I am in my apartment, cleaning up. I’m feeling rushed, so I lift my tea pot, my lacquered Japanese cup, and my water bottle from a table and begin taking them over to the kitchen sink for washing. Because I’m carrying three things I needed to thread the pinky of my right hand through the eye of the water bottle lid while holding the cup in my palm, and at the same time hold the tea pot in my left hand. Halfway to the kitchen sink, I stop. I notice that my chest has tensed up, that my breathing has become subtly squeezed and uncomfortable. I realize that 1) I am feeling stressed out, and 2) I’m feeling stressed out because I’ve got too many things in my hands. I ask myself, What’s the rush? The truth is that there is no rush. I’ve got plenty of time. But if I’ve got lots of time, then why do I have so many things in my hands? The answer: habit. I’m used to multi-tasking, to juggling the complexities of life, to being “efficient.” These reflections all happen in a moment. I turn , head back to the living room, and carefully set down my tea pot, my water bottle, and my cup. Then I take the tea pot over to the sink, walking and knowing that I’m walking. I wash the tea pot out, feeling my body and breath and the sensations of water, soap, hot and cold, as I work. When I’m done with the pot I take separate trips for the cup and the water bottle. But not before noticing that my chest is now feeling relaxed and my breathing is normal again.
I’m in the dentist’s chair for my semi-annual cleaning. The sound of the dental hygienist’s tool is loud as she moves it into my mouth to start in on my teeth. As the shrieking object is applied to my teeth, a sensation similar to hearing fingernails scratching a blackboard occurs. Then the hygienist moves her tool to those teeth where the nerves are really sensitive. As the tool makes contact with a sensitive spot, I feel my body start to clench even before I feel any unpleasant sensation. A moment later, I do start to feel unpleasant sensations. Little lightning flashes of pain shoot through my mouth.
I think about crying out, or at least emitting a little whimper, to let the hygienist know that I’m experiencing discomfort. But of course it’s not like I’m being dismembered, tortured or killed. The sensations are just difficult to be with. Luckily, I finally remember to notice my breath — noticing it first in my belly to relax me, and then expanding my awareness of the breath throughout my whole body. I breathe in and feel the breath sensations spread throughout my whole body. My mind is now aware of my whole body and not just my mouth. My field of awareness has gotten much bigger. It’s easier now to let those painful sensations just do their thing, shooting and stabbing here and there, because I have the wider perspective of breathing with my whole body — and the awareness that knows it — to ground me.
The pain, when it comes, occupies a smaller space in my mind and seems far less intense. Instantly, I begin to relax. The hygienist does her thing, her tool does its thing, the pain jabs and stabs here and there, but I get more and more relaxed as I keep breathing with the whole body. By the time the cleaning is over a half hour later, I discover that I almost regret having to leave the dentist’s chair because I’m so relaxed.
We tell ourselves stories all the time about the way life is treating us or about the ways we plan on conquering life. Because we’ve been retelling versions of these stories for years, they are extremely compelling. We tend to believe our stories because they have become so familiar. Haven’t you noticed that? There is something comfortable in telling ourselves that the reason we didn’t get that job is the same reason our last relationship broke up or that or we never have enough money. Here are some sample narratives and decide for yourself if any of them seem familiar:
I never got the love I needed when I was a kid…
I never got that advanced degree…
I’m not tall enough…
I’m not attractive enough…
I’ve always been a few years behind everyone else…
I should be treated with respect. If you don’t treat me with respect, you are a bad person…
My sister was always mom’s favorite…
These narratives are ways of making sense of a mysterious and often uncooperative world. In conjuring these narratives the mind is trying to take care of us. That’s because when we understand what’s really happening we feel safer and more in control. So the mind really tries to figure things out because it wants us to stay safe. We all have versions of these stories, and so deeply embedded are they in our psyches that we often don’t even realize how much they control us.
When we bring awareness to these stories we can see how destructive they can be, how limiting and distorting. We can see that these narratives are actually mental prisons that incarcerate our imaginations and hearts. The problem, of course, is that unless the mind is trained we will tend not to see these stories with awareness. Instead, we embody the stories in the way we act in the world, towards ourselves or others. These narratives become the water we swim in – we don’t notice them.
Once many years ago my girlfriend and I went backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur. We camped by a river and, after having a nice dinner, I collected all our food in a bag and went off to hang it from a high branch of a tree to protect it from bears. I connected a piece of rope to the food bag and tied the other end of the rope around a rock. The plan was to hurl the rock over the high branch, and then pull on the rope until the food bag got lifted to the branch. I hurled the rock and missed the branch. I tried again and missed again. I tried again. Same result. I started getting angry. Over the next half hour I tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly. I became furious, seething with rage. With each failure to get that rock over the branch my sense of being an inferior person deepened. The basic storyline was: I am not a competent and skilled man. In fact, I am not much of a man AT ALL.
Ouch! What a harsh inner critic I had! After half an hour, I suddenly stopped, and saw my girlfriend placidly tossing stones into the burbling stream. Her calmness made me realize how crazy I had been acting. It was as if I had been spinning in a furious vortex at a thousand miles an hour and had suddenly been stilled. I relaxed, checked in with her, and then, calmer and clearer, I managed to get the rock over the branch and hung our food.
I include that story only to point out how rare indeed it is to see our stories with such clarity. Usually we are living our stories, not seeing them as stories.
One of the powerful and really miraculous things about mindfulness practice is that when we just sit and focus on the breath for 10 minutes, we will become intimately familiar with our habitual narrative arcs – whether we like it or not. The act of sitting and focusing on your breathing inevitably forces you to confront the ruts and ruins of the mind. So to train yourself to focus on your breath is also to develop real skill with noticing your thoughts and whether they are helpful or harmful. And just as coming back to your breath again and again helps you develop greater focus, clarity, and ease, noticing your thoughts and obsessive narratives over and over again makes it much more likely that you will notice them in daily life, when you are faced with a challenge, and not let them control your response.
Recently someone cut me off at the entrance to a freeway, veering in front of me in a dangerous manner. My first reaction was to get angry, to label the driver in my mind as “an idiot.” It was the “If you don’t respect me you’re a bad person” narrative. Then I remembered to hold that story in awareness. Instantly, instead of believing the story about being disrespected by “an idiot,” I realized that I was feeling stressed out because I was running late and needed to be somewhere. Understanding my own stress, I was able to let go of the story that had prevented me from seeing the situation with calm clarity. Something that for sure I would not have done if I hadn’t been practicing mindfulness.
If I was in the woods at some point and having trouble hanging my food, I know that I would be a lot kinder to myself than I was many years ago. And while it is true that my stories still return again and again, I don’t believe them so much anymore.
If you were to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis of your meditation practice, under “weaknesses” and “threats” you might include five basic challenges that every meditator has to deal with. In fact, failure to deal successfully with these five challenges often leads people to abandon their meditation practice entirely, never to meditate again.
It’s important to know that when one of these states arises in your meditation, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are just a human being experiencing what it means to be alive. Often called hindrances, these challenging states can be worked with in different ways. But the key thing to know is that they are a part of every meditator’s practice, are perfectly normal, and can teach you a lot about yourself.
1) Desire. As you try to focus on your breath, you constantly find yourself thinking about your upcoming vacation, a new restaurant you want to try, a new car you want to buy. Acknowledge that you are experiencing desire. Notice what kinds of desires keep coming to the surface. Don’t judge yourself for having certain desires. Be curious about them. Where do you feel the desire in your body? What’s it like? Is it a pleasant sensation, or does it make you feel restless or discontented? When we start building a more conscious and objective relationship to our desires, we aren’t as controlled by them as before.
2. Ill Will. Anger is a frequent experience during meditation. In addition to outright rage, there are more subtle types of aversion that can manifest. Judgments about people, displeasure about certain scenarios that are happening at work or at home. Notice where the anger tends to be directed. Watch for the patterns to your anger. Again, bring your body into your investigation. Where do you feel the anger? What’s the texture, the weight, the temperature of the anger? Is the sensation of anger pleasant or unpleasant? In being mindful of anger, you will learn a lot about your heart and the places where you may be wounded. It’s also a useful rule of thumb to dis-identify with the experience – it’s an event taking place within awareness as an observable experience. Think “anger is arising, and it’s like this” rather than “MY anger is like this.”
3. Restlessness and anxiety. I used to meditate after my breakfast and found that I was constantly restless. It took me a while to realize that I was restless because I had had caffeine in the morning. As a result, I stopped meditating with caffeine in my system, grabbing my morning coffee or tea after my session. Pay attention to what conditions in your life may contribute to you being restless. Restlessness and anxiety are very difficult mind-body states to be with. And while it’s not a lot of fun to be with them, allowing them space in your awareness will give you important insight into what might be driving you, and even if you don’t think you feel any better after your meditation, you probably are feeling better than you realize, just because you were patient enough to ride it out with your anxiety and stay present. If you can sit with your restlessness for 20 minutes without needing to change or fix it, you will learn a great deal.
4. Sleepiness/laziness. There are two types of sleepiness. The type that comes from a sort of mental laziness or lack of focus, often called “sloth.” And physical tiredness that can come because of the time of day it is or because we haven’t gotten enough sleep. A great way of working with sleepiness is to stand up and do your breathing. I’ve never known anyone to fall asleep while standing and meditating! Sleepiness is sometimes a sign that you need to get more sleep; and sometimes it’s a sign that you are resisting being present with yourself and your mind has withdrawn into dullness as a defense. It just depends on what’s going on. Being curious about your sleepiness, as well as about any of these other states, is very helpful.
5. Doubt. “Why am I even doing this practice? What good is it for me? I don’t seem to be making much progress. I’m not really sure how to proceed.” These are all expressions one might encounter when one experiences the hindrance of doubt. Doubt in meditation is a form of confusion. The key here is to not believe your doubt. If you do, you may walk away from the mat and never practice again. Be curious about your doubt. Is it possible to sit with this doubt and see what happens? One thing’s for sure: if you sit with your doubt for long enough, it will change. When doubt changes, it often gives way to a greater clarity.
The word hindrance is actually not a very good one in some ways. It implies that these challenges hinder the arising of positive states of mind, like concentration, joy, and so on. That is one way of looking at them, certainly. The other way of looking at them is that when a hindrance arises, it becomes your practice to be with it. So if you are practicing focusing on the breath but your body is terribly restless and in distress, then what you become aware of is the restlessness and distress – rather than pushing those states away, you open to them, allow them, and be curious about them. When a hindrance keeps arising, there’s a lot it can teach us.
Ironically as we open to these difficult states they often even out, soften, or disappear entirely. Sometimes the reverse happens and anxiety, say, gets worse as we bring our attention to it. This is why it’s so important to keep using your breath as a home base for your attention. We don’t have to abandon the breath to be aware of a hindrance. It’s more like a foreground and background thing. As a hindrance becomes our object of focus, the breath eases into the background of our attention. As the hindrance becomes too difficult to be with in that moment, we bring the breath back into the foreground of our attention, letting the hindrance recede a bit into the background as we collect and stabilize the mind. A flexible approach is best when determining how to work with a hindrance. With practice, you learn to trust your intuition about how best to respond.
Ultimately, I have found it very helpful to have a welcoming attitude towards hindrances when they show up, knowing that they can teach me much about my heart and mind. Or, as an old saw goes: If it’s in the way, it IS the way.
Perhaps the most fundamental fact of our aliveness is that from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death, we are breathing. Yet strangely enough, we routinely take the breath for granted and forget about it. Our attention instead is gripped by our to-do lists, our racing thoughts of gain and loss, our interactions with the world. Many people I’ve worked with over the years, when describing a stressful situation, cannot recall at all how their breath felt during the event. The fact is, the breath is a vital ally in the practice of mindfulness. Because it is always available, and because its shifting nature reflects our moment to moment state of being, the breath is our portal to understanding, healing and well-being.
When the breath is relaxed and comfortable, flowing easily, there’s a good chance that we are feeling relaxed and comfortable as well. When the breath is uncomfortable, there’s usually a reason, and just by acknowledging when the breath doesn’t feel right we can learn a lot about ourselves. Shunryu Suzuki said that in meditation, sometimes the bad horse is best — meaning that those who struggle often learn more about themselves than those who don’t. So when the breath becomes a “bad horse” pay attention because there’s something to be learned from it. In my own life I’ve had a lot of trouble with my breathing — but my breath has been a bad horse that has taught me how to breathe in a better way and how to respond to the signals my breath is giving me.
The breath tells us much about our current state. When we tune in to the breath, we also tune in to our emotional state, to our state of mind, to how our body feels, and to what thoughts may be present. This means that the breath teaches us a lot about suffering and stress. When we tune in to the breath, we’re also in touch with the truth of change — the fact that nothing is static or fixed, that everything is in a state of motion. The breath comes in, rolls over, and goes out, over and over. It’s constantly moving, and so are we. And the breath teaches us about the impersonal or selfless nature of life: breathing is a process without a breather — it’s just happening whether we want it to or not.
So by focusing on our breathing we’re actually getting in touch with the truth of how things are. Right here, right now. And when we are aligned with the truth of how things are, we begin to gain insight into cause and effect within our experience. When we become intimate with our breathing, we discover both the places where we are suffering and our potential for freedom.
Here’s an example of how tuning into the breath might work in daily life. I’ve experienced countless such examples in my own life.
Let’s say you’re having a bad day. Ever since the morning you’ve had a sense of things being not quite right. Your mood is a bit sour, but you don’t know why. Yet, driven by all the things you need to accomplish, you essentially ignore this underlying sense of unease. Even when you have poor communications with people, make mistakes, and anger easily, you carry on as if nothing is wrong.
Then, at some point, you remember to stop and take a moment to pay attention to your breathing. You’ve gotten into the habit of doing that because recently you’ve started a daily meditation practice and so noticing your breath is something you do more than you used to.
As soon as you tune in to your breathing you notice that your chest is feeling tight, that your breathing is strained. As you acknowledge this strain in your breathing you simultaneously recognize it as a sign of anxiety. And now you realize that this strained breathing and chest tightness have been with you since the morning, when you rushed while getting dressed, then rushed to catch your bus for work.
You realize that you’ve been rushing all day, in fact, and haven’t been tending to your inner experience. As a result, you’ve lost touch with your body, your emotions, and your thoughts, and stress has gained a foothold in your being. Perhaps you also become aware of the insight that your habitual fear of being late — a fear you’ve had since childhood — has driven you to rush today and to get out of touch with yourself. You say to yourself, “Oh, yeah, that’s my old fear of being late rearing it’s ugly head. God, that fear is still with me.”
So, within moments of starting to notice your breath, you’ve gained valuable information about your current state of mind and its cause. Even better, as you’ve taken a few moments to focus on your breath, your breathing has started to become more relaxed. So you’ve gained insight and you’ve started to heal. And it all began by simply paying attention to the breath and then seeing where the resulting awareness took you.
So much can be known just by the simple act of tuning in to the breath and relaxing into the knowing which is always here.
Ultimately, aligning with the breath aligns us with awareness. The more we rest in this awareness, the more our unhealthy patterns begin to unravel and new ways of working with our challenges begin to emerge. And only when we are aware do we have a chance to learn and to heal. Awareness is a feedback loop in which we become cognizant of unskillful patterns of thinking and doing. When we recognize something unhealthy and hold it in awareness without grasping it or pushing it away, its power over us often weakens. Even if it doesn’t weaken, if we stay with it long enough it will dissolve or change its shape. Seeing the impermanence of the unhealthy habit is by itself a valuable lesson and makes us less caught.
Spending as much time in this awareness as we can is the task of mindfulness. And that task begins with the simple act of noticing the breath and making it your friend.
Since the presidential election, it seems as though the very idea of truth is under assault. In an ever more volatile and uncertain world, many people choose to live in media bubbles that reflect their biases and the mental habits that keep them in their comfort zones. Resisting complexity, many curate their realities by focusing on certain viewpoints while ignoring others. Fictional news stories take on the status of facts and are weaponized across social media, while actual facts are ignored or labeled false. Across vast swaths of the U.S. population, in fact, expertise is routinely downgraded and demeaned, so much so that the ability for Americans to agree on a consensus reality seems more and more difficult to achieve. This of course has tragic consequences for our civic and political lives. If we no longer value facts, it means that both the rule of law and democracy itself are in grave danger. So truth becomes an especially important topic for us now – because the possibility of justice in our country, and our world, depends on it.
Upon reflection, this assault on truth has been slowly building for years. But it took the election of Donald Trump to make frighteningly clear the civic consequences of living in a world in which the truth is not respected. But a community denial of truth — which is what we can call it when millions of people, on the political left and right, choose to believe patent falsehoods — this community denial of truth can only happen if we, as individuals, are also denying the simple, basic truths of our own lives. So I’d like to explore the idea of the importance of holding to the truth by linking a mass denial of truth with the personal tendency we all have to value or follow that which is not true.
In this context I’ll reference a famous expression from Jesus – ‘the truth will set you free’. Such a timeless and profound expression that directly connects to the practice of mindfulness. Because when it comes to mindfulness, it’s all about becoming free by seeing the truth. One of the things we can say about the teachings and practices of mindfulness is that they are designed to help us live in alignment with the truth, and by doing so, awakening us to that truth at ever deeper levels.
So if you think about awakening as the realization of truth, then abiding by what is not true, worshipping “alternative facts,” is the opposite of awakening, or unawakening. So to the extent that we value what is false, is the extent to which we are moving in the direction of darkness, unconsciousness, and suffering.
As individuals there are many ways that we value illusion over truth. These are the very common tendencies that we all have as fallible human beings. Tendencies that may keep us from awakening to reality – whether that’s the reality of global warming or the reality of our own mortality.
Years ago when my hair started to turn gray I resisted the fact. I wasn’t ready to have gray hair! So I dyed it. I loved what I saw in the mirror. Suddenly I looked like my old self. My friends told me they liked my new dark hair. It was great. I was in denial about the natural aging of my body and I was loving it! Then one day my girlfriend told me, “Bill, your dyed hair looks really fake.” I was outraged that she felt that way. I objected vigorously, pointing out that all my friends had told me my hair looked good. And she replied, “They’re just lying to make you feel good.” Suddenly it hit me: she was right. My hair did look bad. Gradually over time I let go of the need to maintain dark hair.
Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with dying one’s hair. But for me, I saw the way in which I wasn’t living in alignment with the truth of my own aging, the truth of my body’s changes….and there was suffering in that denial. My desire to maintain dark hair revealed a tension in my psyche about needing to appear another way…a tension that fell away when I allowed my hair to be just as it was. When I let my hair turn gray, that was a moment of freedom. That was a moment of living in alignment with truth.
Then there are the ways that we curate experience to promote an idea, a product, or ourselves, by highlighting certain facts and withholding others. In this regard I think of the way the term mindfulness is now being used in our world. Especially in the corporate world. Although mindfulness is essentially about recognizing the truth of reality with clear comprehension and wisdom, in the corporate world those lofty goals are pretty much sidelined in favor of a key management deliverable: greater focus and productivity. Yes, mindfulness can help you achieve greater focus, but the purpose of that focus has always been intended for the work of awakening, not for the bottom line. Also, mindfulness cannot even really take place unless there is a baseline of ethical conduct on the part of the practitioner of mindfulness. Yet how often do secular mindfulness programs talk about the importance of ethical conduct? Will you ever get a discussion of, say, sexual misconduct in a corporate mindfulness class focused on performance? Probably not.
The problem with the selective editing of mindfulness is that when it is divorced from ethics and wisdom it quickly loses its context and its meaning as a powerful tool for personal transformation and becomes just another useful training technique.
Getting even more granular about the ways we live apart from the truth is the idea of lack of presence. Lack of presence is a common ailment in our hyper-connected 24/7 media-obsessed world. Being so preoccupied by blinking notifications on your phone that when you descend a flight of stairs or walk down a street you’re not really experiencing it. The truth of the situation, the physical sensations, the way your hand reaches out for a door knob…the simple, basic aliveness of a routine moment…We’re not present for those moments so much of the time. And not just because of social media. But mostly because of the storms inside our own minds. So in a sense by not being present for the routine moments of our lives, we’re predisposing ourselves to living in a virtual reality composed of our habitual thoughts and deep-seated tendencies. Living in a world of our own personal alternative facts. And you could say that to the extent that we’re present, landed in the actuality of the here and now, is the extent to which we are living truthfully.
In fact, I’m convinced that if everyone could open a door or descend a flight of stairs with complete presence, we would have a totally transformed world politically and in all other ways.
When there is so much pressure in our world to chase after what isn’t true, to mesmerize ourselves with alternative facts, or myths that are self-serving – from what our politicians embody to the urgency of getting ahead in our corporate worlds to our routine lapses of presence with everyday reality – how do we resist this powerful tendency to step away from the truth?
Resistance is what it’s all about. Collectively, there is a beautiful resistance that’s been happening throughout our country to the regime that took power in January. A beautiful resistance consisting of marches, calls, donations, organizing, lawsuits, and judges reasserting the primacy of the constitution and the rule of law. Private citizens and some great people in Congress are actively resisting. These are all examples of honoring the truth, of resisting alternative facts. As individuals, our daily mindfulness practice is critical in resisting the denial of daily experience by losing our presence. By practicing every day, we are more likely to be present for what it feels like to grab a door handle, walk down a flight of stairs, or have an engaged conversation with a friend. Our mindfulness practice helps us live in alignment with the truth of our bodies, minds, and hearts, moment by moment, so that the possibility of awakening is never far behind.
Waking up with the truth is not a static event that happens on Monday and can then be ignored the rest of the week. Waking up is an activity, and it’s an intention. It’s something that we need to keep doing…until we’re completely woke.
There are literally thousands of ways of meditating. There are many traditions and many paths. But perhaps the most fashionable form of meditation these days is the practice of mindfulness and the industry of mindfulness spawned by it. This is a trend that began more than a decade ago and is still very much current. We’ve all seen the magazine covers of stories on mindfulness featuring a blissed out meditator – often a young, white woman – in a perfect lotus pose, looking calm and transcendent. As if this is a typical outcome when meditating (or that young, white women represent the kind of people meditation is for).
Then of course we hear about the latest findings from science. The studies that show how mindfulness can decrease stress, delay aging in the brain, increase the immune response or strengthen the ability to focus and be productive at work. In our age of collapsing spiritual traditions, science is often viewed as a secular religion, and when secularists hear about the positive science surrounding mindfulness they get downright giddy. And interested.
With so many blissed out people on glossy magazine covers and so much edifying hard data about benefits, it seems like you’d be crazy not to practice mindfulness!
The truth, though, is more complex. The goal of mindfulness, when properly understood, practiced and taught, is not, ultimately, about achieving some alpha state of mental performance, or about feeling blissed out or radiantly calm (although these states can and do result from regular intensive practice). Another way of saying this is that mindfulness is not supposed to be fun, easy, or calming. It is not about having no pain. In fact, mindfulness – when it is practiced with even a small amount of depth – is all about meeting pain – raw, human, everyday pain – with honesty, openheartedness, and clarity.
I got up early one morning and began my routine of sitting in meditation. All things seemed normal as I settled onto my bench. But within a minute I noticed that my stomach was feeling unsettled. Soon that feeling in my stomach intensified and became queasiness. After a few more minutes I noticed that my shoulders were hot and my face felt flushed. I became overheated all at once, which then intensified my stomach distress. I took off my sweatshirt in response and soon felt the morning air from the window start to cool me down and provide relief.
After about 10 minutes, I began to yawn frequently. I had not gotten a great sleep that night, but the yawning – deep, loud yawning – seemed not connected to being tired. Then I remembered that frequent yawning is often a sign of anxiety. This was an odd realization for me, because I didn’t feel particularly anxious when I woke up. Am I anxious? I asked myself. As I sat there over the next few minutes I found an answer to that question by sensing into my chest, slowing down my thought processes, and noticing what I noticed. I soon realized that I was, in fact, feeling quite anxious. About 20 minutes into my sit and after repeatedly yawning, I began moving my hands along my thighs in a sign of restlessness. Another aspect of anxiety. At 25 minutes in I started to fidget constantly, scratching itches on my head or face and yawning every few seconds, my body amped up and charged, as I realized ever more immediately the extent of my anxiety. My distress had been hidden, embedded in my body, and was now unfolding as a result of practice. My whole body felt uncomfortable now, my focus was totally shot, and yet I continued to sit on my bench, simply being with my discomfort, acknowledging it without judging myself for it. By the 45 minute mark I recalled saying to myself, “This really sucks. I don’t like it. Ugh!” I sat with my dislike of the discomfort and continued noticing my reactions. I spent an hour feeling like crap, but without resisting it.
When I stood up from my bench after an hour of very un-calm, un-blissful practice, I was feeling far more alive, far more connected to myself, and far more in touch with my own doubt and pain. But I was also far more connected to my own resilience and strength for being with it all. My Yawning Meditation had not been fun at all, nor did I ever feel a sense of pleasure or wisdom the whole time I was doing it. Yet wisdom was manifesting itself simply by my being willing to experience my reality exactly as it was revealing itself without feeling like I should have been having more fun or being more “productive.”
Mindfulness, above all, is about being with the truth and seeing it clearly. Not the cliched, superficial magazine cover truth – but the very messy truth of our lives.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is probably the best known mainstream mindfulness program out there. It was created in 1979 by the pioneering work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMASS Medical Center. The MBSR curriculum has been extensively investigated and is the subject of many research studies verifying the great benefits that mindfulness practice has on health and well-being. But what exactly are the things you learn in an 8-week MBSR course?
Here are a few of them.
1. You learn how to approach people and situations with beginner’s mind and greater openness. The most important thing we learn to experience with beginner’s mind is our own experience of being alive. We don’t take anything for granted – not our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, or impulses. Everything we think and feel and imagine can be held, with kindness and curiosity, in our awareness. We open ourselves to experiencing our lives in a less habitual, unconscious way.
2. You learn the importance of questioning the accuracy of your perceptions and seeing things more creatively. How we perceive the challenges in our lives has a lot to do with how we will ultimately respond to them. If we think the traffic jam we’re stuck in, or the relationship problem we’re facing, is all our fault or all someone else’s – it sets us up for either hating ourselves or hating someone else, thus causing us stress and dis-ease. When we free up our perceptions and see the multiple perspectives of any issue, we’re not so caught up in the blame game and have greater freedom to find a solution.
3. You learn to stop and enjoy the pleasurable moments in your life and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Human beings are hardwired to focus on threats – but that hard-wiring means that we will tend to miss much that is already good, pleasurable, and wholesome about our lives. If all we see is what we don’t have, or what might threaten us, then life becomes pretty stressful and not much fun. The good news is that we can train ourselves to really take in all the joyful and pleasurable moments in our lives – even the little ones! – and feel more resilient towards stress as a result.
4. You learn ways to be more responsive to stressful situations and not act on your autopilot reactions. When stressful situations arise, it is quite normal to be at the mercy of our reactive fight or flight tendencies. Arguments, road rage incidents on the one hand, or avoidance and shutting down emotionally on the other. Mindfulness practice helps us stay aware of the unpleasant body sensations, catastrophizing thoughts and painful emotions of stressful situations as they are happening instead of freaking out and losing it. While we can’t get rid of stressful events, we can learn to respond to them with wisdom.
5. You learn to see your thoughts and emotions as events in consciousness, not facts. We tend to believe our thoughts and emotions are always true without questioning them or where they come from. Mindfulness reveals the transitory and insubstantial nature of thoughts and emotions. The greater clarity that comes with mindfulness practice helps us to, not ignore thoughts and emotions, but to see them as highly conditioned and temporary experiences which we can choose to follow, investigate, or let go of.
6. You learn to communicate more effectively with others by practicing presence, empathy, and kindness. By staying connected to body, mind, and heart during a conversation, we establish a greater presence which can help us really understand what someone is telling us – which also helps us communicate more intuitively, authentically, and with greater kindness than a default autopilot conversation does.
7. You learn mindful consuming by noticing your intentions and when ingesting something like food or media becomes too much. We are all consumers: consumers of food, drink, media, time, environments, people, and so on. Everything we consume has an effect on our body, mind and nervous system. Mindful consuming means we pay attention to what we take in and to what effects it has on us. Harmful effects are something we can begin to notice, so that we can make wiser and more sustainable consuming decisions.
8. An 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction is just the beginning. Our practice deepens over time as we cultivate our own inner resources for health, healing, and wisdom. There are many ways to continue a mindfulness practice, and we share practical strategies and resources for continuing to practice mindfulness in your everyday life.
You can sign up for the next MBSR class in Berkeley CA on June 5 by clicking this link: https://stressreductionatwork.com/berkeley-mindfulness-class/
There are two primary modes of living: being and doing. The default way we act in the world is in the doing mode. This is the mode of getting things done, of planning, thinking, figuring out, meeting people and communicating, as well as knocking off items on our to-do lists. When we get busy “doing” things, there’s a little hit of pleasure that enters the brain. That’s actually a neurological reality. In fact, it can be quite addictive to be busy. There is also something about the way we’re wired that makes us more likely to engage in incessant activity. Through deep neurological conditioning, our brains tend to focus on threats – in modern life, instead of those threats being about the possibility of getting eaten by the local woolly mammoth, they’ll be more about surviving in the workplace, making a living, succeeding in the world, feeling safe and on top of things. The crazy busyness of modern life ensures that we are highly likely to operate in the doing mode most of the time. But the doing mode is also stressful and anxiety-filled. Adrenaline and desire are its main fuels. When people operate in the doing mode all the time – even to the point of “doing” their leisure activities – stress can become chronic. And when stress becomes chronic, life becomes very difficult, for a whole host of reasons, including the diminishing of personal effectiveness as well as health problems. Personal happiness is the greatest casualty when stress hijacks our lives.
The doing mode is about effort, striving, managing threats or opportunities through our strengths and weaknesses. The being mode is completely different. When we are in a state of being, there is no need to accomplish anything, no need to be the best at something, no need to strive or figure things out. We are simply allowing ourselves to be. Just as we are. With all of our simple and profound aliveness, with our emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and our precious breath. The being mode is about stopping the treadmill of busyness and simply letting ourselves be alive. When we do this kind of stopping, mental activity doesn’t stop — mental activity continues but, since we are no longer fueling it with the actions of doing, our mental patterns tend to clarify and unwind. This clarifying in our minds helps us see more clearly what is needed with our challenges. Stopping also helps us let go of striving to be anything and rest, refresh, and recharge ourselves. This relaxes the nervous system, bringing greater ease and peace to the body. Stopping and letting ourselves be also puts us in touch with what’s happening in the body – we notice pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations. We are sensitive to joy and sorrow, and we are tuned in to intuition and creative breakthroughs.
Our default actions come from the doing mode – the habitual monkey-mindedness of human life. But our wisest actions come from the being mode. The place of stopping, of honesty, clarity, and stillness. However, it would be a mistake to think that being and doing are mutually exclusive states. Both are important. Both are connected. But since we tend to overvalue doing and ignore being, even a little bit more being in our lives will make us happier and healthier. With more being time in our lives our actions will be more influenced by stillness and wisdom rather than the autopilot reactions of the doing mode. So a regular daily dose of being is what’s needed. Perhaps that means lying in a sauna for a half hour, going for a walk, or sitting in a chair and focusing on your breath. Whatever you do, give yourself the gift of your own being. You deserve it.
The word resistance has been getting a lot of attention lately, in light of the U. S. presidential election and its aftermath. Resistance is actually a necessary way of being engaged, both politically and in other ways. But if there is something we dislike or feel is unjust that we feel compelled to resist, how can we practice that resistance in a wise way?
Resistance can take many forms. Resistance as it unfolds in big events like marches. And also the way resistance plays itself out among people we know, our friends and family, and colleagues. The types of messages we see on social media. The retweets, the status updates, the links to insightful articles about…how to resist.
During the last few months I’ve also observed my own tendencies around resistance. I watched my state of my mind in the days after an election whose outcome was not what I expected. I noticed the cortisol levels starting to impact my body as soon as I’d wake up in the mornings and remember the election and groan in anguish.
But how does resistance look through the lens of mindfulness? How can we practice wise, non-reactive resistance? Of course, the very question implies that there are forms of resistance which are not wise – or not as wise. What follows are some thoughts.
I’ll start by citing a very famous quote from the Buddha:
“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.”
And one of the most notable things I’ve observed about how I experience resistance in myself and others is the tendency to indulge in hatred. Hatred is kind of like the mind’s way of having clarity in a difficult situation. Have you ever noticed that? That when you hate something or someone, there’s a certain cutting to the chase power? Or maybe hatred is a way of feeling in control…or a way of defeating our fears.
So this is one major way that resistance plays itself out. People get angry and they project that anger outward. There’s a lot of projecting of anger in our politics…anger placed on politicians, on people in Congress, on our friends or relatives who maybe voted differently than we did. A horrible law gets passed or an executive order gets signed, and people are up in arms with understandable outrage.
But the problem with all this hatred and ill will – which I’ve certainly expressed many times myself over the years – is that, as the Buddha said, hatred does not cease by hatred. But only through love. If you are an activist, or even not, that is a very challenging point of view to take on.
So hatred does not end other forms of hatred, it just leads to more hatred. And yet we are compelled to act against what we believe is not just. This is what activism is all about. But activism is kind of based on righteous indignation, isn’t it? On the left and the right. And there’s the paradox. And the proposition that I’m going to make is this – that political activism will burn itself out when its primary driver is hatred. Hatred is not sustainable. And yet it seems to drive so much in our politics and culture wars.
Lately I’ve been speaking with my fellow teachers and we came up with something that I think is quite simple and quite wise which may be helpful…especially in our current moment.
So much of how we mobilize our resistance is around what we don’t want, what we hate, what we’re against. But the question my colleagues and I were recently discussing was, what would happen if instead of focusing on what we’re against, we focused on what we’re for? What do we believe in, what do we value? And how do we express those values? If we could engage in protest about what we’re for, would we need to have an enemy to mobilize us?
I’m reminded of the teaching of the two arrows here. We experience pain. That’s the first arrow. Then we have a mental reaction to the pain which often makes the pain worse. That’s the second arrow.
And this two arrows teaching is expressed beautifully in a kind of a modern teaching paradigm that’s sometimes used in coaching, organizational consulting, and so on. Which goes like this: Suffering equals pain times resistance (S=PxR). And the idea is that pain is a part of life, and suffering is what we add to pain through our mental reactions. And usually that has to do with our resistance to the pain.
And so the idea from an activism perspective is that the more we can be with the pain of events consciously – in other words, the less we resist the pain of political events internally – then the wiser our external response will be. Thus the more effective our resistance becomes because we won’t be eating ourselves up with hatred.
To put it another way, when we learn not to resist our pain internally, it may help us resist externally with greater effectiveness and more sustainably.
So for me there are two kinds of resistance.
There’s resistance with aversion – focusing on everything you’re against, using hatred as a motivator; and there’s resistance with love or non-hatred, focusing on your values and what you stand for as a motivator.
So I propose that when we resist with love, we’re more oriented to focusing on what we’re for rather than what we’re against. We’re not focused on having and demonizing an enemy. We’re focused on justice. We know what’s causing suffering and we act with fierce compassion…but not with hatred. Because we are motivated by love and what we value, we live to fight another day, month, and year.
At the San Francisco Insight Meditation Community, March 15, 2017.
As you read these words, sense your body and notice your breathing…
Mindfulness has certainly become a buzzword these days. For people like me who are passionate about mindfulness and know the freedom it can bring, that’s really good news. More importantly, it’s good news that this simple yet profound practice of presence is making its way into the mainstream and into the lives of everyday, ordinary people. Twenty years ago mindfulness scarcely registered in popular culture. Now there is a global mindfulness movement featuring mindfulness classes in schools, universities, and prisons, and at corporate workplaces and board rooms. And mindfulness is being taught to just about every type of person. There are mindfulness courses for therapists, leaders and teams, pregnant women, young children, teens, addicts, people with depression, lawyers and doctors, and social justice activists.
Yet a danger lurks in all this good news — the danger of the fad. People will hear about mindfulness, have an idea about what it means (“Oh, you mean living in the moment? Sure, that’s a good idea!”) then dismiss it without ever being curious enough to try practicing it. While it is true that the word “mindfulness” has an established place in our lexicon, it is still often a misunderstood concept. People have all sorts of ideas about what it means to be mindful, as in, “I forgot to bring my book. I guess I wasn’t being mindful.” Well, yes….but no.
Here’s the thing: mindfulness is not rocket science. It isn’t some new belief system or technique. Mindfulness isn’t a belief system at all. It is simply a focused, non-reactive awareness. This awareness already exists in each and every one of us. Everyone can be mindful because everyone has the capacity. Not only that, everyone already is mindful. We all know how to stop and pay attention when something is really important to us. And all of us have experienced those accidental epiphanies of presence when the whole world, if just for an instant, seems to stop and show itself in high relief. The practice of mindfulness is simply the cultivation of this wonderful quality of non-judgmental awareness that each of us already possesses. The purpose of training oneself in mindfulness is to make it our default way of responding to our life and its challenges instead of leaving it to chance.
Mindfulness is as natural as breathing, and with the world becoming ever more complex and challenging, it may soon become as necessary to our survival as the breath itself.
Plenty has been written about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Most texts rightly treat it as an aspect of Buddhism (like Analayo’s riveting but technically dense Satipatthana), while some treat it as a research-validated and purely secular method for reducing stress (like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living.) My desire in writing this book is to present a clear, straightforward guide for cultivating mindfulness in life’s daily situations and to help people decrease the stress in their lives. It is mostly free of research (you can always get Full Catastrophe Living for stats or else Google them). It is also almost entirely free of references to Buddhism or spirituality. Yes, mindfulness derives from the wisdom of the ancient East and to the supreme spiritual genius of the man known as The Buddha. But you don’t have to believe in anything to cultivate mindfulness: it’s the birthright of every human being, whether that human being is a Buddhist, a Christian, an atheist, or Other.
There are two kinds of mindfulness practice: formal periods of mind training while sitting, walking, and moving, and the informal practice of mindfulness available to us in each moment of our daily lives, whether we’re managing our emails, holding a meeting, planning our day, having a conversation, navigating change, commuting to work, shopping for groceries, walking to catch our bus, or reclining in a dentist’s chair. I tend to emphasize mindfulness in ordinary moments because they make up the majority of our lives. Most of us are not formally meditating most of the time, nor do most of us live in secluded monastic conditions that provide the simplicity and silence to support the deepening of our awareness. For most of us, our lives are composed of non-exotic moments of doing. Moments that are easy to dismiss. Yet it is the attitude we embody in these “dismissable” moments that shapes our very destiny and determines whether or not we will be overwhelmed by our challenges or able to transmute them to deepen our experience of life. These ordinary moments are really the fabric of our lives. If we miss out on them, we aren’t really living. When we start paying attention to our ordinary moments, we start inhabiting our lives fully.
That being said, the best way to train oneself to become more mindful during these ordinary moments is to engage in regular periods of formal practice, which is the equivalent of going to the gym and building your mindfulness muscles.
Adapted from Moment by Moment by Bill Scheinman, available for purchase on Amazon.
I’m in a state of rage. I’m thinking about something a colleague said to me the other day and it really ticks me off. I think about things I can say to him in return that will set him straight and force him to treat me with respect. Quietly seething, I plan my revenge. I decide that this person will not be able to push me around anymore! There are things I could do, things I could say, that could really cause problems for him. Or perhaps, I could simply withdraw from contact with this person and do my best to erase his existence from my mind. Then, all at once, I realize what I’ve been doing. I’ve simply been indulging in rage. In that instant I’ve remembered to be mindful.
Taking a mindful stance, I become instantly attuned to my physical and mental state. I notice how my body feels in this state of anger. I notice the tight sensation of heat in my chest, the burning in my throat, the quickening of my pulse. I see that the anger I’m feeling is made up of these unpleasant physical sensations. I recall the thought, This person will not be able to push me around anymore! I realize that this is just a thought that feeds the anger, and that the thought arose because of these sensations of hurt in my body. I also realize that those sensations arose just now because I remembered the words that he spoke to me. I realize that part of me actually believes his words. Otherwise they would have no affect on me.
Okay, I reflect, he may or may not respect me. But I can’t control that. I can only control how I react to what he says. So, if I can’t control him, what am I left with? The answer: my feelings of hurt. So I breathe with them, feeling the heat in my chest, the constriction in my throat, the coiled-spring urge in my arms to strike out. As I do this I allow the thought This person will not be able to push me around anymore! to reprise now and then. As I keep breathing and letting myself be with the sensations without trying to change them, I notice that the heat in my chest and throat has started to cool. And now the thought This person will not be able to push me around anymore! seems pretty silly. I begin feeling more relaxed. I still don’t feel comfortable with this person, and think he probably disrespects me, but the anger just isn’t there anymore. As I keep breathing I reflect, Wow, that anger seemed so real, so solid! Where did it go? Where is it now? Now I think back on the words the person used that hurt me so — ooh, yes, I feel a slight twinge in my chest just recalling them. A little more hurt arises. But that’s okay. The hurt doesn’t define me now. I’ll keep breathing with it whenever it surfaces, recognizing that the part of me that knows the hurt isn’t feeling hurt at all. I’ll forget this, of course. But the thing is, the knowing is always there. It’s up to me to remember it.
What do you have a hard time letting go of? Perhaps it’s letting go of the little time-honored personal rituals that you enact in your life. Like always grating your cheese or chopping onions a certain way. Or always listening to a certain program or reading certain publications to get on top of current events. Or making sure you always get to a movie early enough to watch the trailers. Or perhaps it’s the idea that you always need to be the best at something, the smartest person in the room? Or that you always need to be right? Or that your body should always look a certain way? Or that only certain people are worthy of your consideration? Maybe it’s hard to give up a plan, or an ideal, or a relationship. But think about this. When we talk about letting go, what exactly are we letting go of? What’s behind the letting go of, say, the idea that you always need to be right, or chop your onions in a certain way?
What we’re letting go of is really a habit. And a habit is really all about clinging. But when we cling to a habit, what are we clinging to? We are clinging to what we know. We’re clinging to the known world. To what is familiar and comfortable.
Buddhism always talks about not clinging….that’s because to cling is also to suffer. As spoken of the diligent practitioner who practices mindfulness, it is said, in the refrain to The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness sutta, “And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” That phrase is said over and over again in that teaching. And the value of not clinging, of letting go, is mentioned countless times in Buddhist writings.
Even the word nibbana, which we usually translate as enlightenment, implies non-clinging. The word literally means extinguishing the flame. What does the flame cling to? It clings to its fuel.
So, there’s a big emphasis on clinging as a cause of suffering, and not clinging, or letting go, as the gateway to freedom.
But what’s wrong with clinging? Why do we suffer when we cling?
Because everything is impermanent. If you cling to what can’t actually be clung to, you’re setting yourself up for suffering. For loss and heart break. And for cycles of reactivity that only lead to more suffering. Buddhism is really oriented towards realizing that impermanence is a fundamental aspect of reality. And letting go of the idea of permanence is what allows the new and unknown to emerge. It’s also what allows us to transform ourselves, to learn, to love, to deepen our experience of life.
And when we practice, there are many ways that we express the intention to let go.
Even with ethics. We’re letting go of ways of relating to the world that maybe aren’t ethical. When we experience wisdom, we’re letting go of ignorance.
And certainly in our meditation practice we’re practicing letting go all the time. Just to sit on your bench or your chair or cushion. Just doing that represents a huge act of letting go. I mean, what is a typical morning habit? You know, we wake up, and our minds start thinking about things. Maybe it’s…my god, this meeting I have today. How’s it going to go? Or maybe it’s, my god, I can’t believe that person is our president. The cortisol starts entering the bloodstream. By habit we want to get up, get our coffee, have breakfast, check our phones, hear the news, get started. Step onto the treadmill of the day’s routine. But if instead of doing that you sit down for 30 minutes and just try being with your breathing, that is a radical act of letting go…of the habit of the morning treadmill. Or maybe you sit at night. And maybe you would ordinarily have your glass of wine after work. But instead of doing that you’re sitting and being with yourself. That’s a letting go. It’s profound.
And in the act of meditation itself. We’re essentially practicing letting go all the time. We try focusing on the breath in our practice. You sit and you feel your breath coming in, and you feel it going out. And you take another breath. And another. But before you know it, even though you’ve continued to breathe, you’re actually thinking about getting plane tickets for a trip you need to take in a month. Or your son’s soccer game. Or your portfolio or bank account balance. And then you recognize that you’ve lost the breath. So, what do you do? You redirect your attention to the breath. You come back. And by doing that you’ve let go of whatever thought was worrying you. In the moment that you came back to the breath you’ve practiced letting go of worry. And then you’re with the breath again. A few moments later, you realize you’ve been fantasizing. Maybe having a fantasy of delicious food, or sex, or an exotic city. You’ve lost the breath again. So you come back to the breath. And what that means is that in that moment, you’ve practiced letting go of desire. In your meditation you are constantly practicing letting go of these mental states of desire, aversion, and delusion, just through the simple fact of being in the here and now with your breath. In the process you are transforming how you relate to yourself and the world. You are letting go of your unconscious habits and making the conscious choice of being here.
When you’re on retreat and you’re practicing intensively, you might begin to discover that your body’s in a lot of pain. Maybe you discover parts of the body that are wounded that you didn’t realize were wounded. And eventually you learn to meditate with the pain. You figure out how to do it. You’ve let go of the idea that your meditation practice has to be pain free. And to learn how to be with discomfort and pain in the body, also conditions us to be with discomfort with other things, with people, relationships, situations in our lives. So we learn about discomfort. And we learn about how to respond to discomfort rather than react to it. We cultivate wisdom just by making the conscious choice to return to the breath.
In our meditation practice we also learn to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about self/others: Our heads are full of such stories, and we see this when we practice. And we learn to let go of these stories. We practice this again and again. And eventually something becomes free in us, we don’t believe our stories so rigidly. And we realize that our thoughts are just events in consciousness, not facts. Like passing clouds.
Our practice helps us let go of emotions. It doesn’t help us get rid of our emotions. Rather the act of mindful awareness helps us metabolize our emotions so that we are able to let them pass through us and learn what we need to learn from them.
Our practice also helps us let go of the need to be in control. One of the most common delusions in life is the idea that we can control external events. It’s true that we can control some events, but most events big or small are beyond our control. And letting go of the need for that control is a great relief.
Part of what we want to control is the idea of perfection – that we can somehow become perfect. Which means that we are always seeing ourselves as a project – as somehow tweakable enough to attain an immutable state of excellence. Again there’s a tremendous relief when we can let go of this delusion.
And letting go of being perfect has a lot to do with the idea that we are a fixed and separate self in the first place. Mindfulness practice, especially when it gets deep, shows us clearly that human experience is in a constant state of impermanence and flow, and that if we can let go of the idea of being a solid “thing” and align ourselves with that flow, what we can become and be is boundless.
To let go is to admit that what we’re letting go of is not the source of a permanent happiness. It should be said that letting go is not about getting rid of something. Pushing something away aversively is just another form of clinging. Letting go is simply the habit of clinging starting to relax and fall away.
Is letting go an act of will? More often than not, letting go is not willed, you don’t do it, it does you. It arises naturally in the course of a daily practice. In fact, if we try forcing ourselves to let go it won’t work. We need to live through the experience, not avoid it, and letting go happens naturally as a result of being awake with that experience. We find the grace to let go because we’ve been willing to open our hearts to holding on. If we’re not willing to hold on, to make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our hopes and fears, we won’t learn how to become free.
How is it that letting go happens naturally? It’s because there’s something in each of us which wants freedom and recognizes it.
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.
Commuting can be stressful, can’t it? The anxiety of catching the right bus at the right time is sometimes matched by the suspense of whether you’ll even get a seat. Want to pound that steering wheel when you’re stuck in traffic? Go ahead, it won’t make a difference. Wish you could stretch out your legs fully in that cramped commuter airline seat? You’re not alone. Commuting also takes a lot of time. According to data from the Census Bureau, Americans spend 1.8 trillion minutes commuting each year, with a daily average to and from time of more than 50 minutes. And extra-long commutes are steadily growing throughout the country.
But commuting is also a great opportunity for cultivating awareness of the present moment. The following suggestions can help transform your commute into a time for cultivating presence and self-care, two important things as we prepare for our work days or after work family lives.
We identify with our cars. They become an extension of our ego-driven selves. Because of this identification, when something happens on the road we don’t like, it feels like a personal threat. Getting caught in a traffic jam, or getting cut off by another car, can be a real cause for the fight or flight stress response. A lot of the anxiety we feel when we drive is because we’re distracted. We’re distracted by thoughts of the meeting we’re trying to get to or some other challenging situation at work. We may also be distracted by the very distressing world news we’re listening to on our radio. In fact, when the radio is on, demanding our attention, our focus is inevitably split between the content of the news and the road. That split in attention makes us more agitated and more likely to get frustrated while driving and more likely to act out of that frustration. So one suggestion is to realize that you have a choice about having the radio on. Sometimes it can be a wonderful experience to just drive. For mindful driving, turn the radio off and focus on the physical sensations of driving. Feel your body sitting in the car seat, feel your feet on the gas or the clutch pedal, feel your hands gripping the wheel. And notice your breathing. Just be aware of the road and let yourself be as you are, without needing to add any other stimulation. The road itself can be quite stimulating! Many students have told me over the years that turning the radio off and tuning in to body sensations while they drive completely transformed their experience of driving, lead to much greater calm and ease on the road, and helped them feel completely relaxed by the time they arrived at work. This doesn’t mean NEVER having the radio on. It means that there are times when it is useful to just drive with awareness and no other distractions. Mindfulness helps us tune in to what we need and make the wisest choice.
We walk all the time. We walk to the bathroom in the morning, to the kitchen to make our breakfast, to the bus stop, from the train station to work. While at work we walk down hallways – sometimes very long ones – and out of one office and into another. But although we walk with great frequency, we are often not paying attention when we do so. Again, tuning in to physical sensations is very helpful for connecting us to the present moment. The human body in motion is never in motion in the past or in the future – it is always in motion NOW. When we pay attention to that fact, we are automatically aligned with the now. Many people walk with headphones on ensconced in their media bubble – again, nothing wrong with that. But realize that you do a choice in the matter. Because you are walking AND listening to your favorite podcast or musician at the same time, where is your attention really? Are you really paying attention to the music? Or are you really focused on that dent in the sidewalk that might make you stumble? The 5-minute walk from the bus to your work may be a great time to simply walk and know that you’re walking. By doing so, you are building up reserves of presence and connection that will help you at work.
Bus or Train
Instead of ruminating about your first meeting of the day on your bus or train ride, try practicing some mindfulness. For the first five minutes of your commute, do some awareness of breathing to collect your attention. Do another 5-minute session just before you arrive at your stop. Book-ending your commute ride with some mindful breathing establishes a strong sense of presence and awareness in the midst of what is often a very disorienting and mentally scattered experience.
Traveling by plane is wonderfully convenient, and can be incredibly draining as well. Cramped seats and bodies frozen into unnatural shapes for hours at a time is bad enough, but breathing recirculated in a constantly distracting environment makes it very difficult to stabilize the mind. If we are able to work on the flight, we may be even more drained of energy by the time we land. A very helpful rule of thumb that I have found to be extremely helpful for air travel is this: for every hour you are in the air, practice 10 minutes of awareness of breathing. By the time you arrive at your destination, you will feel much more refreshed than if you hadn’t trained your attention during the flight.
One of the reasons that people find commuting stressful is that there’s a tendency to think of commuting time as wasted time. It’s dead time that needs to be filled with something. But moments spent on the train are not dead moments – they are life. And if we can remember to use these gifts of down time to keep the mind focused and alert it will not only make our commutes more enjoyable and less stressful, but it will keep our mindfulness more continuous and help us bring a more relaxed presence to our work and personal lives.
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.
In meditation, when things don’t go our way, we tend to resist. Feeling restless? Then fidget incessantly as a way of not feeling the restlessness or what may be behind it. Have a hard time focusing on your breath? Then berate yourself as a bad meditator and despair at ever getting “good” at the practice.
It’s like this in daily life as well. If someone has betrayed us, we might spend a lot of time ruminating about how the betrayal shouldn’t have happened, about how the person had no right to do it, and perhaps float creative ideas for getting revenge. Your candidate didn’t win an election? Then blame those who didn’t vote, or shame certain groups of people as being somehow less worthy of your respect. Or begin fantasizing about moving to Canada.
The problem with resistance is that it tends to make things worse. There’s an old Buddhist teaching about the two arrows. The first arrow that hits you is the inevitable pain of life. The second arrow that hits you is your resistance to your pain. You may not be able to control the inevitable pains and sorrows of life – in fact, count on that. But you can control how you respond to your pain. In a more modern context we can describe it as an equation of suffering, as:
When our minds are untrained, or when our training is forgotten, our default way of handling a stressful event is to lash out and resist based on our unconscious habit patterns, biases, and personal conditioning. We are on auto pilot and have no chance to accurately appraise the situation. Instead we try to fix, attack, control, rationalize, blame others, or avoid the truth of what’s been happening in the deluded hope that such tactics will somehow make us feel better. When we swat a fly that’s been crawling on us, we may be removing the discomfort of that experience – but we’ll end up knowing very little about flies. This is certainly true for those humans who annoy us as well. We can swat them away but what will we learn about them or what motivates them?
In contrast, when our minds are trained our default way of handling a stressful event is first to allow things to be as they are. That doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with the suffering we’re experiencing. It means giving space to it in a way that helps us metabolize it physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research has shown that when people can be with things as they are, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is often referred to as the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system, or the relaxation response. When we take time to digest the pain we are experiencing, the body can relax and the mind can become still and clear. Not only can suffering be seen clearly, but the natural wisdom of the mind can begin to reveal the appropriate response.
Non-resistance doesn’t mean that we ignore injustice. In fact, non-resistance can help cultivate a more sustainable ability to resist injustice. Because when we can first be with things as they are, letting the shock and anger metabolize first, we then can practice political resistance in a responsive way – not in a reactive way. In other words, you may be fighting against oppression, racism, misogyny, and other forms of harm, but you are in control of your mental states. You are not acting because you are overwhelmed, addled with rage and fear, you are responding with awareness to suffering. Your heart and mind are steady, clear. You will not get burned out in the face of a long struggle for justice, because you are taking care of yourself. And this steadiness of mind in the face of oppression can be supported by not resisting the truth of a bad situation. The bad situation is already here; if we don’t give in to our habitual fight or flight reactions to it, let’s see how the wise and compassionate heart responds.
“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.
How Mindfulness Helps
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.
You probably know the feeling. It’s after lunch and the day seems to drag on and on. Your energy level is low, and you can’t concentrate on your work. You aren’t getting anything done, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it. You feel like taking a nap, but of course that’s not possible at the office. The afternoon doldrums are a well-known challenge to the work day, with some 28% of employees reporting falling asleep or getting very sleepy at work, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But there are ways of working with this listlessness. Here are five ways to manage your energy during the afternoon:
1. Have a lite lunch.
If we have a heavy lunch, we’ll be in danger of our energy flagging during the afternoon. This is especially true if you go out for lunch. Many restaurants offer fare with lots of starch and fat, and portion sizes can be really large. If you do eat out, it’s a good idea to get something lighter and fresher – think salad or whole grains instead of that pork burrito, giant sandwich, or heavy rice and meat dish. Even better is bringing something home that you’ve made yourself. This way you can control both the quality and quantity of what you’re eating. The payoff of a lighter, fresher lunch will be a steadier level of energy in the afternoon.
2. Go for a walk outside.
Walking is great exercise, and it’s also a way of unlocking energy that can freeze in your body when you are stationery in an office for long periods of time. Getting out of your office and strolling outside also helps you let go of whatever issue you left on your desk. A walk can change your perspective and give the brain a much-needed break from problem-solving. When the brain gets this type of break, both the mind and body feel more refreshed.
3. Do a few minutes of mindfulness of breathing.
Focusing on your breathing is a mindfulness practice of being aware of the breath and simply bringing your attention back to the breath whenever the mind wanders. By bringing the mind back to the breath again and again, the mind tends to become more unified, clear, and collected. When the mind is more unified, it also has more energy, and that will be felt in the body as well. Also, when we practice mindfulness of breathing, we are letting go of the problem-solving doing mode of the mind and dwelling in its being mode. Spending regular time in the being mode refreshes the brain, decreases energy-sapping stress and energizes our attention.
4. Do some mindful stretching like yoga or qi gong.
Doing mindful movement like yoga or qi gong can help release energy in the body, enhance circulation, and increase mental alertness. And like walking and mindfulness of breathing, movement practice is a great way of letting go of the cares of the doing mode and reconnecting to the being mode. As a result, the body and the brain are refreshed. Even a few simple movements that can easily be done at your desk can recharge your batteries.
5. Take that nap – if you can.
Shutting your eyes and lying down for even 10 or 15 minutes can have a powerfully restorative effect on energy levels. This is easier said than done, though, as a nap requires a quiet room, and most employers don’t provide one. This may be changing, though, as more and more companies provide nap rooms specifically for this purpose. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 34% of employees reported that their employers allow them to nap at work. Companies such as Google, Nike, and Ben and Jerrys have discovered that when employees can nap at work productivity goes up, thus helping the bottom line.