Mindfulness and Habits

IMG_6714Roger – I meditate every day and I think it helps my life. But I’m told by my teacher I should be mindful as well as meditate, and I’m not that sure about how they link up together. Wondering if you could shed some light on that.
Thanks
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Mindfulness is much more important than meditation.
Though meditation certainly has benefits of its own, it is only through mindfulness that we can transfer the skills we’ve learnt in meditation into daily life.
So meditation practice like a workshop – a set of tools we use to develop and hone the ability to be mindful in our life.

So before we look at mindfulness, let’s look at meditation – the first stages .

Once we sit down to meditate, the first thing we do is take my attention into the body – to feel what the body is telling us in its own language. To listen to it unconditionally, without judging whether we like it or not.

The body speaks to us with sensations – which we’re usually too preoccupied with the business of life to listen to. But now, as we sit quietly with our eyes closed, we notice all the sensations we’re usually not aware of – tensions, itches and aches as well as various combinations of sensations indicating emotions we’ve not had time to feel.

On suddenly feeling all this, our first reaction might be ‘what’s wrong with me’, but we have to remember at that point that we cannot change if we do not first know. And that’s what’s happening. The body is telling us what we usually are oblivious to.

So now we know what we feel, our next job is to see if we can let go of the most obvious tensions – to settle the body down and create a relatively calm environment where we can meditate.

So we pay attention to the tensions we’ve found and give the muscles permission to let go. Some sensations and tensions resolve themselves as we pay attention to them, while others take some time, but at some point the body is settled and calm enough to begin practice.

The next step is to take the active part of mind, our attention, to the breath and rest it there. And we know as we do this, that our attention will struggle because it is not used to staying in one place. But in the light of that understanding, we’re very patient. So each time the attention flits away from the breath, we gently bring it back to re-settle it, and we keep doing this until it has gotten used to being there. This takes a while – but with practice our attention gradually settles down.

The next step is we become more specific about which part of the breath we pay attention to. Our intention is to calm the attention enough so it can happily rest on only one small part of the breath – either the movement of the belly or the sensations around the nostrils.

Again this takes a lot of practice – largely because we have to find a balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. If we try too hard, we either drift into an unconscious state or our attention becomes hyperactive and uncontrollable. But if we don’t try hard enough, our attention drifts all over the place, usually back to its usual playground of dreaming and thinking. So in focussing on the breath we’re looking for a balance between too much effort and not enough.

The middle way.

Now, throughout this whole process, we’ve noticed that our attention is constantly being pushed and pulled by a mind that is used to being the centre of attention. Like a petulant child, our mind keeps pulling the attention back to itself by using the old lures of dreaming, worrying, fantasising and so on.

So, we use the various meditation methods to keep teaching the attention to let go. That’s what the methods are for – they’re tools to help the attention let go of all the tricks the mind plays so we can keep bringing the attention back to the breath and the body – where it can calm down and learn to be still.

So why is it so important for the attention to be still?

Well, that’s because it’s our attention that generates all the excitement and tensions in mind and body. It’s the attention that ties us up in knots. If we didn’t pay attention to all the thinking the mind naturally generates, we wouldn’t feel stressed at all.  But it’s because we do pay attention to all this stuff, that all the thinking and reactions have so much power – and this kind of stressful excitement affects the body in many ways, creating hormonal changes, muscle tensions, fear reactions and so on.

So when we’ve finally learnt to settle attention down, and it’s still and calm on the breath, in the space that appears, our mind and body naturally unwind themselves and relax as the stress hormones are processed. Given stillness, the mind and body, being naturally self healing, self adjusting organisms, healing themselves in whatever way is needed.

But more than that, as the unwinding process happens, the other  effect is, our mind acclimatises to a new paradigm. The more we practice meditation, the more we learn we don’t have to think about everything.

We learn that before we think, we know. We slowly develop a new relationship with an intuitive intelligence much more in tune with our life experience than the thought reality we’ve always lived in. The result is, we think less, but know more – and the effect of this over time is, our attention softens and merges back into awareness. And that’s when the mind and body become more interconnected.

As we become more aware of what is happening in the body, it in turn becomes more responsive. And that’s when meditation evolves into mindfulness.

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Okay, so lets look at mindfulness.

Superficially it’s simple. Mindfulness is when mind joins with body, in real time. No thinking or imagining – no scanning forward or back in time. When we are mindful, we fall into the real-time experience of our body, and our life – sensing it all as it happens NOW.

No thoughts or reactions or judgements – just knowing what is happening as it happens.

This kind of ‘present moment awareness’ is what meditation practice trains us for. In this, mindfulness and meditation support and reinforce one another. When we meditate we are practising the skills we need to be mindful. And when we practice mindfulness in daily life it makes it easier to slip into meditation whenever we want.

But more importantly – mindfulness helps us evolve. Mindfulness helps us to change what we are.

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Most of us live mindlessly. Our lives are so densely packed with activities and distractions, we often forget we’re even in a body and a life.

Think about a typical day in the life on an urban human being.

We wake up and maybe check our mobile phone for the news or turn on the radio or TV. Perhaps then we cook breakfast while thinking about what we’re listening to, then we drive to work while listening to music, or to the radio, or chatting with a friend. Throughout the day we do our work, which these days almost always involves thinking, analysing, calculating and juggling complex information. Then we drive home listening to the radio, maybe go for a run while listening to music, then chat with our family while eating dinner, then watch television and go to bed with our mind still whirling with all the thinking it’s been absorbed in throughout the day.

This is the life we’ve been trained for. From the day our mother and father began teaching us language – then school, university and work, we have been trained to spend almost our entire lives in our head while our body obediently does our living for us. We live in castles of thought, and except for occasional moments like when we’re making love, or experiencing something exceptional or shocking, we’re almost completely estranged from the lives we’re actually living.

Effectively, we’re passengers in our own lives.

Maybe a thousand years ago, when most of our life was spent doing physical things – planting crops, building, hunting, finding our way through forests and jungles and across deserts – we lived in the real time experience of our life. We had to be mindful because it was essential to our survival to ‘be here now’ – to be aware of changes in the weather, of animals and reptiles in the forest, and where to find what we needed.

But now our survival needs are different. Everything we need in the modern world is in head-space. And that makes us very susceptible to habits which have become dysfunctional. Living in the groove of our habits and estranged from our body and our life as we often are, we  don’t feel the subtle tensions of dysfunctional habits until it’s too late.

In the disconnect we’ve become used to, between mind and body – that’s where most of our dysfunctional habits breed – depressive illnesses, anxiety, over-consumption, addiction and so on – all of these things are physical and mental habits that we never noticed until it was too late.

We see it all around us – people who have become sick, addicted, or mentally and physically rigid as they age – entrenched in habits they never noticed until it was so powerful it owned them.

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So now lets look into habits, and how mindfulness can help us change.

Habits are sequences of remembered actions and thoughts which, once formed, fall into the unconscious. Once there, they function automatically – triggered by certain circumstances, they act themselves out in the same sequence every time without us needing to pay attention to them. Left to itself, our body does everything according to these conditioned habits.

For example, when we drive a car.

If you think about it, driving a car is an extremely complex set of action sequences. Yet, once our ‘driving habit’ has been learnt, we are entirely capable of driving through the densest traffic while thinking of other things, and reaching our destination without even remembering what actually happened on the way.

And so it is with most of our life – we eat, work and take care of the business of each day, usually while our attention is elsewhere.

Some habits we choose, and the work for us, like my example of driving a car.

But other habits are more pernicious – they arise stealthily from the natural vicissitudes of our life as our mind/body ‘learn’ certain reactions which gradually become habitual – particularly emotional habits, where childhood experiences have created anger or sadness or frustration. As childhood is left behind and the experiences suppressed or consciously forgotten, these unresolved reactions often evolve into habits of anxiety, depression, or addiction of one kind or another.

Everyone knows the maxim, ‘practice makes perfect’. So it is with our habits. The more they are allowed enact themselves in our life , the stronger they get. So if we are un-mindful of the subtle encroachment of certain habits on our life, by the time we reach middle age, we can find ourselves becoming overpowered.

And so it is with many of the things we regard as illnesses – they begin as subtle inclinations and idiosyncrasies in our youth, but as we age and they go on enacting themselves, they evolve into anxiety and panic disorders, chronic depression, insomnia, binge eating, drugs and alcohol addiction and more.

All of these disorders began as subtle twinges of need in the body, and inclinations in the mind, which we obeyed over and over again. Each time the twinge arose we would allowed the habit to enact itself, largely because we weren’t really present enough to withdraw permission. We were elsewhere – living in head-space, oblivious to the twinges and quiet whisperings of our habits as they drove us. And what made the problem worse is, the more we ignored the signals our body sends us, subtle as they are, the more we became unconscious to them.

And that’s when the habits began running us and our lives.

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When we practice mindfulness, we develop an intimate and present relationship with our body sensations as they occur – we learn the language of our body and the way it uses sensations and subtle tensions to get us to act when a habit has been triggered.

It’s only with this kind of knowing that we can take action to weaken a habit – simply because we can spot it coming before it becomes to strong.

To illustrate, I’ll use an example.

I had a client, Neil, who had a habit of binge drinking – he wasn’t alcoholic in any pathological sense. His life habits had just channelled him in such a way that his entire social life and sense of belonging pivoted around alcohol.
“I’ll be passing a bottle shop or a bar, and suddenly I’d find myself buying a drink. I never meant to … I’d just find myself in there. And all my drinking friends were there, so one thing would lead to another and next morning I’d wake up with a splitting hangover …”

So, as Neil began meditating, I emphasised that his practice should not be restricted to the two half hour sessions he was already doing during the day.

“Keep bringing your attention into your body during the day. Feel what you’re doing as you do it. As you walk, instead of leaving your attention to wander about in the mind, bring it into the body – feel the body walking. Instead of just letting your habits pull you through the day, with your attention wandering in and out of head-space, pay attention to what you’re doing as a real-time physical experience. Know what you’re doing as you do it.”

Neil enjoyed meditating, but he found using mindfulness throughout his day very difficult.

“I keep forgetting,” he said. “The day sort of cascades and it’s difficult to keep remembering to be aware.”
I said, “That cascading effect happens when your habits have taken over. So you’ve got to keep on interjecting, so to speak. Keep pulling your attention into the automatic flow of the habits and taking command. Over time, this itself will become a new habit, which will over-ride all the other habits.”

Gradually Neil found it pleasurable to ‘be in his body’. And he discovered he could feel habits as they arose in his body.

“It’s an uncomfortable tension that I feel,” he said. “Like a spring getting tighter and tighter. Then I notice the thoughts ‘naturally’ coming up – ‘ooo, time for a drink’ or ‘a glass of wine would go down well’. And that’s when I automatically begin heading for a bar and ordering a glass … a perfectly choreographed procession of urges …”

Neil could feel the mechanic of what was happening inside him, as it happened, in real time. So now he had choice.
Where before the habit led him by the nose, now he could choose to not obey. And each time he refused to obey the push of the habit, he won back control of that part of his life. But it took a long time – because as he described it, ‘the perfectly choreographed procession of urges’ was so subtle and strong.

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So the practice is as I said – in the same way as we pull our attention into the body during meditation, and concern ourselves with purely physical events in real time, we do the same thing in our daily life.

Keep pulling your attention out of your head and into the body – notice the physicality of whatever you do – your posture, your muscles working, the sensations as they occur. Take an interest in what your body tells you, and work with it to adjust things you notice are out of balance.

Notice how the habits arise reactively. Sometimes it’ll be sensations in the body followed by ‘thought propaganda’ – as the conditioned mind tries to get you to enact what it thinks will relieve the tension you feel. Other times it’ll be thoughts which trigger the tensions and excitement in the body compelling you to act.

Whichever way it happens, if you’re mindful of what you’re feeling and what you’re doing, you’ll notice the habits arise, and be able to relax around them – and most importantly, resist their call for you to act. The more you resist, the less powerful they become. And slowly, you become the master of your domain.

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LINKS

The Breath, Only the Breath.

IMG_0266-001In my audio course, and in some of the posts I’ve written for this blog, I’ve spoken at various times about emotions and pain during meditation, and described methods for dealing with these things. And this is all well and good – when pain or emotion becomes to powerful it distracts us from the breath we need a method to deal with it.

Trouble is, I’m hearing about people trying to use these methods as their central meditation method – as a kind of self administered therapy to exorcise whatever emotions and anxieties that haunt them.
This distortion of meditation practice, in which we use methods almost as weapons against parts of ourselves we don’t like, is unwise because it arises from fear – fear of aspects of our own self – which runs counter to the mental qualities we’re trying to build in meditation of equanimity and acceptance and surrender as primary conditions for letting go and allowing stillness to arise.

So in this post I’m going to review meditation from the bottom up and clarify the role of the breath as both the foundation and central pivot of meditation.

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While meditation is certainly therapeutic, it is not meant to be ‘a therapy’. It’s not about fighting parts of ourself or trying to create the new self you think you should be.

It’s about being still. That’s all.

Do that, and nature will do the rest. Once we’ve learnt how to let go of everything other than the breath, in the stillness that occurs, the innate self healing mechanisms of mind and body find their own equilibrium and balance in their own way. There is no need to do anything other than that – no need for meddling, or trying to use the methods to change yourself. Just stop and use the methods to pay attention to the breath and stillness will give you everything you need.

Sounds good – except for one thing. We have great difficulty with stillness, because we’ve never learnt how to do it.

Unlike every other creature on the planet, who when there’s nothing to do, does nothing and is blissfully happy about it, we cannot stop. Even when we’re sitting alone, in silence, our attention is flitting everywhere, creating internal chattering – getting bored, frustrated, worrying, anticipating, fantasizing.

Even when we want to be still we can’t do it. For a lot of us being physically still is torture – we need activity, entertainment, a radio going or music, drugs, gossip, television – anything to distract us from a mental and physical environment that is so foreign we’re terrified of it.

This is how our modern culture has made us.

It glorifies activity, dynamism, competition, yet totally ignores stillness – even denigrating it, calling it ‘laziness’, ‘stagnation’ and so on. Our culture has trained us to convert our entire life into information and take action – even if the action is something as stupid as worry.

It encourages us to be constantly scanning ahead to the future, or behind us to the past, and reacting to everything. Politicians, advertising agencies and the media are devoted to tweaking our attention – attracting it, provoking it, anything to make us react. Because they know, if they can get the right reaction from us – trigger the right thoughts, the right mix of emotions – they can control what we do – buy a product, do a job, elect a government, go to war, whatever.

This is modern life.

So it’s entirely understandable that when it comes to meditation – which is about stopping and being still – mentally and physically still, and being happy to be still, we can’t do it.
Which is why we’re the only creature on earth who has to learn how to meditate. Cats don’t need to meditate – they know. So do dogs, fish, birds and everything else. Everything else lives with stillness except us.

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Most of us consider the mental jitteriness we live with as normal, because we’re all doing the same things and suffering in the same ways as as result. There is a perverse sense of community in that.

Nevertheless the constant reacting exhausts us, because we get no peace. Our mind rarely gets the space to clear itself and our body never gets enough of a pause from the constant excitement being generated by the mind, to heal itself and let go of accrued tension.

As I said before, this is a madness other creatures on our planet don’t have. They slip from action to stillness in a heartbeat, whenever they want. Whenever they need. The cat chases the mouse, eats it, then sits and goes still until another mouse appears. Stillness to action, action to stillness seamlessly – always relaxed, in the moment and aware.

It’s this same ability we’re creating in meditation. Not therapy.

We’re learning to be able to be still whenever we choose. And to that end, every method of meditation is simply another strategy to help coax our mind to accept stillness. To get to know it, and feel comfortable enough with it to be able to slip into it in a heartbeat. Just like a cat.

And it’s our attention that is front and center in this endeavor. Because it’s our attention that is the problem.

Awareness is not the problem – awareness simply ‘is’. Awareness knows things – hot, cold, up, down, danger, rightness, wrongness – bare sensations. Bare existence, moment by moment. Awareness knows these things, but has no reaction.

Sensations are not the problem either- they’re simple – sort of like binary code. Either on or off. They come and go according to nature and change.

It’s only our attention that creates the reactions that disturb us. When our attention is drawn to something we’re aware of, or a sensation, it generates a reaction – we like what it’s found or we don’t like it – all of which creates anxiety, whether pleasant or unpleasant. It’s all anxiety of one kind or another. Suffering.

Whatever problem we have, if we look right down the chain of cause and effect, we find the dysfunctional habits of our conditioned attention, and the distorted sense of self it’s created, which accepts anxiety as normal.

So in meditation, it’s ONLY our attention we training. And in this training, the breath is incredibly important, because the breath is the instrument we use to train the attention.

And all the peripheral methods, however therapeutic they may seem, are only meant as temporary strategies to help our bristling, hyperactive attention learn to have a calm relationship with the breath, where it can be still.

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In the meditation method I use, the breath is all we need.

The breath is the core of meditation.
The breath is the path into stillness.
There is no other path. If we pay calm attention to the breath and let everything else go, we naturally become still. That’s all.

And why?

Well, the breath is the only consistently recognizable and constant phenomenon we have in our life, where our attention can rest without having to think, or evaluate or react . Because the breath is simple – it’s always been with us and will always be with us. It is regular and automatic, yet immediately recognizable, with none of the reactive triggers that other sensations create. That is, we neither like it or dislike it.

It’s just the breath,

This is a perfect place for the attention to rest and learn to be still. So, with training, as we keep encouraging the attention to stay on the breath, it gradually learns it has an alternative place from the storm of life – a place it knows is always there, where it can rest.

As the relationship between the attention and the breath deepens, the attention eventually grows to like the breath, and make it its home. This is essential to learning to meditate.

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Of course, a lot of things get in the way of the making of this skill – because that’s what it is – a skill. Our attention is not used to being still so it keeps darting away to all the distractions it’s used to – thinking about things and building reactions.

No stillness there.

This is where the peripheral methods come in. When a particular obstacle arises, and interferes with the building of the skill, we use one or other of the peripheral methods to help the attention come back to the breath and get used to staying there.

The most obvious example is the method I teach known as ‘mental noting’. We use mental noting to assist in the process of letting go of distractions which get in our way. Or we use another method for pain, or the multi-point method when our attention is too fidgety and energized to work with.

But only temporarily. All of these methods are temporary – even mental noting. We use them until the relationship with the breath has been established and is strong, at which point, we resume the central method of paying attention to the breath.

And eventually, after a few years of practice, we even let go of the breath – but that’s another story.

For now, in this evolving skill of being still, all methods and their variations are simply temporary tools to remove obstacles from   a moment by moment relationship with the breath. And though these methods are indeed therapeutic, they are not intended as therapy. So please don’t make any single method a central pivot of meditation.

For now, the breath, and only the breath, will take you to where you need to go.

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LINKS

Fail Gladly to Succeed

Just found this wonderful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the writing process, in which he says: “I always consider the entire process about failure …”

Like with any skill, I also believe this to be true about meditation.

The process of apparently failing is also, paradoxically, the process of succeeding. For this reason, accept the difficulties as the path you walk in meditation, and they cease to be difficulties. We fail and we keep on failing, right to the point when we succeed, which always comes as a surprise. And then we fail again.

In this way failing disappears, and there is only the path to success.

Meditation is Gym for the Mind

 

Lakshmi commented:portraits and stuff 005

“I am new to meditation and I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes. On the contrary, I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong. But as I read you, I am thinking perhaps not.

I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen?

I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

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Hi Lakshmi,

Your comment covered many areas worth writing about, so ​my reply is rather long. Sorry about that. But thank you for asking such an interesting, if complex question

​Before I begin, I was glad to read that you’re NOT going down the path of taking medication. Though pills and chemicals can seem like instant fixes, the long term destruction they cause is just not worth it. When I was a counselor, the most irretrievably damaged people I came across were those who had become addicted to the various pills that their doctors had prescribed for them – from blood pressure medications to statins, to anti-depressants. Drugs taken regularly usually end up being as debilitating as the condition they were prescribed to cure.

Also, I don’t think your problem lies in​ the act of meditation itself.

I might be wrong, but ​I ​sense a part of your problem ​with meditation ​is derived from ​the ​plethora of misinformation about meditation that’s​ floating around, most of it commercially oriented. ​Much of this information, spruiking courses and books, focuses on the ‘meditation experience’ rather than the long term benefits of meditation, painting an excessively rosy picture of how you should feel as you meditate. These expectations of a calm, peaceful experience then confuse the meditator when they don’t happen, creating doubt and confusion.

For this reason I strongly recommend you read my second book on meditation, ‘Love & Meditation’, available as a PDF download from HERE. In that book, I emphasize the long term benefits of meditation, and explain the process, so you know what it happening as it happens.

So anyway, lets look into what concerns you.

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PART I

“I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes.”

This is a common expectation among novice meditators, largely created by all the new-age blather that surrounds the subject of ‘meditation’. Ignorant people talk about enlightenment as if it’s some supernatural state, bringing bizarre super powers like a Marvell comic character. Also there are all the misinterpretations of Buddhist lore, in which enlightenment is portrayed in a very religious way, as it’s some kind of transition into a god and only those ‘chosen’ in some way can become enlightened.

All very misleading.

Actually enlightenment is very simple, and like any skill or art, it can only become a reality if one practices the skills that lead to it with complete dedication and persistence over a long period of time.

So what is ​this ​enlightenment?

​Like ​any skill or ability, enlightenment (or Nibbana) is ​a set of mental and physical habits​..

Put simply, it is ​a ​mind that has, through years of meditation, deconstructed all the conditioned reactions and habits that most of us are unconsciously enslaved by – social, cultural and genetic – and become pure again​, with a mind that perceives everything as it actually is, rather than as it has been colored by their conditioned reactions.

With this purity of view, desire and fear disappear because they are no longer internally triggered by internal reactions to things. There is none of the hormonal push and pull of desire and fear distorting their view, so their perceptions are always clear of the psychological coloring of emotional reactions.

As such, though their body is certainly subject to the limitations of physicality, the enlightened person is finally free. Free of rage, sadness, elation, greed, jealousy and so on. They are in perfect balance.

Of course, in popular media, we’re bombarded with the ridiculous cliché of the enlightened person being in some kind of elevated, mysterious and very esoteric state – bald men in robes speaking in riddles with super powers.

Not so. Enlightened people are completely unconcerned with whether they are enlightened or not, and have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.

In my decades of training in temples in South East Asia, I have known two monks who were known as enlightened men – one Thai monk, Acharn Thawee​,​ and the other a Sinhalese monk, the Venerable Pemasiri.

To meet these men, you would not have known they were enlightened. They did not talk about it or try to act enlightened. Both were very kind, and felt the cold and heat just like the rest of us. The only difference between them and me was they were totally unconcerned about anything except what needed to be done in each moment. As such, each action they made, and everything they said, was utterly appropriate and uncolored by ego or emotions. They lived to give and create unconditional kindness, not because it made them feel good, but simply because when all conditioned desire and fear is removed from a mind, all that is left is kindness.

To his death my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, both stern and kind, strove to teach the clearest view of meditation that he could. One could say he had so much to live for – but when he died, he shrugged off his life with these words:

“Who is dying? No one is dying. People say, ‘Oh, it’s Acharn Thawee. He is a good man!’ But I know there is no Acharn Thawee​.​”

To have known this extraordinary man is perhaps the most wonderful experience I have ever had, in part because it showed me how mundane and practical enlightenment actually is. And how attainable it is, if we choose to work towards it.

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PART II

Now​,​ the next part of your comment

“… I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong.”

No, you are not doing anything wrong.

Everybody, when they first begin meditation, experiences discomfort in different degrees, depending on many things – how flexible their body is, what their life experience has been, and what kind of teacher has been guiding them.

Remember – your mind and body are simply bundles of habits – everything about you, from your posture and physical demeanor to your desires and fears, are sets of habits that you have learnt.​ ​And each of these habit-patterns create different noticeable effects.

The anxiety habit creates various muscle tensions that we recognize as anxiety​ -​ as does hunger, desire, elation, fear and so on.And on recognizing each habit, we then have another secondary reaction to it – mental habits driving hormonal shifts in our body that drive us to act in one way or the other.

Most of what we feel is essential invisible to us. ​I​n ​the hustle and bustle of life, we ​do not notice most of our reactions ​because we are ​too preoccupied our busy lives​​ to feel what is happening to us. Our focus is on outer concerns – work, entertainment, ​children, ​sex, ​food, money​ and so on.​ ​​We only notice ​what we feel​ ​if it is very powerful​ – when it​ poke​s ​into the flow of our everyday life​ and we find ourself angry, or depressed or sad or whatever.​

​Not only that, but many of us​ don’t like to feel what is happening inside us, particularly if we’ve built up a lot of unresolved tension and anxiety. ​​This is why so many people use drugs or anti depressants. Others use ​busyness, or ​​ceaseless activity​ or sport as a way of​ not​ feeling how ​they​ actually are.It’s also why some people cannot stand silence, or are constantly fidgeting or working or seeking fun. Essentially they are running from what they feel – running from themselves.

I had a man come to learn meditation once​,​ who in his life was a very successful advertising executive. He told me his entire life had been spent scrambling up the greasy pole of success​ ​until at the age of forty and now he was feeling a little dispirited and tired, so he decided to learn how to meditate.

He seemed quite relaxed as we spoke. But as I led him through the first session, about fifteen minutes in, he asked me if we could stop. I opened my eyes to see he had gone an odd color of ​pale ​green.

”What’s wrong?” I said.

“I feel horrible,” he muttered, then stood and rushe​d​ into the toilet where he vomited profusely.

Over the following weeks, he had terrible difficulty with meditation – nausea, aches, pains, twitching and a lot of emotion, particularly anger and grief. But he kept on going​,​ and gradually all these things passed away, as I had told him they would. Eventually meditation became a more pleasant experience and he was able to sustain a practice which, over the longer term, changed his life.

Acharn Thawee called this phenomenon ‘shedding the layers of the onion’. In this, he likened our self to being like an onion, made of many layers of karma (conditioning).

​​He said, “Just as we call the layers of the onion ‘an onion’, so too we give a name to the many layers of karma that make up ‘our self’. And we think all those layers of conditioning are ‘I’, quite forgetting that all the habits that define us, have been learnt – accumulated in layers, from our descendants, and from our own life experience.

So then we decide to meditate.For the first time in our life we sit down and stop. So the mind, with nothing to do, naturally turns its attention to itself – because what else is there to do?

​​​And being naturally a self organizing, self balancing thing​, like all other forces of nature​,​ the mind​ uses the stillness and relatively empty space that’s created during meditation to begin throwing off all the layers of reactive habits that cause it discomfort.

And what does it find?

It discovers the first surface layer of mind/body – the most coarse. Painful memories we have tried to avoid, aches and tensions we have not had time to pay attention to, and anxiety we have forgotten was there. ​L​​ike an onion, the​se​ outer laye​rs​ are the most coarse and most painful.

​It is these top layers the mind throws off first – the most coarse. And as the mind throws these things off, we briefly re-experience them. Physical tension, anxiety, pain, aches, and emotions are felt once more as they disappear.

Trouble is,  if we have been ​unfortunate enough to be ​stuck with a meditation teacher who has ​created​ false expectations, that we should be experiencing calm and peace​ in meditation​, we can mistakenly interpret this first stage of ‘shedding the layers’ as  something ​wrong. We can mistakenly assume we’re not meditating properly, simply because our meditation experience is not matching​ the teacher’s expectations of calm and peace. We think we’re failing – that we can;t meditate.

But we’re not failing. We’re actually succeeding.

All the discomfort, thought storms and emotions we’re experiencing are​ simply the first coarse​ layers of historic mental and physical tension evaporating – and once gone, we are free of just a little more ‘dark mass’ in our life.

Each time we meditate through a layer of this muck, we create a little more calm and peace in our life – where we want it to be. All we have to do is sit still and keep practicing the meditation method, which, if it is a good method, has been specifically designed to create and assist this cleansing phenomenon.

So here’s the thing- you’re not meditating to have pleasant meditations. You’re meditating to have a pleasant life. All you have to do is keep going. ​The layers will become more and more subtle as you keep practicing. ​

Try to remember, the beginning of meditation practice is the hardest part. It’s hard because:

1. Your mind and body are not used to being still.

2. You are experiencing the most coarse and immediately uncomfortable beginning of the cleansing process that meditation naturally elicits.

3. Being new to meditation, you are filled with doubts as to whether you are practising properly – which tends to create confusion, which in turn creates anxiety – thus adding to your discomfort.

To help you get through this stage I strongly recommend you obtain my Meditation Audio Course. It will help you understand the process of meditation, and help you through it.

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PART III

“I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen? I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

Lakshmi, just because I don’t talk about the benefits of meditation, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s just that I don’t want to create expectations in people​’s minds​ – because I know how destructive expectations can be to meditation.

When you meditate,​ I want​ your mind ​to​ be utterly open to whatever is happening​ NOW​ whether it’s painful or pleasant – and let it go.

I do not want you imagining calm, or waiting for happiness, or wishing for peace, because this will get you nowhere – its the veritable dog chasing its tail.

Good meditation is where you are totally focused on the business of each ​moment ​as​ it’s happening – and the methods are designed to help you do that. So long as you do that, meditation and stillness will take care of themselves over time.

As the famous Zen master said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” By ‘beginners mind’ he means a mind that is absolutely without expectations about what is going to happen.

For this reason, I talk a lot about what meditation isn’t​​. And I try not to talk about what might happen, because I prefer people to discover that for themselves.

In meditation experience is the best way to learn. So the less you think about it, or expect from it the better.

​So​ yes,​ ​Lakshmi​, you must stick it out​.​​ ​You must go through the coarse layers of the onion. You must put up with the discomfort and use the methods to help you sit still and focus, even when your body is screaming.

​Because sometimes ​willpower is​ the only way. As Marlon Brando once said, ‘​Sometimes ​you just got to duke (fight) it out.​’

I take this to mean that sometimes in a life there is no trick or subtle strategy that will help us. Sometimes we just have to ‘duke it out’ – press the foot to the floor and assert our will until we’re in the clear and can relax.

And this does indeed apply to meditation​ when we first begin – and I think it applies to the beginning of ANY skill if you want to be proficient at it. Starting anything and seeing it through always creates discomfort, simply because the mind and body take time to adjust.

​Remember, you’re building a new set of habits with meditation. You’re building a skill. As such, meditation is ​similar to​ any form of exercise, being it running, tennis, going to the gym or learning to swim.The only difference is, meditation ​trains​ your mind, the most important aspect of your life. So in the same way as going to a gym makes the body stronger and more efficient, so too does meditation make the mind stronger and more efficient.

And the benefits?  Well, as I said, it’s better you experience them yourself than for me to tell you.

But one thing I will sa​y is this​. ​

Thirty years ago, b​efore I began practicing Vipassana​ meditation​, ​​I​ was in a very bad way. After years as a touring musician and dedicated hedonist, I ​had the attention span of a sparrow, ​my body was ruined, my creativity was disappearing and I was so chronically depressed I wished for death most days, and needed alcohol to feel normal.

I used Vipassana meditation to rebuild myself – or rather, to give my mind and body time to rebuild themselves. And in the thirty years since, ​I have written four good books​, ​I am healthy and living ​a​ full life​ doing what I love to do. And though some things might create anger, frustration or I might get depressed about something that’s not going well​, it doesn’t last long​ – there seems now to be a foundation of strength, optimism and calm deep within me now, which the poetry of my life dances upon​ – and it seems impossible now, for down times to overcome me.

So I don’t expect meditation to be pleasant. For me it is just ​a​ training ground – ​a​ place I train my mind to ​stay​ strong and resilient enough to be able to​ live​ my life.

​And if pain, or emotion or anxiety arise as I meditate​, ​I ​greet these things as interesting visitors, ​who I’m happy to see, ​because I know it’s better they are dealt with during meditation, than in ​the larger theater of ​my life.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.

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Our Mind is Not Our Friend

Excellent short movie on the basics of meditation – explains the process and the experience very well.

Dealing With Emotions

IMG_0224Hi Roger, I have a question that I haven’t yet seen on your site. If other people might be interested, I’m wondering if you can kindly indulge me in the following.

During my meditation sessions (2x a day for 30 min), the main challenge I face is thinking and planning. No fiery emotions really arise. However, in my daily life, I find that I’m much more sensitive than ever. I’m more short tempered, testy, angry. Little things make chest pop, then burn.
I invite these feelings to arise during meditation so I can breathe through them but they don’t.

Is this a common problem? I thought meditation would help me be less reactive but I’m more reactive than ever. What am I doing wrong?

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Good to hear from you, and a good question about a very subtle matter.  It’s taken a while for me to formulate my response, but I hope it is worth the wait.

I too have noticed a similar occurrence, where I would experience uncomfortable emotion arising during the day which did not show itself as I was meditating – and I also have wondered why these emotions did not arise during meditation. Since then, I’ve decided that, for practical purposes, it’s best not to speculate on WHY, because ultimately, when and why emotions arise seems to be utterly unpredictable.

So I decided long ago that it’s best not to speculate – but to focus on dealing with them in the moment they become noticeable, and not expect them to behave in any orderly way. Because in the end, emotions are, essentially, disorderly phenomena.

It also must be remembered that meditation is not designed to be an emotional therapy – any therapeutic aspect is a secondary effect. Meditation is, first and foremost, a training ground for the mind to learn four habits that are useful in a life:

  1. To have a steadier, softer and more gently focused attention, resulting in a clearer, wider and more aware view in life – mindfulness.
  2. To learn that with the attention steadier and less twitchy, our ability to concentrate is enhanced.
  3. To learn to let go of streams of thinking that do not serve us well.
  4. To develop a mind that is more integrated with the body and what the body is telling you – resulting in a more relaxed body, better health and increased capacity for intuition.

I have noticed that with practice that a therapeutic aspect to meditation does eventually arise from these new habits. This is because the mind becomes more aware of various physical tensions being caused by repressed emotional reactions, and having become aware, the mind-body, being a naturally self adjusting mechanism, learns to let go of those tensions, sometimes temporarily re-experiencing the emotions in the process – tears arise, or the body jerks, or long sighs spontaneously occur. Each of these is a signal that the mind-body are processing the emotional energy efficiently.

But as I said, anything to do with emotions is unpredictable – they can happen anytime, whether we’re at work or meditating. And in this, the first part of any solution is to not bother questioning why an emotion is here.

It just IS.
This unpredictability of emotions is because most of our reactions and mental and process’s – about 80% – are unconscious. For sure we live our life through our conscious mind, but most of our reactive habits, which we’ve learnt over the course of our life, are unconscious to us – which is why they are so unpredictable, and essentially chaotic.

So questioning why an emotion is here is fruitless. In the end, ACCEPTANCE is essential.

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So how to deal with these feelings … well, first and foremost, if you are in a public situation, it is important that you allow the emotion to express itself WITHOUT enacting it. This is a trick of mindfulness. I’ll give you an example.

I was at a dinner party a few years ago, and one of my friends, a lawyer, was sitting across from me and he’d drunk too much wine. Now it should be said here, that I don’t talk about my meditation experiences or activities with most of my friends, simply because, most of them being non-meditators, they aren’t interested. So I keep it my business to myself, and socialize largely on their terms. Unless of course they ask me, when I keep my answers short. But this particular night, this man, being quite drunk, decided to have a go at me … he began goading me about meditation, calling it ‘crap’ and being quite abusive about Buddhist monks, calling them ‘parasites’ and ‘lazy bastards sitting on their arses all day’.

At first I tried to defend myself, because having been trained by so many wonderful monks, I was offended that he could be so dismissive of what they do, and the value they bring to their communities – so I tried to defend the monastic tradition.

Then I realised the man was utterly ignorant and there was no way I could educate him so I tried to stop the discussion by saying this. But being a lawyer, and drunk, he wouldn’t let it go. For some reason he wanted a confrontation. So he kept going, and I could feel myself becoming angry (which is what I think he wanted).

Now, I knew it would be socially deadening if I was to express my anger – and the effects that would arise out of it would create even more trouble. But at the same time, I felt so aggrieved that I knew it would be very hard to swallow how I felt or deny it and push it away. So I HAD to accept it, if I was to find some way of dealing with it.You cannot deal with something if you don’t first accept it.

So the trick was, how to deal with my adrenalised and very pissed off state  without anyone knowing, so it would not interfere with the social flow.

To this end, I used mindfulness. As I let the man talk, while nodding and acknowledging what he was saying without commenting, I turned my focus inwards, and in the theater of myself, I allow the anger I felt to express itself.

And as I felt the energy rise into that acceptance, and the adrenaline, I focused specifically on how my body was reacting. I noticed my shoulders had risen and my chest had gone tight, and my belly had gone rock hard, such that my breathing was extremely shallow. While continuing to nod along with this guy, I turned the anger into a purely physical exercise. I focused on FEELING the physical tensions in my body and the task of letting those tensions go, muscle by muscle.

It took a while – sometimes I’d let go of one part and move on, then come back to find that part had tensed up again. But eventually, I managed to let go of the physical tensions and my breathing naturally changed. And then I sighed, and it was a deep and long sigh, and I knew I was released.

By this time the man, because he was getting no resistance from me – just nodding and ‘yes, yes’, ran out of things to say. The confrontation naturally finished, and we turned to other things. No destructive action was taken and the event was forgotten.
But most importantly I was clean of the anger, WITHOUT bringing it into my life. I had resolved it by dealing with the truth of it – that it was a physical phenomenon, which only needed to be acknowledged, accepted and gently worked through on the same level it actually existed – the PHYSICAL level.

Because quite aside from the story we give our emotions when they arise, which is all bullshit anyway, emotions are primarily physical. That’s the ultimate truth of emotions. The story is the relative truth – endless, convoluted and usually wrong. But the physical presence of the emotion cannot be denied – it is either here or not and the body never lies. For whatever chaotic reason, it feels what it feels, whether that be anger, sadness, calm or happiness. So the only place we can deal with troublesome emotions effectively, is on the level they truly exist – the physical level.

This was a very important lesson to me, that emotion can be resolved without bothering with the story of why it’s here, or acting it out or trying to suppress it

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Now, you mention you ‘breathe through’ emotions when they arise in meditation. I’m not sure what you do when anger arises at work, but I’ll deal with that  later.

The thing is, what I’m getting from what this ‘breathing through’ is NOT acceptance – but an attempt to control. As such, it is ultimately fruitless.

Because remember I said?  ACCEPTANCE is key to resolving our reactions. To deal with anything in our life, we must accept it on its terms first.

So ask yourself – why are you ‘breathing through’ the emotion – to make it go away?
This is how it seems, and though perhaps it might work sometimes – it is not a good strategy, either in meditation or life.

Wherever you are, if anger arises, or rage, leave the breath alone. The breath should NEVER be interfered with or consciously changed.

Rather it should be released.

So instead of making an attempt to control the breath by consciously breathing deeply, or ‘breathing through’ as you say -instead, try as best you can to ignore the story of the anger and pay attention to it as a strictly physical set of tensions in the body.

And as you do this, look into all the ways you’ve begun to RESTRICT the breath, and let them go. So you’re not consciously changing the breath, so much as consciously allowing it to express itself as it needs to. In this way you guide the body to resolve this physical situation in its own way.

For example, you might find muscular tensions have appeared in the chest, belly or shoulders – so, work on letting them go. Feel the tension. Accept the tension. Allow the tension to be what it is. Relax around the tension and you will usually find the tension itself will also let go. Then move on, treating the anger as a primarily physical problem, while allowing the breath to change as it wants to.

And if you’re doing this in a public situation, no need to close the eyes or take any posture – simply move your attention inwards and do what you need to do. And if someone asks you what’s wrong, just say you don’t feel well at the moment, but you’re dealing with it …and if they ask you why, just say it might have been something you ate … or whatever, and go back to what you were doing.

It’s simply a switching of the attention from outer life, to inner life. And nobody needs to know you’re doing it.

As with everything, it will get easier with practice. So if, the first few times you do it, it’s difficult, persist. Remember, you’re changing habits, and that takes time.

See how you go. I hope this helps.

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Louis CK on Mindfulness

I often find the most incisive and concise observations come from comedians. I suppose that’s because to make people laugh, brevity and incisiveness are essential. In this interview, Louis CK starts talking about mobile phones and then moves into a wonderful allusion to mindfulness, particularly when it comes things we don’t want to feel, like sadness.

Well worth watching.

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