walking meditation

Mindfulness, step by step

Almost anything we do can offer us an opportunity to practice mindfulness. The most mundane activities, such as unloading the dishwasher, driving, or grocery shopping, can become part of our spiritual practice.

Walking as a Practice

Walking is one ordinary activity that we can transform into a vehicle for being more mindful. One of the benefits of mindful walking is that the body is easier to sense when it’s in movement. In sitting meditation a lot of people initially find it difficult to be aware of physical sensations. When we’re walking, the sensations are far more obvious. This means that walking can be a powerful anchor for our attention.

The Irish poet John O’Donahue wrote:

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.

Walking is something we take for granted, and we may assume that although we can walk to interesting places, the act of walking itself is inherently uninteresting. Yet the simple act of walking can be a rich and fulfilling experience. In relating to ordinary activities with mindfulness, we may find that they’re not so mundane after all. We begin to see everyday existence as a miracle. Ordinary movements can become a dance, everyday sounds become music, the uninteresting can become fascinating.

Mindful Walking Versus Walking Meditation

In many traditions there is a walking meditation practice in which we pace back and forth at an incredibly slow pace. In this form of meditation it might take several minutes to cover a distance that we would normally traverse in a few seconds. What I’m suggesting here is something different: focusing mindfully on the physical sensations that arise as we’re walking to the mailbox, or to the bus stop, or train station, or taking a stroll in the park, or in fact any other time we’re walking in daily life.

The practice

You can pause for a moment before you start walking, and simply experience what it’s like to stand, noticing the weight of the body pressing into the earth.

The Eyes

Let the eyes be soft and be attentive to the whole of your visual field.

In order to maintain your mindfulness as you walk, I’d suggest not letting your gaze wander any more than is necessary for safety. So avoid things like looking in shop windows or letting your gaze track people’s movements. Just let your eyes look straight ahead, and perhaps slightly downward.

The Pace

Your walk itself should be natural, although perhaps just a little slower than usual. When you walk at the same pace as you usually do, your mind will do the same things it usually does. In other words you’ll get distracted. Slowing your walk a fraction helps you to be less habitual.

The Anchor

The core of mindful walking practice is observing the sensations in the body. A good place to start is with the alternating pattern of the feet making and breaking contact with the earth. This is simple, concrete, and easy to notice. Those rhythmic sensations can be your anchor—they’re what you turn your attention back toward whenever you realize you’ve become distracted.

Walking Into Mindfulness

From there, you can start to become aware of the rest of the body. Start with the lower legs, where you can notice the tightening and release of the muscles. Notice also sensations such as the touch of your clothing against your skin and the vibration of the feet touching the ground rippling up through your flesh, bones, and joints.

You can notice sensations and movements in the thighs, the hips, and the pelvis. You can notice the spine, the belly, the chest. Notice all the movements of the breathing, and how it naturally fits in with the rhythm of the walking. You can notice the shoulders moving, the arms swinging, the way the head moves, and so on.

You’ll find that with the eyes soft and your field of attention open and receptive it’s possible to notice how each sensation of the walking is coordinated with all the others. The whole of our walking, from our breathing to the sensation of air flowing over the hands as they swing at the end of our arms, form one process—an elegant and fascinating dance, as we walk into mindfulness, step by step.

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Mindful moment… Walk away your worries

Marianne Power, The Independant: Ok, so it’s back-to-reality-blues time. The tree is on its way down and the house is covered with its spines. The Hoover is snarled up with tinsel.

Boxes awaiting decorations surround you and every time you put on your trousers you regret that fourth tin of Quality Streets you ate. So here’s what you do: go for a walk in nature. The simple act of walking in a green space has been found to improve mental health, according to new American research…

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A mindful gift from Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) to all of us

wildmind meditation newsElisha Goldstein, PsychCentral: Last week I wrote about Thich Nhat Hanh’s brain hemorrhage landing him in the hospital. The most recent update from Plum Village shows that while his condition is still in a critical stage he has opened his eyes and even reached out to touch the attendant next to him. In continuing this time of honoring his life I wanted to share with you one of the gifts he has given me that I often share with others.

These are the short phrases he weaves into breathing or walking that helps us be more present, loving, grounded, and aware in …

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Four tips for meditating in public

I love meditating in public places. I’ve meditated on park benches, and on trains and buses and airplanes. I’ve done walking meditation on country lanes and on busy city streets.

One benefit of meditating in public places is being able to squeeze a bit more meditation into your day. If you regard meditation as something you can only do in a special room, relatively free from audible distractions, then you’re limiting the amount of time that you can spend meditating. If you regard these other times I’ve mentioned as being fair game, then you have many more opportunities for practice.

There are just a few things I’d suggest you bear in mind if you’re going to meditate in public.

  1. If you have the expectation that you’re going to become very narrowly focused on internal sensations, like the breathing, as might happen in a quiet meditation room, then you’re probably going to be very frustrated. What we need to do is to practice a more open form of awareness where the sounds around us are part of the meditation practice. I’ll usually start by being aware of the space, and light, and sound around me. I accept the presence of whatever sounds are arising. It doesn’t matter if the sounds are ones you might conventionally think of as unpleasant, like the sounds of construction or of music that you don’t normally like — just accept that they’re present. Think of allowing them to pass, uninhibited, through the space of your mind. Sounds in fact cease to be distractions, and become what you are mindfully paying attention to. It may be that once you’ve acknowledged the sounds, you can become more narrowly focused, but it’s fine if you end up breathing while also being mindful of any sounds that are arising.
  2. You might be interrupted. Even if you’re sitting with your eyes closed it’s possible that someone might come up and talk to you. Again, if you have an expectation that meditation is a self-evident “do not disturb” activity, as it generally is when you’re meditating in a dedicated meditation room, then you might be jarred or even angered by someone coming up and talking to you. So you have to accept that people around you are not going to know what you’re doing, and are unlikely to regard it as being special, in the way they might if they saw you sitting on a zafu in front of a Buddhist altar. So accept any disturbances with as much grace as possible.
  3. You can do any form of meditation outdoors. I’ve mentioned that you can do walking meditation. You can do mindfulness of breathing, although as I’ve suggested it may not be as deeply focused as when you meditate in a quiet, still place. Lovingkindness practice is perfect; cultivating lovingkindness can feel much more grounded and less abstract when there are actual people around. You might find that you don’t do the usual stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) and go straight to the final stage of wishing all beings well.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest avoiding meditation postures where the hands are held in special “mudras” on the knees or, even worse, held out to the sides. If you want to give the impression that meditation is some weird hippy-trippy activity, then that’s a great way to do it. But it’s not a traditional posture for Buddhist meditation, where the hands most often rest in the lap, although you can rest them on the knees as well. Generally a regular seated posture (hands on the lap) is fine for meditating on a train, bus, or park. It works, and it’s unpretentious.

It’s worth considering that the Buddha probably did the majority of his meditating outdoors, in places that we might consider public. He probably didn’t meditate in city streets, except for when he was walking or begging mindfully, but he had a reputation of meditating much closer to towns than was considered normal in those days; most meditators would withdraw to very secluded places deep in the jungle or up in the mountains. And this makes me think that the Buddha meditating in that way, in those relatively accessible places, might have had the effect of “normalizing” the practice of meditation by making it visible. Perhaps we too can have the effect of normalizing meditation, making people curious about what it is that all those people sitting peacefully with closed eyes on the bus, or train, or plane, of park bench are doing. Perhaps meditating in public could be a bodhisattva activity, subtly transforming our culture.

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Words of equanimity; wordless equanimity (Day 84)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So far in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness I haven’t said anything about the phrases we use in cultivating equanimity on the cushion, although in the guided meditation I posted the other week I suggested the words “May all beings find peace.”

In his “A Wise Heart,” Jack Kornfield suggests some beautiful phrases:

“May you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.”

These remind us of a number of things. We’re reminded that equanimity includes an element of wisdom, which is where its peace comes from. Our deepest suffering comes from an inability to deal with impermanence, and from craving to have things they way we want them to be, and to having aversion to how things are. In equanimity we’ve accepted the coming and going of difficult experiences and have neither craving nor aversion.

We’re also reminded that in a way what we’re wishing for in cultivating equanimity is that other beings — all beings — have equanimity. Really we have the aspiration that all beings become awakened and experience the deepest and truest form of equanimity. We’re wishing that they have the openness, and balance, and peace of the awakened state. When I say “May all beings find peace” I don’t mean “peace and quiet” but enlightenment! We wish that the blessing of liberated equanimity (one of the uses of the word “equanimity” is as a synonym for enlightenment) arise in us and become manifest in others as well.

Sharon Salzberg has suggested the following phrases, although it would be a bit much to try to use all of these in one meditation, so feel free to pick and choose:

  • All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them.
  • May we all accept things as they are.
  • May we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
  • I will care for you but cannot keep you from suffering.
  • I wish you happiness but cannot make your choices for you.

The traditional descriptions of the upekkha bhavana (the meditation practice in which we cultivate even-minded love) don’t contain any suggestions for phrases to use. In fact, both the meditation manuals I’ve been drawing on — the first century Path of Freedom and the 6th century Path of Purity — suggest that equanimity isn’t really established until the third jhana, which is a state in which verbal thought has ceased. Even in second jhana, there’s no thought, and because thinking has stopped, there’s no possibility — if we take these two commentaries literally — of there being equanimity phrases.

There are two things I’d say about this. The first of these is that I don’t think that the commentaries (which aren’t always reliable) do need be taken literally here. As I’ve pointed out before, there are different forms of equanimity. These include:

  • “Ordinary” equanimity, or mental stability, where we don’t get thrown off balance by pleasant or unpleasant feelings; we don’t, for example, lose our temper when someone says something hurtful.
  • Equanimity as a brahmavihara (what we’re mainly discussing here) which I see as mental stability combined with lovingkindness and an insightful awareness into impermanence, etc.
  • The equanimity of third and fourth jhana, where mental stability is experienced in combination with deep concentration and mental stillness.

I suspect that the commentators took the second and third of these and imagined that the equanimity of jhana and the equanimity of the brahma viharas are necessarily the same. And I don’t think they are. I think it’s possible to experience equanimity as a brahmavihara (even-minded love) in states of concentration below the third, or even second, jhana. It can be experienced in first jhana and even in access concentration. And it’s possible to experience the equanimity of jhana without having any lovingkindness to speak of.

Too great a desire for systematization is one of the besetting sins of Buddhist commentators!

The second thing I’d like to say is that although I believe that (or my experience is that) equanimity, or even-minded love, can be developed in access concentration and first jhana, it can also be experienced in second, and third jhana too. So here, all three forms of equanimity that I’ve just mentioned are experienced together: we have the mental stability of ordinary equanimity, which is pervaded with love, and which is experienced in a wordless and deeply focused mind. So this is a state of loving equanimity which is wordless and deeply concentrated.

I’ve been experimenting with allowing this wordless, jhanic, loving state to emerge while walking, and finding that it is possible just to be equanimous in this way without using any phrases at all. In fact, when a wordless and deeply calm mental state arises, it’s not possible to use phrases without dropping down to a less focused state of awareness.

The arising of this state of walking equanimity (and I’ve done this while driving, too) depends on the practice I described the other day of becoming aware of both the inner world of bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and the outer world of light, sound, space, etc., and resting in this open and receptive state. Thought quickly falls away, and a loving gaze can be introduced, leading to an equanimous and loving state.

You can experience peace, and silently wish this peace for anyone you see.

Now some people assert, quite confidently, that jhanic levels of concentration can’t be developed in the midst of activities like walking. But the Buddha seems to have been quite clear that they can:

But whoever —
walking, standing,
sitting, or lying down —
overcomes thought,
delighting in the stilling of thought:
he’s capable…

And one of the rewards of walking meditation, the Buddha said, was that “the concentration (samādhi) he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.” Ajahn Brahm, in one of his books, also mentions that he has attained deep states of samādhi (concentration) while walking.

And one of the clearest descriptions of walking meditation including the overcoming of the hindrances and the entry into jhāna is this:

“If a bhikkhu has gotten rid of longing and ill will while walking; if he has abandoned dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt; if his energy if aroused without slackening; if his mindfulness is established and unmuddles; if his body is tranquil and undisturbed; if his mind is concentrated and one-pointed, then that bhikkhu is said to be ardent…” (AN II 14)

(I give these examples because a lot of effort has gone in to trying to “prove” that walking meditation and jhāna are incompatible.)

People tend to assume — and I think this is their self-doubt speaking — that even first jhana is out of their grasp, let alone third jhana. But I don’t think this is the case. I’d suggest trying the practice I’ve just outlined above. Basically take the approach I suggested in the guided meditation a few days ago, and try it while walking, or even while sitting with the eyes open in some spot, like a park, where you can see other people. You might be surprised how far you can go.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Walking with love (Day 20)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

When I walk, I usually do a “walking lovingkindness” practice. Since it takes me 15 minutes to walk to work and another 15 to walk home again, I get a “bonus” 30 minutes of meditation on the days I don’t have to drive. So even if I only manage 30 minutes of sitting practice I end up meditating for an hour, which is a reasonably substantial amount of meditation to do in a day.

Of course I’m sure there are many ways to do walking lovingkindness, but I’ll share what my practice is.

Basically, it’s very simple: as I walk, I say to myself, “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy.” I remain aware of the space around me, and let a sense of kindness take hold. Since my consciousness is tinged with kindness, and since my consciousness is filling the space around me, I have a feeling that my well-wishing is touching those around me.

I’ll be a bit more aware of the body than when I’m doing regular walking (when I tend to disappear into my head) but not as much as when I’m doing mindful walking. The practice of walking lovingkindness takes us more “out in the world” than mindfulness typically does, and so there’s bit less focus on internal experience. I sometimes keep some awareness on the heart as I walk, but often I don’t.

If there’s no one to be seen (and that’s often the case) then I simply continue like this — walking, repeating the phrases, letting my goodwill radiate into the world around me. If I see someone — the guy putting his recycling out by the curb-side, a car driving by, a woman walking her dog — I direct my attention toward those beings and specifically wish them well.

As a car goes by, my attention tracks it in a focused way, as if I’m shining a mental spotlight on it. As I walk past the guy putting our his recycling I smile and say good-morning.

I hear a train in the distance, and my attention turns in that direction, wishing the staff and passengers well.

If there are a lot of people around, then it can seem a bit restless and unsatisfying to have the “spotlight” jittering around all over the place, so I’ll return to simply allowing a field of kindness to extend around me, knowing that it touches all these beings as they pass through my awareness.

Sometimes if I’m experiencing personal suffering — like the day last week I was feeling a little irritable — I direct my lovingkindness mainly toward myself, until I’m feeling more at peace and less likely to be judgmental of others.

The phrases I’m reciting take up “mental space” that would otherwise be occupied with rumination that would often be tinged with anxiety or ill will. Most of that thinking is laid aside, although sometimes my mindfulness slips and I find myself distracted. But when this happens I simply let go of the unhelpful thinking at the first opportunity and return to the practice: walking and loving.

But the phrases don’t simply displace mental activity that would generally make me unhappy: they actually help foster kindness and joy. Often I’ll feel like I’m radiating this love and joy into the world around me. I’ll feel buffered by it, buoyed up by it.

There’s a feeling of my sense of self expanding and attenuating, because of this sense of my consciousness radiating into the world. There’s a large degree of “un-selfing” in this practice, which can bring it close to being an insight practice.

This is a very traditional practice, by the way. According to the Metta Sutta, one of the key teachings on lovingkindess:

Let him radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Standing, walking, sitting or reclining, as long as he is awake, let him develop this mindfulness.

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Walking meditation a fitness favorite

René Fay regularly walks the labyrinth outside Grace Cathedral to relax and meditate. She is seen here on Monday, December 10, 2012, on San Francisco, Calif., walking the path. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle / SF

Debra Levi Holtz, SF Gate:

René Fay, 30, San Francisco

Occupation: Referral coordinator at A Home Within, and barista at Sweet Inspiration Bakery.

Activity: Walking meditation.

Where do you do walking meditation? I walk the labyrinths (both indoor and outside) at Grace Cathedral every weekday after work. I start at the beginning of the labyrinth and, usually at a slow pace, make my way toward the center. I concentrate on …

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Waking up from the hindrance of sloth and torpor

Sleepy dog

Have you noticed that half the time when you ask people how they are, they answer with “tired”? We all seem to be tired, and when we sit down to meditate we may find that we nod off or sit there in a rather dreamy and unfocused state.

This is sloth and torpor — one of the states of distraction that we call the Five Hindrances. The schema of the Five Hindrances is a diagnostic tool that, combined with traditional “antidotes,” can help us to engage creatively with our experience in order to become more joyful, calm, and focused.

Most of the specific antidotes to the hindrances that I’m learned have been shared by other practitioners, or come from the commentarial tradition, but sloth and torpor is one of the rare hindrances where detailed instructions have been preserved in the original scriptures.

In talking with one of his chief disciples, Moggallana, the Buddha gave a list of suggestions for dealing with tiredness:

“Whatever perception you have in mind when drowsiness descends on you, don’t attend to that perception, don’t pursue it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

One of the main applications of this is that when you’re tired, you shouldn’t focus on sensations low in the body. Rather than paying attention to the movements of the abdomen, which will further encourage sleepiness, you should notice sensations that are higher up in the body, like the sensations of the breathing in the upper chest and head.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then recall to your awareness the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it, re-examine it & ponder it over in your mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Reflect on the Dhamma — the Buddhist teachings — helps to focus the mind, preventing it from drifting aimlessly. Also, the reminder of a “higher purpose” may have the effect of inspiring us and of arousing our energy and enthusiasm. You can run through a list such as the Four Noble Truths, of the Five Precepts, or the Eightfold Path, and give yourself an inner Dharma talk. You can even imagine that you’re explaining the teachings to a friend. A lot of people don’t have these lists memorized, which is a shame, and I’d highly recommend the practice of committing these teachings to memory. The effort really pays off in terms of mental clarity.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then repeat aloud in detail the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So, this is the same advice, but here we’re talking out loud, which is further going to prevent us from falling asleep. For obvious reasons this method isn’t very appropriate when you’re meditating with others.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then pull both your earlobes and rub your limbs with your hands. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So now we move on to physical stimulation, which gets the blood flowing, and which encourages the release of endorphins. The most useful form of stimulation I’ve found is yoga stretches — particularly when we stretch the hamstrings or hip muscles.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then get up from your seat and, after washing your eyes out with water, look around in all directions and upward to the major stars & constellations. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Water in the face gives us a creative shock to the system.

This suggestion also takes us more in the direction of paying attention to light, which is the next piece of advice we’ll hear. Also the suggestion of raising the head to look up is significant. When we’re tired, we look down and the chin drops. When this happens, a chain reaction is kicked off: our experience is visually darker, our breathing shifts to the abdomen, and the center of our awareness typically moves downward in the body. All of these things heighten our sense of sleepiness. These effects can be noticeable with even a tiny movement downward of the chin. Raising the chin can cause mental stimulation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then attend to the perception of light, resolve on the perception of daytime, [dwelling] by night as by day, and by day as by night. By means of an awareness thus open & unhampered, develop a brightened mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

If you have candles on your altar, then you can open your eyes and look at a candle. You can visualize light. You can imagine that you’re looking at a bright light. Or, if you relax and just notice your field of awareness, you may notice that some parts of your experience are brighter than others. You can pay attention to those in order to keep yourself alert. This can actually be a meditation in its own right.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — percipient of what lies in front & behind — set a distance to meditate walking back & forth, your senses inwardly immersed, your mind not straying outwards. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

It’s hard to fall asleep while doing walking meditation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — reclining on your right side — take up the lion’s posture, one foot placed on top of the other, mindful, alert, with your mind set on getting up. As soon as you wake up, get up quickly, with the thought, ‘I won’t stay indulging in the pleasure of lying down, the pleasure of reclining, the pleasure of drowsiness.’ That is how you should train yourself.

Finally, the Buddha recognized that sometimes you just need to take a nap! The strategies above can help combat and even overcome tiredness, but in the end you’re fighting your physiology, and your physiological needs are going to triumph.

There are other techniques for dealing with the hindrance of sloth and torpor, but the Buddha’s advice to Moggallana is still very relevant and useful.

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Meditating with tinnitus

Milarepa sitting, with a hand raised to his right ear, listening.

If you suffer from tinnitus – persistent ringing in the ears – you may wonder whether meditation is a good idea. And yet it can be a powerful tool in helping you come to terms with the white noise inside your head. Meditator and long-time tinnitus sufferer Mandy Sutter airs some of the issues.

Tinnitus can make meditation very difficult. And because meditation is mostly silent, it may seem that meditation can make tinnitus very difficult, too.

It’s certainly true that as soon as you sit down on the cushion and close your eyes, the tinnitus seems to get louder. It isn’t really getting louder: it only seems that way because you are cutting down on other external stimuli. However, the thought that you’re making it ‘worse’ by meditating can be off-putting, if you let it go unchallenged.

Even accepting that, some days it’s still tempting to stay off the cushion completely. And of course, a missed day can easily turn into a missed few days, a week, a month.

Indeed, some tinnitus experts believe that sufferers should avoid silence altogether.

But this rather black-and-white view doesn’t help the person who wants to meditate, so rather than hanging up one’s meditation mat for good, I think it’s worth investigating some of the resources available to see if there’s anything out there (or in there!) to help you.

Courses and books

Perhaps the first thing to consider is attending a led course on managing your tinnitus through mindfulness meditation. These courses, which are becoming popular with healthcare professionals, are held in a variety of settings, including medical ones. They aim to defuse the anxiety and stress caused by tinnitus and they often report excellent success rates. Try typing the words ‘tinnitus’ and ‘mindfulness’ into your search engine to see what’s available in your area.

There are other types of tinnitus retraining, too. One scientist of particular interest is Pawel Jastreboff, who rejects the old idea that tinnitus is caused by damage to the ear and believes in re-educating sufferers to think of the condition positively as, say, ‘the music of the brain.’ He posits a strong connection between anxiety about tinnitus and its perceived severity, and has found that a shift in thought can have a dramatic effect on someone’s perception of their tinnitus.

Also see:

Vidyamala Prue Burch’s book ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’ (reviewed here on Wildmind) is another helpful resource. It doesn’t deal specifically with tinnitus, but uses meditation to approach any chronic condition. There are practical tips on how to cultivate a wider awareness of your body that puts your condition into context.

Some practical tips

Personally I’ve found this particular approach – of cultivating a wider awareness – invaluable. I now sometimes wear earplugs while I meditate (this is a complete no-no for some tinnitus sufferers, though, so please approach with care). Because wearing earplugs magnifies ALL inner body sounds, like swallowing and breathing, the tinnitus sounds seem to decrease by comparison, or at least just take their place among my body’s other normal noises. I find I can simply welcome them to the party.

I have also spent some time actively listening to my tinnitus during meditation, and although this may feel unpleasant and even counter-intuitive at first, I recommend it. When you really listen, you may identify sounds like crashing cymbals or whistles, or notice that your tinnitus varies in volume, or has a wave-like pattern. I have found it helpful to learn the length and breadth of my tinnitus in this way: it makes me less prone to worry.

Meditating with your eyes open can help: the increased visual stimulus acting as a balance to the unsolicited sound stimulus. You can use incense in a similar way. And I sometimes find it useful to meditate sitting against a warm radiator, the body sensation of heat again providing a balance. Walking meditation is another valuable and legitimate resource.

Using sound

Also helpful are guided meditations on CD or mp3 (there’s a good selection of these here at the Wildmind store, and search the meditation pages for free ones. Bodhipaksa has many on the free Insight Timer app. Of course, there are still periods of silence during a guided meditation (though some have background muzak) but the voice coming in and out focusses one’s attention away from the tinnitus.

Listening to ambient sound is another option. You can buy devices or download mp3 files that reproduce the sound of waves, or rain pattering on a windowpane, or the crackling of a log fire. Whale or dolphin sounds can also be good. You can concentrate on the sounds as the object of your meditation or use your normal meditation technique (e.g. counting the breath) with the sounds in the background. I have a Sound Oasis which I find invaluable. These devices can be pricey though, so it’s worth downloading some free ambient sounds to your computer before you buy one, to make sure this method suits you.

You’ll find some ambient sounds more effective than others, depending on the character of your own tinnitus and the nature of your own emotional responses to things. I usually turn my Sound Oasis to ‘Harbour Swell’ (the sound of a creaking boat bobbing on the waters) but this might not suit someone who suffers from seasickness!

Listening to music may help, though you may find it too emotionally stimulating. In fact, this may be one of the rare occasion when muzak is better than music!

Forget any idea that this isn’t ‘proper’ meditation (something that bugged me for a while). It’s just a different kind of meditation.

For some tinnitus sufferers, wearing earphones is helpful. The sound is brought closer, as if inserted between your hearing and the tinnitus. This isn’t the case for everyone, though, so find out what suits you.

Going on retreat

Silent meditation retreats pose a particular problem for the tinnitus sufferer. Forget ‘me and my shadow’ – it’s ‘me and my tinnitus’ for days on end. What you can face intermittently during the course of a normal day can seem overwhelming when it’s continuous.

But it’s still do-able. My tinnitus is quite severe, but I go on retreat several times a year.

The important thing is to look after yourself. As you already know, tinnitus is an invisible condition, so no-one makes allowances for you automatically. You may find it difficult to make allowances for yourself, too. But however embarrassed or guilty you feel about making a special case of yourself in an environment where you are strongly encouraged not to, please do: you have my permission, at least! Retreat leaders can be very helpful if approached beforehand.

Request a single room if one is available. You can play ambient sounds and there will be less chance of being woken during the night (tinnitus sufferer often find it difficult to get back to sleep).

Keep your eyes open during meditations if you need to, or take yourself off for walking meditations while the others sit in the shrine room.

No matter what the normal rules are, allow yourself books, iPod or CD player and earphones. You may not need to use them, but they can act as a security blanket.

If particular foods exacerbate your tinnitus (e.g. caffeine) a retreat may offer the ideal opportunity to avoid them for a time. If other foods help, take them with you. Chocolate helps my tinnitus (only kidding, unfortunately).

Taking care of yourself on retreat can be a valuable lesson in self-metta (loving-kindness towards oneelf).

Coming to terms with tinnitus

Having said that, it was on a silent retreat three years ago where I had no security blanket that I perhaps came most deeply to terms with my tinnitus.

My single room hadn’t materialised, and I was sharing with someone who kept putting the light on through the night. Despite decamping to the sitting room a couple of times, I went for four nights with virtually no sleep. I became more and more anxious. My tinnitus, exacerbated by the anxiety, raged continually. I felt as if a jetplane was taking off in my head. All the meditations were a write-off. Finally I made a break for the retreat office to ring my partner and ask him to come and get me (he’d only have had to drive 200 miles). But I couldn’t remember our phone number.

I decided to stay till the next morning, if only because it was too late to leave that evening. And that night in bed, tinnitus raging, I felt despair laced with terror. What if this never ended? What if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life? My heart thundered and I had to stuff the pillow into my mouth to stop myself from crying out.

Then I heard a clear voice in my head. ‘You don’t need to follow that train of thought,’ it said. ‘You just need to calm down. You know how: you have the tools. But they won’t work if you don’t use them.’

For some reason, I was able to recognise the truth of this. It was a great relief. I lay in bed going through every relaxation technique I’d ever learnt, be that in cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation classes, or hypnotherapy. It took a while but eventually I felt my body and mind profoundly relax, and knew I would sleep, if not now then later. The tinnitus, loud and insistent, was still there. The feeling of relaxation wasn’t one of relaxing despite it, or beyond it, but alongside it. At that moment, some of the emotional charge went out of my perception of my tinnitus, and it has never come back.

So, through meditation, I’d say it’s eminently possible to reach some degree of accommodation with your tinnitus, no matter how you go about it. You may even come to see your tinnitus as significant, instead of a nuisance: a vehicle for self-nurturing, and for reaching accommodation with yourself as a whole (including all the painful, messy and inconvenient bits).

You may even find, over time, that you have made friends with your tinnitus: or at least that you are not the sworn enemies you once thought you were.

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30 ways to add zing to your meditation this spring

“What does spring have to do with meditation?” you might ask. Each season offers opportunities to bring creativity to our meditation practices. Want to know what spring can bring? In the spring, especially in places that have had a cold winter, going outdoors is especially pleasurable. The breezes are cooling, the sun is warm, there is no need for heavy jackets, sweaters and socks and days are longer.

So, springtime brings some rain, it’s true, but also amazingly beautiful flowers from seeds and bulbs.

Here is a list of thirty ways to bring new zing to your meditation practice in the spring:

  1. go outdoors and listen to the sounds of the birds
  2. listen to the trees as the breezes rustle the leaves
  3. look at the many different shades of green that emerge from trees
  4. watch the sunlight filter through trees in a wooded area
  5. practice walking meditation
  6. watch the sun set each evening
  7. take a mindful walk early in the morning
  8. walk by the sea and feel the sand on your bare feet
  9. plant a garden
  10. pull weeds from the garden
  11. watch as what you plant in your garden grows
  12. enjoy the fruits and vegetables from your garden
  13. cook vegetables from your garden
  14. hang the laundry outdoors on a clothes line
  15. hike in a state park
  16. enjoy an outdoor massage
  17. swim in the sea, a lake or a pool
  18. practice yoga outdoors
  19. practice QiGong outdoors
  20. make cooking a meditation
  21. enjoy chopping, slicing, sauteing food
  22. enjoy the aromas of what you cook
  23. go camping
  24. play outdoors with children
  25. have a picnic by yourself
  26. have a picnic with a friend
  27. watch wind patterns on a pond
  28. bring your sketch pad outdoors to draw trees, grass, birds or whatever comes into your vision or imagination
  29. bring your watercolors and other paints outdoors with a canvas
  30. don’t make any plans for the day and have a retreat at home, making each action and interaction a meditation

Everything we do can become a meditation when we pay full attention to it. And isn’t that what meditation should be? It is one thing to be mindful when we are sitting alone in meditation, but the real test of mindfulness is when we are out and about in “real” life.

Spring, with beautiful weather and the splendor of flowers and trees, is a great time to bring our meditation practice off the mat and into the world. Give it a try!

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