Good Sitting, Bad Sitting

After the evening sitting, we stow the zafus and return the zendo to its pristine state. William regrets not being able to meditate properly tonight. His head is filled with thoughts of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday — the family he has not seen for ages, the tasks remaining to be done. Matthew sympathizes with him. His sitting didn’t go so well either. He is consumed by impotent rage about the conflict in Gaza. He wants to knock heads together to bring about peace. I am the grizzled Zen veteran in this conversation. I tell William to lighten up, that getting lost and returning is the very heart of Zen practice. I tell Matthew that his passionate anger is understandable, but can he sit with it and see what it is doing inside of him? Can he breathe and observe without feeding it, without denigrating it? Can it be transmuted into skillful and compassionate action? The world is, at times, a violent and terrible place, and we are only one drop of water in this storm-tossed sea. Can we see what’s possible for us to accomplish as this one drop — committed, firm and resolute — but without grandiose aspirations to omnipotently control the ocean? Show up, pay attention, do what’s needed — and then let go?

William and Matthew are at the start of their Zen journey. They’re beginning to learn that sitting isn’t about perfect concentration and bliss, but about seeing the mind as it is — a mirror that reflects everything — including the energies of holidays and far-off conflicts. Thoughts about these ongoing events rise and stir the emotions. The goal is not the elimination of these thoughts and emotions, but developing our capacity to observe them in a kind and interested way. If all that we can observe is how helplessly caught up we are in them — how our minds have a mind of their own — then that, in and of itself, is the beginning of wisdom. We are not the masters of our own house, and learning to work skillfully with the energies at play is the work of a lifetime.

We tend to label our experience — good sitting, bad sitting. Zen is about dropping labels. Every sitting reveals the mind as it manifests in this moment. If we haven’t slept, the mind is drowsy. If we had an argument, the mind is agitated. Everything is the result of “causes and conditions.”  Our minds too. That’s the way it is.

If we try to stay with being with things as they are, if we try to stay present and aware, sometimes the mind calms down. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the energies that are roiling the mind are too intense to be conquered by our weak intention to be present. That’s how this moment is. The next moment may be different.

Can we see that and let it be — without judgment?

Sitting is a strange process. In the beginning, it’s hard to grasp what it’s all about. Later on, it doesn’t get much easier. The only thing that’s clear is “just do it.” Whether the sitting is “good” or “bad,” just do it. You never get any better at it. Not really. But this whole idea of “getting better” is part of the problem, the endless self-improvement and self-manipulation game.

We don’t sit to get better. We sit to be with life as it is.

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Does All This Sitting Get Us Somewhere?


Our way is to practice one step at a time, one breath at a time, with no gaining idea. — Suzuki Roshi

Novice meditators often ask “will all this sitting get me somewhere?” By “somewhere” they mean somewhere else than where their sitting currently gets them — countless cushion-hours accompanied by states of desire, aversion, judgment, pain, boredom, torpor, fantasy, reminiscence, doubt, planning, philosophizing — and, yes — moments of presence and clarity. By “somewhere else” they mean their fantasy of whatever-it-was the Buddha experienced at the moment of his Enlightenment. They wonder whether they will ever have an experience like the Buddha’s.

The answer is “no.”

The Buddha’s experience was his own. Ours is ours.

The Buddha’s experience was the final end point of everything in his lifetime(s) that preceded it — his meditative practice, his ethical development, his philosophical understanding. Our experience is the end product of everything leading up to this moment in our lives — our virtues and vices, our sleep patterns and eating habits, our discipline and skill, the quality of our relationships and our health.

Meditation never gets us anywhere — we’re always “here.” When we meditate we steep ourselves in “here,” the whole of life held before us in a clear reflecting mirror. Not some perfect idea of life, but life as it is. Not bypassing or escaping life, but sitting with, recognizing, and acknowledging it. Breathing with it and letting it be.

We marinate in life and are cooked by it. It’s a process that happens, not something we accomplish. We didn’t build that. Things shift. We tire of hanging onto things. We cease repeating old mistakes. We laugh at ourselves. We open and soften. We come alive.

It’s not the sitting alone that does this. It’s every step we take on our path. It’s our understanding of impermanence, suffering, non-self, and emptiness. It’s our practice of compassion and generosity. It’s our letting go of past insults and injuries. It’s our growing respect for our bodies, our selves, our neighbors, our planet. All of this is reflected in each moment of sitting.

Does all this sitting get us somewhere?  No.  Sitting always gets us here.

But the nature of “here” changes as we journey on our path. Usually not in dramatic, awe-inspiring flashes, but little by little, bit by bit.   Be patient.  You have this whole lifetime (at least) ahead of you.

This isn’t to say you won’t have profound experiences during deep meditation or on prolonged retreats. They happen often enough. They can help our practice as long as we don’t cling to them and struggle to repeat them.

But sitting isn’t about having a spiritual experience. It’s about living a spiritual life.

Sitting isn’t where the miracle occurs.

Our life is the miracle.

Sitting is the mirror.

It’s the pot we’re cooked in.

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Are We There Yet?

Robert Kennedy, S.J., Roshi

I recently attended a talk at Fordham University by Roshi Robert Kennedy.  A Fordham student asked Roshi, “What’s the biggest obstacle for beginning Zen practitioners?”  He answered that at first Zen students are infatuated with the idea of practice and meditate with enthusiasm.  Then after a year or two, not so much. They haven’t gotten enlightened and their problems haven’t changed — their practice hits a wall.  At this point students focus in on the imperfections of their teacher and other sangha members and wonder if there’s a better practice somewhere else.  A lot of Zen students drop out.  Those who persist eventually develop a more mature view of practice:  Enlightenment is no longer just around the corner — or even if it is — sitting won’t make it happen.  As Ma-tsu inquired, “How can polishing a tile make a mirror?”  We just do the work — without expectation of gain — because it’s the work of being human.

Roshi’s words resonated because I’d recently completed a teleconferenced Dharma course offered through an on-line organization. The course was fine, but I was struck by the achievement-oriented striving permeating many of the participants’s questions.  They’d read about Daniel Ingram’s stages of enlightenment and wanted to know exactly where they were along the path.  Some of them despaired because they couldn’t afford to go on long retreats or take time off from work to do so.  How would they ever achieve stream-entry? They were in a hurry, and Enlightenment was their destination.

Practicing “like your hair’s on fire” is all well and good — practice needs sincerity and determination.  But in practice, as Ayya Khema noted, we’re “being nobody, going nowhere.”  Larry Rosenberg says pragmatic Americans want to know the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B, but in meditation we go from Point A to Point A.  We stay where we are, over and over.  We’re always beginners — no starting practice, no advanced practice — just practice.  We’re in it for the long haul.

If we practice in this way, without gaining idea, our practice takes care of itself.

Where are we on the path?

We’re always here.


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The Five Hindrances

How’s your meditation practice coming along? If the answer is “not so good,” what’s getting in the way?

Often the number one thing getting in the way of meditation practice is our idea about how our meditation practice should be going. We have beliefs about how our mind ought to be during meditation instead of simply observing it as it is. Or we have an idea about the kind of progress we ought to be making, comparing our meditation today with how it was during certain moments idealized in memory.

The Pali Canon speaks of five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) or obstructions during meditation: sense desire (kāmacchanda), ill-will (byāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-midda), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vivikicchā). We have all had moments — perhaps eons — when these have been present in our sitting practice.

Sense desire includes wishing for our sitting space to be warmer, cooler, or quieter; wishing we were more comfortable or in less pain; wishing our nose wasn’t so stuffy or our stomach so full; wishing that attractive person had taken the cushion next to ours in retreat. Sound familiar?

Ill-will includes resentments from the day that carry over into our practice as well as anger arising from emerging memories of past hurts. We can spend countless cushion-hours imagining what we’re going to say the next time we see that so-and-so. We can rehearse rationalizations that justify our anger, and reinforce our narrative about being the aggrieved party. We can dig the hole deeper.

Sloth and torpor refer to mental states of dullness, boredom, sleepiness, and lack of alertness. These states are often due to physical causes such as sleep deprivation, exhaustion, or postprandial “coma.”

Restlessness has two facets: motor restlessness and mental restlessness. You may feel jittery or have an urge to get up or shift position. Your mind may race about without focus like a hyperactive mongoose. Remorse is a sore spot in memory where you wish that you could redo something — your mind keeps returning to it, endlessly replaying “woulda,” “shoulda,” and “coulda”.

Doubt could be doubt about the Dharma, the path, your teacher, or your practice. “Is this the right practice for me?” “Should I be trying something else?” “Does practice get you anywhere?” You may be doing mindfulness of the breath and wonder whether you should be counting your breaths, doing mental noting, reciting metta phrases, or engaging in choiceless awareness instead.

Calling these mental factors hindrances, however, is a fundamental mistake. It’s better to think of them as grist for the mill. They are the contents of our consciousness. Instead of wishing them away, can we invest them with interest and simply observe them as they are? When we do this, the hindrances become our very practice itself rather than obstacles in the way of practice.

If boredom presents itself, what happens if we investigate boredom? What are its qualities? What is its intensity? How does it vary from moment to moment? Is it just a quality of mind, or can it be experienced in the body as well? What happens if we don’t wish boredom away, but allow it to stay for as long as it wishes to be around?

If ill-will is present, what if we observe it in a friendly manner? What if we embrace ill-will with mindfulness, and treat it, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “like a kindly older sister or brother?” How is it experienced in the body? What thoughts act as accelerants to it? How is our sense of self involved? Can we observe how it makes us burn inside and adds to our misery?

If we keep drifting off into dreamy mental states, can we watch the process of beginning to nod off again and again, and invest energy in observing the process? Can we observe the very moment when we drop off? Were we experiencing an in-breath or an out-breath at that moment?

If sense desire is present, can we just watch desire? Can we “urge surf,” watching the desire arise, peak, and subside? Can we see how it catches and ensnares us, and then mysteriously fades away without our acting on it?

If these “hindrances” persist, if we remain “caught,” if we are the victims of a “multiple hindrance attack,” can we stay with this process without getting discouraged or disturbed? Can we let go of expectations that our minds will always be clear, calm, and steady? No matter how much practice you have had, it’s unreasonable to expect anything else. After all, our minds, like everything else, are affected by causes and conditions. Can we extend compassion and lovingkindness to ourselves in such moments?

It’s said that when we practice meditation we are actually practicing three separate skills: 1) staying with the object of meditation, 2) recognizing when we’ve drifted off, and 3) returning to the object without fuss or judgment. When we have a “good meditation,” i.e, when our concentration is good and we’re able to stay with our object of meditation, we are developing the first skill. When we keep drifting and returning, even if we do it 100 times in a sitting, we’re developing the second and third skills. These, in fact, may be the most important skills in terms of improving our daily lives: recognizing when we’re no longer present and returning to mindfulness.

The poet William Blake wrote in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Keep watching your mind just as it is. Turning poison into wisdom is the path of the Buddhas.

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Good News For Amateurs

At age sixty-two, I’m a beginning classical piano student. I’m usually pretty disciplined and practice most days. I’m terrible at it, but love everything about it, including the hours of practice I put in each week. I suspect I’ll never be very good at it. I lack a certain natural aptitude and I’m getting a late start. I’ll never be a concert pianist.

My meditation practice is a little like my piano playing. I love everything about it, but I’m never going to be an olympic-level meditator. My concentration is only fair. I’ll probably never go on a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat or even a three month insight meditation retreat. I’ll never spend years sitting in a Himalayan cave. I’m strictly amateur.

Why practice either piano or meditation despite the fact that I’ll never advance beyond amateur status?

A) Because I love the practice itself.

B) Because there are benefits to each.

Playing piano increases my understanding and appreciation for music. I can hear and appreciate more when I listen to Chopin’s nocturnes and Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Meditating builds mindfulness and equanimity in my daily life. It allows me to understand and appreciate life more deeply.

Jean Kristeller, the Director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State University, first brought this idea of different levels of meditative practice to my attention in her chapter “Finding the Buddha/Finding the Self: Seeing with the Third Eye” for my book Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (SUNY Press: 2003).

Jean noted that while she found meditation practice extremely valuable, she was not a “natural contemplative.” She went on to say:

“While more practice may bring with it better ability to access the contemplative side of being, there is a danger in imposing expectations better suited to those seeking a particular state of “enlightenment” or level of mastery. Considering a parallel to training ourselves in other aspects of human endeavor, such as music or athletics, is helpful. We now realize that maintaining physical fitness is a process, the effects of which can be best understood as lying along a continuum, rather than in a dichotomy of the “unfit” versus the star athlete. Even elderly individuals in nursing homes are now known to benefit remarkably from mild exercise. A less dramatic contrast can be considered with musical training. Few would argue that virtually everyone has some ability to appreciate and understand music — and that such understanding is improved with even modest training. We don’t mistake the skills needed to provide such training to school children with the discipline and skill needed to become a professional classical musician, nor do we minimize or disparage the value to the individual of whatever level of musical experience someone wishes to seek out.”

Amen, Jean!

So it was with great interest that I read a recent scientific study suggesting that even very modest meditation experience can make measurable changes in the brain.

The study is called “Short-term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate,” and it will appear shortly in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Its authors are Yi-Yuan Tanga, Qilin Lua, Xiujuan Geng, Elliot Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael Posner. The study involved the collaboration of researchers at the University of Oregon and the Institute of Neuroinformatics and Lab for Body and Mind, Dalian University of Technology. Long live East-West collaboration!

In this study, forty-five college students received a mere 11 hours of training in what the authors called “integrative mind-body training,” or IMBT. IBMT involved body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training. It involved “no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body and mind.”

Sounds a lot like mindfulness meditation, huh?

Here comes the technical part:

After the college students received the 11 hours of training, the researchers performed a type of brain imaging scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging to examine the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of their brains. The ACC is responsible for monitoring and resolving conflict among competing response tendencies. Problems in ACC activation have been implicated in a wide variety of mental disorders including attention deficit disorder, addictions, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.

The results? The college students who were trained in IMBT showed increased fractional ansiotropy in brain regions associated with the ACC, meaning that the neural fiber tracts in that region either underwent a certain degree of reorganization or increased their myelination. In plain English, there were measurable brain changes associated with the meditation. Were those brain changes beneficial ones? Prior research with IMBT showed that it could improve conflict scores on an attention network test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, decrease stress-related cortisol, and increase immunoreactivity. It sounds all good to me.

There have been previous studies that have shown brain cortical changes in meditators. Back in 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues found increased cortical thickness in dedicated long-term insight meditation practitioners. What’s remarkable about this new study, however, is how little practice was needed to result in measurable brain changes.

So, fellow amateurs, keep up with your meditation practice, even if your practice is not perfect. Even if you don’t sit every single day. It’s good for you. (This is not, by the way, an invitation to slack off in your practice. More practice, more improvement.)

Not that you needed any brain studies to tell you that. You knew that already, didn’t you?

Still, for those of us who love and respect hard science, its nice to see science “validate” what we already know from our own introspection.

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Taming the Mind

“Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.”

–The Dhammapada

Meditation is often misunderstood as entering into a kind of hypnotic trance or a blanking-out of the mind.  It’s actually just the opposite: a deliberate and intentional paying attention to whatever we are experiencing right now.  It’s an opening-up and awakening rather than a closing-off or shutting-down.

We do it sitting motionlessly in a non-stimulating environment to simplify our field of attention.  If we went rushing about in a stimulus-rich environment we couldn’t develop and cultivate intimate attention.  Too much would be happening too fast.  Meditation is a slow walk down a country road rather than a fast drive down a superhighway.  We can take our time to notice things.  We can begin to discover what kind of listening and being is possible in any given moment.

As you sit down to meditate, the first things you may notice are sensations, sounds, and  thoughts.

Thoughts like:

“Am I doing this right?  What is it I’m supposed to be doing?  This is boring!  I can’t believe I’m going to have to sit here for a full 30 minutes!  Uh, oh!  I don’t like the position I’m in.  I’d like to change to a different posture.  There’s an itch!  I sure want to scratch it, but the directions are I’m not supposed to move.  But who will notice if I move?  These are dumb directions.  I can’t stand this itch for the whole rest of the time! Uh, oh!  My ears are beginning to ring.  I wonder why?  Uh, oh!  My leg is going to sleep. Will I get gangrene if I don’t move?  Is the thirty minutes up yet?  Maybe I didn’t set the timer right.  Uh, oh!  Someone outside is blasting a boom box.  How on earth can I meditate with that infernal racket?”

These thoughts generate and maintain a series of corresponding emotional states: irritation, boredom, frustration, worry, and so on.

All of these thoughts and their ensuing emotional states are mental objects we can attend to, just as we can attend to the itch on our face, the sound of the boom box, or the feel of our breath.

We pay attention to it with the light, nonjudgmental attention known as mindfulness.

When we are mindful of mental phenomena we are aware of them but not ensnared by them.

When the thought  <I can’t stand this itch> occurs without mindfulness we assume the thought is reality.   As a result, we can’t stand the itch; we end up scratching instead of observing, reacting without reflecting.

On the other hand, if we’re mindful of the thought <I can’t stand this itch>, it’s just a thought, neither true nor untrue; just an object of observation itself.  It doesn’t lead to action; we just sit and pay attention.  Over time we discover the itch doesn’t last forever; it goes away on its own accord.

Why is it so important to learn <I can’t stand this itch> is just a thought?

Because there are a great many just like it that cause harm to ourselves and others.

Thoughts like:

“I’ll go crazy if I don’t have a drink of alcohol right now.”

“That chocolate cake looks so good.  I can’t resist it, even though I’m supposed to be on a diet.”

“I can’t stand being lonely!  I need a relationship right now, even if it isn’t a good one.”

“I can’t hold this anger in forever.  I need to explode.”

Cravings and impulses are transient mind states that pass on their own if we do nothing to satisfy them.

It can be particularly useful to pay attention to the moment in your meditation when you have the desire to leave off.  Maybe you set the timer for 30 minutes, and somewhere 15 minutes into your meditation you experience an urge to cut it short.  Usually there’s some unpleasant mind state occurring at that moment: boredom, frustration, restlessness, discomfort.  When this occurs, it’s useful to focus your meditative attention on this unpleasant mind state and identify the qualities of the mind state and the thoughts that are generating and maintaining it.  Often they are thoughts related to your desires for how your meditation ought to be instead of how it actually is.  If you can let go of attachment to these desires and invest new interest in how the moment actually is, a valuable lesson can be learned.  This is how meditation teaches us to unhook from unskillful attachment in our daily lives.

It’s also useful to explore what’s happening at the moment before you lose focus on the present moment.  Often there’s some very subtle mind state that makes staying with the present moment uninteresting or unpleasant, and makes going with thoughts and reveries more interesting and enticing.  As we deepen our meditation practice, we become more skillful in identifying these subtle mental states and not allowing them to control us.

Learning to be mindful of mental states that lead to harmful behavior and the thoughts that generate and maintain them is a first step towards liberation.  Through mindfulness and the application of skillful means we learn to tame our minds and come into full possession of ourselves.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

–The Dhammapada

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Minding the Body

We rediscover our bodies in meditation.  It’s as if a previously silent realm has begun to speak.

The brain normally privileges vision and hearing and assigns a lesser priority to somatic sensations (unless they are quite strong) arising from the body.  The brain also prioritizes sensations and perceptions that are socially relevant, or that pertain to either our safety or successfully attaining our goals.

When we meditate, however, we avoid all the sensory data we usually privilege or seek out. We limit incoming visual and auditory sensation and suspend (or at least try to!) goal-directed striving. Neglected streams of information blossom into awareness.  For many first-time meditators, listening to the body can come as a revelation.

Many people ignore their bodies, either due to deliberate inattention, habituation to repetitive information, or information processing style.  The sexually abused, for example, often learn to ignore sexually-related sensations.  People who habitually tense their forehead, shoulders, or abdomen when stressed often habituate to sensations from those muscles; they aren’t even aware they are tensed-up.  Intellectuals live in their heads, experiencing themselves as purely mental beings who dwell behind their eyes and between their ears; their bodies are a means of transportation for their mental selves, but their bodies are not them.  These dissociations from the body all weaken and unravel, however, when one begins to meditate and the body begins to speak.

Novice meditators are often surprised by just how “noisy” their bodies are.  The body, which was formerly thought to be relatively silent, is now a veritable three-ring circus, with messages streaming forth from every square centimeter of skin and from the muscles, joints, and organs.  The mouth, for example, contains a torrent of sensations from the lips, tongue, gums, palate, throat, salivary glands and teeth.  As we breathe we become aware of the movement of the ribs,  diaphragm, intercostal muscles, abdomen, chest, spine and shoulders; we also become aware of  the sensations of air moving through our the nostrils, windpipe, chest, and sinuses. We become aware of feelings of warmth and tingling in our limbs, aware of our pulse and the circulation of our blood.  All of these sensations compete for our attention in an ever-changing kaleidoscopic cacophony.  How is it possible that we didn’t even notice this world before, except when we were ill or in pain?

As we attend to this awakened world of the body we begin to notice the subtle connections between body and mind.  We notice the thoughts that arise in response to physical sensations and how they feed back and alter the perception of the sensations themselves.  For example, we may become aware of pain.  We then may notice a cascade of thoughts in response to the pain:

“Oh, no!  Not this again! I can’t stand this pain!  Is it going to last for the whole rest of this meditation period?  What’s causing this pain?  Is it due to serious illness?  I hate the way this pain is ruining the tranquillity I’m supposed to be feeling while meditating!”

We might notice how the muscles around the area of pain tense up.  We might notice how our mind withdraws from the pain and tries to distract itself.  We may also become aware of ways to alter our response to pain.  What if instead of treating these pain-related thoughts as reality we  observed them as just thoughts?  What if we relaxed into the pain?  What if  we observe pain as pure sensation without reaction?  What happens when we do that?

As we begin to re-own our bodies we can hear what our bodies are saying. This body that we inhabit, or better yet, this bodymind which we are, needs proper care and attention.  We need to listen to internal messages that tell us when things are out of joint.  If we are constantly on the verge of drowsing off, this is our body’s message that we are sleep deprived.  If we hear rasps and rales in our breath, this is our body’s message that we need to stop smoking.  If we can’t breath freely because we’re overweight, this is our body’s message that it’s time to eat less.  If we experience lower-back pain, this is our body’s message that we need to  lift objects more skillfully.  These messages are often ignored during the normal daily rush of ongoing activities.  Listening to the rasps and rales of our breath during meditation, however, with the instruction to “pay attention!” can be a powerful transformative experience.

We often have negative attitudes towards our bodies.  We hate our size or shape.  If we have straight hair we want curly hair; if we have curly hair, we want straight hair.  We hate the infirm and damaged parts of ourselves.  We hate the way we age.  This negative narrative about the body often eclipses our direct experience of the actual body.  In meditation we experience our actual bodies. We also become aware that our narrative is just narrative, not reality.  We can  compare the fresh lived experience of the body with our stale old narrative about it.  We can let the old stories drop off and let our bodies be.  This is how we can grow into self-acceptance.

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Repetitive Thought Patterns

If we make meditation a daily part of our lives, if we set aside a half-hour or hour every day to sit and watch the contents of our experience, we begin to notice certain regularities in the way our minds function.  Certain thoughts return again and again, certain themes come up again and again.  We get lost in fantasizing and daydreaming instead of paying attention, and if we catch these fantasies and daydreams and reflect on them, we can see there is a certain unnerving regularity to them.  They often relate, for example, to unfulfilled desires for love, respect, admiration, power, status, or accomplishment.  We may drift into imagining that we are doing great things, saying great things, or obtaining great things.  Maybe we are defending ourselves and our actions and beliefs before an imaginary audience.  Maybe we are reacting to some almost insignificant slight, or some small crumb of craved for recognition and acknowledgment.  The Self is consumed with aggrandizing itself, defending itself, justifying itself, looking good in the estimation of others, satisfying itself.  Or conversely, the Self is an anxious Self, anticipating all the ways that what it craves will be taken away, and restlessly thinking about how to avoid this loss or that loss, this danger or that danger.  The unrelenting focus of the anxious Self is on safety and self-preservation.

When one gets to watch this same routinized narcissistic or anxious pattern over and over again day in and day out in meditation practice, one wearies of it.  We want it to change and be different.  We want to have selfless thoughts, prettier thoughts, thoughts that will win approval for us as wise and virtuous beings.  But wait a minute!  This is just another form of wanting to be better, wanting approval for the Self.  It’s the same old trap again!  Maybe when we see this we laugh a bit and chuckle to ourselves. We’ve caught ourselves in the act of being ourselves once again!  We begin to appreciate that this is who we are and will seemingly always be.  We cannot transform ourselves into another kind of being.

At this point there can be a moment of acceptance of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are and  seeing through ourselves.  We can take ourselves more lightly.  We can momentarily experience our familiar obsessions with greater humor and compassion.  This is a true moment of self-transcendence and liberation.  The sweetness of the moment doesn’t last very long, however.  A few moments later our minds are caught again in the usual ruts, fueled by the same self-absorbed obsessions.  But for a moment we have had a delicious taste of freedom.  If we continue to meditate month in and month out, those moments of liberation can become a more regular part of the fabric of our existence.  This is the nature of gradually awakening to ourselves.

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Starting to Meditate

The best way to understand the mind is not by reading about it, but by observing it directly.  Doing so means making a space in one’s life to take the time for observation. Find a quiet place to sit, and allow yourself to become still.  Pay attention to the activity of your mind as you do so.  Just notice what happens.  The process of being still and noticing your own mind is called meditation.


Probably the first thing you will notice as you meditate is what a busy place the mind is.  Sensations, sounds, images, intentions, urges, emotions, memories, plans, reveries, and judgments, all flit in and out of awareness with surprising speed.  If the mind is observing itself rather than focused on problem solving, it might appear at first that there is no order in the jumble and chaos that presents itself.  The mind may also appear chaotic in that the intention to self-observe does not, in itself, seem very stable. One moment we are observing our minds, and the next moment we are off in a daydream, the intent to observe all but lost.  It can be a bit alarming to see how hard it is to keep the mind on track. Whatever our intentions as observers, the mind seems to have a mind of its own.

This is the very first lesson of observation: “we,” the observers, are not in control of our minds: the mind is completely untamed and follows its own rules independent of our wills. What is happening, however, is not really chaotic.  The mind is following rules.  One of those rules is that one event in the mind triggers a variety of associated processes.  Imagine for a moment that we are sitting quietly and notice the sound of bird song.  This event then triggers a variety of contingent processes:

1) Labeling – Categorizing the sound: Is it a robin?  Is it a cardinal?

2) Judgment – Is the sound pleasant or unpleasant?

3) Memory – Remembering facts about birds, images of birds, past memories of having heard birds, etc.

4) Intention – Deciding to look for the bird; Vowing to read up more on birds in the future, etc.

This process of one sensation setting off a volley of subsequent processes (which in turn sets off a new set of subsequent processes) is called mental proliferation.  Proliferation is the normal state of the human mind. Another thing you might notice about the mind is that it is very hard to focus on observing anything in itself without its immediately being labeled, judged, compared to, or acted on in some way.  Try for a few moments to just notice things without labeling, judging, comparing, or otherwise thinking about them.  Go ahead, try it right now.


Some people mistakenly think that meditation is about only noticing without labeling, judgment, memory, intention, etc.  As you can probably already tell, if this is what meditation were about, no one would be able to meditate. Instead, meditation is really about observing the noticing, and subsequent labeling, judgment, memory, and intentions as it unfolds in real time.  Meditation is about being observant of the entire process, without the need to improve upon it or change it.  Or, if there is a need to improve upon it and change it, watching that too.

The Pleasure Principle

One of the other things we might notice as we observe our own experience is that the mind is dominated by what Freud called the Pleasure Principle. The pleasure principle means that the mind tries to maximize pleasure and minimize unpleasantness.  If we are sitting and observing the mind, and if what is happening in the mind is pleasant, we act to prolong that pleasantness.  If there is bird song, we listen to it and try to stay focused on it.  How lovely!  How peaceful!  How pleasant!  This meditation thing is great!  We could just sit here and meditate all day!  On the other hand, if what is occurring is unpleasant, we want to get away from it.  If the sound we are hearing is not a bird singing, but a jackhammer hammering away outside our window, we immediately want to get up and stop meditating, or we want to open the window and shout at the idiot outside to stop at once.  All our peace and tranquility is gone in an instant.

When you sit and try meditating, notice when you decide to stop observing and either daydream, or get up and do something else.  Usually our observation, and our will to observe, stops at some moment when there is some unpleasant feeling.  If could be that loud jackhammer or that pesky mosquito, but it could just as easily be something inside of ourselves: a bad memory, a state of boredom, our legs falling asleep. Our tendency to become attached to pleasant events and to push away unpleasant ones becomes very apparent as we observe ourselves.  Ancient Buddhist meditators noticed Freud’s Pleasure Principle 2,500 years ago, and called it “dependent origination”, the chain of how one thing leads to another  They noticed the way sensations led to judgments about pleasantness, and how these judgments lead to the mind’s clinging and pushing away.  They also thought that the clinging and pushing away was responsible for much of life’s misery.  It leads to misery because humans lack the capacity to control life and keep pleasant sensations going indefinitely.  Humans also lack the capacity to keep unpleasant events at bay.

If you doubt that this is true, think about your own experience.  Imagine eating a spoonful of your favorite ice cream.  Mmmm.  It’s delicious.  You want to taste that flavor forever.  It is just so pleasurable.   Then imagine trying to prolong that wonderful enjoyment.  Keep on eating more and more ice cream.  Imagine the 10th spoonful.  The 100th spoonful.  The 1000th spoonful.  What is happening to the pleasure?  You are running into the psychological law of habituation: any repeated stimulus loses its interest upon constant repetition.

Even if habituation did not occur, getting and keeping all the ice cream we needed to keep us happy could be a problem.  For one thing, all that ice cream would melt if we didn’t have a big enough freezer for it.  We will need to work a great many hours to get the money to buy a freezer big enough.  And then we will need to protect our ice cream from others who might want to steal some of it from us.  We will need to get an alarm system, and maybe some firearms to protect our ice cream stash.  And then, despite our best intentions, the ice cream eventually goes bad in our freezer, anyway.  We come up against the inevitability of change.

Everything we desire to possess eventually changes and we cannot hold on to it.  If you think the ice cream example is trivial, try another example.  Think about relationships.  All relationships eventually end.  People change and stray, or grow ill and die.  All job situations eventually change: the company you work for gets acquired by another company or goes under, you get a new boss or an annoying coworker, you get promoted to your level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle, or you become bored or disabled. Nothing stays the same for long.  Eventually even climates change, mountains get worn down, continents drift, and the sun goes out.

The need to keep pleasure going and run from moments of unpleasantness is also the basis for addiction: the relentless chasing of pleasure to run away from emptiness, loneliness, ennui, and self-loathing.  We can broaden the concept of addiction so that it applies not just to substances such as alcohol, heroin, nicotine, and cocaine which cause physiological dependence, but also to any relentlessly pursued psychological escape, including gambling, sexual addiction, shop-a-holism, sensation-seeking, and so on.  These activities promise escape from pain, but usually end up creating more pain, and create shipwrecks of our lives and our relationships.

Lastly, we might note that avoiding unpleasantness also prevents emotional growth and development.  If everything was always handed to us from birth and we were always protected by beneficent parents, we would remain psychological infants and never grow up.  Unpleasantness starts from the very moment of our births when we have to start breathing on our own.  All the growth we have shown since then has had a connection to our ability to deal with adversity and handle obstacles as they arise. It is through dealing with adversity rather than running from it that we learn to be assertive, and that we develop genuine self-esteem and social worth.

When one looks at all of these factors: The inevitability of habituation, the consequences of addiction, and the dependency of character on adversity, it’s easy to see why the Buddhist meditators thought that pursuing pleasure and running from unpleasantness was the cause of much of the misery in life.  They recommended a kind of stoicism: enjoying pleasure without becoming overly attached, enduring and dealing with pain that must be accepted.    Freud called this kind of stoicism the Reality Principle: learning to live with reality the way it is and not the way we want it to be.  We can observe our capacity to rise above the pleasure principle and live with reality in our own meditation.  As we sit in meditation, we can watch our attachments and aversions to our own experience as they arise, and just observe them without yielding to clinging or pushing away.  There is a great inner calm that can develop as we work at this.  In your own meditation, give it a try and see if you can experience that inner calm, which is, in its own way, a source of gratification as deep and pleasurable as any in life.

I have already introduced two important rules that govern the mind: proliferation and the pleasure principle.  It is time we examined one of the consequences of the way mental proliferation and the pleasure principle interact.  As was pointed out above, even a brief moment of birdsong catapults us into categorization, judgment, memory, and intention.  What started out as an event occurring in the world has ended up as a messy porridge of mental processes.  Imagine how it is, then, with events that are seemingly more consequential than birdsong: moments, for example, of betrayal, humiliation, failure, pain, or loss. At such times, our problem-solving mind creates such a proliferation of thoughts, that this web of thinking gets mistaken for reality itself, and the real moment that initially triggered the proliferation is buried, like an original oil painting that has been painted over again and again by an artist intent upon revision.

Laurie was abandoned by her biological parents at one year of age, and was placed in an orphanage. She was adopted into her current family when she was two.  At age 12, when she was beginning to enter into adolescence, her adaptive father became more distant, perhaps because he was uncomfortable with her developing as a woman, perhaps because she was becoming more independent and headstrong. In any case, she  experienced his distancing as another rejection.  At the age of 16 she met her biological mother for the first time since early childhood.  Her biological mother promised to be a part of her life, but then disappeared from her life again.  Laurie’s first adolescent relationship with a boy ended when she discovered that he was cheating on her.   Now, whenever Laurie begins to feel close to a boy, she pulls back from the relationship, wanting to protect herself from being abandoned again.  When she pulls back, the boy she is getting close to pulls away in reaction to her withdrawal, reinforcing her perception that she will always be abandoned.  Laurie has just begun a new relationship.  She went to a party with her new boyfriend and thought he was paying too much attention to another girl at the party, and not enough to her.

Laurie is unable to stay with the actual experience in the moment: the actual experience is one of seeing the boy talking with another girl and seeming to enjoy the conversation, combined with a desperately  anxious  feeling inside of herself.  But these simple observations are complicated by a flood of reactive thoughts and consequent secondary emotions and action urges.  Laurie is having thoughts, for example, like “He is abandoning me just like everyone else,” “I am doomed to always be abandoned,” and “There is something wrong with me that makes me unlovable.”  The anxiety is then mixed with feelings of anger at the boy (“all men are untrustworthy pigs”) , and feelings of self-pity for herself (“I’ll always be alone”).  Lastly, she experiences herself becoming cold towards the boy and ignoring him, and resolving to leave the party early without him.  She then reacts to her own behavior and thinks to herself  “I am so angry and cold, no wonder no one loves me.”  Her belief that she is doomed is thereby reinforced.

If Laurie is unable to observe and understand the process that is going on in her mind, she can take all these thoughts to be the truth, instead of seeing them for what they are, conditioned reactive thoughts.  She will then act as if these thoughts are true and make it more likely she will be abandoned in the future.  If, on the other hand, Laurie has learned not to act on her thoughts and impulses, but to observe and understand the process of her mind, she can see that the thoughts are just thoughts, and refocus on what has actually happened.  What has happened is only her boyfriend’s momentary inattention and her anxiety.  Then, she can find a gentle way to communicate to her boyfriend that she would like some more of his attention, and that she doesn’t like it when he flirts with other women.

The example of Laurie helps us to see how the mind can create its own alternative reality, spinning a narrative web from our past experiences, expectations, longings, and fears, and then mistaking the created story for truth.  Psychoanalysts call this tendency to see the present moment of a relationship in terms of thoughts, feelings, and intentions generated by the past, “transference.”  It is not pathology, but the normal way the human mind works.  The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote that “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”  Almost invariably our present moments are colored by these stories we ceaselessly tell ourselves.

Behavioral Psychologist Steven Hayes calls this being able to see thoughts as mere thoughts rather than as truth decontextualization. When we are able to decontextualize, we are able to see the quote marks around thoughts and not mistake them for reality.  There is a world of difference, after all, between thinking one is a jerk, and realizing that one is now having the thought “I am a jerk.”  In the first instance one experiences feelings of self-hatred and hopelessness.  In the second instance one’s reactive emotions are minimized and one just recognizes a familiar conditioned thought which has no substantiative reality.  Buddhists talk about thoughts as being “empty” and having no “intrinsic nature.”  When one can see thoughts as mere thoughts, they are like soap bubbles that burst and vanish when gently touched.  Tibetans say that such thoughts are “self-liberating,” and are like a thief that has entered a house in which there is nothing to steal.  They are insubstantial; there is no longer any energy behind them; they have lost their toxicity; they cause no harm.

What Should We Do With This Moment?

If one has lost one’s way in uncertainty, if one is unsure how to act, the most important thing one can do is to sit still and watch what one’s mind is doing.  We can become aware of the raw feel of this moment, and of our reactivity to it with all of our labeling, judgment, intentions, and urges.  We become aware of the stories we are telling ourselves.  We resolve to be open to the full moment regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. If we can make a big enough space inside of ourselves to let this all happen, and if we ourselves can find the quiet and stillness that lies behind and around this storm of activity, the what that we should do often clarifies itself.  The mind is like a muddy glass of water that gradually becomes clear as one lets it stand, as all the silt slowly settles.  When this happens, we act from a place of great clarity and inner calm, rather than being pushed and pulled by habitual and reactive thought patterns. While there is no guarantee than such an action will bring about result we desire, we will have done the very best we know how to do at the time.  That is all we can ever do: just the best we can do in this moment.  If we can truly live this way in this moment, moment after moment, then our life takes care of itself.  We are fully here, fully responsible, fully ourselves.  Rather than turning to authority, we are the authors of our lives: our lives are self-authorized.  But this self which authorizes is no controlling ego, but an open field of knowing, a flowing changing process.  In this field, reason, emotion, and intuition meet, and head and heart are joined. In this field, our knowledge of the past, and our hopes for the future, encounter the present.

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Mindfulness Meditation

Traditional Buddhist approaches to understanding and transforming consciousness have a great deal to offer Westerners who are seeking personal growth and development. To cite some examples:

• Buddhist concentration and mindfulness meditation can help steady and calm the mind, while loving-kindness meditation can help develop self-regard and self-care.

• The Buddhist understanding of the insubstantial nature of self can help people to let go of self-images and definitions that are negative or overly confining.

• Buddhist ideas concerning “skillful means” and “right speech” can help people to reduce interpersonal conflict

• The Buddhist conception of the nature of thinking can help people to stop identifying with their habitual self-defeating ideas.

• Buddhist ideas of selflessness and compassion can help people see the importance of enhancing their connections to the community and to nature.

• The Buddhist idea of karma can assist people in taking appropriate responsibility for their actions.

• The Buddhist belief that desire and aversion are the cause of suffering can help people to develop less controlling, demanding, and acquisitive lifestyles. This enables one to concentrate on what brings true happiness in life: the cultivation of equanimity and caring, and an open, respectful attitude to oneself, others, and all of life.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to make use of these ideas: Meditation, for example, is a practice that doesn’t require any specific set of religious beliefs. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate, just as you don’t have to be a Christian to love your neighbor.

Mindfulness Meditation is the jewel at the heart of Buddhist practice: It is a remarkable tool for personal growth, enhanced health, and spiritual liberation. The positive effects of meditation are legion: First, it calms the body by its direct and indirect effects on the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and the autoimmune system. (Research has shown, for example, that it can reduce chronic pain, reduce anxiety, reduce the risk of relapse for depression, reduce blood pressure, and reduce the healing time for skin lesions such as psoriasis.) As the body becomes calmed, thoughts begin to settle and quiet, and the mind becomes peaceful and concentrated. In the internal quiet that develops with the meditative state, one becomes more intimate with the present moment, with one’s body, and with the stimuli in the environment. One learns how one’s mind/body reacts to thoughts, feelings, and environmental stimuli, and one learns to become less reactive to them. One also learns to see repetitive thought patterns which can lead to grief if allowed to proliferate unnoticed and uninterrupted. Lastly, one develops a deep sense of connection to the present moment as it unfolds, and an awareness of how our mind/body is connected to nature and society. This sense of connection in turn engenders a sense of compassion for oneself (including the parts of ourselves that have been previously disavowed) and others.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined Mindfulness Meditation as “paying attention on purpose to whatever is happening right now.” All one needs to do is to resolve to sit still with minimal movement for a set period of time (ideally 20 minutes or more). Begin by finding a place where you can sit without interruption, and find a position to sit in that is dignified and sustainable. Resolve to meditate daily at the same time and in the same place for a fixed period of time – maybe just starting with a resolution to sit daily for a few days or weeks to “see what happens.” As you sit, don’t expect or try to attain anything remarkable, for example, to have a “mystical experience,” or to “block out thoughts.” Try as best you can to sit without any expectation or intention (with a full appreciation of just how paradoxical this idea of trying to sit without expectation or intention is!). Just sit and notice whatever is happening.

What is happening, off course, is really nothing special — just a stream of sensations, feelings, and thoughts: the awareness of sensations in the body, the hearing of sounds, wondering how much time has passed, feeling momentarily bored, happy, or restless — one thought and one sensation after another. Your only job is to notice these mental events as they happen without judgement, without clinging, without aversion. A good deal of the time you will find that your mind will wander off and that you are no longer aware of the stream of consciousness; instead you will be lost in thinking, planning, or day dreaming. Whenever this happens, all you need do is to remember to return to being aware of the stream, without judging yourself, or your progress, for having drifted off. That’s all there is to meditation. It’s just that simple. And just that hard. You are hereby formally invited to give it a try.

As important as meditation is, please do not make the mistake of thinking that meditation is a substitute for psychotherapy or medication if we suffer from a serious depression or anxiety disorder. A few years ago, I heard a Zen master tell a conference how his decades of meditation had not cured his depression, but that an antidepressant medication had made all the difference in the world. Meditation does not cure illnesses, but it helps us grow as human beings: grow in our own self-understanding, wisdom, and compassion.

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