thoughts in meditation

Anxiety, depression, anger… Paths to purification?

wolf looking fierce

Contrary to what you might think, negative emotions are not “bad” things we need to get rid of. Sunada sees them as gold mines – opportunities to learn more about ourselves and walk the path toward uncovering our innate purity.

Meditation is supposed to help us become calm, peaceful, and happy, right? But then when we sit, all this other stuff seems to get in our way – anxiety, worry, depression, irritation, hateful thoughts … So we try harder to get rid of them because, after all, meditation is supposed be about freeing ourselves of all these ugly states of mind, right?

Well, let me stop you right there. Meditation isn’t about willfully fighting and pushing our way to calm and peace. If you go back and read that last sentence, maybe you can sense the incongruity of the whole idea. It’s like going to war in order to enforce peace. There may be short term gains, but there will likely be long-term costs. Also, the struggle itself creates a negative sort of energy that feeds into the situation, making matters only worse.

The kind of unencumbered joy that we see radiating from people like the Dalai Lama doesn’t come about by battling with ourselves. It comes by accepting all of ourselves (yes, even the hateful sides!) with patience and loving-kindness, and giving them all the care and attention they need, so they become our peaceful allies and friends. OK, sounds nice you say, but how do we do that? The best teaching I’ve found on this comes not from the Buddha, but from Rumi, the beloved Sufi poet from the 13th century.

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)

What would happen if you were to treat your anger or depression as an honored guest, as Rumi suggests? What if you imagined it not as an enemy that’s come to irritate and annoy you, but as a good friend who is feeling down and wants to talk? I suppose there are many different ways to interpret what Rumi means by a “guide from beyond,” but this is how I see it. Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard. Somewhere inside, there’s a being that is crying out for love and caring, because it’s feeling hurt, afraid, lonely, or is just simply in pain. That suffering being is you. Why on earth wouldn’t you stop and listen? So next time one of those “guests” stops by, welcome him in. Give him the best, most comfortable chair in your house, and invite him to tell you all his troubles. You might be amazed by what you hear.

   Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard.

And how do we do this “listening” on a practical level, you ask. Well, let’s take depression for example, since he’s been among my frequent guests in the past. When I sat with my depression, I started by observing what the physical experience of it was. As dispassionately as possible, and without passing judgment, I tried to observe how every part of my body and mind felt at the moment. So I observed that my body felt heavy, my chest felt tight, my breathing was shallow, my shoulders were slumped, my chest was caved in. My mind felt sluggish, fogged in, and dull. Doing this sort of careful observation in the context of a sitting practice is a great way to practice mindfulness. Sure, it’s unpleasant and no fun. But how else are we going to help our guest feel better, if we don’t fully understand what’s ailing him?

The next step after that would be to follow up when we’re off the cushion by reflecting on the situation. With a spirit of experimentation, we might try a few things and then mindfullly observe what effect it has. For example, what happens if I do some yoga or go for a walk and get my physical energies moving a bit? Does that make me feel better? If I listen to my favorite music or talk with a good friend, what effect does it have? Do I feel different at different times of the day? Different days of the week? Different seasons? How do different foods affect me? All of these information-gathering activities can help us learn to manage ourselves better and establish routines or activities that nudge us along slowly and gently in a happier direction.

Then we might reflect on some of the psychological factors affecting our moods. Perhaps we can trace our long-term emotional patterns to our childhood or family conditioning. Or we can examine some of our current habits and thoughts that might be contributing. For example, I noticed that I had a tendency to focus on what’s wrong with things. To some extent it was a professionally-trained skill that I gained in my former work as a project manager – it’s good to be able to foresee all the ways that plans might go awry and have contingencies for them. But as a way of living life in general, I realized that it contributed in a big way toward my seeing everything as a dark cloud.

All this sort of reflection is a purposeful, directed mindfulness practice that extends well beyond one’s time on the cushion. It’s also about listening ever more deeply to ourselves, getting to know our inner being intimately, and responding to its needs. And in this way we slowly dissolve the layers of negativity and pain we’ve been carrying around with us all our lives, and start allowing something else from deeper within to shine through.

So are you beginning to see how listening to our uninvited “guests” can be a gold mine for helping us to go deeper into understanding ourselves? Over time, I’ve come to see those guests as real treasures. On one level, they’re like warning alarms telling us that something in our life is out of balance and needs attention. But on a deeper, spiritual level, they open up a direct and authentic pathway for reaching out to that pure, lovely Buddha-being within each of us. As you might suspect, that being is much quieter and less assertive than the side of us that faces the world out there, so we need to be very still and patient. But at the same time, this being is infinitely wise and loving. If we take the time to listen and care for it, it will return the favor in more ways than you can imagine.

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A student asks: I’m confused about how to do reflections. Aren’t we supposed to let go of thoughts during meditation?

Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: I’m confused about how to do reflections. Aren’t we supposed to let go of thoughts during meditation?”

Sunada replies: Contrary to popular belief, there’s actually nothing wrong with thinking during meditation! It’s the kind of thinking that determines whether it should be avoided or encouraged.

There are three different ways that we can think in meditation, two of which are to be avoided. The first is the all too common, random, miscellaneous thinking that seems to fill our heads, like “I wonder if it’s been 20 minutes yet?” or “Hey, I’m getting really concentrated. This is great!”

The second is when we actively grapple with a thought, analyze it, work with it, tackle it, get into problem-solving mode, etc. This too should be avoided because it takes us away from being mindfully present. We can get lost in the thinking process.

But there’s a third kind of thinking — reflection — that’s something very much encouraged and beneficial. This is where we take a single thought or teaching and use it as the object of concentration. Once we settle into a calm and concentrated state, we gently but mindfully float the idea in our awareness. We don’t tackle it or try to answer it. We make no active mental effort to do anything with it. We just let it float there, and let any answers come to us. And we stay fully present as we do this.

Have you had any experiences of insights coming to you out of nowhere? That’s what this is all about. We set up the conditions to encourage that kind of out-of-nowhere insight to arise. It’s thinking with the right side of our brain. It’s holistic and intuitive. It feels like full-body thinking. It involves the whole of us, not just our brains. It’s how we start to understand things more deeply and fully, because we begin to understand them in our hearts and bodies, not just in our minds.

Even if no particular insights arise, it’s good to pay attention at least to any physical responses we might have. If we find ourselves getting tense or anxious that clearly says something. Or perhaps we find ourselves feeling warm and happy. In other words, we may experience things of a completely non-verbal nature that are useful clues to follow.

I’m sure you can appreciate the value of this kind of thinking. We all have experiences of wanting to do something and then finding that another part of us just doesn’t want to play along. Or we read about some interesting new idea, say about Buddhism, that we understand intellectually but we don’t really “get.” These are both examples of times when our understanding is still incomplete, and the whole of us has not come on board. Reflection is a great way to engage ourselves more deeply and bring all of us forward as we learn and grow.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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A student asks: My sit didn’t go well today. I was really distracted, and couldn’t get rid of my thoughts. What am I doing wrong?

Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: My sit didn’t go well today. I was really distracted, and couldn’t get rid of my thoughts. What am I doing wrong?

Sunada replies: Well, I’m afraid we all have days like that. You aren’t doing anything wrong at all. You’re just experiencing your mind more closely than you ever have before, and discovering what it’s really like! A bit of a shock, isn’t it? Believe it or not, this is GOOD news. You’re becoming more aware.

And really, I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of our thoughts, nor is that an aim of meditation. (Actually, I think the only people with no thoughts are dead ones!) Especially since you lead a very busy life, it makes sense that your mind can’t come to a standstill the minute you sit down on your cushion. A friend of mind described our minds as like electric fans. If you leave a fan on high for a while, then yank the plug out of the socket, the blades will keep spinning for a long time after the power’s been cut off. Our minds can be the same way.

So my first suggestion is to not get into the habit of evaluating how “good” your sits are based on whether you were able to reach a feeling of calm and relaxation. Meditation isn’t like a pill that we take to make us still and happy every time we sit. It doesn’t work that way. It’s more analogous to working out at a gym, where over the longer term our mental and physical constitution becomes more inclined toward calmness, and less thrown off by the ups and downs of life. So on a day-to-day basis we’ll have our “good sits” and “bad sits,” just like some days when we go to the gym, we feel terrible and aren’t able to get through our workout without gasping. But it’s still worth doing, and doing regularly, because it’s the cumulative effect that brings the benefit.

One of the things you can do to counteract a restless mind is to start with a fairly lengthy preliminary stage of body awareness and relaxation. When I start each sit, I imagine what it feels like to flop down into my favorite easy chair at the end of a long hard day — when I’ve done everything I could, the day is nearing its end, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished, and all I need to do is let go, relax, and get into that “ahhh……” sensation. It’s that physical sense of letting go, plus focusing on the breath, that helps to calm my body as well as my mind. Give that a try and see if it helps.

If a thought comes up, then see if you can imagine touching it lightly, like touching a bubble with a feather, and labeling it “thinking.” Don’t engage with it, don’t get on the train of thought, but don’t try to push it away either. It’s simply part of your present experience, to be observed with kindness and curiosity.

And there will be some days when those fan blades just keep spinning madly, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can slow them down. If that happens, see if you can watch that busy mind, as it is. A good sit, in my opinion, is one in which every time we find ourselves having wandered off, we bring ourselves back with kindness and patience. It’s not a contest to see how long we can go without getting distracted! It also doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring ourselves back – even if it’s a million times. Because that means we brought ourselves back a million times, and that’s a million moments of awareness! Let’s keep the focus on what positive things ARE happening, and not get discouraged about being far from an ideal we’ve built up in our minds that may not even be realistic.


Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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The top ten myths about meditation

meditation incense

Buddhist meditation teacher Bodhipaksa debunks the ten most common meditation myths.

Even though meditation is now widely used in sports, medicine, psychiatry, and of course as part of the spiritual practice of millions of people around the world, there are still many misconceptions in circulation about what meditation actually is.

Myth #10. Meditation is relaxation

To say that some people’s conception of meditation is “Think of warm puppies, and let your mind go limp” is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Perhaps because meditation has found a home in stress management classes around the world, many people think that “letting your tensions dissolve away” is the be-all and end-all of a meditation practice. But while it’s important to let go of unnecessary effort while meditating, meditation is still a practice — that is, it involves effort. Sure, we start by letting go of tensions in the body, but that’s only the start.

Myth #9. Meditation is just self-hypnosis

Hypnosis, when used in therapy, involves a patient being guided into having experiences that he or she would have difficulty in attaining unaided — experiences as varied as being content without a cigarette in hand and remembering forgotten events from childhood. Self-hypnosis does the same thing, but the practitioner uses a remembered script or visualization to, say, increase relaxation or to experience greater confidence. There’s actually some overlap between hypnosis and meditation (although some meditation teachers, being suspicious of hypnosis, would deny this). In both disciplines we start with inducing a state of relaxation and then proceed to doing some kind of inner work. In hypnosis and in some forms of meditation that inner work involves visualization or the use of repeated phrases. But many forms of meditation (for example, Zen “just sitting” or Theravadin mindfulness meditation) make no use of such tools. The overlap between hypnosis and meditation is only partial.

Myth #8. There are technological shortcuts

“I want to relax, and I want to do it now!” is the approach taken by many goal-oriented Westerners. And that makes them suckers for promises of quick-fix technological approaches to meditating. The web is full of products that promise you that you’ll meditate like a Zen monk at the touch of a button. Just stick your headphones on and hit play, and let the magical audio technology do the rest! But like myth #10, this overlooks the fact that meditation involves effort. Sure, if you stop running around being stressed for half an hour and listen to some blandly pleasant music you’ll find you’re more relaxed. Why wouldn’t you be? But it’s a mistake to confuse this with real meditation. The “Zen monk” in these ads would surely be puzzled to think that someone listening to a CD for a few minutes had attained the depths of mindfulness and compassion that come from thousands of hours of sitting on a cushion watching your breath.

Myth #7. Transcendental Meditation is the most common kind of meditation

“Oh, so is it Transcendental meditation you do?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked that question when people have found out I’m a meditation teacher. Just about everyone has heard of Transcendental Meditation because of famous practitioners like the Beatles and because of controversies about TM being taught in U.S. schools, but TM is very much a minority pursuit — probably because it’s so darned expensive to learn (and the question of where those millions of dollars go is still open). The most common form of meditation in the West is Mindfulness or Insight meditation, which comes from Theradavin Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia. Zen meditation and Tibetan meditation (which often involves visualization) isn’t far behind.

Myth #6. You have to sit in lotus position

In the Asian countries where Buddhist meditation developed people generally sit on the floor and have flexible hips. It’s natural for them to sit cross-legged, and so they sit in a variety of cross-legged postures in order to meditate, the lotus position being one of the most common and stable postures. In the West we sit in chairs from an early age and have stiffer hips. It’s therefore a rare Westerner who can sit in the lotus position to meditate — at least with any degree of comfort. In actual fact it’s possible to sit comfortably to meditate on a chair, a meditation stool, kneeling, or even lying down (although you’ll have trouble staying awake). The most important thing is that you find a posture that’s comfortable for you — and that you don’t beat yourself up about not being able to twist your legs like a pretzel.

Myth #5. In meditation you sit there saying “OM”

Mantra meditation is only one kind of meditation, and “OM” is only one mantra (or part of a mantra). ‘Nuff said.

Myth #4. Meditation is a religious activity

Although meditation comes from various spiritual or religious traditions, it’s not in itself necessarily a religious practice. The most common forms of meditation practice, for example, involve observing the sensations of the breath. What’s religious about that? Sure, there are some forms of meditation that involve using religious words of phrases as objects of concentration (e.g. Transcendental Meditation, Buddhist Mantra meditation, etc.) but many of the most common meditation practices have no religious overtones — which is probably one of the reasons they’re so common.

Myth #3. Meditation is somehow “Eastern”

A lot of people (usually Christians) have told me that they think Buddhist practice is “foreign” because it comes from an Eastern context. Hmm, where does Christianity come from again? Oh yes, the Middle East. But as with Myth #4 (“Meditation is a religious activity”) there’s nothing inherently Eastern, Southern, or Northern about counting your breath or wishing people well. Some Tibetan practices do involve visualizing rather bizarre (to Western eyes) figures, and mantra meditation usually involves repeating Sanskrit words or phrases — but those constitute a minority of meditation practices. Oh, all right, it’s a large minority — but what’s wrong with a little exoticism?

Myth #2. Meditation is escapist

To some people, meditation is “running away from problems,” “navel gazing,” “lotus eating,” or “disregarding the world.” Actually, running around being busy and never having time to experience yourself deeply is escapism. When you meditate you’re brought face-to-face in a very direct way with your own anger, delusion, craving, pain, and selfishness. There’s nothing to do in meditation but to experience and work with these things. Also, some forms of meditation — such as lovingkindness and compassion meditation — involve us working at transforming our relationship with the world by cultivating love and empathy for others. Perhaps that’s why so many meditators are involved in social work, psychotherapy, nursing, bereavement counseling, prison work, etc.

Myth #1 Meditation is about letting your mind go blank

Here it is, the all-time number one meditation myth — that meditation is about “making your mind go blank.” Sure, in meditation we aim to reduce the amount of thinking that goes on. Sure, just sit there for a few minutes watching all those pointless and even downright unhelpful thoughts bubbling up nonstop in the mind and you’d start to think that a blank mind would be preferable! But what would it be like to have a blank mind? Would you even be awake? Would you have any consciousness at all? Would you be able to know that your mind was blank? The confusion arises because we identify so much with our verbal thoughts (our inner self-talk) that we think that that’s all our experience is. And if we reduce or even stop our thinking (and that can happen) we assume that the mind must be blank. But a blank mind simply isn’t possible.

No, in meditation we aim to develop mindfulness — that’s mind-full-ness. When we’re mindful the mind is very much not blank. Rather, we’re aware of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts — and of how all those things interact with each other. The mind is so full of our present-moment experience that there’s less room for it to be full of useless thoughts, and instead we’re aware of the incredible richness of our experience — a richness that we overlook entirely when we spend our whole lives lost in thinking.

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Richard Carlson, ‘Don’t Sweat Small Stuff’ author dies at 45

wildmind meditation news

Rick DelVecchio, SF Chronicle Staff Writer: Richard Carlson, a Bay Area psychotherapist who became the world-famous writer of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” and 30 other motivational books stressing love, gratitude and kindness above all other values, collapsed and died Wednesday on a flight from San Francisco to New York.

Carlson, 45, lived in Walnut Creek and was scheduled to make two TV appearances to promote his latest book, “Don’t Get Scrooged: How to Thrive in a World Full of Obnoxious, Incompetent, Arrogant and Downright Mean-Spirited People.”

A family spokesman said he apparently died of cardiac arrest.

” ‘Don’t Get Scrooged’ was a book he’d been wanting to write for a long time,” said Susan Miller, Carlson’s executive assistant. “He felt like this one was really going to take off.”

Carlson was a popular motivational speaker, stress consultant and media figure dubbed one of the world’s foremost happiness experts. Associates on Friday recalled him as an unusually clear and giving teacher, listener and friend. Read the original article »

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Robert Collier: “Any thought that is passed on to the subconscious often enough and convincingly enough is finally accepted”

Robert Collier

All too often thoughts set thoughts in motion with little or no conscious intervention on our part, creating an inner avalanche of ideation. Helplessly caught up in this endless cascade, we are swept away by the stories generated by our hopes and fears.

To change the metaphor, each thought sends forth an echoing cry, like an animal calling for its mate, and this cry penetrates the heart, evoking an emotional response. The end result is suffering, stress, depression, anxiety.

Our thoughts form consistent story lines:

  • “Nobody likes me.”
  • “If only such-and-such a thing would happen, then I’d be happy.”
  • “I just know this is going to go wrong.”
  • “I bet he did that deliberately.”

As we listen, without mindfulness, to these story lines, day in and day out (and at night too, for our inner dramatic arc does not cease with conscious thought) we remain utterly convinced that these stories are truth, not imaginings.

And yet thoughts are not facts, but merely the projections of our hopes and fears. As we develop greater mindfulness we begin to recognize this, to catch ourselves in the act of indulging in a story line whose punch line is an ache in the heart. And we start to be able to let go of these story-lines, realizing that they will bring us nothing good.

A further step in some meditation traditions is to cultivate thoughts that will enhance well-being rather than diminish it. And so, in the development of lovingkindness practice we repeat phrases such as “May I be well, may I be happy,” and in mantra practice we repeat phrases that evoke enlightened qualities of insight, compassion, and energy. Even the traditional recitation of the refuges and precepts can be seen as a way of convincing the mind of the value of committing oneself wholeheartedly to the path of awareness and compassion.

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Milarepa: “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick.”

Milarepa said, “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”

Milarepa (1052-1135) was a great Tibetan Yogi who lived an austere life on the bare hillsides of the Himalayas, eking out an existence on donations and the few plants — principally nettles — that grow in that harsh environment. His name means “The Cotton-Clad One,” and he generally wore just a thin sheet, using the heat generated by meditation practices to keep the fierce Tibetan cold at bay.

Despite his remote living situation he attracted many disciples and visitors, and although he belonged to no school he is particularly venerated by the Tibetan Kagyus, who trace their lineage back through him.

Milarepa was a master of Mahamudra, a meditation approach that emphasizes the innate purity of the mind. In his inimitable and playful style, Milarepa compares the unawakened self to a dog running after a stick that has been thrown. When it comes to chasing sticks, many dogs have more enthusiasm than sense: I remember, for example, a friend’s dogs repeatedly charging into a Scottish loch to “fetch” the stones that I was throwing into the depths. Often our own minds are scarcely less silly than those dogs. Anyone who has sat in meditation has observed this and knows exactly what Milarepa is talking about: the mind goes chasing after any and every thought that passes through it, and often doesn’t much mind whether it suffers in so doing. So much for humans being smarter than dogs.

There are many possible alternatives to chasing the sticks of thought like a hapless hound. We can start chasing them and then bring the mind back to a point of focus, rather like calling a dog to heel. We can learn sit still and to watch the sticks fly past without reacting to them. We can even learn to examine the sticks and recognize their impermanence and the fact that they are not intrinsic to the mind. All of these techniques are useful, and even necessary. But Milarepa goes several steps beyond.

Milarepa suggests that we turn, like a lion, and look directly at the mind itself. What can we expect to find? First, we can expect to see thoughts arising and passing away, liberating themselves without us having to exert any effort to rid the mind of them. Second, we can see the space of awareness within which these thoughts arise. That awareness is pure, and unstained by the thoughts that pass through it. That awareness is your Buddha nature, your own potential enlightenment.

All thoughts arise in this stainless awareness and dissolve within it. To see the nature of those thoughts clearly, Milarepa tells us elsewhere, is to see that there never was any arising or passing away: that all thoughts are empty of self-existence and lacking in essence. Thoughts, he tells us are illusory. It’s only our delusion that makes us think of them as real, and so, over and over, we go plunging into the lake to retrieve the unretreievable.

Although we tend to think or spiritual awakening as lying at the end of a long and arduous task, it’s right here, right now, just waiting for us to stop chasing sticks and instead, lion-like, to turn and look deeply into our own mind, and its thought, and to see their nature.

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