thoughts in meditation

The marriage of meditation and neuroscience

Jeff Warren

Jeff Warren, who recently had an article in the New York Times about his quest for Stream Entry, which is the first stage of enlightenment in Buddhism (I call it “entry-level awakening”) has a truly fascinating column in Psychology Tomorrow magazine on How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science.

The launching point for his column is a study conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. As Warren says, “The experiment was a collaboration between a young Harvard neuroscientist named David Vago and a Buddhist scholar and mindfulness meditation teacher named Shinzen Young.”

Here’s an extract, about what happened when some meditators were asked to let their mind enter what the scientists call a “resting state” but which meditators would describe as “being distracted”:

…the twenty meditators in the experiment had been chosen for the length and the consistency of their practice. But even here there was a demarcation between intermediate meditators and a few older practitioners who had been meditating for over twenty years. Their minds were different, both in degree, and, it seemed, in kind. They were no longer like the minds of regular folks.

The veteran meditators could do each of the resting states perfectly, but when it came to creating a contrasting condition, they were helpless. They had lost the ability to “let their minds wander” because they had long ago shed the habit of entertaining discursive narrative thoughts. They no longer worried about how their hair looked, or their to-do lists, or whether people thought they were annoying. Their minds were largely quiet. When thoughts did come – and they did still come – these subjects reported that the thoughts had a different quality, an unfixated quality. The thought “This MRI machine is extremely loud” might arise, but it would quickly evaporate. Thoughts seemed to emerge as-needed in response to different situations and would then disappear crisply into the clear backdrop of consciousness. In other words, these practitioners were always meditating.

This actually isn’t the most interesting part of the article, which concerns the attainment of a state called “nirodha samāpatti,” or cessation of consciousness. This is a meditative state which apparently Shinzen and some of his students have attained. In it, the sense of “existing” seems to come, temporarily, to a halt. And yet the mind and body still seem to function, and Shinzen talks about how this “cessation” strikes him even while driving. I think any of us drivers who have had the experience of arriving someplace after a journey in which the mind was totally elsewhere can see how the mind and body can continue to function perfectly well in the absence of self-consciousness. But of course this is different, since our self-conscious awareness is not simply engaged in something else, but has ceased.

Years ago I read a book called Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, by a philosopher called James P. Carse. I recall reading somewhere in the book that the Upanishadic texts describe the state of deep sleep as being closer to a state of “deeper wakefulness” than our ordinary everyday consciousness. At the time I simply found this weird and kind of dumb. Now I come to realize they probably knew much more than I do.

I’ve experienced many different meditative states, including all the jhānas and almost all the so-called formless jhānas (they’re called the formless spheres, or āyatanas, in the Pali suttas, and if that term was good enough for the Buddha it’s good enough for me), but I haven’t yet experienced the nirodha samāpatti. It seems to be a deeply refreshing experience — or non-experience — however:

Har-Prakash Khalsa, a 52-year old Canadian mail carrier and yoga teacher – and one of the veterans to whom this happened – describes his experience:

“It’s a kind of pressure or momentum. I was in one of the rest states, and as I let go of it, I felt myself heading into a much bigger dissolution – a bigger ‘gone’ as Shinzen would call it. It felt impossible to resist. My mind, body and world just collapsed.”

A few moments later – blinking, refreshed, reformatted – Har-Prakash returned to consciousness, not at all sure how he was to supposed to fit this experience into the research protocol. He couldn’t indicate it with a button press even if he wanted to: there was no one present to press the button.

One day!

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Help, I can’t stop thinking!

Vishvapani

Many of us feel that our thoughts are out of our control. We think about work long after we have left, we worry about the future and keep going over things that have gone wrong in the past. Meanwhile, life seems to be slipping by.

Modern psychology also recognises that compulsive thinking can lead us into stress, anxiety and depression. Worrying about our problems seems important, but it leaves us feeling worse and believing we have less power to change things.

Mindfulness helps by giving us the mental space to stand back, recognise what’s happening and explore alternatives. Here are some helpful approaches associated with mindfulness and meditation.

1. Learning to let go of thoughts

Even a short period of meditation shows that focusing the mind on the body and the breath leaves you feeling calmer and more settled. Everyone finds that thoughts arise in their minds and the practice involves gently guiding our attention back to the breath. In doing this again and again we are learning to let go of thoughts and regain control of what our minds are doing.

2. Noticing that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts

Troubling thoughts reinforce a powerful belief about our situation: I must keep going; only I can do this; if this fails it will be a disaster. Thoughts like this are associated with stress. There is something wrong with me; it has all gone wrong; here I go again. Thoughts like this tend to foster depression.

When we think like this, we believe that the thought is telling us the truth: I really must keep going; there really is something wrong with me. The practice of letting go of thoughts allows us to stand back from them. Then we see that they are just thoughts and we can explore them without necessarily believing them. For many people this is a revelation. It’s liberating to see that thoughts are not facts, just things that happen in the mind. Seeing thoughts in this way makes them less powerful. Then you can explore them, asking if they are true and discovering what you really believe.

See also:

3. Accepting difficult thoughts

Often we know it’s unhelpful to keep thinking in certain ways and tell ourselves I wish I could switch off, or I must stop worrying. But we end up like the person who tries not to think about pink elephants. The more we try to control our thoughts by force, the stronger they grow. Our whole life can seem like a fight and battling with thoughts is part of this.

Mindfulness training encourages us to accept that troubling thoughts are a part of our experience, rather than fighting them. We learn to notice these thoughts when they come up without pursuing them or believing that they are true. We can even befriend them.

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience this especially strongly and mindfulness can be very helpful in working with these conditions. It also helps in avoiding slipping back into depression, which is why medical practitioners recommend Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy to avoid relapsing into depression.

4. Thinking Clearly and Creatively

Of course, thinking isn’t always unhelpful. Reflection, analysis and clarity are all very important. Mindfulness can help us to think more clearly because we are less prone to distractions and more able to notice when feelings are colouring our thoughts. It also fosters creativity because it opens up the connections between thinking, feeling and intuition.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘A man should learn to detect and watch the glimmer of light that flashes across his mind from within.’ Those glimmers are there in all of us: messages from the part of us that truly understands and sees connections and possibilities. That is the basis of creativity. The faculty that lets us detect and watch those glimmers is mindfulness.

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Portlandia’s Vipassana Romance

A third season of Portlandia — a Peabody Award-winning satiric sketch comedy television series, set and filmed in (and near) Portland, Oregon, and starring Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, lead guitarist/singer for Wild Flag — is coming in January.

This preview clip features the venerable tradition of the “Meditation Crush,” also known as the “Vipassana Romance,” in which the silence of a retreat or meditation class allows the mind free reign to project our desires onto attractive yogis, and to create elaborate wish-fulfillment fantasies. Watch the clip and see how it turns out…

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Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction

“A mess in process”

One of the indisputable realities about being human is that we all have weaknesses. No one escapes this.

Some of us are able to acknowledge these less attractive aspects without being unduly fazed. Others tend to cultivate strategies to help hide the cracks. Yet others convince themselves that their weaknesses are inherent aberrations, with this view then becoming a rationale for indulging in aberrant behaviour. It is the last of these views that I tend to work with in addiction.

Some of us convince ourselves that we are such a waste of space that really, we should commit ourselves to a life of substance-induced mayhem or simply rid the rest of the world of our miserable presence by killing ourselves. This is true suffering.

The Buddha could well have been the best Alcohol and Drug clinician the world has ever seen. His First Noble Truth states that life involves suffering, discontentment, disgruntlement, disillusionment. He then tells us in his Second Noble Truth that suffering (dukkha) has a cause and that that cause is craving.

Wanting things to be a certain way is suffering because it precludes openness to what is, now, in this moment. Not getting what we want involves suffering because we want it so much. Even getting what we do want involves suffering because then we are fearful of losing it. Also, often we realize it isn’t what we wanted after all and now what are we to do once we have married our heart’s desire and find that the beloved has turned into a cold, and rather clammy, green frog?

The Third Noble Truth states that suffering can cease. If we acknowledge that everything that comes into being must, one day, dissolve, we learn to not clutch onto life with such desperation. If we acknowledge that such grasping is tantamount to grabbing a handful of water or holding onto a rainbow, we may reduce this habit of clinging and free our hearts from suffering.

When we embrace the truth of impermanence and even begin to enjoy the ephemeral, fleeting nature of it, we move from desperado mindset to butterfly mindset. We can say ‘no’ to that contracted, grasping human, clutching our booty, hiding out in an emotional desert. With a meditation practice under our belts, we can begin to loosen and lighten up, psychically alighting gently on a leaf, ready to move to the next honeysuckle. Hence we move from contraction and limitation to expansiveness and new possibilities.

Problems arise when not only do we expect changeable, fleeting processes to stay the same but when we also imagine our painful emotions to be permanent, especially when we are lost in them. But in reality, our emotions are even more fleeting than our thoughts. It is often our attitude to our emotions that cause us the suffering. That is probably why the Christians talk of eternal damnation in hell. When we are in hellish states of mind, even a minute feels like an eternity. When we are in heaven, it goes in a flash.

“The First Truth is Sorrow. Be not mocked!
Life which ye treasure is long drawn out agony:
Its pleasures are as birds which light and fly;
Only its pains abide.”
Sir Edwin Arnold The Light of Asia

Why do we perpetuate this fixed view of ourselves as fundamentally flawed, as a complete failure, as incapable of fitting in with societal mores? If we begin to relate to ourselves as a process, we start letting go of the pain. A friend, when first warming up to this concept, referred to himself as “a mess in process.” This is the beginning of true liberation.

Part of the deconstruction of a habit pattern of the mind is in listening to what Behavioural Therapists call Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS). These can be deconstructed further to reveal core beliefs we cherish deep in our hearts. Albert Ellis, the founder of RET — Rational Emotive Therapy — exhorts us to DISPUTE such distortions.

For example, we might have the negative thought, “I always screw it up because I am so impulsive!”

Ellis tells us to first of all replace the ‘always’ with “sometimes” so we could pathologize ourselves less by saying:

“I sometimes make mistakes because part of me has a habit pattern of the mind that leaps into things without due consideration.”

Let’s take a good look at the silver lining of our alleged dysfunction. For example: What are the benefits of leaping into life without due consideration? Impulsive people have the novelty seeking gene, which scientists attribute to mutation; people with a deficit of Monoamine oxidase enzyme (MAO) live more dangerously than the more balanced amongst us. Even though it may kill us, humanity benefits from people willing to take risks because they don’t take the time to consider the consequences.

One scientific theory is that, had a bunch of Africans with this mutant gene not gotten into their canoes without a clue where they would end up, we may not have been as global a species as we currently are.

Instead of grabbing our dysfunction to use as a weapon to bludgeon ourselves into self-pity, it can be helpful to ponder the more colourful, even beneficial elements to it. How can you be mad at a gene?

If we contain a kindly and light-hearted view of ourselves as a “mess in process” it means we can begin to feel more confident about ourselves and therefore work to align ourselves more with our values. If we see our profound dysfunction in less black and white terms, we can gradually transform our weaknesses into strengths. This moves us away from the pitiful, over-identified, victim mentality which keeps us, inextricably, stuck in the nasty old Slough of Despond.

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“It can wait.” A mantra for the 21st century

Buddha meditating lying on one side

You’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend, and your phone rings. You stop mid-sentence and suddenly you’re caught up in a phone call. You don’t even think about whether or not to pick up the call. It just happens.

You’re in the car and you hear the ping of a text message arriving. What do you do? Many people succumb to temptation and read the message and — worse — reply to it. (You can recognize those people; they’re the ones in front of you, swerving out of their lane without even realizing it.) Even if you try to ignore the incoming message, you can feel its emotional pull, as if your phone is an emotional black hole, drawing your attention inexorably toward it.

These distractions are hard to resist. How can we reclaim our attention in this world of email alerts, text message alerts, phone calls, IM alerts, and Facebook notifications?

See also:

I’ve found one simple way of regaining control of my attention. It’s a simple phrase: “It can wait.” I didn’t make this phrase up. I borrowed it from a public service advertisement designed to combat distracted driving. I found it simple and powerful.

And I use it in my daily activities. When I feel the urge to look at my phone while I’m driving, even if it’s just to remind myself of the name of the song that’s playing, I say “It can wait.” This simple phrase makes it easy for me to keep my attention where it belongs — on driving safely.

“It can wait” is a reminder of what’s important. The text message, email, or phone call will still be there when I arrive at my destination. I can deal with it then. Right now what’s important is getting to my destination safely. (In theory the song is still there, but in practice I’ll forget to do the detective work necessary to figure out what the track was. Which just goes to show how important it was in the first place to have that information!)

“It can wait” is a tool I also use in my meditation practice.

Sometimes when I’m meditating I find myself getting caught up in some train of thought. Sometimes those thoughts are compulsive. Right now I’ve just moved into a new office and we’re making some changes at work, so I find myself planning how we’re going to use the space, how we can set up better organizational systems etc. It’s all creative stuff. But it’s not what I want to be doing in my meditation practice. So I say, “It can wait.” And again, I find it relatively easy to let go of the train of thought. Sometimes it’ll come back a few times, but I keep saying “It can wait” and the planning part of my mind eventually gets the message.

“It can wait” becomes a powerful statement of affirmation in the importance of the present moment. I find myself planning? “It can wait.” Right now I’m just going to be with my present moment experience. I’ll find happiness by surrendering to the present moment, not by arranging the future in my mind.

So I offer this to you as a practice that I’ve found to be simply and effective. When you need to be focused on the present moment and an emotional black hole appears and tries to steal your attention, just say “It can wait” and embrace the present moment in mindful awareness.

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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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“Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read.”

Still from Vanilla Sky

At the climax of the 2001 movie Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character, playboy David Aames, comes to realize that he’s been in suspended animation for 150 years and is trapped in a dream. He makes this discovery on top of an improbably tall building, apparently miles high, with the guidance of Edmund Ventura, a “Support Technician” who is trying to guide him back to waking reality.

Before he entered suspended animation, David had made the decision to awaken from this dream by facing his fear of heights. In order to wake up, he must now leap from the top of the building. Also on the rooftop is someone who has been a father figure to David, a warm, avuncular psychologist called McCabe, who has previously been helping him to figure out why he apparently murdered a lover. McCabe not only believes that what David is experiencing is real, he believes that he himself is real. And he tries to dissuade David from taking his all-too-literal leap of faith:

MCCABE. David, don’t listen to him. You were right … It’s a setup! You can’t trust him.

VENTURA. Don’t feel bad for him, David. This winning man is your creation. It’s in his nature to fight for his existence, but he’s not real.

If David Aames wakes up, then McCabe ceases to exist. He’s a fictional character, but even fictional characters want to continue existing. So McCabe tries to talk David out of jumping.

Similarly, our fictional delusions don’t believe that they are delusions. And they don’t want us to know that they are delusions. If we wake up they die. They have a life of their own and they don’t want to lose that life. It’s in their nature to fight for their existence. To take a less poetic view, once certain patterns of thought have been established in the brain, it can be hard to change them. Just as a river, having carved itself a deep gorge, is trapped flowing in a particular direction, so our thoughts, the more entrenched they are, tend to course in familiar patterns.

See also:

Many spiritual teachers in the past have suggested that our delusions act in a way that protect themselves, so that a self-sustaining pattern of delusion is perpetuated in our minds. This is what we call the ego. The ego — our sense of a permanent, independent selfhood, doesn’t want us to wake up. It resists change. We think we’re permanent and separate. Some chance event reminds us we’re not and we feel alive again. Then we start to forget, and retreat into our sense of separateness once again, believing that that’s where happiness lies and that an awareness of impermanence is what leads to unhappiness.

But these delusions, these distorted perceptions, although deep-rooted and resistant to change are not un-doable. Like David Aames we need to wake up from our delusions. And one important means for waking up is reflection. To reflect is to examine our experience closely, to scrutinize our lives, ourselves, and our world, and to let reality collide, sometimes violently, with our assumptions. We tend to think of thoughts as being “the problem” because our thinking not only causes us pain much of the time, but also because much of our thinking is imbued with delusion: McCabe telling us not to wake up. But thought can also be a powerful tool for undoing delusion.

Where our assumptions are not in accord with how things actually are — for example where we to some extent believe we are separate and permanent when we are actually interconnected and ever-changing — there will be conflict. In reflecting, we consciously bring about conflict. And we keep doing this over and over, bringing our delusions up against reality, until something gives.

Reflection is not a mere intellectual activity. It’s not just a parade of words running through the mind. We rarely reflect when we read, for example, because all that’s happening is that words are crawling, ticker-tape fashion, over the mind’s surface. Reflection is not even the act of “thinking things through,” making connections between ideas. Reflection is an activity that involves imagination and emotion as well.

DH Lawrence expressed in a poem called “Thought” what reflection consists of:

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.

When we reflect we turn ideas into felt experiences and images. When we reflect we see how our words and images affect how we feel. We bring new ideas up against existing ones and honestly observe the honest collision of contradictions. Reflection involves an almost ruthless degree of self-examination, a scrutiny of the mind and heart. It involves, like Aames, taking a running jump from what is known and a willingness to leave behind the familiar and safe (that which shores up the ego), even if this leaves us with the terrifying feeling that we’re plummeting through space. But it can also be exhilarating and deeply rewarding as we make new discoveries, and as we rearrange our inner world, letting got of stale and tired viewpoints and embracing new ways of seeing.

What criteria can we use in order to help us know whether our inner voices are those of a McCabe, seductively trying to keep us within the dream; or of a Ventura, who leads us to awakening? The Buddha’s advice was to use reflection. We need to ask ourselves which of our thoughts lead us toward to love rather than hatred; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to simplicity, rather than to accumulating needless possessions; to modesty, not to self-inflation; to contentment, rather than discontent; to energy and engagement rather than to laziness. Gazing into the face of our lives, we can intuit a sense of which thoughts, words, and actions predispose to waking up rather than to remaining in a dream.

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Meditation: Catch and release

Fish being released into the water

An accidental purchase presented Ponlop Rinpoche with a valuable teaching.

I once bought a shirt at the airport because I had been traveling a long time and was in need of a change. I found one in a nice deep blue color and put it on without looking closely at it. Then, when I was sitting on the airplane, I saw it had a fish on it along with a caption down the sleeve: “Catch and release.” I felt very good about that. It was like a message from the universe — somehow, I was wearing instructions for working with the mind in meditation. That was my teaching for that trip.

You can use that phrase in your practice of meditation, too. Catch your thoughts and release them. You don’t need to bang them on the head and try to kill them before throwing them back. You can just acknowledge each thought and then let it go.

See also:

The practice of meditation is basically a process of getting to know yourself. How do you do it? By becoming familiar with your mind. Normally the mind is a whirlwind of thought, and meditation is a practice that calms this down and helps us develop a peaceful state of mind. Not only is our mind busy thinking, we’re usually thinking about the past or the future. We’re either reliving old dramas or imagining what could happen tomorrow or in ten years and trying to plan for it. We usually aren’t experiencing the present moment at all. We can’t change the past, and the future is always ahead of us — we never reach it, have you ever noticed? So, as long as this process continues, our mind never comes to rest. The mind can never just settle down and feel at ease.

Catch your thoughts and release them … just acknowledge each thought and then let it go.

When we practice sitting meditation over time, we get better at catching our thoughts and releasing them. Gradually the mind begins to settle naturally into a resting state. This is great because it allows us to be fully present in our lives. When we aren’t being pulled into the past or future, we can just be right here, where we actually live. To be in the present moment simply means to be awake and aware of yourself and your surroundings. That’s the beginning of peace and contentment.

Sitting meditation

One of the most effective methods of meditation is the practice of following the breath. To begin, you simply sit in a meditation posture and watch your breath. There’s nothing else to do. Your breathing should be natural and relaxed. There’s no need to change your normal breathing. Start with bringing your attention to your breath, focusing on the inhalation and exhalation at your nose and mouth. There is a sense that you are actually feeling your breath, feeling its movement.

When you do this, you’re not just watching your breath. As you settle into the practice, you actually become the breath. You feel it as you exhale, and you become one with it. Then you feel the breath as you inhale, and you become one with it. You are the breath and the breath is you.

As you begin to relax, you begin to appreciate nowness, the present moment. Breathing happens only in the present. Breathe out. One moment is gone. Breathe in again. Another moment is here. Appreciating nowness also includes appreciating your world, your existence, your whole environment, being content with your existence.

How to begin

To begin a session of sitting meditation, first you need a comfortable seat. You can use any cushion firm enough to support an upright posture. You can also sit in a chair. The main point is to have a relaxed but erect posture so that your spine is straight. If you are sitting on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably, and if you are sitting on a chair, place your feet evenly on the ground. You can rest your hands in your lap or on your thighs. Your eyes can be half-open with your gaze directed slightly downward a short distance in front of you. The most important point is that your posture is both upright and relaxed. Once you’re sitting comfortably, the main thing is to be fully present — to give your practice your full attention.

Catching your thoughts

During meditation the chatterbox of mind will open up, and you’ll have lots of thoughts. Some will seem more important than others and evolve into emotions. Some will be related to physical sensations: the pain in your knee or back or neck. And some will strike you as extremely important — things that can’t wait. You forgot to respond to a critical email, you need to return a call, or you forgot your mother’s birthday. These kinds of thoughts will come, but instead of jumping up from your cushion, all you have to do is recognize them. When a thought tries to distract you, just say, “I’m having a thought about forgetting Mom’s birthday.” You simply catch your thought, acknowledge it, and then let it go. Sitting in meditation we treat all thoughts equally. We don’t give more weight to some thoughts than to others. If we do, we lose our concentration and our mind will start slipping away.

Sitting in meditation we treat all thoughts equally. We don’t give more weight to some thoughts than to others.

You may wonder why I’m talking about thoughts. We’re supposed to be focusing on meditation, right? Thoughts deserve a special mention because we tend to forget that the practice of meditation is the experience of thoughts. We might think our meditation should be completely free of thoughts, with our minds totally at peace, but that’s a misunderstanding. That’s more like the end result of our practice than the process. That is the “practice” part of the practice of meditation — just relating to whatever comes up for us. When a thought appears, we see it, acknowledge its presence, let it go and relax. That’s “catch and release.”

When you meditate, you repeat this catch-and-release process over and over again. One minute, you’re resting your mind on your breath, then a thought comes up and pulls your attention away. You see the thought, let it go, and go back to your breath. Another thought comes up, you see it, let it go, and go back to your breath once again. Mindfulness, catching your thoughts, brings you back to the present and to a sense of attention, or non-distraction. You can strengthen the power of your concentration with repeated practice, just as you strengthen the muscles in your body every time you exercise.

Remember, we’re working with mind here and your mind is connected to many different conditions that impact you in various unpredictable ways. So don’t expect your meditation to always be the same or for your progress to follow a certain timeline. Don’t be discouraged by the ups and downs in your practice. Instead of seeing them as signs that your practice is hopeless, you can see them as reminders for the need to practice and why it is so helpful.

It takes time to develop a strong state of concentration. Eventually, however, you will see that your mind stays where you put it. Meditating and developing strength of mind isn’t just a nice, spiritual activity. It is actually a big help and support to anything you want to learn or accomplish. As your mind becomes calmer, you experience more of what is happening in each moment. You begin to see that your life — your actual life, right now — is far more interesting than all those thoughts you’ve been having about it!

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Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself…”

Marcus Aurelius

We can’t choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how to respond to it. This piece of practical wisdom is found in the Buddhist tradition, but was also a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. Bodhipaksa explains how we can untangle ourselves from the stories we tell ourselves about our experience.

Marcus Aurelius is my favorite Stoic philosopher. The Stoics, if you’re not familiar with them, were a school of philosophy who started about 300 BCE and who continued teaching until 529 CE, when the Christian emperor Justinian I banned pagan philosophies.

Although we use the word “stoicism” to mean something like to “grin and bear it” or to “suck it up,” Stoicism wasn’t a macho pose of unemotional toughness but a well-developed practical philosophy based on living with an awareness of impermanence. For example Marcus said, “Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things … sweep past us and are carried away”. The stoics worked to live ethically, to eliminate negative emotions such as ill will and jealousy from their lives, and they even meditated. Marcus again: “Allow yourself a space of quiet … and learn to curb your restlessness”. Sounds like Buddhism? Yes it does. I think it’s a tragedy that Stoicism was killed off before it had a chance to encounter Buddhism; I think Buddhists and Stoics would have had a lot in common.

Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius’ advice to look to our responses to events in order to pinpoint the cause of suffering in order to eliminate suffering parallels some important Buddhist teachings. And here’s the crucial thing: It’s not what happens to us that causes most of our suffering, but how we respond. In the end, we cause virtually all of our own suffering: not all, but most of it. A Buddhist analogy is the man who is shot by an arrow, and who responds by shooting himself with yet another arrow. It sounds weird, but that’s what we do all the time.

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Some things in life are going to be painful, but we amplify and repeat the pain through the way we respond to it. Let’s say that something painful happens, like someone saying something unkind to us. Without mindfulness, the mind is likely to proliferate thoughts: blaming the other person; thinking about their faults; wondering over and over, why me?; telling ourselves we’re stupid for having got hurt; wishing things were otherwise; repeating the painful words we heard over and over. There seem to be endless possibilities for multiplying thoughts. This proliferation of thoughts adds yet more pain, but this time it’s self-inflicted.

We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them.

With more mindfulness we’re able simply to accept that we experienced pain in response to another person’s words. If necessary, we respond appropriately without obsessing about it. We might tell the other person how we feel, for example, or suggest another perspective. Or we might decide that no action is the most appropriate action. We let the matter go quickly without obsessing. The mind doesn’t take the original arrow and plunge it into our bodies repeatedly.

Marcus says that “the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it.” We create distress in response to external events because of the way we interpret them. We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them, based on our habitual tendencies. We assign meaning to them. So when we say hello to someone and they don’t seem to acknowledge us we might jump to some assumption about how rude they’re being and how they’re trying to snub us and think they’re too important to reply and so on and so on, and then those thoughts may lead to memories of similar incidents and we move on to telling ourselves stories about who we are and our importance or lack of importance in the world. Proliferation!

Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves.

A lot of the time these stories we make up bear little resemblance to reality. And we know this (or should) because we’re often characters in other people’s dramas. You know, where you have one of those weird conversations where everything you say and do is taken the wrong way? What’s going on there can be more obvious for us. It can be easier to see that a story is being made up that doesn’t match with reality. But we do this ourselves all the time.

One thing that’s really ironic is when we get into thinking hateful thoughts about another person in response to something they’ve done, or that we think they’ve done. Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves. Isn’t it crazy? To “defend” ourselves we hurt ourselves!

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice. When we start watching them unfolding we can quickly see that they are repetitive. It’s like we have a limited repertoire of stories that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. And when something goes wrong we automatically put on a “recording” of one of those stories. It might be the “poor me” story or the “why am I surrounded by jerks” story, or one of a thousand others. When something hurts us we often reach for one of these stories. They’re comforting, in a way. They give us a reassuring sense of who we are in relation to the world. But they’re also a cause of pain.

So noticing these stories is a good first step in moving towards a more satisfying way of living. Eventually, as we hear these stories for the umpteenth time, we start to take them less seriously. They still may have an effect on us, but it doesn’t go as deep. Part of us is unaffected by the narrative, and we’ve become more free. Eventually, particular stories can just die away. They’re just not needed any more. Something painful happens in life, we notice it compassionately, and we move on. We’ve stopped interpreting life and started living it.

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