion whenever we become aware of suffering.

Now the problem with using the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta bhavana practice is that it’s inherently a phrase that evokes compassion rather than kindness. Metta, strictly speaking, is about wishing happiness rather than removing suffering. When we use the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta practice we’re actually cultivating both metta and compassion at the same time. This isn’t a huge problem, but it does muddy the distinction between metta and karuna. So purely from the standpoint of wanting to be clear in my teaching I prefer to avoid talking about wanting beings to be free from suffering as part of the metta practice.

Making this change to the phrases, when you start practicing the karuna bhavana practice you feel more of a shift in what you’re doing. It’s clearer that metta is kindness — wanting beings to be happy — and that compassion is another — wanting beings to be free from suffering so that they can be happy. In the karuna bhavana I use phrases like: “May all beings be free from suffering; May all beings have joy and ease.”

It’s a small shift, to reserve “May all beings be free from suffering” for the compassion meditation, but it’s one that I’ve find brings more of a sense of clarity to the practice.

Now as I’ve said, this isn’t a huge deal. Compassion is inherent in kindness. If we’re developing the desire that beings be well and happy then it’s natural to wish them freedom from suffering. And sometimes when you’re cultivating metta you’re going to be aware of someone’s suffering and compassion will naturally arise, since compassion is simply kindness meeting an awareness of suffering. I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t experience compassion during the metta bhavana practice! But there is a difference between metta and karuna, and I think it’s useful — without being too strict about it — to respect that difference.”

“May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”

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Why we love to worry, and what to do about it

Woman worrying

Janet, a woman in one of my mindfulness classes, was feeling nervous. She was afraid of speaking up in class. It was a fairly large group – 20 people – and she felt self-conscious about the prospect of so many eyes on her. But she also worried that by staying silent, she wasn’t taking part enough in the supportive community that was forming. And thinking these thoughts made her worry all the more.

I reassured her that there was no requirement to speak up. Everyone was free to talk or not, to the extent they felt comfortable. Just listening in was perfectly okay. Her presence alone was what mattered. But she couldn’t stop fretting about it.

I think we all have a bit of Janet inside us. We start with a little uneasiness about something, and before we realize it, it grows bigger and bigger. Even when we know it’s irrational, we feel pulled in by it.

What’s going on here?

It was a huge relief to me when I first learned of the phenomenon called negativity bias. In short, our brains are wired to focus more on our bad feelings than the good. It’s a survival instinct that comes from our caveman days. It was far riskier to miss noticing a potentially dangerous situation – like a predator – than a pleasant one – like a beautiful sunny day. So we’re biologically programmed to zero in on anything that seems “not quite right”.

In our modern day, we rarely encounter predators or other threats to life and limb. But our bodies still respond in the same way. We sense something’s wrong, and we zoom right in to hyper-focus on it. But it’s important to realize that we’re not to blame for it.

And thankfully, we don’t have to be victims of our biological natures. If you have a tendency to worry too much, there are ways to tame that beast.

Those of you who practice mindfulness will recognize the method of dealing with these thoughts in the moment they arise. Take a breath, acknowledge the thought, maybe label it, and let it go as best you can. Even a tiny sliver of space between you and the thought can help to take some of the edge off of it.

But I’d like to address a different point today. What do you do when the thoughts keep coming, no matter how much you practice this way? When it seems we make no headway over the long haul against this worry beast?

Because our brains give disproportionately high prominence to negative thoughts, it turns out we need a lot more positive ones to counterbalance them. Research suggests that we need five times more positive thoughts than negative ones in order to reach an emotional equilibrium back at neutral. Five times!

So for example, research found that married couples stay happy together when they have five times more loving interactions than say, snapping at each other.

This magic five-to-one ratio seems to hold true in other areas of life as well (here’s an example). It’s not so much about having huge, heart-soaring joyful moments. It’s about noting many simple, little pleasant ones – like stopping to appreciate a beautiful autumn day – that make a difference.

This makes sense to me. If you take a glass-is-half-empty view on life, having a few big happy occasions – even winning the lottery – doesn’t really turn things around. (And remember, that’s not your fault!) But by being mindful of the many small pleasurable moments in life, we’re gradually training our minds to take on the habit of seeing the positive. Just like with any other mindful change, it’s establishing a new habit that counts.

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I, for one, definitely used to be more of a glass-is-half-empty person. To some extent, I think it was trained into me with my previous profession. I was a corporate project manager, and it was my job to worry about all the things that could go wrong so I could plan contingencies for them. Suffering from chronic depression didn’t help. Lots of negative habits had built up there.

So one way to reverse a habit like this is to practice appreciating the good. I admit that for the longest time, I resisted the idea of a “gratitude practice” – i.e. explicitly noting (even writing down) what you appreciate and are grateful for. It sounded too superficial and Pollyanna-ish. (Sure sounds like a glass-is-half-empty viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

But I’ve really come to see the value of doing it. What makes this practice work is to stop and feel deep in my bones why I appreciate something. Not just making happy lists, but reconnecting with a genuine felt sense of appreciation, pleasure, contentment, and the like. I think it’s when we lose touch with that side of us that we’re more susceptible to sliding down the slippery slope of worry. I’m training my mind to see that there’s actually another way to see things that’s not about things going wrong all the time.

So if you’re a worrier, please take heart. I hope you see that it’s just a habit, and habits can be changed. What we focus our attention on, grows — including the positive. Yes, it takes some concerted effort to overcome the weightiness of old habits. But the truth is, they can be overcome.

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Mindfulness: Week 5 – exploring difficulty

John Alex Murphy, The Province: This past week’s Mindfulness meditation introduced a new way of dealing with difficult thoughts that was radically different and initially quite disconcerting for me.

I should initially mention that this past long-weekend, my family and I went on our first 3-day backpacking trip together in Skagit Valley Provincial Park, a spectacular mountain wilderness area about 200 kilometers east of Vancouver. It’s a beautiful place to spend time in nature. As it turned out, it’s also an exquisite place to meditate.

I was excited to start another new week of my eight-week Mindfulness course. So at the end of our …

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Mindfulness: Week 4 – sounds and thoughts and a poem

John Alex Murphy, The Province: I was blessed with many peaceful meditations, some moments of profound insight and a few fond memories of my Mother during Week 4 of my amazing eight-week mindfulness meditation journey.

This week’s daily practice was comprised of the “Breath and Body” meditation, and “The Three-Minute Breathing Space” meditation. Although this was my second week of practice with these two meditations, I still enjoyed a new and exciting voyage of self-discovery every time I meditated.

My Week 4 practice also included an eight-minute meditation entitled Sounds and Thoughts that proved to be enlightening for me. Let me share with you …

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“I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts.”

tara-brachOur mindfulness practice is not about vanquishing our thoughts. It’s about becoming aware of the process of thinking so that we are not in a trance—lost inside our thoughts. That’s the big difference. To train in becoming mindful of thoughts can help us to notice when your mind is actively thinking, either using the label “thinking, thinking,” or identifying the kind of thought—“worrying, worrying,” “planning, planning.” Then, becoming interested in what’s really happening right here. Coming home to the sensations in your body, your breath, the sounds around you, the life of the moment.

As our mindfulness practice deepens we become more aware of our thoughts. This offers us the opportunity to assess them and notice that much of the time our thoughts are not really serving us. Many thoughts are driven by fear and lock us into insecurity. During our residential meditation retreats, one of the biggest breakthroughs people share with us is:

“I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts.”

Training in mindfulness allows our minds to have a choice. At the moment in which you pause and realize that these thoughts are not really serving me, you have the option to come back to presence. This process of choosing becomes more powerful as you realize how thoughts can create suffering and separation. They create an “us” and a “them.” They create judgment and end up making us feel bad about ourselves.

In those moments when you’re lost in thought, what if you could pause and say, “OK, it is just a thought” That is revolutionary. That can change your life!

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Now, the key is that we approach this with a gentleness and kindness. Each time we recognize thinking and come back into the present moment with gentleness and kindness, we are planting a seed of mindfulness. We are creating a new habit—a new way of being in the world. We quiet down the incessant buzz of thoughts in our mind. We take refuge in what is true—the aliveness and tenderness and mystery of the present moment—rather than in the story line of our thoughts.

“Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.”— Wu Men

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Having a meditation toolkit

100 Day Meditation ChallengeOne of my online students wrote:

I find that when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling comes up during meditation, my habitual reaction is to very quickly label it “thinking” and then return to my breath, which feels very much like I am suppressing my emotions and feelings.

And my reply was: This is a great thing to have learned about yourself. It seems that you innately know, with your inner wisdom, that this kind of suppression isn’t the way you want to live your life, and in fact with mindfulness we should be prepared to give our darker feelings room to breathe — or at least some of them.

That brings up the question of when we should simply let go of thoughts and the feelings/emotions that accompany them, and when we should give them space and take the time to sit with them. Sometimes one approach is appropriate, and sometimes it isn’t. How to decide? I’m not sure I can offer any clear-cut guidance on that. I think we need to use our inner wisdom to figure out what the most appropriate approach is. But I’ll have a go.

So I’d weigh up things like:

  • Is this thought just chatter? Like planning dinner, or thinking about our next Facebook status update? Can it simply wait? If so, let it go.
  • Is this thought destructive or unhelpful in some way? (For example, am I engaged in an angry rant, or busy telling myself how bad I am at something, or worrying?) In these cases I’d let go of the content of the thoughts (the storyline) but acknowledge any underlying feelings of hurt, fear, anxiety, etc., and give those my kindly attention.
  • Is there strong emotional baggage with this thought? Does it keep coming around again and again? If so, then again I’d let go of the thought but be attentive to the underlying feelings.
  • Is this a dark feeling, but not necessarily a destructive one? For example I consider grief and sadness to be aspects of love, rather than being “negative.” They’re what we experience when we love and have lost the object of our love. These are uncomfortable states, but not to be dismissed. We might find that here we don’t want to be too quick to dismiss even the stories. It’s not that we would engage is storytelling, but we may notice that the feeling arises from a story we’ve created (I should have been there at the end, I never said I loved him, etc.) It may be a great learning experience to understand how we’ve creating our feelings.
  • Is this a bright, positive, constructive emotional state, of say love, or joy? Are the thoughts we’re having contributing to that state? We might want to let those thoughts happen. After all, that’s what we do in lovingkindness practice; we deliberately engage with thinking that gives rise to love, kindness, appreciation, and compassion. We often think of thoughts as being “distractions” but they’re only distractions when they distract us! Sometimes they are guides leading us toward a deeper and more meaningful way of being.

If this seems like a lot of factors to consider, then you’re probably right. It can take us time to build up a model of how to act in various circumstances, and to keep tweaking that model as it encounters limitations. That’s the “wisdom” I mentioned earlier. Eventually these kinds of evaluations become second nature.

It’s good to be aware that there is a range of choices available to us. We should feel we have a toolkit of choices available to us, and develop a sense — through practice — of which seems most appropriate at any given time. And we should have the freedom to switch approaches if the one we’ve initially chosen is clearly not working. It’s fine to decide to just sit with an uncomfortable emotion. It’s fine to decide to do something about it. But if we aren’t in a position where we can take one of the other approach, we don’t have freedom.

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