September 15, 2013
‘Meditation is the skill of being still.’
The stillness I’m speaking of is not the comatose stillness we are in watching TV, nor is it sleep. In this stillness we are wide awake, but the activities of the restless attention are suspended, and the body is allowed to relax.
In this state all the innate self adjusting, self healing, self cleansing mechanisms that nature gave us are allowed to take over, and when we rise up from this stillness, we are fresh and ready for anything.
Stillness is something all things in nature take for granted – dogs, cats, birds, insects, fish, everything in the universe – when nothing is happening, they go still. They go still and enjoy it.
We on the other hand, have no such skill.
Our western culture doesn’t acknowledge the worth of stillness – only action, however mindless, is valued. As such, from the day we’re born to the day we die, we try to constantly be on the move doing things. And in those rare times when we do nothing, our cultural guilt is heavy – words like laziness, bludger, waste of time – they all rattle about in the back of the mind making it such that we cannot relax into doing nothing, as we should.
So this is why we have meditation methods – to help us train the mind to let go and stop when we want it to.
And why? Because stillness heals. It heals everything.
So let’s look at stillness for a bit, then I’ll talk about how it heals.
When we sit with our attention trained on sensations instead of thoughts – gradually the mind and body go still in a reciprocal dance between the two.
As the mind goes still, so too does the body.
And as the body goes still, so too does the mind.
When we first begin meditation, it takes a bit of practice to get used to this dance and let it happen. Old physical tensions take a while to unravel in the body as aches and pains. And in the mind, long forgotten emotional anxiety takes a while to arise and pass away.
Not only this, but it takes a while for the mind and body to adapt to the unique environment of meditation – to learn how to accept the process of meditation and surrender. Powerful habits of thinking and reacting keep interfering with the natural process of meditation.
But, if we keep practicing, like any skill, at some point our mind and body work it out and we don’t have to work so hard to meditate anymore.
At that point, whenever we sit, we settle quite quickly into an acceptance of things as they are in each moment, surrendering to ‘real time’ flow – where time-consciousness fades away and everything we sense becomes simply a succession of momentary events appearing and disappearing in a sublime stillness.
And the more we practice, the faster this appearing and disappearing gets – until eventually, things are disappearing almost at the same time as they appear, and profound stillness is all there is.
This is mind and body in balance – integrated and aware, and completely whole.
And in that stillness we find natural forces taking over, reclaiming us, rebalancing and healing whatever is out of balance.
Because in that stillness, whatever is out of balance shows itself – as pain or aching; as bristling loops of worrying spinning in the wide open space of the mind; as patterns of powerful emotion we cannot find reasons for.
Anything out of balance, whoever small, becomes obvious in the stillness and that is enough for it to be healed. We don’t have to rub at it, or react or stretch or bustle off to the doctor or therapist. All we have to do is feel it, and natural forces will heal it.
So … what do I mean by ‘nature forces’?
Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear. Depending on your position and how you perceive it, all physical manifestation develops in patterns.
Why nature does this is still a matter of conjecture, but the consensus is still the same: neither chaos or order is exclusive to itself. Each has qualities of the other. Chaos and order are in an eternal dance with one another, each leading the other. What seems chaotic when focused on from one perspective, becomes orderly when focused on from another and vice versa.
For example, the formation of clouds and the timing of weather patterns over a particular place seem to have no order when viewed in the context of a couple of years, or even ten years – but if seen over a thousand years a definite and very orderly pattern, a design would emerge.
Alternatively, if you stand in the outback desert and see the terrain, you would be tempted to call it a mess of rocks and scrub – but if you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see there is a pattern.
Nature has formed itself into a particular design.
James Gleik, in his book ‘Chaos’ wrote: ‘Nature forms patterns. Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’ And nature always adjusts itself to these patterns. Pattern-forming is the invisible line it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.
So we see that nature, no matter how smashed and ruined, if let to its own devices, will reorganize itself into a coherent pattern – it will heal itself.
At a dinner party one night, I heard someone tell a story that illustrated very well the relationship between the presence of stillness and the healing power of nature. It was about two biologists who were hired by the Brazilian government in the late ‘70s to try to regenerate a large section of rainforest that had been ruined by a decommissioned mine. The project was an experiment to see if it could be done.
Full of optimism, the biologists set out for this place, and when they got there a depressing sight greeted them. The forest was so cut up it wasn’t a forest any more – just ruined trees and eroded dirt. The streams were polluted by chemicals, the wildlife had disappeared, and the slag heaps from the mine had washed down in the rains and covered everything, even right down the valleys, dust in summer and mud in winter.
The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off. It was too expensive. So the biologists returned to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.
About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some more work in the same area, so he decided to go to the mine site and see how things had developed. He drove up the road, but at first he couldn’t find the track into the mine site. So he stopped the car and walked into the forest.
It took him a long time to find the site, but when he found it what he saw was barely recognizable from the rest of what was now a vibrant forest.
Because coherent life had returned in that ten years. All the wildlife, all the trees, all the plants had quietly adapted and re-established themselves. The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it healed itself and equilibrium had returned according to its own ancient design.
This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is the preeminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfectly in balance.
“The universe confronts us with this obvious, but far-reaching fact. It is not mere confusion, but it is arranged in units which attract our attention, larger and smaller units in a series of discrete ‘levels’, which for precision we call a hierarchy of wholes and parts. The first fact about the natural universe is its organization as a system of systems from larger to smaller.” 
This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force of existence itself. As such, if left to itself it will recreate itself according to the patterns it knows, the patterns it has been forming itself into for millions of years. And those patterns are always the physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony.
This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.
So, you may well be asking how this applies to meditation.
Well, I’ll start my answer with another question.
What does an animal do when it is sick?
It stops. It lies down, and withdraws its body from action. Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious. It has shut down all its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.
What do we humans do when we’re tired or sick?
We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything – but rarely do we stop. Though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, as we get older it becomes more and more difficult to do this: our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to. We might say, ‘oh, I’m getting old’ as if that is supposed to be the reason for all our afflictions and physical tension. But that is only a very small part of the reason. The other part is that we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness in which to rejuvenate.
Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, to find balance in its own way. We don’t have enough time or enough money, or this or that. There is always a reason, and it is at the heart of our declining quality of life, and when I say quality, I don’t mean affluence. In fact, we are living much longer, spending more money, enjoying more comforts, but spending more time sick or unconscious, or distracting ourselves – trying to forget – dancing to forget, television or a film, or to a bar, anywhere to just forget.
Forget what? Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious tension, our loneliness, ourselves. We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything. And all these things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us. Yet we keep doing these things because of their powerful capacity for helping us to forget. Most of our entertainments are directed to this addiction we have to forgetting, when all we really need is a little aware stillness to reconnect with nature and let things sort themselves out within us.
So let’s think now about the qualities of this stillness.
Have you ever watched a cat? Stillness is what a cat does when it is sitting. Watch it as it sits in a doorway, or on the grass, or on a windowsill. Both paws primly placed together at the front, body in a symmetrical crouch. It is tasting time as it passes, the sensual textures of the moments and seconds. No thinking or worrying or anticipation, only stillness. A sound comes? The ear swivels to pick it up. The sound goes, it’s gone. Relaxed emptiness until the next sense contact.
No wonder cats look so good and exude such a sense of powerful grace. They are practiced in the art of ‘being here now’. Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them.
And as we practice meditation, so stillness gradually comes to us as well.
Like the forest, it is in stillness that we become rejuvenated by the nature we have spent our life shutting out with obsessive thinking and activity. This is what we practice in meditation. We practice aware stillness. We develop the ability to stop every so often, and allow nature to possess us and heal the wear and tear of life.
 Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55
- ‘Practical Meditation Audio Course’ - a complete set of meditation lessons to be downloaded as a package of MP3′s from www.sankhara.com
March 31, 2013
But I’ve noticed during these times, though I am not meditating, this sitting with my mind seems to have very beneficial effect. As it’s happening I notice myself feeling different things - sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness and sometimes anger. But these emotions don’t stay .. they come and then go. And I feel like I’m wandering a landscape of myself and everything I am and it seems very cleansing. No matter how sad or happy or angry I get , when I open my eyes after an hour or so of sitting I come out of it feeling very refreshed.
So my question is, can you explain what is happening. And tell me is what I am doing a waste of time or wrong in some way? Or is this a valid way of meditating.
When all is said and done, the most basic prerequisite of meditation can be distilled to one word:
So long as awareness and knowing is present, what you’re doing will be beneficial, and meditation will eventually work itself out.
But having said that, there is something missing from what you’re doing which is also very important.
In this passive floating from one thing to another, you’re not training the mind to be more skillful with its own processes- which is a primary part of the practice. As such, though what you’re doing is beneficial, and restful – it is not affecting change to the mental habits and reactions which cause suffering.
Now, bear with me while I explain …
In life as it is, we are taught to win, to hold on, to get, to create and so on. In short, we’re taught to accumulate things, not just on the physical plane, but mentally as well. For just as we accumulate money and property on the physical plane, so too on the mental plane, we accumulate mental things – habits, both good and bad; memories both pleasant and unpleasant and so on. These things collect in the mind like crud in an engine, affecting the way our mind functions, and our view of life – forming dysfunctional habits that affect our sense of Self – habits like worry, anxiety, depression, negative self view and so on. We weren’t born with these habits – they were formed from the accumulated crud of a life – and they become a large part of our Self definition.
After all, what is our Self, but a big formation of memories and learned habits in formations within the greater formation we call by our name. Everything we think we are, we learnt to be. We accumulated our sense of self, picking up new habits all the time – new memories, new patterns of emotion, intellect and so on.
All well and good – but the problem is, we’re always adding new habits and reactions, but rarely removing them.
So after a while, as the crud of life collects, we lose the simplicity and freshness we had in our youth. With the clutter of past experiences and reactions we’re constantly adding to our Self, our view of life and ourselves becomes over-complex, ungainly and confused as we accumulate fears, anger, sadness and so on.
So then we come to meditation.
Meditation is essentially the act of letting go. In meditation we learn to let go. We practice letting go of what we have accumulated.
And as time goes by and we practice the meditation methods, this letting go becomes more innate and automatic. Essentially, the methods help us to build a habit of letting go that prevents the usual crud from building up and altering our Self view. So we feel lighter and more fresh and our view becomes young again – but with the wisdom of age.
And its a wonderful way to be.
But here’s the rub. In this process of letting go there is one element that is essential.
And that is ‘knowing’.
Because we cannot let go of that which we do not know.
And what does this mean?
Well, to let go of pain, we must first know it – that is to say, we must first feel it – every part of it, in all its intensity. Only then, as any experience meditation practitioner will tell you, will the mind let the pain go and it will disappear.
To let go of past trauma we must first know it – that is, the memories must first be recalled and the emotions they elicit must be felt – only then will the mind let go and the trauma and it’s effects will disappear.
So ‘knowing’ must always come before letting go.
We must know the true nature of whatever is harming us, to be free of it. .
Too many people forget this. They think they can meditate blindly – by simply chanting a mantra or mindlessly noting, or visualising positive things – they think they meditate without knowing what ails them.
But that’s not meditation. All they are doing in that instance is burying these unpleasant things further inside their psyche, making it such that, like assassins in the night, these things will attack them in covert ways and sabotage their lives – all the buried rage and sadness, and all the buried anxieties and tensions.
This does not mean consciously thinking about these things, or reacting to them, or imagining them. Not at all. To wilfully dwell on anything harmful will only strengthen it.
I mean to simply be aware – to know it as it naturally arises and feel it as it is, until it is gone.
And this happens naturally as we practice a good meditation method. As we train the mind to be more efficient we notice memories, feelings and sensations of all kinds of things arising in our awareness. And our attention wants to go to them, to build them into something bigger, but we use the methods to keep letting them go, so they pass away.
In this, we’re knowing all the parts of our Self, and the accumulated crug our Self is made from, while at the same time practicing the skill of letting go.
That is good meditation.
Now, as far as I can tell, you seem to be doing one thing, but neglecting the other.
You’re drifting through the landscape of you, knowing memories, emotions, thoughts as they arise and pass away, and in this your attention is basically passive – simply wandering where it will.
This is indeed knowing and letting go and it’s very beneficial – restful and reviving. I do this myself quite often when I take a nap, or rest. It’s very pleasant and sometimes, if an unpleasant memory arises, a temporary body reaction will occur but as you say, it passes away quite quickly, and when I’ve finished resting, I always feel refreshed.
But it is not meditation.
Because, though for sure it is cleansing and refreshing, you are missing the second essential component of meditation practice – you’re not training the mind, which is why we use meditation methods in the first place – to train our attention to let go in real time – as we live.
We use the meditation methods to build a skill in the mind – to teach it to experience life without accumulating the usual mental crud of our reactions.
In meditation we are building a skill of letting go of the usual push/pull of habits, so they do not accumulate – training the mind to live life like a duck walking in the rain, the water of life running off our feathers to leave us dry and untouched inside. A clumsy analogy, but it’ll have to do.
If we can learn to live as a process of letting go instead of constantly accumulating, we wouldn’t need to meditate because life would have become meditation.
So when you’re drifting in meditation – unfocused and afloat in your inner landscape, as I said, you’re only fulfilling the first requirement of meditation – you’re knowing and letting go of inner crud.
But you are not training the mind to not collect it in the first place. And this is the most important aspect of meditation.
But, nevertheless, what you’re doing is beneficial. So keep on doing it, while at the same time, gently encourage the mind back to practicing whichever method you’re using, to keep on building the skill of letting go.
- ‘Practical Meditation Audio Course’ - a complete set of meditation lessons to be downloaded as a package of MP3′s from www.sankhara.com
March 23, 2013
In the meantime I’ve received a few questions and they’re beginning to back up, so I’m going to deal with them as quickly as I can. Again, I’m sorry for my tardiness.
The first question is:
I’ve been using your audio course for about 6 months now and until a month ago I seemed to be progressing okay. But then one night I was meditating and I got this beautiful expansive feeling. It was like everything that weighed on me suddenly disappeared. All the thinking that was usually there was gone and my body seemed like it was air. It was very beautiful. But as fast as it came it disappeared and now I seem to be going backwards. Whenever I meditate the thinking is worse than before and I just can’t get back to that feeling.
So I’m wondering what I’ve done wrong and how to fix it.
You’ve done nothing wrong. There is no’ wrong’ in meditation.
There is only cause and effect. You do this, so you get that – you do that, so you get this. And each effect is neither wrong nor right – it is simply what it is. And though some effects are perhaps unpleasant, the trick is to accept every effect, both pleasant and unpleasant, with the same equanimity – to learn to neither desire or fear any outcome.
This level-headed equanimity is the key to meditation.
So try to let go of the notions of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ and the desire to be ‘right’, and the fear of ‘being wrong’ – right and wrong and the desire and fear they carry with them make meditation impossible.
For that reason in meditation we also practice letting go of the concept of ‘goal’ – because wrong and right only apply if you have a goal – they appear relative to that goal. That is to say, we judge what we are doing as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ according to how quickly and efficiently we are approaching our goal..
As I’ve said many times before – in meditation, there is no goal. There is only the moment by moment ‘doing’ of meditation, coupled with acceptance of whatever happens.
So this was your only problem here – you found a goal.
I remember before you experienced this extraordinary tranquillity, you were practicing well – in previous emails you spoke of ‘accepting the struggle’ – and you were amazed at how this in itself had a calming effect on you.
And in that equanimity, you worked well, and meditation developed in its own way, as it should.
But then this new and pleasurable experience happened. In an unselfconscious moment you accidentally experienced a glimpse of the new way of being that meditation is opening up in you.
And that experience was so intoxicating, and became so desirable, it formed a goal.
Suddenly there was something you wanted from meditation. So each meditation then became subject to assessment. You began meditatiing withing the disturbing question of whether what you were doing was taking you closer to your goal, or further away.
As such, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ came into the equation. And now you are lost in the anxious suffering that goals, and the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that goals bring with them, creates.
In the life we lead, we commonly regard goals as essential. We use goals because the competitive culture we have created requires them. Which is why for most people, life is an anxious experience.
And even though we’re used to this anxiety. We even like it sometimes when it’s fun – we love the excitement of the carnival ride and the adventure – but regardless of whether it’s pleasuarable excitement or not, it remains as anxiety.
And anxiety has no place in meditation, because it blocks awareness. And it does this by channelling mental energy into our attention. As we pay close attention to whatever is exciting us, we’re blinding the part of mind we’re intent on developing in meditation – that wide, subtle, momentary and immense intelligence we know as awareness.
Awareness needs a mind that is calm, momentary and goal-less.
So, in meditation we practice how to be ‘goal-less’. We practice doing things for their own sake. We practice being absorbed in an activity without being distracted by expectations or judgement of progress. We don’t strive to get anything.
We learn to let go of everything, so that all that remains is awareness. Because that’s where true creativity lies – together with tranquillity, interconnectedness and our innate genius.
And that is a little of what you got a glimpse of.
And it came from the innocence with which you were practicing – you had no goal, you had no right or wrong – and in that intent and momentary innocence, your mind let go of everything, including its idea of itself, and you experienced the amazing luminescence of pure awareness.
And as you went “Oh! How beautiful!” you tried to grasp onto it and cling to it and make it your own – which caused it to disappear.
From then on, you sought to re-create it in meditation – to get it. It became your goal. And with that goal came the suffering and anxiety of mndane life.
This stage you have reached in meditation is normal, and every meditator at some point comes to it.
And I have to say, what you have just experienced is probably the most difficult stage of meditation, because it’s the final wall between the old conditioned mind you’ve been living in, of anxiety, right, wrong, linear thinking, desire and fear – and the new mind you’re developing of openness, awareness, intuitive thinking and interconnectedness.
So then – what to do?
The only way to deal with this is to let it go. Let go of what happened. Completely and utterly.
Go back to focussing on meditation as a technical process – purely technical. As you meditate treat everything that happens, whether tranquil or messy, as simply another part of an ongoing process in which you move from event to event, however fast or slow.
Your only purpose in each of these events is to allow things to happen without meddling – neither stopping things or clinging – letting go of everything.
In effect – you are practicing accepting and letting it go as a single, comprehensive action. Do this continuously – with everything! Treat everything that happens exactly the same, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
For this, the mental noting method is perfect.
Tranquility comes – note it and let go.
Pain comes – note it and let go.
Thinking is annoying you – note it and let go.
If you find yourself looking for calm – note that you are looking for calm, and let it go. As the mind becomes used to this constant letting go of everything, even its sense of itself, it will fall back into the awareness that is its base state.
And that is when it will rediscover its true nature, of which Gautama Buddha said:
“Wonder of wonders! This very enlightenment is the true nature of all beings, and yet they are unhappy for lack of it!”
The only way we can rediscover out true nature is by letting go. Of everything – even the experience of true nature itself.
- ‘Practical Meditation Audio Course’ - a complete set of meditation lessons to be downloaded as a package of MP3′s from www.sankhara.com
February 18, 2013
The following article addresses one of the most confusing issues of today – the question of happiness. In a culture that constantly bombards us with messages selling happiness in the form of many and various products, our idea of happiness and its place in life has become confused.
But I’ll let the article speak for itself:
‘There’s More to Life Than Being Happy’
By Emily Esfahani Smith
Taken from ‘The Atlantic’ – published Jan 9 2013, 8:06 AM ET
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Nearly a quarter of Americans do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.
In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.
While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
January 27, 2013
And it got me wondering whether Vipassana has a view on this? Because according to the law, if you’re meditating and noting “thinking, thinking”, you’re actually attracting more thinking.
Unless I have the wrong end of the stick.
Interesting question, which gives me the opportunity to talk about a contentious issue – that being the counterproductive influence of New Age notions on meditation practice. I can only hope that in what follows as I type, an answer of a kind will make itself evident.
The ‘law of attraction’ is the name given to the belief that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring about positive or negative results in ones physical reality. Proponents of this theory use a hotchpotch of orphaned facts from quantum physics to sell the idea that consciously driven thinking will directly ‘manifest’ as physical events. Of course, this usually inevitably leads to the buying of books and CD’s to teach you how to manifest wealth and happiness simply by wishing for it.
Speaking personally, I regard ‘The Law of Attraction’ as it is popularly propagated as a form of mental fascism, in which ‘positive’ thoughts are courted to get what we desire, while other so-called ‘negative’ thoughts are suppressed because they threaten what we desire.
The notion that ‘thoughts create reality’ arose out of the New Age movement which has its origins in the writings of an English author by the name of Thomas Troward in the latter part of the 18th century, who, along with Madam Blavatsky, wrote a series of works which were influenced by a mismatched melange of Eastern mysticism conveniently lumped in with Christianity to make it palatable.
Since then the general thrust of this movement has persisted in many forms, appearing more recently in films like ‘What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole’ and ‘The Secret’ in which, predictably, the ‘thoughts creating physical reality theory’ has once again been mixed with badly understood quantum physics, all with the purpose of commercially marketing a new kind of snake oil to desperate and lazy people.
And it’s a big market, as the advertising columns of the many New Age publications attest – because a lot of people want to believe that changing their life is that facile – that all they need to do is think positive thoughts exclusively, and wealth and happiness will duly ‘manifest’.
The attraction is obvious, because it gives people the illusion of having control over their lives. All they need is to change their thoughts about money, and suddenly they’ll attract money like a magnet. And the purveyors of these lucrative schemes have a get out of jail card – because if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough to think those positive thoughts.
This attempt to control the freeform intuitive universe of mind is futile, stupid and incredibly harmful to the ecology of mind and can only lead to confusion and frustration in life.
Because life and the mind are not so logical as to obey our wishes like machines.
Life and mind evolve from an infinite number of stimuli through almost identical processes, summed up in the Pali term, ‘Karma Vipaka’ – that being the law of cause and effect. That being, for every action, there will be a reaction in kind. For every event there will be a counter-event in kind.
Or, as the Buddha said:
According to the seed that’s sown,
So is the fruit you reap there from,
Doer of good will gather good,
Doer of evil, evil reaps,
Down is the seed, so thou shalt taste the fruit thereof.
Notice the key word here is ‘doer’ – not thinker. So even though Thomas Troward and the New Age occasionally try to use Buddhist theory to try to slate the original cause for life effects to our thinking, nevertheless, it remains a universal fact that the dynamic of cause and effect relates almost specifically to actions, not thoughts.
That is to say, our life appears out of what we do, not what we think. And though thoughts do indeed precede actions, nevertheless, unless those thoughts become ‘intentions-crystallised –as –action’ no effect will ensue.
For example, let’s say we hate someone – we hate them so much that we cannot stop thinking about how we would like to ruin them, hurt them, crush them and so on. These negative thoughts spontaneously arise from the hurt and fear we feel, perhaps created by the actions of that person to us in the past.
But let’s also say we decide, wisely, that when we meet this person, we will act with kindness, courtesy and good will, regardless of what we think. That is our intention.
And we crystallise this intention as action – when next we meet this person, we act to that person with kindness and love regardless of the bitter hatred our thoughts spontaneously express – and the effect that carries on from our actions is indeed harmonious. Perhaps our kindness then softens our enemy, and they too begin to act back to us with kindness and love, which soothes our hatred until it disappears.
So we see, that it was actions that changed our reality – not thoughts.
When I was counselling people as part of meditation training, I met so many people who had been through the New Age carnival who had, as a result of their mindless subscription to the ‘thoughts create reality’ notion, become terrified of their internal environment.
With desperate smiles pasted on their faces, they would meticulously avoid all ‘negativity’, chanting vacuous affirmations to themselves and determining every day to ‘look on the bright side’ of everything. Meanwhile their lives were usually falling apart, and they kept wondering why disaster , chaos and darkness kept blindsiding them (which was why they were coming to see me)– because after all, they would reason, they were thinking all the ‘right’ thoughts.
So why was their life so thwarted and horrible?
And I would tell them, if you keep censoring and suppressing your own darkness, then it makes sense it will keep blindsiding you from all hidden places you have consigned it to. Just because you refuse to consciously acknowledge a stream of thinking does not mean its source does not exist.
Or, as Jung very wisely said:
“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains divided and does not become aware of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposite halves.”
To live efficiently, we must allow our internal environment to be free – to be able to express itself freely. We must be aware of everything, of all the thoughts that arise – happy, sad, peaceful, violent, insane, sane, whatever. Because everything that arises in mind is as essential as any plant, seed, bug or bacteria in a healthy forest.
To practice suppression of our natural darkness in favour of so-called ‘positive outcomes’ is to estrange ourselves from one half of our self, making it inevitable that, like terrorists pushed underground, tis dark side of our conditioned self will always take us by surprise.
But here’s the thing.
The only power we have is, as we awareness of the full spectrum of our self, we can develop the detachment and strength to be able to choose which thought streams we will enact in our life.
And those actions are where our reality will arise from.
And this is where meditation practice is immensely helpful – because it teaches us to be aware of the full spectrum of our internal environment both dark and light, yet fully able to withhold permission for certain thought streams to enact as anxiety or mindless action.
Now … to your question, which I’ve just realised has still not been addressed.
There are basically three kinds of conscious thought:
1. Spontaneous – those thoughts which arise intuitively, usually fleeting.
2. Functional – a simple mental statement of intention or fact which elicits no emotional reaction.
3. Reactive – an argument for or against something – an opinion or reaction which elicits an emotional reaction of some kind.
Of these three, the main focus of meditation methods is to learn to neutralise only the last kind of thinking – reactive thinking.
Because it is only reactive thinking that ties us up in knots. It is reactive thinking, where we like this or don’t like that, creates tension and anxiety of all kinds, whether pleasant and unpleasant, which in turn forms the physical impetus to act mindlessly.
So remember – the purpose of meditation is not to have a mind without thought. That’s impossible. The mind thinks – that’s its purpose in a life, to create thought energy. So no matter how advanced you get in meditation, the mind will keep on thinking – perhaps in more subtle forms – but nevertheless, thought energy will always flow.
The point of the meditation methods is to give you the power to let go of reactive thinking when it arises. Because as long as reactive thoughts are efficiently cauterised as soon as they arise, the mind and body will go still.
And that is the purpose of the mental noting method – to cauterise reactive thinking as soon as it appears.
And for this, we use functional thoughts. So when you note, ‘thinking, thinking’, that is a functional thought. It has no power except as way of directing the attention to pay attention to a certain object in a certain conditioned way. And in our case, the note forms a trigger cause the attention to let go of any reaction that may have arise from it’s noticing of that object.
So please, please – never be afraid of any thought, however insane or wrong it might seem.
Thoughts of all kinds are essential expressions of your inner ecology, like storms, cyclones and earthquakes are expressions of our external ecology.
Allow all thoughts to arise – be aware of everything, while choosing carefully which streams of thinking you choose to enact, and which you let go of to fade away. And for that purpose, the functional thinking of mental noting is perfect.
Hope this is all clear … again, thanks for the opportunity to write about the larger issues I attached to your question.
January 14, 2013
Most of our life we spend channeling mental energy into our attention – we pay attention to things we want, don’t want, things we think about, imagine and so on.
And our over-energized attention flitters about from object to object – thinking about everything, conceptualising and reacting, making our emotions churn, which creates mental smoke that obscures other, more subtle aspects of being – particularly awareness.
We notice things and a millisecond later they become concepts – so our real-time sensory experience of the world – of hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling – is constantly being obscured by the concepts we make out of our senses. As such, we spend most of our life thinking this smoke of concepts and subsequent reactions is reality.
But this languaged mind world we live in is not reality at all. It is simply what we have made out of reality. But as I said, because we spend most of our time in that parallel reality, we think it is the only reality there is.
So then we start meditating.
In meditation we teach our attention to let go of everything and be still. So, it slowly learns it doesn’t have to cling to things and think all the time and make concepts out of everything. We learn to accept reality as pure experience, without going to the next stage of conceptualizing.
Relieved of its duties, so to speak, the attention stops creating emotional reactions and relaxes. As a result, less mental ‘smoke’ is created – the emotions calm down, thought energy changes from conceptual bursts to intuitive flow.
The mind opens up and becomes still within the flow of real-time reality.
In this new stillness, our attention merges back into awareness, and all of the qualities we commonly assume are ‘reality’ – of concepts, time, place – they all disappear.
And that disappearing of the usual ‘stuff’ of life is known as the void.
But it’s not a void at all – it’s called that simply because when we first experience it, it always seems as if everything we know has disappeared.
But of course, that doesn’t include ‘everything we don’t yet know’ – which is revealed – and it is this aspect of awareness that cannot be explained, because that would be making it into a concept.
The only way to know it is to experience it.
An experience of ‘the void’ will only happen if we meditate for long period of time - in silent retreat in a meditation centre or temple.
The first experiences of this ‘void’ are very quick – and they are very intense and very beautiful. But as extraordinary as they are, in this first stage, they are a quite frightening to the mind. As soon as a void experience arises, the mind’s first reaction is to go ‘OH!’, then immediately scramble to re-assert its usual activities.
It takes quite a few ‘void’ experiences to get used to it enough to let go and fall into it.
So one should meditate without looking for them – and the more of these ‘Oh!’ experiences we have, the more we become used to letting go of the conceptual reality we had always clung to, and accept this new ultimate reality.
And that’s the beginning of the process of enlightenment.
You may have expected that enlightenment would come Zap! instantaneous and permanent. This is unlikely. After the first “ah ha” experience, it can be thought of as the thinning of a layer of clouds…
– Ram Dass
January 13, 2013
Question: There’s this strange thing that is happening when I meditate. Most mornings when I get out of bed I feel okay. I like to meditate after I’ve had a shower, so I have a shower and I feel good. But then I sit, and as soon as I start meditating I sometimes start crying and I don’t know why, and I don’t know what is wrong. Why does meditation make me cry?
We live in a suppressive culture. On every level our culture teaches us, from birth to death, to suppress what we feel for the greater good. To suppress our opinions in case they cause trouble. To suppress our emotions to keep things nice. And often even, to suppress our abilities so as not to stick out from the crowd.
And though for sure some emotional discipline is a part of growing up, all too often we’re not taught strategies to deal with intense feelings when they arise – particularly those of us who feel more intensely than others. We’re simply taught to suppress.
And as I said, this habit of suppression begins when we’re young – most often precipitated by the parents reactions to our first emotional outbursts When we become angry, fearful or excited in some way, our parents might tell us to ‘”stop that!”, or “control yourself!”, or “grow up!” However it comes, effectively we are being told to squash a feeling – a feeling that needs to flow so it can resolve itself.
In our child’s mind this creates confusion – after all, how do we stop something we feel so intensely? To us, the feeling seems unstoppable, so how then are we to obey our parent, and ‘grow up’?
In these first lessons of coming adulthood, in an attempt to obey our parent, we do the only logical thing to try to stop this intense emotion as commanded. We go to the only aspect of the emotion we can control – the most obvious – we go to the muscles, particularly in the face, neck and shoulders, and the breathing. We tense up against the crying, and inhibit the breathing in an attempt to stem the flow of what we feel.
We’ve all seen children trying to control their emotions – the quivering lips, the short sharp breaths high in the chest, the tense muscles in the face, the hunched shoulders, the stiff neck. How reminiscent these are of the stiff necks and shoulders and tight expressionless faces of so many adults we see around us.
And that is beginning of a lifelong habit of suppression.
Because in adulthood, many of us continue these muscular suppressive habits as a matter of course – we’ve been doing it for so long we aren’t even aware of the effort we make to not flow with what we feel.
And this cultural expectation of control leads many of us to constrict our Self expression in all kinds of ways:
We stop moving our bodies.
We stop crying or laughing too loudly.
We refrain from yelling to express our joy or our fear.
And so on.
As we get older, our habits of control, if left unaddressed, become more entrenched to the extent that we lose awareness of the increasing effort it takes to control ourselves. We forget that we are tensing our body and controlling our breath because we’ve been doing it for so long – the tension is included in our mind/body picture of what feels ‘normal’.
All we know as we age is life seems to require more effort. We feel old. The muscles in our face set, causing lines to deepen. Our mouth tightens and becomes thin and our neck, shoulders and torso lose mobility.
And right at the core of these suppressive habits of control is our control of the breath. Our childhood habit of trying to control what we feel by controlling our breath is still operating – and for this reason, the breath is central to a lot of the deep-rooted tension in our bodies – including emotional tension
So then we begin to meditate.
And what are we doing in meditation?
First and foremost, I’m asking you to let go – let go of the breath, particularly the out breath.
Also, I’m asking you to notice tensions in the body – and whenever you notice these necessary points of tension, to try to let them go.
And for some of us, this naturally will lead to the emotional energy that caused us to tighten up, to suddenly express itself. So sometimes in meditation people feel like laughing, or crying – apparently for no reason. Because the story of the tension is long gone now – there is only the tension itself. And when that tension is released, so too the emotional energy spontaneously expresses itself.
So don’t question these instances where you suddenly cry. There is no reason – no story. Just allow the feeling to flow. It’s simply the mind/body adjusting to release of long held tension.