At the San Francisco Insight Meditation Community, March 15, 2017.
At the San Francisco Insight Meditation Community, March 15, 2017.
I had been looking forward to celebrating the end of the year and the start of 2017 at a party with my partner and some friends. Instead, I spent the day in bed, swamped with fever and chills, tormented by an incessantly dripping nose and a vicious hacking cough. I was sick for about 6 days overall (and in fact am still recovering). While that is not that long of an illness it did provide me with plenty of time to contemplate the nature of healing, and the relationship between physical and mental wellness.
Although I have been somewhat miserable over the last week much of the time, I’ve also been interested in the physical experiences involved in falling and being ill and in slowly recovering and healing. I watched my body go from being tired one day, to being tired plus sneezing and having a scratchy throat the next, to being so profoundly drained of energy that I could barely stand the day after. Then, for the first time since I was a young man or child, I think, I experienced multiple days of continuous fever. Fever does interesting things to your perceptions. It carries the strange clarity of a waking dream – you know you’re awake, but what you see, and how you see it, is not quite real. Later, when the fever abates, and your sense of reality emerges as if from the ocean floor, you realize how skewed things were when you had the fever. I was still making rational decisions when I had the fever (like making sure I drank gallons of water and juice, or staying in bed for more rest, etc) but I experienced the world through the smokey lens of a contracted mind. A mind that did not have the same clarity that I am used to. My fever went up and down for a number of days, and I became obsessive about taking my temperature. When the fever was gone, I suddenly realized that I was seeing the world with that old familiar clarity again.
I am in awe of how the human body can heal. How the simple act of sleeping can contribute to that healing. But maybe the most useful thing about my illness is that it forced me to stop everything and just be. When I was able to walk a city block again, after days of being in a bed, I moved very slowly, at a pace that I could handle. I had to be in my body to do this. Getting sick forces you to be in your body. In fact, when we are sick, the mental intention of taking steps down a city street is not separated from the physical act of taking those steps — the way it often is when we are taking our health for granted. Actions that we take when we are sick are by nature very intentional – we can’t waste time doing other things. The body and mind become unified by the body’s physical inability to do more than it’s able to do. It’s the mind, in fact, which has to let go of its habits and goals and slow down to take care of the body. This process of the mind coming home to the body to take care of it is a beautiful thing, and watching it happen within the hothouse container of being ill is very illuminating.
The body slows down out of necessity to get itself well, and the mind is forced to meet it at its own pace. But when illness is no longer present in the body, the mind’s woes start all over again. It begins to plan and worry, contrive and judge, rehearse and rehash. In a sense our habitual busy minds are in a state of illness all the time. Or at least in a state of dis-ease. But when the mind is ill in this way it can get itself well again by remembering the body – by devoting itself to maintaining a close connection to the body. Before making a decision, or at that distinct moment in time when you are about to respond to someone in a way that might prove fateful, staying close to the body will help you stay close to the truth of what is needed. And staying close to the body and all its myriad signals – of pleasure, pain, fever ache and snot – will also help you stay close to feeling alive. And to the aliveness of this precious mortal life that we have. One of my resolutions for 2017 is to not abandon my body, to stay close to it in everything I do, so that I can be more alive and wise when I’m doing it.
As the great Ajahn Mun observed:
In your investigation of the world, never allow the mind to leave the body. Examine its nature, see the elements that comprise it, see the impermanence, the suffering, the selflessness of the body while sitting, walking, standing, lying down. When its true nature is seen fully and lucidly by the heart, the wonders of the world will become clear. In this way, the purity of the mind can shine forth, timeless and delivered.
If you practice mindfulness meditation, you’ve had this experience: you are focusing on your breath, one inhale and exhale at a time, when suddenly a compelling thought arises, distracting you. Maybe the thought is about work, or a relationship, or the vacation that starts next week, or whatever. That thought then leads you down a series of mental rabbit holes until – five minutes in – you realize that you’ve completely lost the breath. It can be humbling to realize how little control we have over our minds. Those thoughts are so compelling!
One powerful way of working with distracting thoughts is the simple technique of labeling. Whenever you notice that your mind has been wandering, silently say to yourself, thinking, thinking, or wandering, wandering. If you’ve been planning your day instead of noticing your breath, you can note planning, planning. If you’ve been remembering an event from yesterday, you can say remembering, remembering, and so on. Labeling our thoughts can have the effect of giving us some distance from them, leading to what I call “dis-identification.” We tend to identify with our thoughts and believe them to be true. Haven’t you noticed this in your own experience? Even if our thoughts are destructive, we give them credence because we are familiar with our mental patterns. That familiarity breeds an auto-pilot relationship to our thoughts. Because of this we tend to act on our thoughts without questioning or examining them. But when we label our thoughts in meditation, it’s as if we are freeing ourselves from the spell our thinking cast on us, as if we are waking up from a dream. We no longer believe the thought automatically. We see the thought merely as an event in consciousness. It may be an important thought that we need to act on; it may be a worthless thought that can be easily discarded. The important thing is that the act of labeling creates some space around our thoughts, allowing us to be aware of them and therefore giving us a choice about what thought to believe and act on and what thought to ignore.
This labeling technique also works with emotions. When we are feeling angry, we can note, angry, angry, or sadness, sadness, or desire, desire, etc. And labeling is something we can do even when we’re not meditating. It can be especially helpful during difficult conversations. If you’re talking politics with a close friend and you find yourself getting angry at an opinion your friend is sharing, acknowledging your anger can give you much needed separation and time to process the emotion. As a result you will probably be less likely to respond to your friend by saying something you might regret.
Research has shown that the inability to identify emotions makes it harder to regulate them.(1) Other research has shown that labeling emotions tends to lead to a lowering of stress levels.(2)
Keep the labeling simple. One word labels are best. The tone of your labeling is important as well. Simply note the bare experience without adding any emotional tone to it or any commentary. If you’re frustrated that you keep getting distracted by your thoughts, labeling THINKING! THINKING! impatiently will just make you feel bad about yourself.
Like just about any other meditation technique, mental labeling doesn’t always work. And it works better for some people than others. But it works often enough to be a useful addition to your meditation tool box.
Bill Scheinman is a mindfulness teacher and corporate mindfulness facilitator in the San Francisco Bay Area. His next 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction starts Feb. 20 in Berkeley. He also offers online mindfulness courses which you can learn about here.
1. Vine & Aldao, Journal of Social & Clinicial Psychology, April, 2014; 2. Craske, UCLA, 2012.
“There is nothing good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Our thoughts create our reality. The way we think conditions our behavior and leads to results in the world. So the types of thoughts we tend to think, believe, and act on have an enormous influence on our personal destinies, on whether or not we’ll achieve emotional resilience, career success, and happiness in relationships. Yet there is a common misconception that one of the goals of meditation is to rid ourselves of our thoughts and have a clear, empty mind. But mindfulness meditation is not about getting rid of our thoughts. It’s about learning to see clearly into the nature of our thoughts and begin to relate to our thinking differently.
Here are some points to keep in mind when exploring how to mindfully work with your thoughts:
It’s been said that approximately 95% of the 60,000 thoughts we have each day are the same thoughts we had yesterday. Which means that the vast majority of our thoughts are not original and not particularly useful. And because we are hard-wired with a negativity bias, many of those thoughts tend to be of a ruminative, obsessive, and dark nature, forming the basis for our tendency to catastrophize and feel overwhelmed. It’s summed up in the famous quote from Mark Twain: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles. But most of them never happened.”
Many of these repetitive thoughts form narrative patterns that psychologists have termed thinking distortions. If left unexamined, these thinking distortions can color our perception of the world and others. Here’s an example: You’re walking down the street and you see someone you know across the street. You notice the person catch your eye and you wave, but the person doesn’t respond at all, then disappears into a store. Your first thought is, “Oh my god, so and so just ignored me. What did I do?” This particular thinking distortion is known as reading minds. It’s the idea that we know exactly what people are thinking and what must be motivating their behavior. In the above example, though, are we even sure that the person recognized us? So much suffering is caused when we let these distorted thoughts control us.
And this points to another problem with our thoughts. Which is, we tend to believe them. Think about that for a minute. If we have 60,000 thoughts a day and most of them are repetitive, not helpful, or even negative, how does it effect our experience of being alive? If we believe our thoughts and don’t even question them, then it means we’ll tend to act in accordance with our thoughts even if they are wildly inaccurate. By failing to look at our thinking critically, it means that we are literally at the mercy of our unconscious patterns and habitual tendencies.
When you try to focus on your breathing for any length of time, you’ll notice that things get in the way of your focus. Many of these “things” are thoughts – plans, memories, fantasies, inner dialogues. The more we try to focus on the breath, in fact, the more we see these thoughts. As we continue to practice, it is inevitable that at some point we’ll start noticing the patterns of thinking that our mind produces: the desires, fears, hopes, and judgments we make about ourselves, the world, and others that influences our actions – and the outcomes of our lives.
Many of these habit patterns were unknown to us before we became meditators. As we deepen our practice, though, we get to know ourselves well. Mindfulness of thought patterns helps us see two crucial aspects of thoughts that lack of mindfulness will shield us from seeing: 1) thoughts are impermanent and insubstantial, and 2) certain thoughts lead to stress and suffering while others lead to greater ease and well-being. Mindfulness helps us see that thoughts are like clouds passing in the sky. For a time they seem solid and steady, but like clouds they are just passing and will actually not last. Have you ever been able to make your thoughts last? When we see that our thoughts are impermanent, we begin to recognize that thoughts are actually just events in consciousness, not facts. I’ll repeat that: thoughts are events in consciousness, not facts. This perspective provides a critical distance that allows us to see thoughts without necessarily believing them or acting on them. By seeing thoughts in this way, we begin to develop cognitive freedom and beginner’s mind.
The act of sitting and noticing our thought patterns over and over again gives us the space to digest thoughts before believing them or acting on them. Sometimes thoughts give rise to emotions, or act as a response to emotions, so when we are mindful of our thoughts we are also aware of the emotional underpinnings that influence us. By observing our thoughts rather than reacting to them we can understand which thoughts, if acted upon, will lead to suffering, and which thoughts will support a healthy respsonsiveness.
Mindfulness teaches us the humble lesson that we are not really in control of our thoughts. But it also teaches us the hopeful lesson that we are in control of how we respond to them.
Many meditation teachers say that there is no wrong way to meditate. That showing up and doing the practice is what’s important. Having said that, the following list of common mistakes or misconceptions about meditation keep showing up in my teaching with students. They are:
Like any healthy habit, meditation should be practiced every day. When we embark on a meditation practice, we are essentially committing ourselves to an ongoing process of training the mind. That doesn’t mean training the mind on some days but not on days when we don’t feel like it. Sitting every day for just a few minutes is far better than sitting once a week for an hour. That’s because the continuity of mind-body observation established by daily practice keeps us close to the realm of awareness. When we practice sitting every day, we are more likely to respond with awareness in our daily activities and to be less reactive. Even if you only sit for 10 minutes a day, your practice is having an effect on your brain, on the way you relate to the world and others, and on your ability to focus. So if you take your practice seriously, find a way to carve out some time each day to do it.
It’s a common misconception that when we meditate one of our goals should be to have a blank mind, without any thoughts in it. Unfortunately the mind doesn’t tend to cooperate. One of the more humbling aspects of meditation is the recognition that we can’t really control our thoughts. They tend to come and go rather randomly. If we try to get rid of our thoughts, essentially trying to do the impossible, we place ourselves in a contentious and aversive relationship to our minds. We are being unkind to ourselves. What we can control, however, is how we relate to our thoughts. Rather than trying to get rid of our thoughts, we should aim to notice how they appear and disappear, and what mental habit patterns they reveal. When we see the transitory nature of our thoughts, and the thought patterns that drive our behavior for good or ill, we see that we have a choice about which thoughts to follow and which to let go of.
On the flip side, many people have the misconception that if we do have thoughts during meditation, they should be positive, wholesome thoughts. “I must be a terrible meditator,” people say, “because I have so many negative thoughts in my head!” Since many of our thoughts are based on a negativity bias in our brains and distorted habitual thinking from our personal histories, ruminative and unpleasant thoughts are very normal. They are a part of being human. And when we let those negative thoughts into our awareness, we are giving the fullness of our humanity its due. You are far better off knowing the judgments, biases, and fears inside your mind than not knowing about them. To know your thoughts rather than to judge them is a very helpful attitude.
Over the years many people have told me, “I couldn’t meditate this week because things were really frantic. I just wasn’t relaxed enough.” Or, “I was so agitated when I tried to sit that I knew it wouldn’t do me any good.” Etc. People have the idea that they need to get rid of all the negative stuff before practicing. But if we waited for things to become perfect before we meditated, we would never meditate! In addition, many people believe that their practice is a failure if they don’t feel relaxed at the end of it. “Isn’t being calm the goal?” they ask. No, actually. The goal of meditation is to be present for what arises without needing to change it or fix it. If you sit for 30 minutes with your anguish, doubt, anger, or fear, you will become very knowledgeable about the forces driving your behavior. You will also have cultivated patience, insight and self-compassion. If you sit with your negative states long enough, your relationship to those negative states – and the states themselves – will start to change.
When you go to the gym, every time you do a rep with a dumb bell you are developing the strength of your muscles. It’s the same with meditation. Every time you notice you have lost your focus and then come right back to your breath, you are doing a mental rep which increases the strength of your mindfulness. So instead of thinking that you are a bad meditator because you frequently wander away from your object of meditation, take it as a sign of success that you keep bringing your mind back. They call it meditation practice for a reason.
Your meditation practice is alive. It reflects the conditions of your life, your world, and the changing nature of your body, mind, and heart. Just like life, a meditation practice is something that evolves over time. It isn’t static. It lives. What worked for you for the last year may suddenly stop working for you now. What happens then? For years I knocked my head against the wall by counting my breath when it wasn’t effective for me. No one had told me there were other things I could do besides count! I finally figured it out and realized that my practice was a vital, growing thing. One of the things that makes meditation practice an art is that you need to use your intuition to determine how to work with changing experiences. Conversely, some people make the mistake of changing their practice too often. Getting bored with something they’re trying then moving on at the first sign of difficulty. Your own judgment and inner knowing, and the advice of skilled teachers, can help you stay the course when you need to, and try something else when that’s what’s needed.
Meditation is the act of sitting and being with ourselves and noticing how things are and what’s going on. A big part of this is the willingness to be curious about our experience. People have often told me that they hated doing this or that practice, because “It was so-ooo boring!” I always tell people that if you are experiencing boredom, get interested in it! Often beneath boredom there are other emotions, like doubt, anger, and fear. Boredom is a great way of putting a veil over our wounds and keeping us from knowing ourselves. You don’t need to change your boredom per se, but try not believing it either. If you stay with your boredom long enough, treasures will be revealed.
Being kind to yourself and practicing self-compassion is the most effective way of sustaining a lifelong meditation practice. Because meditation reveals the messiness of our all so human lives, it takes great courage, patience and self-care to endure it all. If we beat ourselves up, we’ll stop practicing. If we care for ourselves with an open heart, our practice will serve us for life.
Rushing about seems to be the default way we live our lives. Interestingly enough, because we often rush ourselves, it’s hard to notice when other people rush. But during those times when we are more relaxed, or forced to stop, the signs of rushing are everywhere. On our roads and freeways, at work, in stores and on sidewalks, people seem to have just one speed. The speed of doing things fast. In fact, it can be quite jarring to see someone moving slowly, so accustomed are we to moving at a certain pace. How many times have you been parked at a red light and, as the light turns green, someone slowly crosses the street in front of your car? Chances are that was not a pleasant experience for you.
The problem with rushing is that it isn’t an effective way of being in the world. When we rush we are far more likely to make mistakes, to get into an accident or hurt ourselves. Rushing also means that we are more likely to be in a bad mood, to be angry, fearful or upset, and more likely to be on autopilot and make bad decisions. Rushing also makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation, to establish intimacy, and it tends to stifle curiosity and the open-hearted attitude of beginner’s mind. Learning is very difficult when we rush. In short, when we rush we are far less likely to experience the joy and richness of being alive.
But the outward signs of rushing are not as important as what is happening inwardly that gives rise to the rushing. And inwardly is where we need to focus in order to stop our rushing. When we rush about physically, most likely a part of us is feeling impatient, or angry, or afraid, or agitated, or desirous, or confused. More than anything, rushing is an internal state of disconnection from ourselves. The following story from my own life illustrates this.
Once I was facilitating an all-day mindfulness training for a corporate client. It was an 8-hour day filled with lots of didactic material presented in PowerPoint and included periods of silent mindfulness practice. But since the day was for beginners, the meditation instructions I gave were quite detailed. So essentially, I was speaking pretty much for the whole 8 hours. Things started off well that morning, but about an hour before lunch, as I was in the middle of a sentence, I noticed that I was suddenly feeling light-headed and queasy. Within seconds I began to feel weak, shaky, and I started breaking out into a cold sweat. It felt like the room was about to spin. Like I could collapse right there in front of the class participants! I sat down and tried regrouping, my energy flagging. I imagined being carried out of the room by earnest paramedics while the horrified class participants watched me with dismay.
I got through the next few minutes and then we came to a break. I left the room and went into the bathroom and entered a stall. The first thing I did was sense in to my body. I noticed that my chest was feeling tight and tense, my breathing strained and shallow. In that moment it hit me: I had been totally out of touch with my body all morning! That lack of awareness made me oblivious to the fact that I had been speaking too quickly, and not breathing normally between sentences. The lack of proper breathing had made me light-headed and queasy. I had induced an artificial panic attack by being disconnected from myself and not breathing in the right way. I knew that I needed to slow down and that is exactly what I did. I returned to the classroom, paused frequently to notice my body and my breath during my presentation, and by lunch time I was feeling fine. In the end I completed the daylong training session as if nothing had been amiss. But I had learned a vital lesson. Because I knew the material so well I acted on auto-pilot and had forgotten to do the most important thing – which was to apply mindfulness to my own experience as I was presenting. As soon as I did pay attention to my experience, the symptoms went away. I had remembered to take care of myself.
Why do we let ourselves get into these states of disconnection that lead to rushing? Mostly because we have the habit of focusing on external things at the expense of what’s happening for us internally. We focus on the product, not the process. We owe it to ourselves to make sure that we are getting what we need in each moment. And this means routinely checking in with our bodies, our breathing, our mental and emotional lives, even in the midst of all the activity, the interactions, and the pressures of our day. When we do this, we automatically interrupt the unconscious rushing that’s been driving us. Instead of being obsessed with DOING things, we stay connected to our BEING, and our actions arise out of that being state.
It should be noted as well that there is a difference between rushing and doing something quickly. Sometimes we need to act quickly – but we can do that while still maintaining a steady, stable, unrushed awareness.
When I was a younger man, I used to be something of a curmudgeon. I tended to envy people who were happy and successful. I remember times when, as a single man, I would glance at couples in San Francisco holding hands and feel bitter resentment. They seemed like such ordinary people, what right did they have to flaunt their happiness in my face by holding hands! Would love ever find it’s way to me? I’d wonder. Or I’d be walking down the street in a lovely San Francisco neighborhood, past gorgeously cozy Victorian mansions, and feel like a total failure in life because I didn’t own such a beautiful house. I’d feel the same way about people driving fancy cars, or going on long and expensive vacations to exotic climes. Or about so many other things.
Then something strange started to happen. I started catching myself smiling at beautiful houses as I walked past them, feeling genuinely happy for the people who lived in them. I also began noticing a swell of enjoyment whenever I saw couples holding hands, being openly affectionate. And when people told me they were going on long expensive vacations, I would be sincerely delighted for them.
One day it hit me: I had stopped being a curmudgeon! But what had changed? I asked myself. Then I realized: my meditation practice, which I’d been engaged in for many years, had started to show up for me as the heart quality known as appreciative joy. Appreciative joy, sometimes known as sympathetic joy, is that quality of an open and wise heart that rejoices in the happiness and success of others. When it is directed at one’s own good fortune, appreciative joy is embodied in the emotion of gratitude. What was amazing to me is that I hadn’t consciously tried being grateful for what I had or appreciative of others’ happiness. The emotions just arose naturally as a result of my practice. I realized as well that if I was spontaneously experiencing joy for others, my brain must have been changed as a result.
Through meditation, we practice letting go of distractions, comparisons, and private obsessions again and again, by simply coming back to our breath or whatever object we’re focusing on. That act of letting go and coming back, repeated countless times over hours, days, weeks, months, and years, has a structural impact on our brains, thanks to neuroplasticity – the fact that our brains can be changed through repeated experience. Those structural changes are then reflected in our behavior. The hard edges of our comparing and judging mind soften, and we gravitate towards a state of inner contentment. When we are feeling good about ourselves internally, we don’t have to compare ourselves to others externally. Feeling good about ourselves, we naturally wish others to be happy as well. If we feel inner joy, it frees our heart to feel joy for others.
And research has shown that joy and gratitude can have a protective influence on psychological and physical health. In one study by Emmons & McCullough, those who kept weekly gratitude journals were more likely to exercise regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, and felt better about their lives as a whole. And research by Richard Davidson has shown a 50% increase in antibodies to the flu in people who rate high in joyful emotions.
Because of the fact that our brains are plastic, our curmudgeonly tendencies don’t have to be our fate. We can intentionally cultivate positive states like joy and gratitude through practices such as mindfulness, concentration, and lovingkindness. We are not at the mercy of the brain’s default negativity bias or of our habitual ruminative thought patterns. In a very real sense, happiness, joy and gratitude are ways of being rather than static states. And because feeling appreciative joy also makes us a better colleague, leader, friend, or spouse, a joyful mind is also an intelligent one.
When you’re working really hard and it’s time to take a break, what do you do? What does it mean to take a break? Is a break walking away from your desk while checking out your phone for messages, visiting Facebook for updates from friends, or browsing your favorite news blog? Is taking a break eating at your desk while web browsing? Or is it visiting a colleague to have a business conversation? Many people believe they have to be productive all the time, so even when they take a “break” they have to do something potentially useful. (A student of mine once confessed that when she brushed her teeth at night, she was texting friends with her free hand. She explained that brushing her teeth wasn’t accomplishing enough!) The problem with these kinds of breaks is that they keep the mind focused on conceptual experiences. But a true break means we are giving the brain a break from concepts. Brain scans have shown that when people are focused on concepts – doing work, for example – many regions of the bran light up. The brain is expending a lot of energy when we are doing things that take conceptual focus. When we expend this kind of energy without pause, hour after hour, it can be quite exhausting. When we are exhausted, our performance suffers, our inner sense of well-being declines, and our health can suffer as well. Burnout and lack of engagement often follow.
A true break, on the other hand, is all about letting go of concepts and allowing the brain to rest in a being state. The idea is that when you take a break, really take a break from the doing mode – the mode that uses concepts – and rest in the being mode. An example might be sitting on a park bench, without reading or thinking, but just enjoying the park. Or doing something with your hands like washing the dishes or gardening. Going for a stroll is another being-mode activity (so is walking the dog). Doing 10 minutes of mindfulness practice is another example of resting in the being mode. As is eating a meal mindfully.
When people take a break from concepts and rest in the being mode, scans of their brains show much less activity going on. Their brains are getting rested, which means they are getting the refreshment that is needed to bring about sustainable focus and performance. Jon Kabat-Zinn once quipped that we humans are so busy all the time that you could almost call us “human doings” rather than beings. But being is a fundamental aspect of who we are. Being does not require us to get things done and perform. It has its own power and dignity. And as long as we connect with our being on a regular daily basis, it will not only help sustain our effectiveness, but it will keep our perspective on life open and responsive.
Human beings are deeply conditioned to push away what we find uncomfortable, painful, or unattractive, and to grasp at whatever is pleasant, beautiful, and satisfying. This conditioning is unconscious and usually unrecognized. Which means that most human beings are at the mercy of their likes and dislikes. This unconscious pattern makes it more likely that we will react to events rather than respond to them.
One of the most simple yet profound frames of reference for mindfulness practice is the frame of awareness of feelings, often called “feeling tone.” The basic idea is that every event, or even every moment, has a basic tone which we experience as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Mindfulness practice helps us pay attention to our experience of feeling tone. When we experience something unpleasant, if we notice and acknowledge it, we are more likely to respond to it rather than react to it. As an example, if someone says something unkind to you, by noticing the unpleasant emotions that are likely to arise, and where you feel them in the body, you are taking a pause and letting yourself digest the pain, thus interrupting the fight or flight reactivity that might have lead to a bitter argument. Once I was screamed at by my boss – not a fun experience. But instead of reacting from the pain of his words, I let myself experience the pain just as it was. That allowed me to steady myself and respond in a way that transformed the interaction in the moment.
One way of practicing mindfulness of feeling tone is during our mindfulness practice sessions. We can play with letting ourselves be with unpleasant sensations instead of getting rid of them. For example, if you have an itch, notice what it’s like not to scratch it. If you practice not scratching the itch you are developing patience and self-control, which conditions your mind to be patient and tolerant with “itchy” people or situations. When things feel neutral during practice – neither pleasant nor unpleasant – focus on the neutrality. Get interested in it. This conditions your mind to notice being alive in those moments of down time when we might normally space out and lose interest. Noticing the tendency of the mind to grasp when things feel pleasurable is a way of training ourselves to live life with more balance and contentment. Through the high definition lens of mindfulness practice, we see that pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences aren’t fixed but come and go, are always changing, and are not the source of permanent happiness or a permanent identity.
Being aware of our feeling tone helps us become aware of our reactive tendencies and begins to unravel them as we experience more clarity and balance in life, and more freedom of response.
In mindfulness, the best way to get from point A to point B is stay at point A. By being present to what’s here, point B arises on its own. We practice mindfulness without a goal of having to get somewhere. We practice mindfulness for the sake of being present. The act of being present in each moment is itself a transformative choice.
If you are walking down the street, you may be focused on the red light two hundred feet away. You may see that red light as a symbol of all that gets in the way of you doing what you need to get done. You may think of the red light as a nudge to hurry up and move with speed toward whatever goal is next. If the light is green, you may see it as a momentary window of opportunity that you mustn’t miss. You start speeding up so you can make the light before it turns red! Because you are striving for point B, your pulse starts to quicken and your breathing gets tight. You start feeling anxious, impatient, prone to negative thoughts. You are not a happy camper.
The mindful approach to such a situation is to focus on each step while also being aware that the next intersection lies ahead. You are aware of the wider context and meaning of your environment (the upcoming intersection), but you are focusing your attention simply on each step you take. You are not rushing to make the light, you are not lost in thoughts about your next meeting or the due date of a report you’re writing. You’re simply walking and knowing that you’re walking. Being with the sensations of your walking rather than with the anxiety of your to-do list.
At some point you come to the street corner. You look up at the light. If it’s red, you wait. If it’s green, you walk. But because you were mindful while you were walking you were always in fact at your destination. You weren’t focusing on point B at all. You were staying with A – the here and now – and point B arrived without effort or striving or anxiety or impatience.
If you practice mindfulness meditation, one thing you’ve noticed is how easy it is to get distracted. Our minds are so busy! If you’ve looked a little more closely at the nature of your distractions, you’ve probably noticed the central role that desire plays. How often have you noticed that your thoughts have moved into the realm of fantasy? When you find yourself wanting some wonderful outcome that has not yet happened, that may never happen, whether that wonderful outcome is a new job in a new city, or a windfall on an investment, or a new lover, or a new set of cool friends, or a new body, home, car, or whatever it may be. Or maybe your desire takes an aversive form – you are feeling frustrated with the meditation, you’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else, something productive, like ticking off the items on your to-do list. Or feelings come up that you’d rather not feel – physical pain, emotional pain, stress, anxiety, panic, rage. Why don’t these things just go away! You desire them to be gone.
When we desire something, it usually means that what we desire is not what is here. It’s some future or potential experience that could happen, but it’s not happening now. Now the problem with desiring something which is not here is that the desire is pointing us away from the present moment, which is – as many people have said – the only actual moment that ever is. The present moment is actually the moment in which our lives are capable of being lived. If we live in any other moment than the present moment we are not living our lives. That also means that we are not capable of making wise choices about how to respond to our daily challenges. And when we live in a moment other than the present one, intimacy in any relationship is not possible.
Desire shows up a lot in mindfulness practice. And mindfulness masters over the centuries have taught a variety of ways of working with desire when it arises. One of the most powerful ways of approaching desire is to simply acknowledge it without judging it. This is easier said than done. Many people (yours truly included) have a tendency of thinking that we need to get rid of our desires in order to practice mindfulness, in order to be “good meditators.” Desire is so messy and what we need is to calm things down, we think. This aversion to desire, to coin a phrase, assumes that desire in the context of meditation is a mistake, something that needs to be gotten rid of, purified, expunged. Unfortunately, trying to get rid of our desires doesn’t work.
It is far more powerful to acknowledge that the mind is filled with desire, perhaps with a light mental note, like wanting, wanting. And, crucially, to recognize that desire is present but without making any judgments about yourself. Desire is simply present in the mind. It doesn’t mean you are a bad mindfulness practitioner. Simply noticing the desire, even if you have to do it a hundred times in five minutes, and then returning to your breath or whatever object of focus you are using, is a powerful way of freeing yourself of the desire. By acknowledging the presence of desire as a routine mental event, then releasing it gently (without judgment) and returning to the object, you are conditioning yourself to dis-identify from the desire. You are in effect training yourself not to be ruled by your desires. Over weeks, months, and years of experience, I have found this to be a powerful tool in my own practice.
But what would happen if we could take the powerful energy of desire and apply it to the present moment? What if we were able to desire what was happening right now? And what would desiring the present moment look like anyway? It should be said that according to the classical understanding of mindfulness, there are two types of desire. One is the desire for things not in the present moment, the desire we’ve been exploring here. This sort of desire is associated more a sense of thirst, of never having enough, of inner deficiency. The second desire is something else. Rather than thirst, its characteristic is more aspirational. It’s considered wholesome desire. The desire for love, happiness, connection, good work, freedom, are all examples.
So what would it mean to desire the now? For one thing, desiring the now can be thought of as a practice, not just an idea. Desiring the now means welcoming what is here, in any moment. That means welcoming even something that is unpleasant. Welcoming means meeting whatever it is with our full attention, presence, resources, and wisdom. Whenever you forget to welcome what’s here, you simply come back to what’s here. It’s just like coming back to the breath. Desiring the now also means letting go of our fixed ideas about things. It means looking at each person and each moment with fresh eyes, free of cognitive rigidity and bias. Whenever your old ideas yank you back into autopilot, you can recognize that and return to the now, to the fresh aliveness of beginner’s mind. Above all, desiring the now means allowing yourself to become intimate with life. Interestingly enough, intimacy for me is a lot less about knowing someone or something and much more about not knowing them. To be intimate means to be open to the mystery of everything we’re doing. The human being you are speaking to may be a work colleague you’ve known for years. There are things about this person you can say you “know.” But on another level, your colleague is an absolute mystery. There is so much you don’t know about this person. In fact, there is so much we don’t know even about ourselves. Desiring the now means being open to discovering what the mystery of life is, moment by moment, as it unfolds.
When we say we practice mindfulness, we’re really talking about training. It’s just like going to the gym.
When we start on the treadmill at the gym, in the beginning we can only do 10 or 20 minutes. But if we keep doing that 20 minutes we’ll find that eventually we’ll be able to do 30 minutes, then 40. Our body responds to the steady routine of the treadmill by developing more stamina. Or when we start lifting weights, we may only be able to lift 10-pound dumbbells. Then our muscles get stronger and we can lift 20-pound dumbbells, then 30. The steady, consistent training in weight lifting expands the capacity of our muscles to lift heavier weights.
Mindfulness is the same way. When we’re trying to be mindful of the breath, at first we can only keep the mind on the breath for a few moments at a time. The breath is like a marble that keeps bouncing away from us: we keep having to chase it. But if we keep training ourselves to be with the breath, to be mindful, we discover that we can stay with the breath for longer periods and when we do lose it we come back to it sooner. Also, when we meditate on the breath on a regular basis we begin to notice that the gaps of time when we are not being present are of shorter duration.
So in the gym we build up our muscles day by day. Then one day a friend asks you to help her move a couch, and you can do it because you’ve got the strength. You’ve been training. The same is true with meditation. When we face difficulty in meditation, we’re learning how to face difficulty in our lives. If you learn how to be with the breath when it’s feeling tight, or to be with the body when there’s pain, or to be with difficult emotions, you’re doing the heavy lifting of your life — you’re training yourself to engage your challenges in a healthy and responsive way. If you become annoyed by a train of thought during meditation, the annoyance is the same as when you get irked by something your boss says. The difference is that in meditation you have a chance to work with the annoyance without getting lost in acting on the annoyance — like getting into an argument with your boss.
It all comes down to meeting our suffering just as it is. Sitting and breathing while you have a stabbing pain in your shoulder, or a maddening itch on your nose, or a feeling of loneliness and loss in your belly — staying with these things without trying to fix them opens our hearts and minds in ways they wouldn’t open if we avoided them. If we scratched that itch or ate some chocolate instead of allowing ourselves to feel lonely, we would lose the opportunity to train ourselves to face our suffering. One thing about suffering: we can’t cure it by avoiding it. If we avoid it, it usually gets worse. Or else it goes underground, which then causes stress. Mindfulness teaches us that we can transform our suffering not by avoiding it but by moving toward it and meeting it with presence, honesty, and openheartedness. If we can find our ground in the midst of our anguish, something eventually happens to the anguish: it expends its negative charge and transforms into a teaching about our life.
When soldiers first enter the Army they go to basic training. With mindfulness, basic training is also advanced training. You never outgrow the need for learning the basics. To be present for things just as they are, to open our hearts to what is difficult, is actually quite courageous. For this reason you could say that just like a soldier in training, you need to have a warrior spirit to really be mindful. And you also need the discipline to stay at it day after day.
The regions of the brain that control emotions are much older than those regions that regulate rational thought and executive functioning. The function of emotions when we were evolving was to help us manage threats to our survival. The emotion of disgust, for example, originated as a means to avoid bad food or a bad smell.
But the complexity of modern life makes the experience of emotions far more complex than it was a million years ago. To quote Daniel Goleman, “While in the ancient past a hair-trigger anger may have offered a crucial edge of survival, the availability of automatic weaponry to thirteen-year-olds has made it too often a disastrous reaction.”
Because our emotions are so powerful, they can get control of our rational minds rather easily. Even if we might like to see ourselves as emotionally positive, as kindhearted and compassionate people, a sudden emotional spike can ruin all our good intentions in a moment of anger.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of politics. Politics is one of those things that can really rattle us emotionally. Politics in the United States has always been a contact sport, but over the last few decades, as many people have observed, the political landscape has become increasingly polarized. It seems like people identify with their values so strongly that they find themselves hating others who have different values. We admire political figures who represent how we feel about the world, but often demonize political figures who hold views we dislike. We find ourselves avoiding people who hold different political views than us, unless they’re family, of course – in which case we do our best not to argue at Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the tribalization of media is to blame for the tendency many people have today to visit only the newspapers, websites, Facebook pages or Twitter feeds that validate their view of the world. But for whatever reason, politics can really get our blood boiling.
In 2016, the current political season seems to have hit new lows for negativity, anger, vilification, blaming, disgust, and overall nastiness. So much negative information gets disseminated in the form of campaign ads, flyers, media coverage, speeches, demonstrations, and debates, that it’s a wonder that our psyches aren’t overwhelmed by the toxic atmosphere. This is especially true for political junkies, who feed off the news during political season the way a vacationer eats rich food.
If you are one of the people who is feeling emotionally exhausted by today’s politics, a simple practice of cultivating kindness can be a big help. Both the ancient practices of mindfulness and kindness meditation and modern research point to an amazing fact: deliberately cultivating kindness, friendliness and compassion is not only possible, it’s good for your health and sense of well-being. Research findings have shown that practicing kindness can decrease blood pressure, that it reduces inflammation and delays aging, that it enhances the immune system for both the giver of kindness and the recipient, that it improves our relationships, and makes us overall happier. And the amazing thing about us human beings is that our brains are trainable. We can develop kindness like we can any other skill.
The first step in a kindness practice is altering your perspective a little bit by considering a simple yet irrefutable fact: every human being wants to be happy, and no one wants to suffer. This is a radical understanding of the human condition that is very helpful when we find ourselves hating or feeling disgust for others. This basic desire for happiness and dislike of suffering is true even in the case of someone whose behavior is malevolent or in some way deplorable. Even people who do bad things want to be happy; the bad things they do, they are doing out of a misunderstanding of what will make them happy. Another way of shifting perspective on people we dislike, is to consider this idea: how much better off the world would be if all of its difficult people were happy.
Once these perspectives are in place, the next step in a kindness practice is to set your intention to cultivate kindness within yourself. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to repeat to yourself phrases of kindness and well-wishing. The ancient Buddhist practice of metta, often translated as lovingkindness, which the man known as the Buddha recommended to his followers 2,600 years ago, uses a series of simple phrases which set the intention for kindness and also recognizes the need of others to be happy. A simple version of these phrases are:
May I be safe
May I be healthy
May I be happy
May my life be filled with ease and well-being
You can certainly modify these phrases and use your own words to make them align with what resonates for you. In doing this practice, start with yourself. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion, and repeat these phrases of well-wishing for yourself in silence, over and over again. Don’t worry about the outcome. Focus on the repeating of each phrase. Each time you repeat the phrases, you are basically repeating your intention to be happy. Do this for a few minutes, then repeat these phrases for a good friend for the same amount of time. Like so:
May [friend’s name] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being
Then repeat the phrases for a neutral person in your life. Like so:
May [neutral person’s name or description] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being
And then for an enemy or difficult person, including a political figure that you dislike. Keep in mind that when you say the phrases for the person you dislike, the goal is not to like that person. The goal is to recognize your common desire for happiness, and in some way to unfreeze your heart.
May [political figure or enemy] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being
Finally, you can say these phrases for all beings everywhere.
As you spend time doing this practice, you may feel strong heart-opening emotions when you say these phrases to yourself. If that happens, just welcome them, and keep opening to that experience by repeating the phrases. If nothing seems to be happening, or you feel numb, that’s perfectly fine, too. The phrases of well-wishing are like seeds that are planted and they’ll sprout in their own good time.
Sometimes kindness practice brings up the opposite emotions. So if you experience anger or grief, extend kindness to yourself and to those emotions that you’re having and don’t judge them. Remember this: to practice kindness is to be present with whatever blocks kindness. Above all, keep saying the phrases, acknowledging whatever else is arising without any judgment at all.
And the next time you find yourself getting upset by something in the political realm, it may be a bit easier to come back to a sense of emotional balance and an even-handed perspective.
You’re sitting at your desk at work when you realize that you feel disconnected from yourself, you feel anxious and tense, and your mind is full of half-formed thoughts. You seem to have lost your presence of mind, your inner equilibrium thrown off.
At such times, a simple exercise in awareness can totally shift the energy and change your perspective. The Mindful Reset can take as long as 10 seconds or one minute to do.
Firstly, when you notice that you’re feeling out of sorts, simply stop what you’re doing, close your eyes if you can, and notice your breathing. Follow the breath as it comes in, and follow it as it goes out. Notice what the breath feels like. Is it relaxed and easy from the beginning to the end? Is your breathing tight or squeezed? Noticing how the breath is also helps you notice if there are any sensations of tension or tightness in the body. Follow the breath as it travels through your body to become aware of any sensations of discomfort or contraction that are making themselves known. Notice wherever the body feels tight or tense; acknowledge those sensations without needing to get rid of them. You can invite those parts of the body to relax, but do it softly, not as a command but as a kind request. Simply bringing awareness to how your breathing and body are can begin to relax them.
Secondly, notice what your state of mind is like. What thoughts are present? Are they thoughts of the future or the past? Are they thoughts of worry, planning, remembering, judging, figuring out? Is your mind clear, collected, unified? Or is it dull, muddy, scattered? Just notice what’s going on in your mind without any judgment or self criticism. Again, simply bringing awareness to how your mind is and what thoughts might be present gives you important information about what is driving your behavior right now. When you are aware of what patterns are present in the mind, you are less likely to be controlled by them.
Thirdly, notice what the emotional tone is like in your experience. Underneath those physical sensations and thoughts, what emotions might be present? Is there worry, fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, doubt, frustration? Again, don’t feel like you need to get rid of the emotions. Just noticing the emotional tone of any experience gives you greater freedom in responding wisely.
When you give yourself the space to notice how you are, your mind starts making adjustments that will bring you back to equilibrium. This is called a closed feedback loop. The system of mind-body is working to bring you back into balance.
You can do the Mindful Reset at any time. While at your work space, before entering a meeting, while walking to lunch, or while driving your car (with your eyes opened, of course!).
The Mindful Reset doesn’t magically solve all your problems or remove all your pain. What it does do is put you in touch with yourself from the non-judgmental perspective of awareness. Without this perspective, we contract and tense up when faced with a challenge. We are under the control of the reactive mind. With the non-judgmental perspective of awareness, we release, let go, and see the big picture. We are being guided by the responsive mind. Mindfulness returns us to the clear-headed perspective from which it is easier to see how to meet our challenges and live our lives with more wisdom and balance.
Awareness is one of the most miraculous things about being alive. Scratch that. It is THE most miraculous. Without awareness, we would know nothing. We would not know the trees, the sky, the mountains, the stars, the eyes of our beloved, the laughter of children. Or love, fear, anger, or joy. And yet, what is this awareness? One of the insights that can arise when we spend intensive periods of time focusing on a simple meditation object like the breath is that the awareness which knows the breath is not itself composed of the breath. Likewise, our awareness of pain is not the pain itself; our awareness of our thoughts and emotions is not the content of those thoughts and emotions. Our awareness, in fact, is not what it knows. Nor is our awareness bound by the conditions of everyday life.
Nor can we shut awareness off. As long as we are alive and awake, awareness is present. Sit with your eyes closed for 30 seconds and try not being aware. You can’t do it. Another powerful thing about awareness is that as we develop our ability to focus and still our minds, our awareness can turn around and observe itself. As we learn to relax the habits of the egoic personality, the non-judgmental clarity of awareness starts informing our lives more and more. Instead of getting completely identified with the pleasant and unpleasant experiences which occupy our days, we are more likely able to step back and see them as passing events which we can relate to with more ease and wisdom. The more we align ourselves with the point of view of awareness, the more we can hold the joys and sorrows of our lives without getting swept away in knee jerk reactivity to them. This holding of our experience means that we are relating to our lives with more mental clarity and freedom and are less likely to experience suffering from the changeable, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of events.
From a working perspective, aligning ourselves with awareness makes us better colleagues – we’re more present during conversations, and more likely to see our colleagues with fresh eyes. Awareness tells us when we’re in need of a break, when we’re losing our focus, or when we need to reset our work priorities. Awareness keeps us on track so that we can manage our time better, and it helps us stay present during long meetings. Awareness puts us in touch with our emotions so that, when responding to an upsetting email, we pause long enough to acknowledge how we’re feeling, defusing the raw emotions so that we can craft an appropriate response that isn’t coming from a place of anger. Awareness helps us see the unskillful habit patterns of our minds, dis-identifying from negative narratives that hold us back at work and socially.
One of the most amazing things about awareness is that it is not static. It is a living experience, something that we can keep opening and deepening the more we practice.
There is a trend towards minimalism in the dissemination of mindfulness. One does not really need practice mindfulness in an intensive way, we are told. We can do it in small digestible chunks. Some people suggest just 60 seconds of mindfulness practice. Or even one second. There are some that even suggest that formal practice periods are not needed at all – since we are already mindful now and then, the trick is to simply remember to be aware of what we are doing during our regular activities. If we could only remember to be aware more frequently, voila’ – we would be more mindful! I was struck by the following quote from a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review:
“Many people also confuse mindfulness with meditation. Meditation is a tool to achieve mindfulness, but it requires a practice that some people find difficult. Mindfulness, as my colleagues and I study it, does not depend on meditation: it is the very simple process of noticing new things, which puts us in the present and makes us more sensitive to context and perspective. It is the essence of engagement.”*
While it is true that mindfulness and meditation are different things, our conditioning as human beings tends to make us grasp at shiny objects – in other words, our media-filled, to-do-list-driven lives make us distracted. And while mindfulness is theoretically possible at any moment when we tune in to the truth of our direct experience – the fact is that our conditions make it hard to do this without deliberate training. If you were going to help your friend move a heavy couch and you had a month to prepare, just thinking about moving the couch might not be enough. But going to the gym and lifting weights during that month will strengthen your muscles so that, on the day you need to move the couch, you will be strong enough to do so.
It’s the same with mindfulness training. When we practice formally we are conditioning our minds to be more alert during the non-meditative moments of our lives. Formal mind training makes it more likely that we’ll ‘notice new things.’ While intentional effort is necessary to cultivate mindfulness, the time commitment doesn’t have to be onerous. Even 10 minutes a day can make a huge difference. And sitting still doesn’t need to be your practice. It could be mindful walking or standing for 10 minutes. Even lying down for 10 minutes and doing a body scan could work. The key is to set aside a time each day just for your being.
A nice infographic from the folks at Mindful magazine.
Mindfulness has been associated with so many positive things – greater focus, clarity, joy, compassion, emotional balance, resilience, general well-being, and decreased stress, to name just a few – that it’s easy to ignore one of its primary purposes. Mindfulness is essentially a practice of moving towards suffering, of coming into relationship with the challenges, traumas, anxieties and stresses, both large and small, of our lives. Because suffering is an unavoidable fact for every human being, the way we relate to it is critically important.
The moment we sit down to meditate, we force ourselves to be aware of the thoughts, stories, and emotional patterns that drive us most of the time. Many of these patterns are habitual, unconscious, obsessive, and negative. Yet they set the tone for how we respond to events. When we sit down to meditate, we also become aware of the places in the body that are tight, registering tension, or wounded. Because we are so driven by our to-do lists, our non-stop busyness makes it easy to avoid our difficulties, and to avoid our bodies and the stress signals they give us. But that avoidance conditions us to think that our difficulties are mistakes – rather than something we can be in relationship to.
Mindfulness teaches us that rather than avoiding suffering, we need to move toward it, with openness, courage, and curiosity. We become intimate with our suffering not to fix it or change it but to know it fully, to see how it effects our life. When we hang out with our fears, wounds and anxieties without needing to fix them, we bring their energy into consciousness in a way that brings us healing. We clearly see the effect that our habitual thoughts and emotional patterns have on us. We see the suffering that our minds continually create, and we see the tension and stress in our bodies as a form of that suffering. When we see these patterns over and over again through daily meditation, over weeks, months, and years, our perspective changes. Rather then believing our stories, we see that they are just mental events that don’t have to control us.
As a result of this regular intimacy with our pain, we become more whole as a result, and more free. And we start to think and act in ways that reflect that wholeness. You may not learn this in the next magazine article on mindfulness you read – but it takes courage to be mindful. Because facing our suffering is quite challenging, and also quite necessary for a fully lived life.
This is a great graphic from an article in Scientific American showing the different regions of the brain that light up during the different phases of the meditative process. From focused attention, to mind wandering, to awareness of wandering and redirecting of attention.