In Tibetan there is a word that points to the root cause of aggression, the root cause also of craving. It points to a familiar experience that is at the root of all conflict, all cruelty, oppression, and greed. This word is shenpa. The usual translation is “attachment,” but this doesn’t adequately express the full meaning. I think of shenpa as “getting hooked.” Another definition, used by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is the “charge”—the charge behind our thoughts and words and actions, the charge behind “like” and “don’t like.” Here’s an everyday example: Someone criticizes you. She criticizes your work or your appearance or your child. In moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste, a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever. That sticky feeling is shenpa. And it comes along with a very seductive urge to do something. Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.
You can actually feel shenpa happening. It’s a sensation that you can easily recognize. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. Someone looks at us in a certain way or we hear a certain song, or walk into a certain room and boom. We’re hooked. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but that everyone knows well.
Now, if you catch shenpa early enough, it’s very workable. You can acknowledge that it’s happening and abide with the experience of being triggered, the experience of urge, the experience of wanting to move. It’s like experiencing the yearning to scratch an itch, and generally we find it irresistible. Nevertheless, we can practice patience with that fidgety feeling and hold our seat.
You can acknowledge that it’s happening and abide with the experience of being triggered, the experience of urge, the experience of wanting to move.
In these moments, we can contact the underlying insecurity of the human experience, the insecurity that is inherent in a changing, shifting world. As long as we are habituated to needing something to hold on to, we will always feel this background rumble of slight unease or restlessness. We want some relief from the unease, so when shenpa arises we go on automatic
pilot: without a pause, we follow the urge and get swept away.
Mostly we don’t catch shenpa at an early stage. We don’t catch the tightening until we’ve already
indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. In fact, unless we equate not acting out with friendliness toward ourselves, this refraining can feel like putting on a straitjacket and we struggle against it.
Staying Fully Present with Shenpa
The best way to develop our ability to stay fully present with shenpa and to equate that with
loving-kindness is in meditation. This is where we can train in not getting swept away. Meditation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning
to return again and again to the present moment. We train in sitting still with the itch of shenpa and with our craving to scratch. We label our story lines “thinking” and let them dissolve, and we come back to “right now,” even when “right now” doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.
This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.
You can also begin to notice shenpa in other people. You’re having a conversation with a friend. At one moment her face is open and she’s listening, and the next you see her eyes glaze over or her jaw tense. What you’re seeing is her shenpa, and she may not be aware of it at all. When peace is your goal, this is an important observation.
From your side, you can keep going in the conversation, but now with a kind of innate intelligence and wisdom called prajna. This is clear seeing of what’s happening.
Without being blinded by your own story line or trying to get some ground under your
feet, you simply recognize your friend’s shenpa and you practice patience—you give the situation some space. You have the innate intelligence to realize that when you’re discussing
something that needs to happen in the office, or trying to make a point with one of your children, or your partner, that nothing is going to get through right now because this person has just been hooked.
Our Wisdom Becomes Stronger
So simply by recognizing what’s happening we can nip aggression or craving in the bud—our own and that of others. As we become more familiar with doing this, our wisdom becomes a stronger force than shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction. One method of doing this is to bring your awareness to your breath, strengthening your ability to be there openly and with curiosity. You might also change your way of talking at that point and ask, “How do you feel about what I just said?” The other person might say, curtly, “It’s fine, no problem.” But you know enough to be patient and maybe non aggressively say something like “Let’s talk about this again later,” understanding that even simple words like this can avert two people from going to war.
Our training is to acknowledge when we’re tensing, when we’re hooked, when we are all worked up. The earlier we catch it, the easier shenpa is to work with; but nevertheless, if we catch it even when we’re all worked up, that’s good enough.
Sometimes we even have to go through the whole cycle and end up making a mess. The
urge is so strong, the hook is so sharp, the habit is so entrenched, that there are times we can’t do anything about it.
But what you can always do is this: after the fact, you can self-reflect and rerun the story. Maybe you start with remembering the all-worked-up feeling and get in touch with that. You can reexperience the shenpa very vividly and experiment with not getting carried away. This is very helpful.
We could think of this process in terms of the four Rs: recognizing the shenpa, refraining from
scratching, relaxing with the underlying urge to scratch, and then resolving to interrupt the momentum like this for the rest of our lives. What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response? You’re left with the underlying energy. Gradually you learn to relax into that shaky, impermanent moment. Then you resolve to do your best to keep practicing this way.
I once saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the others, “The secret is nonattachment.” That’s a shenpa joke: the secret is don’t bite that hook. If we can learn to relax in the place where the urge is strong, we will get a bigger perspective on
what’s happening. We might come to see that there are two billion kinds of itch and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but we just call the whole thing shenpa.
How the Hindrances Have Us over the Barrel of Our Monkey Minds
Are you willing to step onto the path of meditation and its hindrance-laden twists and turns and do so with the right intentions and with the necessary knowledge to guide your steps?
Act now! Limited time offer! Can your health and well-being afford for you to flip that channel?
“Of course I can’t!” my mind screamed. “I need this. I deserve this.” I only required the slightest nudge in the direction of the “Buy with One Click” button. It’s impossible to tickle yourself, so why can’t we be equally unable to push our own impulsive buttons?
I was carried away by the impulse at the close of the holiday season several years ago and ordered a collection of “power yoga” DVDs for use in home practice. It was P90X meets yoga, wherein you were challenged with a daily regimen of intense hour-long practices performed on the video by studio sets filled with svelte, unfairly flexible twenty-something yoga instructors. It was daily, it had a progress-tracking chart, and by God, I, in my early midlife-crisis drive to get lean and prove something of my power, was going to bang this out.
I made it a month or so into the program, but only by sheer, wrenching force. It hurt, and I had no idea what I was doing and how I was the source of a lot of the pain. There were some guided pranayama breathing and meditation sections, but these seemed on another planet from the sessions in which I was straining, agitated, falling over, and literally aching as something unnaturally popped in my anatomy. I ended up with a ferocious case of tendonitis in both elbows, with an inflamed irritability to match my tendon discomfort. I underwent surgery and began a slow, painful process of physical therapy to rebuild a modicum of strength in my arms.
I missed a crucial lesson on my first blitzkrieg pass at yoga. I somehow missed the DVD teaching that the essence of good practice of yoga is an abiding presence at the seamless juncture of mind and body. In the healthy practice of yoga postures (asanas), you don’t shove your body into pretzeldom just to prove you can or to wring your midlife angst out of your joints. Instead you patiently rest in the middle of physical tension at the edges of your capacity. You rest there without forcing or straining, patiently and mindfully breathing into the mild aversion—the discomfort—waiting for the body to respond, to open, and for the tension to leave of its own accord. You’d think I would have learned this already from my experience as a meditator. Alas, I was approaching yoga as a means to a fantasized end. I’ve done the same with my meditation practice over the years:
An aching half (or maybe only quarter) lotus sitting position . . . guided practices on CDs . . . eyes closed . . . Zen, zazen, breath counting . . . expectations of sudden enlightenment or perhaps a mystical experience or two . . . vipassana anchoring on the breath and noting of distraction/thought (because all the “going back to one” with zazen was just too boring) . . . eyes open . . . guided practices on CD in my car (ergo eyes open) . . . kneeling on a bench (I “caved” in service of comfort) . . . metta/loving-kindness practice (short-lived due to my penchant for vengeance fantasy life) . . . me, ten or so middle-aged women in a yoga studio on a Sunday morning, and face-to-face “insight dialogue” relational meditation (prompting my abrupt, insecure return to eyes closed practice) . . . tonglen (Tibetan for “sending and taking”) compassion breath work . . . nondual open monitoring, “choiceless awareness” . . . stacks of unread and compulsively purchased meditation books . . . two Tibetan singing bowls (because one was insufficiently resonant) . . . mindful self-compassion practice (because at this point, I was feeling quite the meditative failure) . . . a zafu cushion that is now being used as a crash mat for my kids in their play area in the basement . . .
Throughout the years, I’ve gone more horizontal than vertical (i.e., toward depth) in my own practice. It’s not only failing to see the forest for the trees—it’s hacking away at one trunk only to abandon it and turn my ax on another. I end up with nothing to build upon. What I needed and what we all need if we’re to have any chance at chipping away at the obstruction the five hindrances cause is what the psychologist and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield has called taking the “one seat.” What this means is that we need to understand that meditation is not a “technique” to be dabbled with. It’s not a quick fix or means to a desirable end. We need to show up to practicing in a consistent manner that reflects the dignity, beauty, and ultimately the immense demands of meditation. I—we—need to stop hacking at tree trunks if we’re to build a house of awareness that only meditation, rightly and consistently practiced, can bring.
Beware the Guillotine during the Mindfulness Revolution
Over 11,000 search engine hits for products on Amazon, a seemingly endless array of articles, books, mala bracelets, incense sticks, and cushions of all shapes and sizes: indeed mindfulness has made the cover of Time magazine as a “revolution” in 2014 and with a special edition in 2016 as “the new science of health and happiness.” A 2016 article in the New York Times referenced the research of IBISWorld, which estimated that meditation-related ventures and products scooped up $984 million in revenue in 2015. Books promise mindfulness in a mere minute, and courses suggest you will master meditation. Slap the word “mindful” on a book, product, or service, and you’ll benefit from the automatic branding the word delivers. Mindfulness has done for self-development what Kleenex did for flu season.
While there is much to celebrate about the popularity and interest in meditation in recent years, there’s cause for concern as well. This chapter aims to put meditation in its rightful place as a purifying path of liberation—specifically, from the patterns of hindrance that cloud our clear seeing—but as we’ll see, we need to be aware (which is a word at once bigger and perhaps better than “mindful”). Mindfulness as a term may be somewhat new (first coined by the Buddhist scholar T. W. Rhys Davids in 1881 and popularized by the author and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn starting in the 1970s), but meditation is anything but new. And, as we’ll also discuss, the West is prone to grabbing onto the clarion calls of “health” and “happiness” (Hint: check this book’s cover!). In doing the hard work of true liberation from suffering, it’s important not to clutch at promises fit for magazine covers and Times Square neon. To move into and through the hindrances, we need more secure footing for the path of meditation.
The psychotherapist and longtime meditation teacher Bill Morgan writes in his 2016 book The Meditator’s Dilemma that the Western mind, with its predilection to fast results, thought-driven self-management, and independence and self-development, is at odds with the primarily Eastern mind-set in which traditional meditation practices first arose. In those cultures, an internal, contemplative (versus thought and action) focus was emphasized. Interdependence versus independence was the norm, as was an acceptance of gradual versus immediate change. Morgan argues that “for mindfulness practices to become more deeply rooted in Western society, the differences in inclination and disposition must be addressed early on in mindfulness teaching and in the instructions themselves.”
This chapter aims to put meditation in its rightful place as a purifying path of liberation—specifically, from the patterns of hindrance that cloud our clear seeing—but as we’ll see, we need to be aware (which is a word at once bigger and perhaps better than “mindful”).
Dr. Miles Neale, in his article “McMindfulness and Frozen Yoga,” takes things a step further regarding a proper frame for the practice of meditation in the West. He argues that the outcome-driven, quick-fix frenzy in our society (which he deems “McMindfulness” relative to many current meditation invocations) leads Americans to be “notorious for extrapolating what they idealize, plucking the desirable from foreign cultures and simply disregarding the rest . . . seeking quick fixes and inciting temporary trends, lacking the patience and long-term commitment needed for lasting change.” We may focus (and I certainly have) on culling out the meditation techniques and severing them from the ethical foundations and pillars of wisdom on which the techniques rested thousands of years ago. Neale worries that we’re at risk for “diluting” meditation, and this is crucial if we’re to embark on the difficult journey of engaging meditation as a tool in overcoming the obstacles posed by the hindrances in our lives.
Neale cites a personal example of the need for embedding meditation practice in an ethical and wisdom-tradition framework. He bought and diligently (and with mindfulness) attended to the care of his plants. He lacked, however, the “wisdom” that comes from knowledge of “right actions” to foster their health and development. “Because of my inaccurate knowledge,” Neale writes, “I and my plants suffered.” Neale had good intentions (ethics) and was focused and attentive (mindful), but he lacked knowledge.
It is for this reason that working with the hindrances requires a full toolbox—meditation technique to foster concentration and open awareness of the patterns of mind, emotion, and behavior, along with ethical intention and wisdom. But an ISIS terrorist can muster (and “benefit” from) meditation techniques in isolation from ethics and wisdom. He or she can, with calm and deep concentration, press a suicide bomb belt’s trigger button. Working with undesirable, hindering patterns (karma) requires a team effort—from meditation, healthy/compassionate intentions (ethics), and knowledge (wisdom) from both those who have walked farther down the contemplative path than we, as well as what contemporary science has to say about best practices for well-being and compassionate connectivity in society.
It is for this reason that working with the hindrances requires a full toolbox—meditation technique to foster concentration and open awareness of the patterns of mind, emotion, and behavior, along with ethical intention and wisdom.
In his wonderful short book Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel tells of his quest to learn the ancient art of Japanese archery. What he learned was far more than how to penetrate a target’s bull’s-eye. In holding and aiming the bow, Herrigel’s master taught him that “by letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively act that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.” He would hit the target less because of a desire to do so, but because he’d actually given up the desire and lost himself in the tension of the act. “Now, at last,” the master broke in, “the bowstring has cut right through you.”
Before we delve into each hindrance in the coming chapters, it’s important that we set the frame of our expectations. As Bill Morgan and other teachers have suggested, it’s crucial for us to let go of the quick fixes and drive-through-window aspirations for a happy meal to be made of our meditation practices. For us in the West, this is indeed a challenge, as we love the promise of possessions obtained and goal lines breached. The actor Michael Douglas (as Wall Street’s socially sanctioned 1980s psychopathic investor robber baron, Gordon Gekko) announced that “greed works.” Though most of us (some presidential candidates excluded) might hesitate from being so brazenly direct, the truth of our straining for tangible, Amazon-boxed evidence of success is no less for us in the West.
Meditation is the mirror that accurately reflects how each of the five hindrances is warping our view of life. These hindrance patterns are not obstacles “out there” in the world, nor are they defects “in” us—they are the inevitable imprint of our body-minds trying to make their way forward on their own. As soon as we emerge as individuals, we’re looking to set ourselves apart from the world we’re intimately and inextricably connected to. Meditation is the vehicle that reminds us of ourselves—that we’ve been asleep at the wheel dreaming a life of “me,” “yours,” “mine,” and “evermore.” Meditation is the movement of the mind out of the hindrances—the karmic “genetic conditioning”—meant to keep us safely and separately asleep, and to keep us self-protecting and greedily possessing. The real deal meditation—the authentic reflecting pool of practice—is the movement of the mind away from its temporary, swarthy, elusive, herky-jerky, persistently shortsighted and distorted smallness to the open, clear, even-tempered, long-viewing inalienable and untainted smiling awareness.
In essence, meditation is awareness. The noted twentieth-century philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti referred to meditation as:
- “the total comprehension of the whole of life”
- “not sitting cross-legged, or standing on your head, or doing whatever one does, but having the feeling of the complete wholeness and unity of life”
- “perceiving the truth each second—not the truth ultimately—to perceive the truth and the false each second”
What he meant is that there is actually no true separation between meditation as formal “technique” and our daily life. We are intelligent (a word Krishnamurti uses with precision) not when we’re analytical and smart in the standard sense; we’re intelligent when we’re seeing reality clearly and without the obscuring influence of our thinking. For Krishnamurti and many teachers of such nonduality perspectives, things like meditation, you, me, the stuff around us—it’s all the same. On the surface, this may appear to be meditative, philosophical gobbledygook and have little relevance to living life with greater awareness, but that would itself be a limiting result of your own thinking! In meditation—more correctly, as meditation—we realize that awareness contains everything. All thoughts, bodily sensations, and mental images (which is what the “world” ultimately breaks down into) are contained in awareness. The hindrances are simply the conditioned patterns of thought, images, and bodily sensations/emotions that show up “inside” our body-minds. They arise close and quick, and meditation helps us to see them and learn to rest in the gap of awareness—our true identity.
All thoughts, bodily sensations, and mental images (which is what the “world” ultimately breaks down into) are contained in awareness. The hindrances are simply the conditioned patterns of thought, images, and bodily sensations/emotions that show up “inside” our body-minds. They arise close and quick, and meditation helps us to see them and learn to rest in the gap of awareness—our true identity.
I’ve listened to recordings of Krishnamurti’s talks. (He died in 1986, at the age of ninety, after having traveled and taught for more than sixty years.) I’ve heard the story of how he disavowed his appointment as a spiritual leader (the “World Teacher”), his only official action being to disband the entire Order of the Star in the East. There’s a credibility earned in such selflessness—a lack of hypocrisy that has eluded me as I’ve pursued my own path into the hindrances. Without being Buddhist (he dismissed any organized tradition as inherently of the mind rather than truth), Krishnamurti spoke of the meditative mind in a way suggestive of the journey into the hindrances. “Therefore you must die to everything you know psychologically, so that your mind is clear, not tortured, so that it sees things as they are, both outwardly and inwardly.” An unhindered way of being indeed.
In talks I’ve given, I’ve asked the audience to give me their own definition of mindfulness. Usually they happen upon the components of the definition originally offered by the author Jon Kabat-Zinn—“paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Most in the audience are busily writing the definition in their notes once we arrive at it. I wait until the writing stops, and then I ask them to take their pens and vigorously cross out the definition. No offense to Kabat-Zinn, but it’s seemed important to me that we get closer to true mindfulness—true meditation. Words (i.e., thoughts) will always fall short. Meditation/mindfulness is an experience of pure awareness. I play a short video clip of a young boy who’d recently received one of the first successful cochlear implants. He’d been born deaf, and this was the moment he’d be hearing his father’s voice for the first time. The surge of awareness on his face is quickly reflected in the emotionally moved glistening of awareness about the face and eyes of the audience. We’ve all just meditated in a true, most wonderful way, with most folks likely experiencing at least the briefest hiatus from their unique imprint of the hindrances.
The Leaning Tower of Meditation in Our Lopsided Lives
As I’ve abashedly listed above, my own meditation journey has included many detours and dead ends—a lot of grass-is-greener, restless practice hopping. Three things were lacking—a depth of meditation practice (i.e., planting my flag in specific practices and cultivating the benefits of insight into my patterning), careful forethought as to the ethics of my practice (my early intentions were much more akin to producing a 007-degree of proficiency and smooth daily operation), and wisdom (which was in short supply). As I’ve read and talked with teachers, and as I’ve explored what science has to say about building awareness (and sidestepping its obstacles), I believe I’ve grown in that regard. Without any of these three to offer, this book would be flaccid in its helpfulness, better as a paperweight on your desk than a guide to opening your life out from under the repetitive, compulsive karma choke hold you’re likely experiencing.
The practice of meditation can be considered a microcosm—a proving ground for our relationship to our daily experience. It helps us learn about the workings of our conditioned (and hindered) minds and builds our capacity for resting in the awareness we truly are. To take the transportation metaphor out for a spin a bit, I’ll go further and say meditation practices are best as vehicles we’re meant to merely lease, not own. To the degree we try to possess our favorite make and model of meditative technique, we’re letting the car drive us instead. We’re taken for a ride that can last our lifetime if we’re not careful.
Again, we need meditation technique, ethics / good intentions, and knowledge to really make a go of getting away from the hindrances. We need to heed Bill Morgan’s and Miles Neale’s words as to the binding aspects of the Western mind-set from getting the most out of meditation. Yes, we can be more focused, effective, and less stressed in our daily lives—there’s nothing wrong with such goals. We simply need to hold them lightly, without all the gripping and grasping. We’ll find, as Eugen Herrigel did with his archery lessons, that we actually hit targets quite well, and we’ll do so despite the “selves” that had previously suffered with all the striving and straining.
The hindrances can’t be “beaten” or “obliterated.” They can become the fertile ground for our true growth. Their uncomfortable “garbage” can, as the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, be seen as transforming into the brightest of flowers, if we maintain awareness. According to Hanh, “roses and garbage inter-are.” These hindering obstacles are actually karma’s offerings to us for growth beyond ourselves.
The hindrances can’t be “beaten” or “obliterated.” They can become the fertile ground for our true growth.
Traditionally, the Pali canon addressed Buddhist monastics and provided instruction on clearing away the hindrances as part of their work in laying the foundation for the ripening of the conditions for a liberated mind. In the Anguttara-nikaya, the Buddha states:
If a monk has overcome these five impediments and hindrances, these overgrowths of the mind that stultify insight, then it is possible that, with his strong insight, he can know his own true good, the good of others, and the good of both; and he will be capable of realizing that superhuman state of distinctive achievement, the knowledge and vision enabling the attainment of sanctity.
And these conditions required for a monastic to reach absolute enlightenment appear virtually impossible. There’s a certain fanaticism in Buddhism around the lists of factors required for advancement of the mind and the endless rungs of the ladder as one climbs higher toward liberation: four noble truths, eightfold path . . . three characteristics of existence . . . five aggregates . . . twelve links of dependent origination . . . five precepts . . . ten perfections . . . five hindrances. My son likes to stack blocks on our living room carpet, but even at two years old he seems to know his limits—he knows when to call it quits and just smash them all to the ground. In Buddhist psychology, it can seem there’s a perfectionistic striving that itself verges on hindrance.
And yet, consider an analogy from nature—the extraordinarily rare conditions required at a planetary level for life to have a chance. Just last week, there was international news about a possible “artificial,” strong radio signal from a star ninety-four light-years from earth. Could it have been emitted by an advanced intelligent species? Alas, it appears the signal was of our own terrestrial making (a bouncing back of man-made emissions). We’ve yet to find conclusive evidence of life (past or present) on Mars despite probes, scans, and laborious analysis. Life emerges amid a very narrow sliver of conditions—millions of variables have to converge for the life fire to spark.
This is where karma comes back in—again, nothing mystical or faith-related. No voodoo and not even our wishes, fantasies, ideals, or politics have any say in whether the conditions required for the development of consciousness have developed. It’s simple empiricism. It’s the bouncing about of causes and effects, a gathering of patterns like clouds predictably swelling into a front, which brings downpour and the crashing of lightning. There’s no consideration to be had and no forethought required. The causal conditions of body, brain, and social context emerge, and awareness follows as a consequence.
The tower of conditions may have to rise quite high, but any concern about the “impossibility” of what awareness requires is a label and judgment arising from the limitations of mind itself. Meditation, awareness, reality are independent of such sentiments of difficulty. For centuries, monks have stripped away conditions of daily life that might nudge the tower off its footing. I’m not arguing in this book for a retreat into robe-donning cloistering, but I am suggesting that we all consider creating not just a time and place for formal meditation practice, but the conditions on and off the cushion that make the path in and through the hindrances more likely.
Awareness and How Our Biological Deck Is Stacked against It
The Pulitzer Prize–winning naturalist Edward O. Wilson wrote, “Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species . . . These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we automatically open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.” What Wilson points to is how we inherit our brain’s biological raw material, which shapes how we take in and respond to the world. We do not, however, inherit predestined experiences. We get to apply the greatest tool evolution has afforded—awareness—to the task of how we relate to the world in the forms of our thoughts and sensory experiences.
One example of the biological blinders that evolved within our brains is the adaptations we’ve developed over the eons in how we perceive one another. One well-researched brain-based bias is what social psychologists have termed the “fundamental attribution error”: “the tendency to assume that an actor’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation.” It’s me assuming the guy who cut me off last week in Boston traffic is a “selfish jerk” to the exclusion of any sense of his personal context of lateness and/or family crisis. It’s people assuming the emotionally and behaviorally challenged kids I’ve worked with are “bad” or “manipulative” and failing to see the biocontextual forces in a given situation that may have sparked their swearing or oppositional behavior, rendering them empathy hard to the onlooker.
So why would evolution deliver such a biological straitjacket to our mental wardrobe? As argued by evolutionary biologists, “cognitive biases are often not flaws, but design features that improve responses under uncertainty.” Overevaluating threat and deceptive intent or underemphasizing the seeds of forgiveness in another could (for our cave-dwelling forbears) have prompted avoidance of those who might be aggressive and take off with our food or mates, and may have prompted us to forge stronger bonds with our kin (and thereby promote genetic advantage). “Social cognitive biases should be viewed in terms of their ultimate adaptive effects, and not whether they represent logical or ‘accurate’ ways of thinking.”
As an example of the modern implications of this, Federal Rule of Evidence 403(b) prohibits the prosecution from introducing evidence of a criminal defendant’s past “propensity” for criminal behavior. Judges and juries are not to be trusted (due to social cognitive biases) to not overly weight past behaviors in assessing a defendant’s guilt in commission of the crime being adjudicated. The law would have participants rely solely on a logical and unselfish weighing of facts, and yet we can’t readily sidestep the ancient emotional architecture of the brain’s hardware. It’s for this reason that research suggests that people who are experiencing a temporary surge of fear are much more likely to erroneously perceive anger in another’s face and miss cues of fear or other emotions, particularly if that other person is part of an “out group.”
So here’s a question I’ve struggled with in recent years: if, as Buddhist psychology argues, the pure light of unhindered awareness is our birthright, why were we born with such constrictive neural hardware? It’s like being told you are really the Deep Thought supercomputer, and after you’ve matured enough to open the box and peer inside, you find that you’ve really be given a mere Commodore 64. (Yes, I’m dating myself here.) So did the Buddha have the same mental RAM as we do? He decried any godlike status and referenced himself as mere mortal. Was his motherboard somehow better wired than ours?
The biological deck may be stacked against our ready access to the Buddha’s attainment of awareness, but it doesn’t mean we can’t play our hand, learn about the karma of hindrance patterns clouding the mind, and take strides toward greater clarity. Evolution gave us our brains, but we can stand astride its fissured surface and reach higher. It’s here that the array of lists of factors and conditions for the rise of awareness within Buddhist psychology reemerges. We must do the hard work of consistent, unrelenting practice—we must unpack the hindrances and climb higher in concentration (the various jhanic levels) and approach the example set by the Buddha.
The Buddha would not likely have unfurled into awareness and the subsequent teaching of his four noble truths and eightfold path if he’d found himself sitting not under the relative safety of the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya in northern India in those centuries before the birth of Christ, but instead outside the mouth of a Paleolithic cave. The more physically treacherous environment of the cave’s opening would not long have supported his peaceable lotus pose.
We are far more than the brains we are born with. Behavioral psychology (i.e., learning or conditioning), with its principles of how our habits are shaped by rewarding and aversive experiences, provides the steel girding of our mind-bodies. The early psychologist John Watson demonstrated the power-of-learning theory by conditioning a baby (“Little Albert”) to fear a cute, white bunny rabbit (by clanging a metal bar loudly and in the boy’s vicinity); Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate to the sounds of bells; and B. F. Skinner got rats and pigeons to perform circus-like stunts for the chance of a pellet of food in their glass cages. We are not immune to these principles and must learn to think outside of the Skinner boxes of human arrogance whereby we believe ourselves above such conditioning. The karma we’re working with in addressing the hindrances is simultaneously a rising above the constrictions of our highly evolved brains, as well as the entrenched patterns of thought and action molded by our interactions over years with family, friends, coworkers, and the environments we find ourselves in. And this learning leaves its imprints in the neural networks of the brain.
Not only nearly impossible, this evolutionary brain and the behavioral conditioning creating our hindering karma can feel mute and uncaring. How does compassion and love figure into this perspective? How do we begin working with our karma, our hindrance patterning, in such a cold vacuum?
How does compassion and love figure into this perspective? How do we begin working with our karma, our hindrance patterning, in such a cold vacuum?
I’m reminded of a conversation a colleague and I had recently about our respective meditation practices and who we knew who seemed to have really “gotten it” regarding awakened awareness: who did we both know who seemed farther down the path than us? My friend and I have both mediated for years, and both of us are highly educated, trained, and experienced as clinicians and have read widely about the makings of awakening. And almost in synchrony, we each conjured the name “Jose.” We were each struck with the simultaneous recognition of the true guru in our workplace. Jose is one of the maintenance workers at the agency where we both worked, with no graduate education or meditation training. Jose is someone quite special. To me, he was always smiling and commenting to me about the look and feel of the day’s weather. To my friend, he’d often say things like, “It’s not easy,” as my friend rushed about the building addressing some clinical crisis of the moment. We were both struck by the insight that Jose had not simply been chatting about weather and work stress; he was holding up a mirror of awareness to each of us. “Wake up!” his smile and gentle, engaged presence announced—and had been doing so for years. We, the “meditators,” had simply failed to see it, clouded by the workday hindrance blinders we’d been wearing.
Jose, true meditation, love, awareness (synonyms to me)—these are not cold, uncaring vacuums. They are the agendaless openness to all conditions as necessary and sufficient in the now, the present moment. The arms of awareness are infinitely wide to hold every thought, sensation, and image that arise. They are compassionate because they accept what arises in the moment without hesitation. To Jose and in meditation, there is no mistake, no good or evil. These are the agenda of the limited, thinking, conditioned mind. Jose has always seemed open to every turn of the weather, to any of the demands his job, or we as his coworkers, sent his way. Perhaps I’m merely projecting guru status onto Jose, and I’m betting Jose, in the awareness he embodies, would agree.
The Buddha’s Truths and Working with the Hindrances
In the coming chapters, we’ll drill down into each of the hindrances, understanding their influence in our lives from both dharmic and scientific perspectives. We’ll also rely on both realms for learning how to skillfully work with the hindrance at hand, how to turn it from “garbage” to “flower.” Again, karma unfolds in this moment because it’s been conditioned to do so when the context calls for it. If you follow your reactive conditioning, karma solidifies and repeats, thus solidifying a hindrance pattern. If you open, the karma shifts, loosens, unwinds, and there is change in brain, behavior, and mind. A new, more flexible pattern is born that enhances well-being.
To organize our efforts, each hindrance will be addressed according to the Buddhist principle of the three characteristics of existence.
In the Samyutta-nikaya, the Buddha taught that “feeling is impermanent . . . Perception is impermanent . . . Volitional formations are impermanent . . . Consciousness is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering.” “What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom . . . When one sees this as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by non-clinging.” The Buddha suggested that we open ourselves to these essential truths of reality—that the emotions, behaviors, physical objects, people, and relationships of our lives are inevitably transient. Clinging to the mind’s want for permanence is what the hindrances are about—they are the patterns meant to keep our minds to the smallish task of holding on, claiming, and keeping the ego going. The Buddha is recommending we learn to see clearly, with unflinching recognition of the truth of the inevitable dissolving of what the mind would have fixed.
From the Buddhist perspective, one’s opening develops from practices that take into account each of the three characteristics of reality:
- The universality of the unsatisfactory nature of human suffering (what the Buddha called dukkha)
- The temporary, or impermanent, nature of all things (anicca)
- The truth of interconnectedness and interdependence of all things, and therefore the lack of any “self” of ours being separate from others and the environment (anatta)
Don’t take the Buddha’s word for it—test it out for yourself. Take any thing, any noun of your life—person, place, or thing (or even an idea, emotion, or relationship)—and ask if any of these could exist absent the three characteristics. Try it out. Does anything exist fully intact and unchanging forever and ever? Is there any person who has not suffered? Is there anything that has not been influenced, shaped, affected by other stuff? The meditation teacher and author Sylvia Boorstein, in her book It’s Easier Than You Think, suggests that we are more verb than noun. “Since everything is change happening,” Boorstein writes, “there is no one who owns the changes and no one to whom the changes are happening.” We are truly beings—doing, feeling, living—rather than individuals who stay put.
These three characteristics will lead us to consider practices and the arrangement of one’s life conditions for opening amid the experience of a particular hindrance:
- Addressing inevitable suffering by practicing acceptance—abiding of the bodily discomfort arising in your sense experience
- Getting clear on the truth of time and the passing nature of difficult experiences and situations sparking unrest and unclear mind states
- Getting clear on how no one (to quote John Donne’s famous poem) “is an island.” We all are reciprocally influenced and affected. Even the very fact of our breathing is a constant reminder of our dependence on the world around us at all times. We are in no true way separate, and this selfless clarity is crucial to the development of opening amid the hindrances.
A Universal Practice for Addressing the Hindrances, Humbly Offered
Again, there’s a potential high cost to Western society’s pursuit of meditation-as-corporate-profit-facilitating or even as a seemingly benign white knight for riding in to rid us of modern stresses and psychological ailments. Instead of emphasizing the benefits of “one-minute” mindfulness or how an online course will bring meditative “mastery,” we’re much more likely to unhinder ourselves to the degree we’re willing to work beyond the hype and promises of meditation as a panacea and learn to relate to meditation directly. Instead of looking for a helpful meditation technique that will boost our career or improve our relationship, how about connecting meditation to the ethics of karma and your interdependence (and accountability) as a human being in society with access to scientific findings? Unveiling and unraveling awareness from the hindrances will require that degree of practice, intentionality, and know-how. Are you merely meditating for effect, or is meditation you?
In addition to discussing particulars and practices for each hindrance, I want to offer a practice we’ll return to again and again. While acronym “McStrategies” might verge on the type of self-help ploy that Miles Neale and others have warned of, I offer it with the aspiration that it open you in moments of both formal and informal practice. Though it’s a bit of alphabet soup, my intention is that its ready accessibility aids you in pouring warm awareness into a moment’s hindrance reactivity. With consistent use, it perhaps fosters a gap (perhaps very small at the start) in which awareness, meditation, Jose (!) have a chance to wake you up to the possibility of choosing your true self, instead of the conditioned one you’ve inherited. Farmers and gardeners know that small gaps in the earth are required for the placement of seeds. Tossing them loosely atop the ground is unwise effort, and crops are much less likely to grow. Try snapping awake into gaps of awareness in which fresh, creative, compassionate, and, yes, effective seeds can take root.
Try “SNAPPing awake” in moments of patterned reaction by doing the following:
- Stop what you’re doing for just a moment when you can tell you’re getting triggered, when a hindering pattern is on its way.
- Notice with curiosity what is happening in your bodily senses and your thoughts. Witness and watch the energetic play in the body and the flow of thought and mental images as they are born, live, and die on their own.
- Allow these experiences to be just as they are, without judgment or attempts to control them. This allowance is a choosing: you’re not signing up for pain; you’re choosing to recognize the reality that hindering, clouding intensity does indeed exist.
- Penetrate these sensations in the body with full, deep belly breaths (slow, deep breathing that expands your belly on the inhale), and continue to breathe in this way until you notice your experience shifting, until the solid “thingness” of the pattern has begun to dissolve.
- Prompt yourself to move/act in the direction that feels most important and in line with what takes everyone’s perspective compassionately into account. Pause to send an intention of kindness toward yourself for your efforts in working with your patterns.
Are you looking for a mindful prize inside a hastily consumed drive-through meal of technique or self-help? Are you pushing or pulling toward a goal in meditation, or are you willing to be meditation?
A Way to Self-Compassion
One in All
All in One—
If only this is realized,
No more worry about your not being perfect!
—Sosan Ganchi Zenji, Shin Jin Mei
I needed someone to help me grab hold of compassion and bring it a little closer every day.
This chapter offers ways to build and seek out compassion when you do not yet feel that you can give it to yourself. Self-compassion may be a foreign concept right now, and that is okay. I actually do not expect you to have too much self-compassion at this point; that is why we are going to spend time in this chapter and the rest of this book learning ways to develop it. We start by looking outside first to find compassion and take it in.
I label the building of self-compassion from the outside in as the “connection to compassion link.” Recognizing compassion from the outside might mean acknowledging someone in your life who is caring about you right now, listening to an inspirational song, or reading this book. Whether you realize it or not, compassionate actions, words, and images are really all around you. Turn your focus to what is outside you trying to awaken what is inside you.
The Importance of a Compassionate Other
Underneath your struggle, you may feel like there is something waiting to blossom, waiting to awaken. Maybe it is just a slight feeling or recollection about yourself from a time you felt free or more alive, less obsessed. In focusing on the word self-compassion, you may also realize that there is little kindness and compassion toward yourself to be found.
Self-compassion right now may feel awkward or foreign, partly because you have spent a long time in self-critical thoughts about you and your body. They overtake your mind space, and you may find yourself increasingly in a state of hopelessness, wondering if there will ever be light again. This is not an uncommon place to be in. As a matter of fact, it is how this chapter was born. All of my participants stated in the beginning of their recovery that they had little to no self-compassion. They felt too critical of themselves, too harsh, too judgmental, too angry, too self-loathing. However, despite all of that, everyone mentioned that at a certain point in time something or someone came along and lit their path for them. Something or someone reminded them of whom they used to be, what they used to do, who they could become, and what they could do in the future. Basically, something or someone came from the outside to light the fire of self-compassion on the inside. We could call the lighting of this fire hope, belief, and connection. Self-compassion is something we learn along the way. When we have had little of it to begin with, or have forgotten it, we need some reminders from the outside.
Self-compassion right now may feel awkward or foreign, partly because you have spent a long time in self-critical thoughts about you and your body. They overtake your mind space, and you may find yourself increasingly in a state of hopelessness, wondering if there will ever be light again. This is not an uncommon place to be in.
Connecting with an External Source of Compassion
Connecting with something or someone that offers compassion acts as an invitation back into life. What is an external sense of compassion? In my research, it was reported as moments of feeling cared for or even feeling truly seen and heard for the first time. Participants felt seen not only in the moment but also for their potential. When you are confused and suffering, it is often hard to see yourself for whom you really are, and even harder to locate your own potential when it is buried under a lot of self-critical thought. Therefore, it is essential to seek this from the outside right now. Feeling seen and heard by another is crucial to your progress toward embracing your own self-compassionate capacity to care. This is a time to trust that self-compassion is there, even if buried and needing to be awakened.
Many women first felt seen and heard through a relationship with another, such as a compassionate friend, partner, therapist, nutritionist, sibling, parent, or yoga teacher. Some felt it through caring and being responsible for another, as a mother or a caregiver, for example. Helping someone in pain or volunteering was an important shift in this felt sense of compassion.
Having a connection to someone or something that you identify with, apart from the disorder, where you feel yourself again, even for a moment, is of utmost importance in reestablishing hope, a desire to heal, and a wish to become engaged in life and self once again.
Jane talked about a new relationship she was in:
I really liked him and respected him and I felt he really cared for me. It was like this moment where I saw myself outside of myself, and I thought he would be so sad if he knew what I was doing to myself. I was motivated to care about myself because of the fact that he cared about me.
Faith discussed her relationship with her therapist at the time. “Her listening to me and being there for me was compassion. She was my touch point. My solace. She really guided me through that whole period.”
Clara felt compassion every time she went to yoga. “The way the yoga teacher spoke in a soft and loving voice and all the talking about compassion. I was drawn to that. I felt a bit of solidarity with each teacher.”
For many others, feeling seen and heard came in the least expected moments, such as while reading a book or searching for better self-care. Grace told me about a moment that happened on a spiritual retreat. Her recovery unfolded when she attended a shamanic journey. She recalled a profound moment of recognizing the lack of love and compassion she felt for herself.
They wanted us to meet with our spirit animal, and I met a horse. I am not a horse person. I have never liked horses. It was so profound. The animal said, “Love yourself.” I was like, Oh, my God. I don’t love myself. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever done for myself. It was with that conscious awareness that I knew I needed to start loving myself and treating myself better.
We are all born as relational, connected beings. Humans need to be nurtured and cared for longer than any other species. We never stop needing connection and nurture, both from others and also from ourselves. Sometimes we need just a little (or big) push to awaken to what we ought to be paying attention to. You may feel that you currently do not have someone or something else inspiring that connection. If so, I encourage you to reach out for support. Allow a trained professional, therapist, medical doctor, or dietician to help. You may feel as if you want to do this alone, that this is your problem so you should figure it out; however, this is not the time to do so.
Eventually you will step into your own care and help. Until then, when your behaviors feel more like self-harm than any good, you are still in need of outside support and guidance to help you awaken what is already inside. Turn to positive people in your life rather than isolating yourself. Read uplifting things. Let others cook, shop, or plan meals for you for a while, if you can. Ask someone to make a meal for you. Eat with others when possible. Start to identify the small ways you may have isolated yourself and withdrawn from others.
Turn to positive people in your life rather than isolating yourself. Read uplifting things. Let others cook, shop, or plan meals for you for a while, if you can. Ask someone to make a meal for you. Eat with others when possible.
As you seek support, keep in mind that you are allowing the awakening of your own self-compassion every time you reach out or someone reaches out to you. You are not expected to feel compassionate toward yourself at this time, but you should begin to understand the ways to awaken self-compassion.
When you are not feeling well physically, mentally, and emotionally, you inevitably end up focusing on what does not feel or look well. It actually makes perfect sense since we are hardwired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Disordered eating has become a way to do that. The problem is, after self-harming behaviors have become a habit, there is very little pleasure reward left, only great pain. We need to reshift the focus back to what we want and hope to see and feel.
Right now, repeating what we want and hope for is a powerful tool in awakening self-compassion. Some people call this repetition a “mantra” or a prayer. Basically it is any repetitive phrase by which you feel embraced, soothed, and held. This may seem very simplistic; however, the choice is to remain focused on the pain or to seek what you want beyond the pain. You can turn a connection from the outside into compassion that is needed on the inside through the simple repetition of words that are different from what you have been using. Words are very powerful and land in our body in a significant way. Examples of phrases are:
- I recognize that something is wrong. This is all I have to know right now.
- I notice that other people are worried about me. I will compassionately allow this in and not fight it. I may not fully believe it, but I can still hear it.
- I will begin to listen to my inner knowing, including the messages from my body that are concerning to me.
- I intend to continue to move toward the truth, even though it is painful.
- It is okay to admit to these very real, scary, and dark thoughts and feelings I have right now.
- I will not criticize my current pain and in turn create even more pain. What I am dealing with now is enough.
- I understand that it is necessary to face the current pain and discomfort so that I can move toward the light.
- I understand that there is light beyond this pain, even if I do not feel it right now.
Right now, repeating what we want and hope for is a powerful tool in awakening self-compassion.
Later in this chapter I invite you to try a practice that will help you create some phrases of your own, unique to you. For now, just know that whether you believe your self-compassionate words or not, it does not matter. The self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff states that when we respond to ourselves with kindness, we actually begin to create changes in our brains. We tap in to the mammalian care-giving system in our brain that stimulates the release of oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone that promotes a sense of trust and safety as opposed to self-critical thoughts that make us feel unsafe.
Self-compassion is the self-reflective ability to shine light on what is possible rather than what is broken. Many of the women in my study found that self-compassion began once they stopped identifying themselves as sick. Maybe this is a time you start to understand that you are not your eating disorder; rather, you are someone who suffers from an eating disorder. There is a difference between those two statements. One participant said, “When I stopped using the word broken, self-compassion started.” Another term for this is the reframing of your symptoms and a reframing of yourself, such as, “I know I am suffering with an eating disorder” rather than “I’m sick.”
The bottom line is compassion can grow within you even when you do not quite feel it in the moment. Self-compassion involves the experience of external compassion turned inward, building it from the outside in. As you begin to reframe your symptoms and beliefs about yourself, you may recognize how much self-compassion, self-worth, and self-love is missing. It can be difficult to admit this, but it is very important to watch what arises with this recognition. It is not uncommon to feel self-critical about not having received compassion. Maybe you are beginning to acknowledge that criticism and judgment have been a part of your life for a very long time. You may see that there were very few people in your childhood who were kind, or that you were never very kind or loving toward yourself. Or perhaps you feel that you used to be kinder, but all kindness has now been replaced with self-criticism. Either way, it is important to trust that such kindness can and will build with gentle effort.
The bottom line is compassion can grow within you even when you do not quite feel it in the moment.
There is no denying that there is work needed here. Recovery is not easy. Suffering is not easy. Retraining your mind through these efforts is not easy. It takes work, but it is work that I can promise you has a great payoff in the end.
When we begin to reframe, we start to heighten our awareness of what is happening right now in this very moment. You may find that you start hearing what others have to say more than you did before. Maybe a parent, teacher, friend, therapist, or partner has said things to you multiple times before, but something is hitting you differently this time. You do not need to know why, just that it is. Perhaps you are now re-reading things you have already read many times or heard about in the past. The words might be registering on a different level. The influence of compassion, no matter where it comes from, manifests in this way. It accumulates so that one day you feel something shifting. Perhaps you realize that something is just not feeling right about the way you have been living. You may feel like you want to be in contact with others more, and connect to them in some way. Maybe you are becoming tired of the isolation you have been living in for so long. Trust that there is a reason for this longing to shift.
Allowing compassion into your life softens isolation. It loosens up your fears around letting others in and breeds more compassion. Often people are afraid that if they allow someone to care for them they are being selfish in some way. Letting care and compassion in actually does quite the opposite. It helps you to grow your own self-compassion, which in turn breeds the desire to connect to and help others. Remember Neff’s definition of self-compassion in the introduction? One component is common humanity, which is what I call the relational field of self-compassion. It is that part of self-compassion that helps you to understand that you are not alone in your suffering. The relational field offers a way to connect with and be curious about others. Often when you allow people in who care about you, you find there are so many others who have struggled as you are right now. This is a time to reach out and help one another, even if some are still engaging in their own disordered behaviors. It is very important to experience the felt sense of common humanity, to reach out and give so that you can receive. Many of my clients in recovery decided during this phase to take a yoga teacher training to help others. Some decided to volunteer for a cause that was meaningful to them. Others became resident advisers at their colleges. Some decided to support others going through struggles with food and body by starting peer support groups on their college campuses, starting body-positive blogs, or educating others on the struggle. Anything that begins to connect you with others is of utmost importance. You can also embrace this connection to others with the following simple yet powerful practice.
Connecting with Another
- Close your eyes and call to mind someone you know, regardless of whether you know her or him well. Place one hand on your heart and leave your other hand open as an offering to this person.
- Take a breath for yourself. Then take a breath for this person.
- Repeat this over and over: a breath for you, a breath for her. Notice what it feels like to just mentally connect with another. See if you notice any feelings arising as you mentally connect.
This practice is a reminder that connections can happen on all levels, large and small. Start to draw your attention toward such simple connections with others.
Forming a Connection with Your Body and Food
Your body continues to be an important informant about compassion during this phase. Keep engaging with the experiential practices offered in chapter 1 as a way to heighten your awareness of what is happening in your body—how, when, and where you feel the physical manifestation of your symptoms. Even if you engage in just one practice a day, it is a start. If you have time for more, then do more. The more time you devote, the more your connection to your body will grow.
This is a time to consider how you have been treating your body and the effects you notice and feel. Your body has been patient and forgiving of any self-harming behavior up until this point. However, it too is in need of a break and time to balance and heal. Maybe you go for a medical checkup or reach out to a dietician.
Start to question your relationship with food. Whether it has been one of restriction or one of bingeing, let’s reconsider that current and perhaps long-standing relationship.
Reflection: What Is Your Relationship with Food?
Ask yourself the following questions and record your answers in your journal.
- What is my current relationship with food?
- How would I describe my relationship with food prior to the development of the eating disorder?
- Was there ever a time that food was neutral in my life, or was it always associated with and charged by either a positive or negative emotion?
Question 3 is a big one, as I am asking you to consider what food has meant to you. Maybe it has always been a source of displeasure. Maybe it has always meant pleasure or comfort and connection. Either way it is important to reflect on.
Keep in mind that food is not the cause of your suffering but rather just part of the symptoms of your current underlying suffering. The developing new relationship between you and food will be ongoing. This is the start of it, and it is one that will continue to unfold along the way as you heal.
In this phase, whether restricting or bingeing on food, begin to set a structure throughout the day—a new schedule that will compassionately support you and your body. If you have allowed someone to make meals or shop for you, then let her or him set the structure of your meals so that you can release the decision-making about food during this time. If you are responsible for feeding yourself, structuring regular meals at intervals such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with snacks in between, will help you to let go of the constant thought process around it. Your body can assist in setting this routine, as it is your natural guide if you pay attention to it. Eating at regular intervals, every three to four hours, is key in beginning to reestablish a balance within. You may be saying, “But I do not feel hungry that often.” That is fine and really not unexpected, especially if you have been restricting for a long time. It is still necessary to eat. If you have been bingeing, you may think such a schedule is too often, and you might fear overeating. The truth is that overeating occurs by not eating enough at regular intervals. It is restriction that precipitates a binge episode. Part of building compassion from the outside in is to trust the natural order in the way your body works. Set a timer as a reminder to eat something every three to four hours. If bingeing on certain foods is an issue, be kind to yourself and do not bring those foods into the home right now. If you are afraid to eat and are restricting, go slow. Begin to add just one more item to each meal. The help of a dietician who specializes in eating disorders is a valuable asset to your recovery. Remember, letting the help in is your start to a self-compassionate recovery.
Bodhichitta and Lojong
The renowned Buddhist master Jowo Je Atisha (982–1054) was a sage from India known for bringing the extremely pure Kadampa lineage of Buddhism from India to Tibet nearly one thousand years ago. One thing that made Atisha such a unique and renowned master is that he took the teachings on bodhichitta (Skt. awakened mind) as his main and constant practice. As we learn from the example of Atisha’s life and practice, bodhichitta practice can help us become extremely skillful at working with our emotions. Though bodhichitta literally means “awakened mind,” it carries with it the further implication of the aspiration to place all sentient beings in the state of enlightenment, which indirectly enables us to realize the nature of wisdom ourselves.
A simpler way that we can understand bodhichitta is that its very essence is to put the well-being and happiness of others before our own, as we discussed in the previous chapter. Many of us may think we already do this. If we think in this manner, we probably need to dig deeper. Even though Western culture has a long tradition of practicing compassion, it can still be difficult to get a sense of what it means to train in bodhichitta, which goes far beyond ordinary compassion. We can distinguish the practice of bodhichitta from more ordinary empathy and compassion because with bodhichitta, we are trying to unearth the deepest layers of self-centeredness that lie buried within us in connection to our positive action. The wish to get something for ourselves can have many faces. It is also intrinsically related to our emotional state of mind and self-attachment. When we help others, we may have more overt wishes for those people to return the favors in kind. But we also probably have other, more hidden selfish motivations, such as avoiding uncomfortable situations, being self-protective, or making ourselves feel more secure, using our positive actions to feel good about ourselves or making others like us or think about us in certain ways. We should also remember that the benefit to ourselves, the realization of wisdom that results from the perfection of bodhichitta, is an indirect result. If we were to act kindly and selflessly toward others while having the wish to attain some kind of spiritual goal, we would not be practicing genuine bodhichitta.
Even though Western culture has a long tradition of practicing compassion, it can still be difficult to get a sense of what it means to train in bodhichitta, which goes far beyond ordinary compassion.
We may not think of seemingly positive actions as being the manipulators of our life situations, but when we entertain selfish thoughts and feelings, we are always, directly or indirectly, trying to be the architects of the scenarios we are facing. When we start to train seriously in bodhichitta, we begin to reverse our ordinary selfish tendencies—the same unhappy tendencies that cause us to keep the focus on ourselves and our own emotions. So it follows that to start training in bodhichitta, we must be willing to turn our ordinary ways of thinking, feeling, and doing upside down.
Bodhichitta is not a practice easily mastered because the emotional habits that we have developed run so deep. They are not like the ordinary paths worn into a hillside by frequent walking but rather more like deep ravines cut by swift flowing water. In fact, it is said that of all the teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, the teachings on bodhichitta are the most difficult to master because this practice fundamentally transforms the ordinary approach we take toward every aspect of our lives.
The difficulty of practicing bodhichitta in the modern world was in fact prophesied by the Tibetan masters of old. Traditionally the teachings on bodhichitta were always the first teachings to be received, practiced, and mastered, but that isn’t so in the modern world. It was said that in this modern age, the teachings of bodhichitta would become a secret aspect of the dharma, becoming more and more hidden as the years passed. This prophecy refers to the fact that in this modern age, people have extremely strong emotions and strong self-attachment. Fewer and fewer people see the value in releasing the grip they have on their emotions—or rather, that their emotions have on them—or dedicating themselves to spiritual practice. When we have the chance to read about and reflect on bodhichitta, or to begin to put it into practice, we should feel extremely fortunate that we have made a connection with such a genuine approach to spiritual growth and development that is said to be so rare and hard to find in this modern age.
The Approach of Ordinary Beings
In the famous text The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, the Buddhist master Gyalsé Togmé Zangpo (1297–1371) describes the ordinary approach of ordinary beings as treating our friends and loved ones with attachment and love, and treating those we dislike or feel disconnected to with anger, hatred, or distaste. But because bodhichitta is a state of heart and mind that enables us, ultimately, to love others equally and impartially, we are called upon to change this habit we have of relating to our emotions, as well as to our connections, as friends and enemies. When we practice bodhichitta, we must be willing to appreciate, love, and care for all sentient beings despite our perceptions, the history or lack of history between us, or our current relationships with them. What is even more difficult is that we must be willing to put aside our own needs, comfort, and wishes in order to make space in our hearts and minds for others and their needs.
Atisha and the Lojong Teachings
Like Patrul Rinpoche and other sages, Atisha had a radical approach to living. When we view his life through the lens of bodhichitta, we see that he exemplifies the way to heal ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally so that we are healthy enough to serve others. It is said that when Atisha traveled to Tibet to teach the dharma, he brought with him a monkey who constantly soiled his body and his clothing, and an irate cook who often shouted at him. Because Atisha was a great Indian Buddhist master, he was highly revered and respected by all Tibetan people. He could have had the most comfortable home and the best clothing, and he could have been treated like a king by everyone around him. But Atisha, being wise, knew this would not ultimately bring him happiness or enable him to serve others. When asked by his students why he didn’t just get rid of the annoyances of the monkey and the cook, Atisha said, “All of you Tibetans are so nice to me. How will I ever learn to practice patience if I don’t live with the monkey and the cook? You see the monkey and the cook as enemies. Actually, they show me more kindness than my students do by giving me the opportunity to practice.”
The greatest kindnesses are given to us by those things—or people—that we want to get rid of, those things that make us uncomfortable, angry, irritated, and impatient.
In this story, Atisha gives us even more insight into the nature of friends and enemies. According to Atisha and the general Mahayana Buddhist teachings, the greatest kindnesses are given to us by those things—or people—that we want to get rid of, those things that make us uncomfortable, angry, irritated, and impatient. And the kindnesses shown by those who love and treat us well are more like the actions of enemies, since these kindnesses reinforce our sense of self-cherishing, which only brings us greater and greater unhappiness.
This story about the life and habits of Atisha is a beautiful introduction to the canon of teachings referred to as lojong, literally “mind training,” practiced by all followers of the bodhisattva path. In the West, lojong has come to be associated with a set of slogans and sayings that help us kindle mindfulness in many different situations. But in the context of the Buddhist tradition, lojong is a vast topic. We could think of it as the whole of engaged spiritual practice, using all the situations we face—positive, negative, and neutral—for self-improvement and spiritual development. So lojong cannot be limited to one practice or set of teachings. Actually, all of the eighty-four thousand different teachings taught by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni can be called lojong; their goal is to help us decrease and ultimately destroy self-attachment.
No matter what our problems and difficulties, the root of our unhappiness is exactly the same: we cannot get what we want, and unwanted things keep happening.
Because he was a great lojong master, Atisha can be considered an authoritative source of advice about how to develop emotional balance and stability. After all, Atisha was willing to approach life in a way that tore down all the walls and boundaries in his mind, so that he could get beyond his ordinary habits and simply work for the happiness and welfare of others. We may think that someone living a thousand years ago couldn’t comprehend the kinds of difficulties we face in the modern world today. But no matter what our problems and difficulties, the root of our unhappiness is exactly the same: we cannot get what we want, and unwanted things keep happening. We have taken birth and now are facing the aging, sickness, and death of ourselves and our loved ones.
Mindful Games Activity Cards: 55 Fun Ways to Share Mindfulness with Kids and Teens
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Meditation Starting at Age Three
The First Steps
Most parents think that children are too young to meditate. How can they understand something that even adults have difficulty with? But in reality, young children are closer to their innate nature, and they are at the age where everything is possible. This means that any child is capable of learning the basics of meditation.
Getting Acquainted with Meditation
However, let’s not go to the other extreme and think that your child is going to be able to find mental calm in just a few sessions. This is a project for a lifetime! The idea is to get your child acquainted with solid introductory practices to put her on this path. Children tend to take to meditation and they enjoy it because they sense its positive effects, and most of all, it’s fun!
Louise was a very agitated three-and-a-half-year-old. She scootered frenetically in the schoolyard and would run in circles around the couch at home. Her teacher described her as a “difficult child.” She had lots of little tantrums and cried at the least frustration. Her mother didn’t know what to do anymore—she was at the point of exhaustion. Every night, her mother or godmother would read Louise a story at bedtime. But this was not enough to calm her down, and she had frequent nightmares. She would sleep badly and, because she had not gotten enough rest, in the morning she would be more frustrated and agitated than before. It was a vicious circle.
“Come on, Grandma, let’s do the breaths.”
Louise was left with her grandmother for a month when her parents went abroad. After the first few days, the grandmother, who was feeling overwhelmed, began to wonder how she was going to keep up with this frantic pace for four weeks. The grandmother was a meditator with a regular practice, and she had experienced the benefits for herself. She started having Louise do three deep breaths in the meditation posture (with her legs crossed and back straight) every night before she went to sleep. She was astounded to see that Louise really took the whole thing seriously. She did her best to concentrate and would ask her grandmother if her posture was correct and if her belly was moving up and down properly. Every evening they did this exercise together—along with Louise’s little teddy bear. A few days later, Louise’s grandmother asked her if she had slept well, and Louise said, “Yes, I slept better.” One day about a week later, her grandmother was in a hurry at bedtime and was about to skip the three breaths. She was surprised when Louise reminded her it was time to do the exercise! From then on, Louise would take her grandmother’s hand and say to her, “Come on, Grandma, let’s do the breaths.” Louise had fun with the exercise, but she also could see how much it helped her. She was sleeping better and having better days at school. She was a much happier little girl.
Meditation Is Possible from Childhood On
Louise’s experience shows that it is possible to make a three-year-old child aware of the potential of meditation. Even if she stops meditating as she grows up, she’ll still remember the experience and will know that it is a way to soothe herself or shift negative states of mind.
Louise’s example shows that the role of the guide is very important. The practice was successful because her grandmother took the time to do the exercise with her and had confidence in the effectiveness of the method.
Louise’s example shows that the role of the guide is very important.
The fundamental role of parents is to provide their children with a solid foundation as they grow up. By providing them with the tools they need to train their minds, you will help them to be happy and build a calmer and balanced life.
Resources for a Lifetime
Providing an introduction to authentic meditation is a way for parents to share special moments—profound and creative—with their children. Using very simple exercises, parents can give their children a taste of meditation practice and help them develop the habit of meditating. Practicing these exercises daily will provide children with resources that they can draw on for their whole lives.
Using very simple exercises, parents can give their children a taste of meditation practice and help them develop the habit of meditating.
Dominique Butet is a kindergarten teacher in Paris, France, where she successfully introduced the practice of meditation to her young pupils.
Marie-Christine Champeaux-Cunin is a former entrepreneur in the micro-computer business, who came to Buddhism twelve years ago and now runs the Paris Drukpa Lineage Center.
true. And they
leave so much
that way, keep telling
desert, and desert
keeps filling in
is we’re missing.
For months now
death has felt
frail and far
surprises me. The usual
surprises me, sun-
stained bark jade-
pulses, pulses. So
will I ever
find my way back
The desert never
mentions arrival. Solar
heat, sky, dust-
light, a few parched
rinse so far
else to go. I
Snow goes on
things get simple
no understanding or
them, like this
flurried snow nothing
our knowing. Or my
face in a mirror
gazing out, gazing
itself utterly. Who knows
I’ve come. But to keep
If we could not
share the bright
clarity of whatever
with us, who
it? The day is all
sky. Less and less
there’s so much
more to say?
grass in late
could this routine
sight feed me
so perfectly? Feed me,
feed me, and keep
lives in us
like this: one more
through things in its
own way, ignites
every detail of
surface, and the eye
all the way
inside me: mesquite
bloom, cottonwood leaf-
shimmer, sky. They
say beauty is
only skin deep, mere
surface, but light
knows how deep
The desert knows
how it is, the empty
bow to rain.
every morning the same
person. Same life-
mind, same eyes
times, when the boredom
walk out among
mountains the same
sky, and I understand
David Hinton’s many translations of classical Chinese poetry have earned wide acclaim for creating compelling contemporary poems that convey the texture and density of the originals. Hinton has received many national awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, both major awards for poetry translation, and most recently, a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Learn more.
The Dharma That is Taught and the Dharma That is Experienced | An Excerpt from The Wisdom of No Escape
The Teachings of the Buddha
Traditionally, there are two ways of describing the teachings of the Buddha: the dharma that is taught and the dharma that is experienced. The dharma that is taught has been presented continuously in books and lectures in a pure and fresh way since the time of the Buddha. Even though it all began in India, in a very different kind of time and space and culture than we know today, the essence of the teachings was capable of transmission to Southeast Asia, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet—to all the places to which Buddhism has spread—by people who could express what they themselves had been taught. Nowadays there are so many wonderful books on the basic teachings; you can read Joseph Goldstein and Ayya Khema and Suzuki Roshi and Chögyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tülku and all the translations of Herbert Guenther. There are so many different ways you can read and hear the teachings, and they all have slightly different flavors. But you will find that if in each one you choose a theme, like the four noble truths or loneliness or compassion, they all say the same thing about it, according to their own style or culture. The teachings are the same and the essence is the same.
Traditionally it is said that the dharma can be taught, but one has to have ears to hear it.
The dharma that is taught is like a jewel, a precious jewel. Like bodhicitta, it can be covered over by dirt and yet is unchanged by dirt. When someone brings the jewel out into the light and shows it to everyone, it resonates in the hearts and minds of those who see it. The teachings are also like a beautiful golden bell hidden away in a deep, dark cave; when someone brings it out and rings it, people can hear the sound. That’s the dharma that is taught. Traditionally it is said that the dharma can be taught, but one has to have ears to hear it. The analogy of three pots is given. If you’re like a pot with a big hole in the bottom, then when the dharma is put in, it just goes right out. If you’re like a pot that has poison in it, when the dharma is put in, it gets reinterpreted and comes out as poison. In other words, if you’re full of resentment and bitterness, you might reinterpret it to suit your own bitterness and resentment. If the pot is turned upside down, nothing can be put into the pot. You have to be awake and open to hear the dharma that is taught.
The dharma that is experienced is not a different dharma, although sometimes it feels quite different. A common experience is that when you hear the teachings, they resonate in your heart and mind, and you feel inspired by them, but you can’t figure out what they have to do with your everyday life. When push comes to shove and you lose your job or the person you love leaves you or something else happens and your emotions go crazy and wild, you can’t quite figure out what that has to do with the four noble truths. Your pain feels so intense that the four noble truths seem somewhat pitiful by comparison. Trungpa Rinpoche once said that the dharma has to be experienced because when the real quality of our lives, including the obstacles and problems and experiences that cause us to start questioning, becomes intense, any mere philosophical belief isn’t going to hold a candle to the reality of what we are experiencing.
What you will discover as you continue to study the dharma and to practice meditation is that nothing that you have ever heard is separate from your life. Dharma is the study of what is, and the only way you can find out what is true is through studying yourself. The Zen master Dogen said, “To know yourself or study yourself is to forget yourself, and if you forget yourself then you become enlightened by all things.” Knowing yourself or studying yourself just means that it’s your experience of joy, it’s your experience of pain, your experience of relief and ventilation, and your experience of sorrow. That’s all we have and that’s all we need in order to have a living experience of the dharma—to realize that the dharma and our lives are the same thing.
Dharma is the study of what is, and the only way you can find out what is true is through studying yourself.
Acceptance and Openness
I’m so struck by the quotation that appeared on the bulletin board yesterday. It said, “The everyday practice is simply to develop complete acceptance and openness to all situations, emotions, and people.” You read that and you hear it and maybe I even talk about it, but basically, what does that mean? When you read it, you think you sort of know what it means, but when you begin to try to do that, to test it against your experience, then your preconceptions of what it means completely fall apart; you discover something fresh and new that you never realized before. What personal identification with the dharma means is, live that way, test it, try to find out what it really means in terms of losing your job, being jilted by your lover, dying of cancer. “Be open and accept all situations and people.” How do you do that? Maybe that’s the worst advice anybody could give you, but you have to find out for yourself.
Often we hear the teachings so subjectively that we think we’re being told what is true and what is false. But the dharma never tells you what is true or what is false. It just encourages you to find out for yourself. However, because we have to use words, we make statements. For example, we say, “The everyday practice is simply to develop complete acceptance of all situations, emotions, and people.” That sounds like that’s what’s true and not to do that would be false. But that’s not what it says. What it does say is to encourage you to find out for yourself what is true and what is false. Try to live that way and see what happens. You’ll come up against all your doubts and fears and your hopes and you’ll grapple with that. When you start to live that way, with that sense of “What does this really mean?,” you’ll find it quite interesting. After a while, you forget that you’re even asking the question; you just practice meditation or you just live your life, and you have what is traditionally called insight, which means that you have a fresh take on what is true. Insight comes suddenly, as though you’ve been wandering around in the dark and someone switches on all the lights and reveals a palace. You say, “Wow! It’s always been here.” Yet insight is very simple; it isn’t always “Wow!” It’s as if all your life there’s been this bowl of white stuff sitting on your table but you don’t know what it is. You’re sort of scared to find out. Maybe it’s LSD, or cocaine, or rat poison. One day you moisten your finger, you touch it and get a few little grains, and you taste it, and my goodness, it’s salt. Nobody can tell you otherwise—it’s so obvious, so simple, so clear. So we all have insights. In our meditation we have them and perhaps we share them. I suppose that’s what all these talks are, sharing insights. It feels as if we’ve discovered something that no one else ever knew, and yet it’s completely straightforward and simple.
The Path of a Question
You can never deny the dharma that is experienced because it’s so straightforward and true. But traveling the path between the dharma that is taught and the dharma that is experienced involves allowing yourself and encouraging yourself not to always believe what you’re taught, but to wonder about it. All you have to do is to live that way and it will become your path. The quotation on the bulletin board goes on to say that the way to do this is to stay open and never to withdraw. Never centralize into yourself. These are not just sweet little aphorisms, but actually the most profound teachings put in a deceptively simple way. You might think, “Oh, yes, never withdraw, fine, but what does that mean?” Obviously, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person to withdraw; you’ve been taught about maitri and loving-kindness and nonjudgmental attitude and acceptance of yourself, not being afraid to be who you are. Do you see what I mean? In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Suzuki Roshi says that he got a letter from one of his students that said, “Dear Roshi, you sent me a calendar and each month has a very inspiring statement, but I’m not even into February yet and I find that I can’t measure up to these statements.” Suzuki Roshi was laughing at the fact that people use the dharma to make themselves feel miserable. Or other people who have a quick conceptual grasp of the dharma may use it to become arrogant and proud. If you find yourself misunderstanding the teachings, the teachings themselves will always show you where you’re off. In some sense, the dharma is like a seamless web that you can’t get out of.
If you find yourself misunderstanding the teachings, the teachings themselves will always show you where you’re off.
The dharma should really be taken to heart, not just used as a way to get cozy and secure or to continue your habitual pattern of self-denigration or your habitual pattern of striving for perfection. Initially you may find that you use the dharma as you’ve always used everything else, but then, because it’s the dharma, it might occur to you that you’re using it to denigrate yourself or to become a perfectionist—“Oh, my goodness! I’m using this to make the world into love and light or to make it a resentful, harsh place.”
Trungpa Rinpoche told us that like most tülkus,* he was brought up extremely strictly. He was hit when he did things that weren’t considered proper for a tülku to do, and he had to study very hard. He said he was a difficult boy and so he was punished a lot, but he was also smart and was quite proud of himself. His tutors never praised him; they always scolded him and told him he should work harder. Nevertheless, he could tell they were quite impressed with his brilliance. When it came time for him to start visiting his guru, Jamgon Kongtrul of Sechen, to review his studies, he couldn’t wait to display his knowledge and intelligence. It was early morning and the light was shining through the window onto Jamgon Kongtrul’s face. Rinpoche sat down next to him. Jamgon Kongtrul was very quiet for a while, and finally he said, “Well, tell me what you know about all the six paramitas,” † and Rinpoche confidently rattled it all off with all the references and all the different things that different teachers had said. When it was all finished, Jamgon Kongtrul was quiet again, and then he said, “But what do you feel about all that?” Startled, Rinpoche said, “What does it matter what I feel about it? This is the way it’s always been taught and it’s been taught this way since it was first presented and this is how it is.” Jamgon Kongtrul said, “It’s all very well to know it intellectually, but how do you feel about it? What is your experience of this?” Rinpoche said that was how Jamgon Kongtrul always taught him. He always wanted to know what his experience of generosity or of discipline was, and so on. That was what Jamgon Kongtrul nurtured and cultivated in him.
In terms of the dharma that is taught, Trungpa Rinpoche heard it very well and very clearly. His own life had a tremendous amount of learning in it, and he always wanted us to learn and study as well. But he cared most that one should find the true meaning and not just accept another person’s view without questioning it. When Rinpoche talked about the precepts, for example, he said it’s all very well, you could know all two hundred and fifty or three hundred precepts by heart and all the references, but the crucial point was to get the true meaning of the precepts. For instance, you might know that the first precept is not to kill, and you may know all the stories of how that precept came into being, and you may know the logic of how killing increases ego-fixation and how working with the precepts cuts the chain of cause and effect—you may know all that, but the question really is, when the desire to kill something arises, why is it that you want to kill something? What’s really going on there? And what would the benefit be of refraining from killing? What does refraining do? How do you feel when you refrain? What does it teach you? That’s the way Rinpoche was trained, and that’s the way he trained us.
The dharma that is taught and the dharma that is experienced are descriptions of how to live, how to use your life to wake you up rather than put you to sleep. And if you choose to spend the rest of your life trying to find out what awake means and what asleep means, I think you might attain enlightenment.
* A tülku is the incarnation of a previous enlightened teacher, manifesting the
spiritual qualities of that teacher.
† The six paramitas, or “perfections,” are generosity, discipline, patience, exertion,
meditation, and knowledge.
The mind of which we are unaware is aware of us.
—R. D. Lang
The rising sun not beet.
but sea-rose red.
I amplified my heartbeat
one thousand times,
the animals at first confused
then decided I was another
While talking directly to god
my attention waxed and waned.
I have a lot on my mind.
I worked out
to make myself as strong
After all these years
of holding the world together
I let it roll down the hill
into the river.
One tree leads
this undescribed earth.
I have dreamed
I already am.
On a cold day
bear, coyote, cranes.
On a rainy night
a wolf with yellow eyes.
On a windy day
eleven kestrels looking
down at me.
On a hot afternoon
the ravens floated over
where I sunk
myself in the river.
Way out there
in unknown country
I walked at night
to scare myself.
Who is this other,
the secret sharer,
who directs the hand
that twists the heart,
the voice calling out to me
between feather and stone
the hour before dawn?
I have turned into
an old brown man
in a green coat.
my heart moves lightly
to this downward dance.
Two Exercises for Your Practice
Remembering the Good within You
Sit comfortably, in a relaxed way, and close your eyes. As much as possible, let go of analysis and expectation. For ten to fifteen minutes, call to mind something you have done or said that you feel was a kind or good action—a time you were generous, or caring, or contributed to someone’s well-being. If something comes to mind, allow the happiness that may come with the remembrance. If nothing comes to mind, gently turn your attention to a quality you like about yourself. Is there an ability or strength within yourself you can recognize? If still nothing comes to mind, reflect on the primal urge toward happiness within you, and the rightness and beauty of that.
In any of the above reflections, even if impatience or annoyance or fear should arise, don’t be disheartened or anxious—see if you can return to the contemplation without guilt or judgment. The heart of skillful meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again. Even if you have to do that thousands of times during a session, it does not matter. There is no distance to traverse in recollecting our attention; as soon as we realize we have been lost in discursive thought, or have lost touch with our chosen contemplation, right in that very moment we can begin again. Nothing has been ruined, and there is no such thing as failing. There is nowhere the attention can wander to, and no duration of distraction, from which we cannot completely let go, in a moment, and begin again.
The heart of skillful meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again.
Phrases of Lovingkindness
In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish, first for ourselves and then for others. We begin by befriending ourselves. The aspirations we articulate should be deeply felt and somewhat enduring (not something like “May I find a good show on television tonight”). Classically there are four phrases used:
“May I be free from danger.”
“May I have mental happiness.”
“May I have physical happiness.”
“May I have ease of well-being.”
I will describe these phrases here in detail, and you can experiment with them, alter them, or simply choose an alternative set of three or four phrases. Discover personally in your own heartfelt investigation what is truly significant for you.
“May I be free from danger.” We begin to extend care and lovingkindness toward ourselves with the wish that we may find freedom from danger, that we may know safety. We ultimately wish that all beings as well as ourselves have a sense of refuge, have a safe haven, have freedom from internal torment and external violence.
There is a nightmarish quality to life without safety. When we live repeatedly lost in conditioned states such as anger and greed, continually being hurt and hurting others—there is no peace or safety. When we are awakened at night by anxiety, guilt, and agitation—there is no peace or safety. When we live in a world of overt violence, which rests on the disempowerment of people and the loneliness of unspoken and silenced abuse—there is no peace or safety. This deep aspiration is the traditional beginning. “May I be free from danger.” Other possible phrases are “May I have safety” and “May I be free from fear.”
“May I have mental happiness.” If we were in touch with our own loveliness, if we felt less fearful of others, if we trusted our ability to love, we would have mental happiness. In the same vein, if we could relate skillfully to the torments of the mind that arise, and not nourish or cultivate them, we would have mental happiness. Even in very positive or fortunate circumstances, without mental happiness, we are miserable. Sometimes people use the phrase “May I be happy” or “May I be peaceful” or “May I be liberated.”
“May I have physical happiness.” With this phrase we wish ourselves the enjoyment of health, freedom from physical pain, and harmony with our bodies. If freedom from pain is not a realistic possibility, we aspire to receive the pain with friendliness and patience, thereby not transforming physical pain into mental torment. You might also use a phrase such as “May I be healthy,” “May I be healed,” “May I make a friend of my body,” or “May I embody my love and understanding.”
“May I have ease of well-being.” This phrase points to the exigencies of everyday life—concerns such as relationships, family issues, and livelihood. With the expression of this phrase we wish that these elements of our day-to-day lives be free from struggle, that they be accomplished gracefully, and easily. Alternative phrases could be “May I live with ease” or “May lovingkindness manifest throughout my life” or “May I dwell in peace.”
Sit comfortably. You can begin with five minutes of reflection on the good within you or your wish to be happy. Then choose three or four phrases that express what you most deeply wish for yourself, and repeat them over and over again. You can coordinate the phrases with the breath, if you wish, or simply have your mind rest in the phrases without a physical anchor. Feel free to experiment, and be creative. Without trying to force or demand a loving feeling, see if there are circumstances you can imagine yourself in where you can more readily experience friendship with yourself. Is it seeing yourself as a young child? One friend imagined himself sitting surrounded by all the most loving people he had ever heard of in the world, receiving their kindness and good wishes. For the first time, love for himself seemed to enter his heart.
Develop a gentle pacing with the phrases; there is no need to rush through them, or say them harshly. You are offering yourself a gift with each phrase. If your attention wanders, or if difficult feelings or memories arise, try to let go of them in the spirit of kindness, and begin again repeating the metta phrases:
“May I be free from danger.”
“May I have mental happiness.”
“May I have physical happiness.”
“May I have ease of well-being.”
There are times when feelings of unworthiness come up strongly, and you clearly see the conditions that limit your love for yourself. Breathe gently, accept that these feelings have arisen, remember the beauty of your wish to be happy, and return to the metta phrases.
Breathe gently, accept that these feelings have arisen, remember the beauty of your wish to be happy, and return to the metta phrases.