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Of Hummingbirds and Garudas

September 17, 2013

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Previously in this blog, we’ve discussed the monkey mind, that hyperactive, compulsive aspect of our mind that incessantly reviews the past and worries about the future.  “What could I have done?” the monkey mind wonders, “What should I have said?  Will they like me?  WHAT IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG?”

The monkey mind is involved in conceptual thought that draws us out of the here and now and into the realm of fantasy and commentary.  This realm of thought is extremely compelling to us. We can’t resist its fascination.  In fact, the Bad Lama says, we become addicted to thinking.  When a thought pops into our mind, we feel compelled to follow it. We feel that we have no choice. We even chase after it, eager to know where it will end up. The more we chase after our thoughts, the faster and faster our mind moves. We find ourselves unable to rest, unable to find peace within our own mind.

Running faster and faster in order to stay in place.

Running faster and faster in order to stay in place.

Our modern society exacerbates this tendency.  Thanks to technology, there seems no reason to ever stop and rest.  We can connect to one another 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We never need to pause in our endless shopping and info-grazing.  We may find ourselves late at night, trolling through Facebook, not really wanting to scroll to the next set of snarky comments, but seemingly unable to stop.

Another traditional image for this hyperactive mind is a hummingbird.  A hummingbird’s flight is very erratic – it shifts direction, flying up and down and even backwards. Hummingbirds seem to be very busy in flight, very distractible; they do not seem to be very relaxed. (Of course this is an analogy that is meant to point to our own experience, not a hummingbird’s; we have no idea what a hummingbird’s experience is actually like.) When the hummingbird is flying, it has to spend an enormous amount of energy just to stay in one place. It flaps its wings so fast that they become a blur. Hummingbirds don’t soar – if a hummingbird were to stop flapping its wings, it would just fall out of the sky. So there’s no resting for the hummingbird when it flies.

It seems exhausting to be a hummingbird!  When our mind is like a hyperactive hummingbird, we feel worn out, ragged and harassed, but we also feel that we can’t stop.  We feel that our thoughts are racing and out of control, and that our worries are too much to bear.  We just want to find a place to rest.  Is there no twig on which our hummingbird mind can rest?

When we’re experiencing our mind in this way, the kindest thing we can do is to find a way to give ourselves a break. We might try various means of giving ourselves a break – alcohol, movies, video games or escapist fiction. (If you’re interested in trying those means out, you’ll need to find another blog for those methods – this blog is about meditation.) In the tradition of shamatha/vipashayana meditation, the practices that allow us to slow down and rest are described as shamatha meditation.  Shamatha can be translated as “calm abiding” or “resting peacefully.” Shamatha helps us to tame our mind, to soothe it as we would a frightened, restless animal, and allow it to settle down. When we practice shamatha meditation, we offer the hummingbird a place to land.

Using the physical body to bring the hummingbird into the here and now.

Using the physical body to bring the hummingbird into the here and now.

The place we offer to the hummingbird mind to land is here and the time we offer to the hummingbird mind is now. Since our physical body always inhabits the here and now, we can use it like a landing beacon to guide the hummingbird mind into the present moment. For instance, we might continually bring our awareness to our breathing or to our physical sensations.  Although it’s natural for us to be in the present (so where else would we be?), we’ve developed the mental habit of trying to inhabit the past and the future through the use of our conceptual mind. In shamatha meditation we gently release this mental habit by continually dropping our thoughts and returning to the here and now. By continually letting go of thoughts and coming back to our body in the present moment, we cut the speed of our thinking, and we cut the agitation that our thinking is creating.  Little by little, we calm down and rest.

When we begin to rest in the present moment, we may notice three aspects of mind: stillness, relaxation, and awareness.

Stillness is peaceful and calm.  Stillness is settled, not agitated. It is like a calm mountain lake so clear that you can see all of the rocks at the bottom.  When we’re still, even if a compelling thought arrives and yells, “Hey! I’m important!  You’ve got to deal with me RIGHT NOW” we’re still able to keep sitting, simply observing the thought as it arises, abides, and fades away.

Relaxation means that the stillness is not caused by tension; we’re not trying to hold ourselves still through great effort.  Instead there’s a sense of openness and easiness.  When the mind relaxes, it lets go of unneeded mental effort.  It doesn’t need to force stillness to take place.  It’s natural and easy.

Relaxation means the mind is not tense or frozen; there is a sense of flow within stillness. Imagine the settled-ness of the ocean: the ocean is not trying to crawl out of its bed and find a new resting place.  It’s just resting there, accepting all the streams in the world. But even though the ocean is resting in its place, it has many currents that move through it.  Waves and ripples dance over its surface. On a very calm day the ocean may seem to be without any movement.  But even then, it continually exhales vapor into the sky to become clouds. There is always some sort of movement within the vast settled-ness of the ocean.

Awareness means that the still and relaxed mind is conscious of its own stillness and relaxedness. We may have an idea that if we were truly mindful, we would be mindful of everything – every sight, every sound, every sensation. But this idea has a kind of striving to it that belongs to the hummingbird mind. Instead the mind can relax into the present, aware that it is settled and relaxed, and accept any thought or perception that might happen to arise.  The mind that’s still, relaxed and aware is not worried about experiencing the right thoughts or wrong thoughts.  It’s not worried about missing the right perceptions or being surprised by the wrong perceptions.


A Garuda.

Traditionally, the mind that is still, relaxed and aware is associated with the Garuda, in contrast with the hummingbird.   The Garuda is a giant mythical bird that is said to be born flying.  Flying is easy and effortless for the Garuda. It soars through the sky, seeming to rest on the air.  It barely needs to move in order to steer itself.  The Garuda has a vast vision that encompasses the world below it, the space above it, and the air through which it flies.

Like a Garuda, we can learn to relax into the here and now – not zooming after thoughts, but resting in the rich experience of the moment.  Just as the Garuda adjust its flight with very little effort, we can also learn to adjust our metal state by observing stillness, relaxation and awareness.  Both in meditation and in everyday life, we can notice when our mind is busy and agitated, and encourage it to rest in whatever part is most settled and peaceful.  We can notice when we’re tense and using way more effort then we need, and we can encourage our mind and body to move toward relaxation.  And we can notice when our focus narrows down so that we lose our sense of openness, and we can encourage our awareness to open up and remember its own peacefulness and relaxation.  We can practice in this way even if we are busy and moving quickly.  We can bring a peaceful and relaxed mind into whatever activity we meet.  Just as a Garuda soars swiftly through the sky in a relaxed way, we can soar through a meditation filled with many thoughts, or a day full of many tasks.

We can bring stillness, relaxation, and awareness to our own thinking. Thoughts will arise – that’s part of the natural function of mind, just as waves are a natural function of the ocean – but when thoughts do arise we can meet them with peacefulness.  Instead of zooming after them like a hummingbird, we can observe them while resting in the moment, like a Garuda can observe the ground while resting on the air as it soars through the sky.  When we do this, we can develop more freedom with respect to our thoughts.  We learn not to take our thoughts so seriously, and even when they’re painful, we can let them arise, linger and fade away. And when we’re no longer endlessly repeating our familiar thoughts, we can become open to new thoughts.  We might find that we have the mental space to observe and consider unfamiliar insights.  We might be able to consider the ideas of others.  (Imagine that!)


Tom and Dhamma

June 25, 2013


Tom recently gave a series of talks while leading a 10-day retreat at Wat Khao Tham on the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand June 13 – 22, 2013.  These talks use a lot of material from the Bad Lama’s Guide. They also refer to material from the Theravada lineage of Buddhism, which is why they’re called dhamma talks rather than dharma talks.


Click here to access recorded talks



Freeing Yourself From Thoughts; Freeing Thoughts From Yourself

April 23, 2013

Calling the play-by-play

The motto of this blog is “just sit!” This motto corresponds to a traditional definition of meditation: “Sitting simply, without elaboration.” But often, when we try to “just sit”, we notice that we are not, in fact, “sitting simply, without elaboration.”  On the contrary, we notice that our conceptual mind is elaborating like crazy, broadcasting play-by-play commentaries, postulating revisionist histories, and projecting best and worst-case scenarios.

This florid process of conceptual elaboration may feel overwhelming and out of control.  It seems as if we are captured by our thoughts, like a field mouse snatched up by falcon. One second we are sitting simply on the ground, and the next second we are in the talons of a powerful thought, rushing through the air.

kestrel and mouse

Captured by a raptor

Especially if our thoughts are painful, we might conclude they are our enemies. If only we could get rid of the pesky conceptual mind, we could be free of suffering! But thinking is a natural function of mind; thoughts arise naturally and effortlessly. So the desire to stop thoughts is an aggressive one; it represents the wish for things to be other than as they naturally are. Any kind of aggression sows the seeds of greater dissatisfaction and suffering.

It is through expectation and doubt, attachment and aversion that our minds create samsara; it is not concepts or values, but the way we react to them.

Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche 

Since thoughts naturally arise, rather than trying to eradicate them, we can learn to improve our relationship with them.  Rather than trying to be free from thought entirely, we can develop freedom in the presence of any thought. In order to do this, we must become familiar with our relationship to thought. We can do this by taking the process of thinking as our object of meditation.


Can you tell when you’re pedaling?

Instruction: Take your meditation posture, and settle your mind.  (You may use an object of meditation such as the breath to help you settle.)  When your mind is as settled (or at least as settled as it is likely to get), place your awareness on your thoughts.  Allow thoughts to arise spontaneously; don’t try to suppress any thought that’s arising, but don’t entertain any thought, either.  Just leave your mind open and see what thoughts arise. Let your attitude be curious, friendly, and undemanding. Who are your guests today?  When a thought arises, notice how much effort you are putting into thinking that thought or how much effort you’re putting into not thinking that thought. Notice when you are actively suppressing a thought, and when you have hopped on a thought and are pedaling it as if it were a bicycle. See if you can let go of any effort, and just allow thoughts to arise, linger, and depart without doing anything to them.

You might notice that some thoughts arise with no effort at all.  For instance, you might suddenly be visited by an image of a childhood home, by a musical phrase, or a quote. These thoughts might suddenly appear and disappear, like clouds forming and dissolving over a mountain peak. You might find that you can witness these thoughts just as they are without playing with them.  But you might notice that there are other thoughts that you cannot leave alone — fascinating thoughts; important thoughts; emotionally evocative thoughts; frightening thoughts. When these thoughts arise, you pounce on them and begin playing with them  without even noticing it – exploring the fascinating thoughts; taking notes on the important thoughts; luxuriating in the emotionally evocative thoughts; doing battle with the frightening thoughts.

When we do this kind of practice, we can notice that we have made a choice to become actively involved in the thinking process. If we don’t keep on thinking the thoughts, they will naturally fade away. But when we become actively involved in thinking, we perpetuate and manipulate the thoughts. It’s not that thoughts have captured us and won’t let go, it’s that we’ve captured our thoughts and won’t let go.  We’re not the poor field mouse; we’re the predatory falcon.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche writes about this uncomfortable dynamic between ourselves and our thoughts:

Elegant, perhaps, but is he comfortable

In a way our thoughts are imprisoning us. On the other hand, we are imprisoning them. We imprison our thoughts in the same way they imprison us. We’re not letting thought be thought. We’re not letting these thoughts be thoughts in their own state. We are coloring them. We are clothing them. We’re painting the face of our thoughts. We’re putting hats and boots on them.

That’s very uncomfortable for the thoughts. We may not recognize it, but if you really look at the thoughts themselves, it’s very uncomfortable for them to be what we want them to be. It’s like dressing up a monkey in the circus. The monkey is all dressed up in a beautiful tuxedo and bow tie, with a dignified hat and beautiful shiny boots. But you can imagine the discomfort the monkey feels at that point. No matter how beautiful he may look, no matter how dignified this monkey may appear to be, from the point of view of the monkey’s basic instinct, it’s uncomfortable to put up with all the expectations of your human boss.

 Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2005. 

 Thoughts are impermanent. They will arise, abide and cease if we let them.  But if we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to interact with them, we will grant them more energy and perpetuate them. We will manipulate them into being what we think they should be – fascinating, important, emotionally weighty, or frightening.

It’s important that we understand this dynamic.  When we do not understand this dynamic, we might experience ourselves as victims of our thoughts.  If we do understand it, we have the possibility of working with our thoughts skillfully.  We can learn to recognize those thoughts that are likely to be helpful to ourselves and to others; we can give  those thoughts our energy and care. We can also recognize those thoughts that are not likely to be helpful to ourselves and to others; we can withhold our energy from those thoughts.  This is the basis of wisdom and psychological maturity.

How To Undress Your Objects

March 12, 2013
dog in lingerie

This object is not naked.

Objects seem to control our mind, but they are only powerful due to our projections.  Our goal in meditation is to strip adjectives away from the object, and see the object as it is.  Just meet the object without preconceptions.  Meditation is not a technique to retreat from objects or to renounce them. It is a way to learn to see objects nakedly — fresh and new. — The Bad Lama

In our last post, we discussed healing our relationship with disturbing objects, particularly through the use of the technique called touch and go. When we practice this technique, we control the amount of contact we have with a disturbing object and the amount of space we need to accommodate that contact.  By practicing in this way, we can let go of our habitual reactions to a disturbing object and learn to sit simply with that object just as it is, without freaking out.


Le tailleur, c’est moi!

In the quote above, the Bad Lama says that we should learn to see the object nakedly. So we might ask how did the object get dressed up?  Who is its tailor? Who purchased the fabric? The answer is that we are the costumers of our objects. We clothe our objects with our ideas, hopes, fears and projections.  We  cover them with scary toxic opinions and flee in terror. We drape them in spicy lingerie fantasies and pant after them.  We cloak them in camouflage and lose sight of them entirely.

When we practice the technique of touch and go, we allow the space for our sticky emotional reactions to dissolve so we can appraoch closer and closer to a disturbing object. Just as we might habituate a frightened animal to our presence by gradually moving closer to it, we habituate our wild mind to the disturbing object by gradually moving closer.

Shamatha/vipashyana comprises techniques of both taming and training. When we use the touch and go technique in this way, we are taming our mind.  We help it to calm down in the presence of a disturbing object. We can also use a more active training technique called antidote meditation to help us see objects nakedly. This technique directly supplies “antidotes” to those opinions that are the major contributors to our emotional reactions. The basic idea is simple: if you have a strongly-held opinion about an object, try thinking the opposite.

We believe that adjectives exist within objects. Reality is free of adjectives.  Adjectives are imputed; projections.  We fall in love with somebody and say, “You’re wonderful!”  Over time, that adjective fades and then we say, “You’ve changed!”  We suffer because of this. – The Bad Lama

In our practice of antidote technique, we could undertake a formal meditation in which we practice antidotes to opinions that lead to anger, greed, and ignorance (or closed-mindedness).  Since this practice is likely to stir up many thoughts and feelings, it’s a good idea to practice a taming and calming shamatha technique, such as following the breath, before and after practicing antidote meditation. Here’s an instruction for such a formal practice:

Imagine a person or situation toward which you feel righteous anger. You might imagine someone who treated you rudely or was abusive to someone else. Bring this person or situation vividly to mind.  Then strongly bring in the opinion, “That was a really good thing.  There is no problem at all with that.  I approve of it.”

Imagine someone or something that’s truly beautiful; rare and valuable; a treasure.  It could be the last remaining masterwork of a great artist, an animal species about to go extinct, or the photo of the great love of your life. Now strongly bring in the opinion, “How ugly and shoddy!  What a piece of crap.  Not worth anything.  The world would be better off without it.”

Finally, imagine a profound truth; an insight that took a lot of hard work to achieve; a helpful teaching that has improved your life and that of others. Now strongly assert the opinion, “What hogwash!  This is a story to bamboozle gullible children.  A fraud; not true at all!”

Notice the opinions to which you cling most strongly.  Which opinion do you have the hardest time letting go? Get to know your style: what anger do you cling to, what sensual enjoyment, what wisdom?

antidote locker

Apply as needed.

You can apply this technique in everyday life: you can play Instant Antidote — a fun and challenging game! When you experience something that you have a strong opinion about, immediately apply an “antidote” opinion.  When you are looking for a parking spot in a crowded lot and notice that someone has managed to park in such a way that they block two spots, you can think, “How wonderful and helpful!”  If you see an incredibly sexy person to whom you are powerfully attracted, you can think “Oh, the poor, deformed creature!” And when you hear someone say something incredibly inane, you can think, “What pearls of wisdom!” (If you leave the comment “What pearls of wisdom!” to this blog entry, I know what you mean, you wonderful and helpful person!)

The purpose of reversing our opinion is not to prove that the opposite opinion is true, nor to arrive at some complete picture in which all aspects of an object are presented in a balanced way.  The purpose is to notice how we cling to certain adjectives and opinions. It’s not a problem that an adjective arises to our consciousness; the problem is that we cling to that adjective.  Then if a new adjective arises in respect to that object we are either outraged or crushed.

On the relative level, there are healthier and less healthy adjectives.  Unhealthy adjectives are to be negated. Healthy adjectives are to be adopted provisionally, knowing that they are ultimately not true. How can you tell if an adjective is healthy?  Unhealthy adjectives limit your mind and make you suffer.  Healthy adjectives (even if ultimately not true) are more in accord with the facts.  But in the ultimate view, reality is free from all labels.—The Bad Lama

As The Bad Lama assets above, in the big picture, all adjectives are equally unhealthy, because they all limit our relationship with the objects they describe.  But in our immediate experience, we may find that some adjectives are more unhealthy than others. For instance, we might harbor a negative self-image.  We might think that we are unlovable or unworthy.  Our belief in this adjective  — our reinforcement of our negative self-image — limits our ability to connect to other people.  So we need to antidote this adjective and in order to alleviate our own suffering (and to alleviate the suffering of those other people who might really need to connect to us.)  We might apply the adjective “lovable” or “worthy” to ourselves in order to counteract the pernicious effects of “unlovable” and “unworthy.” This can help us open up to ourselves and to those around us. But we must be careful about clinging to those terms, and insisting that everyone else use those terms in respect to us. Remember: the goal is to free the mind from limitations, not to establish the absolutely correct adjective.

In terms of the Buddhist path, the adjective “permanent” is considered unhealthy and “impermanent” is considered healthy. “Permanent” limits our ability to change and respond to the flow of our experience, while “impermanent” encourages us to let go of old opinions and reactions and respond more flexibly.  The adjective “independent” is considered unhealthy and “interdependent” is considered healthy.  “Independent” limits our ability to connect to what’s around us, while “interdependent” encourages us to explore the multiplicity of connections. It’s important to remember, as we practice negating the unhealthy adjecive, that the healthy adjective is not “true” either.  Ultimately all objects are beyond description, not limited by the tiny word-boxes of adjectives that we attempt to force them into.

When you let go of adjectives, all the phenomena dancing around you are fine: you’re free.  When the mind is free, all of the objects of your experience become richness.  You can see the beauty of all of them.  – The Bad Lama

Working with Disturbing Objects

February 19, 2013

Any object that is disturbing is a good object for meditation.  — The Bad Lama

…whatever occurs in the realm of samsaric mind is regarded as the path, and everything is workable.  —  Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Lion’s Roar

Shamatha/vipashyana meditation is a practice of uncovering our naturally open, relaxed and radiant awareness. The view, or philosophical framework, of shamatha/vipashyana meditation asserts that our awareness is naturally compassionate and full of loving-kindness; if not interfered with, it takes a friendly and accepting attitude toward everything and everyone. Everything can be included into our vast happiness; there is nothing in our experience that has to be treated as an enemy.  It is only a temporary confusion that creates a sense of separation from and antagonism toward our environment. Therefore, this view asserts, even if we find ourselves in a situation in which we feel antagonism or separation, we are capable of resolving that situation into loving-kindness. As Trungpa Rinpoche says in the quote above, “Everything is workable.”

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. ― Mike Tyson

PunchThis is a beautiful and inspiring philosophy, but in our day-to-day lives, we may find ourselves in situations that don’t seem workable at all. We may enter such a situation optimistic and open-hearted, only to find ourselves becoming pissed off and defensive, clingy and heartbroken, or completely checked out and bored. Although we may still believe (or hope) that, in theory at least, everything is workable, we have to admit that we’re not capable of working well with this particular situation right now.

This can be a painful, disappointing realization for a practitioner. We may beat ourselves up when we fail to work well with a given situation. (“I’m a bad practitioner! The Dalai Lama would have handled this better.”) Or we may decide that since the theory says everything is workable, we should ignore our increasingly out-of-control behavior and just keep trying harder. (“Everything is workable, so I’ll just keep on beating my head against this wall.”)  Or we may decide that the principle of “workability” is just theory, not at all practical, and retreat into some comfortable distraction instead. (“This meditation stuff is a bust. Let’s go shopping!”)

In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience..  Without an enemy’s action, there is no possibility for patience or tolerance to arise. Our friends do not ordinarily test us and provide the opportunity to cultivate patience; only our enemies do this. So, from this standpoint we consider our enemy as a great teacher, and revere them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice patience. — The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness

But even though it’s painful to meet a person or object or situation with which we cannot work well, it’s very valuable. Difficult situations, annoying people and disturbing objects show us where we’re currently having difficulty being open, and they give us the opportunity to practice opening up. If we managed to construct our lives in such a way that we never had to meet difficult situations, annoying people and disturbing objects, we might fall into complacency and believe that we were completely open and free. Then not only would we still be stuck, but we’d be ignorant of our stuckness as well. (And eventually, we would have to meet a difficult situation, and we would not at all be prepared for it.)

It’s good to become familiar with your own style of stuck-ness. Here’s a meditation instruction for that: As you sit, notice when you are interacting with an object that you find disturbing. Such objects might include memories, thoughts, and emotions as well as people, situations and physical objects (including sounds, odors and physical sensations). Notice which objects are repellant, and which objects are irresistible. When you notice a disturbing object, see if you can just sit with it. Don’t try to change the object and don’t try to change your response to the object. Become familiar with your relationships with the various disturbing objects in your world.

Once you have become familiar with your relationship with a disturbing object, you can make a conscious choice about whether you want to change that relationship. You could ask, “Would I like to be a little more open toward this object?”  It’s possible that the answer might come back something like: “No, I would not like to be a little more open. I would like to continue to cherish my resentment towards this person.”  It’s good to respect such an answer, even though it might be contrary to your best aspirations. Don’t try to force yourself to change a painful relationship if you really don’t want to change it.  But do let yourself see that you have the choice to make a change, and that you are deciding not to.  Allow yourself to see this clearly. The decision to continue a painful relationship is very human; when we see ourselves make such a choice it can be funny, and frustrating and tender all at once. If we become familiar with how often we decide to remain stuck in painful relationships, we can develop more compassion for ourselves and for others who are stuck in the same way.

But you might decide, “Yes, I would like to be a little more open.” In that case, you can undertake the training that will help you become more open: you can learn to heal the relationship between your mind and the disturbing object. In this training, your allies are kindness, patience, curiosity and space. Kindness encourages you to heal the painful relationship. Patience allows you to be wherever you are in the process of healing – including deciding that you’re just not able to work with the disturbing object at the given moment. Curiosity brings you into closer contact with the object, and space allows you to retreat when you need to, and it also grants both you and the object the room to grow and change.

To describe meditation we could use the phrase touch and go. You are in contact, you’re touching the experience of being there, actually being there-—and then you let go.  — Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Dathun Letter

In your training with disturbing objects, you can use the technique that Trungpa Rinpoche, in the quote above, describes as touch and go. You can touch the object and then let it go and give some space to yourself and to the object. For instance, if you were working with a physical pain, you might touch into the pain – allowing yourself to be with that sensation as directly as possible — and then drop that contact and allow your awareness to open up to your whole environment. (Or, if you prefer, you could bring your awareness back to your breath.)

stay or goWhen you’re working with the technique of touch and go, a question will arise: “How long should I touch and how far away should I go?” Remember the dictum “Not too tight, not too loose.” It’s important to monitor your state of mind during this process. If your mind is becoming very agitated or dissociated, your training may not be helping – in fact you may be reinforcing the habitual relationship that you’re trying to loosen. The intention of the exercise is to be able to rest with the object in such a way that it is no longer disturbing. If you find that your mind is becoming too wild, drop contact with the object and give yourself space and time. When your mind is settled again, you can return your awareness to the object. It is up to you to decide how wild is “too wild” and how settled is “settled enough.”  You can learn to ride that line like you might learn to ride a bicycle — learning this balance is part of the art of meditation.

Here are some suggestions for how to work with disturbing objects.  We’ve arranged them in order of disturbing-ness, where #1 is overwhelmingly disturbing, and #4 is not particularly disturbing at all:

Run AwayRun Away! This is appropriate for addictions and obsessions that you find overwhelming. If you feel powerless in the face of the object – if it feels that the object compels you into action — just don’t go there. If you’re in the presence of that disturbing object, leave.  If you’re about to make contact with that object, refrain. Give yourself the physical space and time you need to recover from your addiction. This strategy is classically called renunciation. Renunciation doesn’t completely resolve the relationship with the disturbing object, but it may be the best option you have right now. As the force of your addiction diminishes, you can approach the object more closely.

Break contact, but stay in proximity. This is appropriate for situations where you are likely to lose control if you don’t exercise care.  For instance, you might be in a conversation with a family member, and they’ve just said something that has triggered a reaction in you, and you’re about to launch into an old familiar fight. At this point, you can use a “mindfulness speed bump” such as counting to ten or taking three long breaths to interrupt the speed of your emotional disturbance. Shift your focus away from the object and toward your internal experience. Notice your emotions and physical sensations. Feelings are impermanent – watch your emotions change. When the emotion has receded to a manageable level, come back into contact with the object.

Stay in contact and include more.  This is appropriate for situations in which you can feel some emotional disturbance, but your emotions are still manageable. In the example above, at this point you’ve already used a mindfulness speed bump. You’re not about to launch into the fight, but you’re still a little pissed off. Stay in physical proximity with your object, and open your focus up to more aspects of your experience.  Let your awareness include your body and your physical environment as well as the disturbing object. Get curious about the whole picture, not just the irritating part.

MergeIncrease contact.  This is appropriate for objects that have been disturbing or might become disturbing, but are not too disturbing right now. Enliven your curiosity about the object.  Draw closer to it. Dissolve the separation between you and the object.

In the course of an interaction with an object, you might find yourself moving between levels. Allow yourself to be fluid.

…the practice of meditation involves a basic sense of continuity.  The practice of meditation does not involve discontinuing one’s relationship with oneself and looking for a better person or searching for possibilities of reforming oneself and becoming a better person.  The practice of meditation is a way of continuing one’s confusion, aggression and passion – but working with it, seeing it from the enlightened point of view. —  Chögyam Trungpa, The Path is The Goal

Our first meditation instruction – our most basic instruction — is “just sit”.  In the process of trying to “just sit”, we notice physical and mental habits that get in the way of “just sitting”. Then we have a choice: shall we strive to let go of those habits?  Or shall we just sit with our habits – in other words, should we just sit with the fact that we are not just sitting? Both choices are valid — they represent two sides of our practice. When we have become familiar with the habits that prevent us from being open to the objects around us, we may find that, out of kindness for ourselves and for those around us, we want to actively confront our confusion.  Then we decide to take up the training necessary to let go of our negative habits.

Well, when you get stuck, it is a beautiful situation. You have more chance to relate with the textures. Let it be that way, rather than trying to get unstuck. — Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion’s Roar

Our training with disturbing objects should be contained within our practice of “just sitting.” That practice is a radical acceptance of who and what we are right at this moment. In this practice, as Trungpa Rinpoche says above, we agree to “continue our confusion.” If we’re stuck, we can just sit with and experience our stuck-ness. We can even be interested in the texture of the stuck–ness. This is a truly non-aggressive approach. We remove the pressure of “I have to make this better” and just sit with the painful way things are. In this way, we can develop the capacity to sit with any level of disturbance.  We can become familiar with how we perpetuate and amplify our own disturbance. Then when we find ourselves in an overwhelming situation, at least we don’t freak out about being overwhelmed. We might instead become interested in the experience of being overwhelmed.

Q: I know the point is not to get rid of your depression or anger, but do they wear out, like distractions?

A: No promise, my dear. Wait and see. Have more patience. — Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion’s Roar

But That’s Another Story…

February 1, 2013

I define responsibility (response-ability) as the ability to choose how we respond to stimulation coming in through our sensory systems at any moment in time. Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream. My anger response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.

Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight (p. 146)

Emotions are transient – they come and go like waves breaking upon the shore.  In the quote above, Jill Bolte Taylor posits a neurochemical basis for the transiency of emotions. She asserts that the physiological response to a given emotion will only last about 90 seconds unless we continue to trigger that emotion. Whether or not we accept the proposition that emotions are nothing more than the play of neurochemistry, we can agree that emotions will fade unless they are continuously re-triggered.

3D reaction

An effective emotional trigger

In our last post, (Hooked on a Feeling) we noted that emotions bring energy, focus, and a heightened sense of meaning to our lives.  We may find that energy, focus and sense of meaning very compelling, and we may voluntarily choose to trigger certain emotions in order to re-experience them. We can use external stimuli as a trigger — for instance we may participate in violent sports, browse internet porn, read romance novels, listen to rousing music, watch action movies, play video games or take drugs in order to engender emotions. We may become habituated to, dependent on, or even addicted to these emotions and the substances and activities that provoke them.  But we don’t need to use external stimuli to trigger emotions – we can trigger our emotions using only our minds. We can imagine an object or incident, and respond to it as if it were real. In this post, we’ll look at how we trigger, maintain and intensify emotions by means of internal narratives, or stories. (Pema Chödrön refers to these as storylines.)

Her love is heavenly
When her arms enfold me,
I hear her tender rhapsody.
But in reality, she doesn’t even know me.
It was just my imagination, 
(once again) 
running away with me

Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)(Whitfield/Strong)

Conceptuality is the aspect of mind that recalls the past and projects the future.  It can identify and compare alternative courses of action, and speculate about their possible outcomes. Here’s a description of the activity of conceptual mind given by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (one of the Bad Lama’s teachers) that appeared in our post Enter the Monkey:

Conceptual mind takes the nonexistent and makes it existent. It takes things that have already ceased and makes them exist now. It takes that which has not yet been produced, that which will arise only in the future, and brings it into the present. As for what does arise in the present moment, as soon as it arises, it ceases. Immediately upon having arisen, it is gone. But thinking mind takes that and keeps it hanging around as if it were some kind of a thing, a hard and solid thing. That is the activity of conceptuality.

Conceptuality is very helpful: as we noted in the post Distinguishing Concepts from Physical Sensations, it allows us to recognize patterns and make predictions. Because it is engaged with processing the past and predicting the future, the conceptual mind is often only loosely tethered to the here and now. Nonetheless, its activity happens in the here and now. Conceptual mind creates a kind of mental simulacrum of events  — a story  — and we respond physically and emotionally to that story as if it were actually happening here and now.  If the story is intense, our physical and emotional response may be correspondingly intense. For instance, if you are engaged in a fantasy in which you are arguing with someone, you might begin to feel angry, your body may begin to feel warm, and you might even gesture or shout. You might be aware that events of your story are not really happening here and now, but you nevertheless respond to them as if they were.

Someone hits you once, and then you hit yourself over and over again in your mind. – The Bad Lama

What's your favorite story?

What’s your favorite story?

The storytelling aspect of our conceptuality can be a very powerful part of our experience, so it’s good to become familiar with how it works. Here’s a meditation instruction:  As you sit, notice when you are telling yourself a story. Notice how you respond emotionally and physically to the story. Notice the kind of stories you tell yourself most frequently. Are they stories of conflict, of triumph, of failure, of seduction or rejection? What are your most common news features, and your most quoted historical fiction and your favorite bedtime stories?

Our memories are actually reconstructed every time we think of them. They aren’t movie clips that are stored in the brain in a certain location like files on a hard drive. They are nerve pathways that are firing anew each time we remember the event. This makes for some interesting effects. For example, the memory can change.  — Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D

Our memories invoke emotions. We can recall a past event that was pleasant, and feel a sweet nostalgia.  Or we can recall an incident in which we were wronged, and experience anger.  But these recollections are not an exact replaying of that event: as Susan Weinschenk points out in the quote above, our memories are reconstructions. When we recall a past incident, we’re telling ourselves a story, not actually reliving the past. Because we’re telling ourselves a story, we’re likely to add elements to or excise elements from that story. Over time, our memories shift and change, drifting away from the actual experience to which they refer. The more we recall something, the more we recreate it, and the more likely it is to drift away from its referent. But we respond emotionally and physically to these recreations as if they were real, and these emotional and physical responses serve as support for our belief that our memory must be accurate. In this way, individuals and whole groups can create false memories that they cherish as true history because of their deep emotional resonance.

History is rewritten as much as it is remembered…Most people are probably interested in what the moral and political message of the past is – or should be. And so we will always be constructing and reconstructing collective memories to serve in our collective struggles of today.  Claude Fischer, Professor of Sociology UC Berkeley

Road Rage

The result of storytelling while driving

Stories may also serve to maintain and intensify feelings that have already arisen.  Such stories might appear as explanations or justifications of a current feeling.  For instance, if I’m stuck in traffic and another car comes driving down the shoulder of the road and passes me, I might feel a spurt of anger.  I might then begin to tell myself the story of all the ways in which my anger is justified: I’m acting responsibly, and that other driver is acting irresponsibly. Through this storytelling, I might fan my momentary anger into full-blown indignation. As this goes on, my emotion is no longer arising in response to the momentary event, but rather in response to my story about the event. (See the post Working With Strong Emotions: Impulse Control for more on how this can lead to “expensive” reactions.)

We may also attach explanations to emotions that arise without any clear provocation. For example, I might wake up in the middle of the night and experience a kind of free-floating dread accompanied by a restless itchiness. These feelings are uncomfortable to me, and I want to understand them and control them. So I ask myself, “What am I feeling anxious about?” Actually, I’m not anxious about anything in particular — I’m experiencing an emotion that’s not connected to a particular object. But as soon as I select a reason for my anxiety, I create a story that solidifies my experience into the emotion “anxiety.” As I embellish the story, I fuel my emotion, and my “helpful” explanation turns into the cause of the anxiety.

These explanatory stories appear to help us understand our emotions; they lend a sense of meaning and stability to our lives, and suggest that we may be able to control our emotions. We may believe that if we could understand why an emotion arises, then we could learn to control the circumstances that lead to that emotion; if we could control the circumstances skillfully, we would never have to experience that troublesome emotion again. But our emotions are much more capricious than this: emotions may arise without any discernible cause. We cannot control our lives in such a way that we are guaranteed never to experience a given emotion, nor can we control our lives in such a way that we are guaranteed to be able to produce a given emotion reliably. Rather than learning to control the sort of emotions we experience, we can learn to work with our response to our emotions in general.  We can learn to drop our stories and rest with whatever emotions are arising. It takes bravery to learn to rest in this sort of emotional groundlessness.

Here’s another meditation instruction: Sit and notice the relationship of story and emotion.  Does the story arise before or after emotion? Notice if you’re using a story to provoke an emotion that hasn’t yet arisen or if you’re using a story to solidify and explain an emotion that is already present. See if you can drop the explanation of an emotion and simply rest in the sensations that you feel.

You can work with powerful stories in the same you work with the powerful impulses of a klesha: you can create a mindfulness “speed bump” in which you drop the story, and come back to an awareness of the sensations of your body and of your environment. It may happen, though, that the story that you are enmeshed in is so compelling that you can’t seem to let it go. In this case, you can use analysis to weaken the story’s grip.  By doing so, you can use the wisdom aspect of your conceptuality to combat the confused aspect of your conceptuality:

  1. Recognize that you are telling yourself a story and that you can stop. Even if you can’t seem to drop it, you have some degree of choice about how actively you’ll participate in the storytelling activity. You may try visualizations to help you with curtailing your storytelling. For instance, you might envision turning down the volume of the story.  Or you might personify the character that’s telling the story, thank them for their concern, and dismiss them.
  2. Ask “Is this story true?” Because of your strong emotional reaction, the story might seem as if it were the truth. Don’t accept that; challenge the veracity of the story. How do you know that the story is true? Are there other alternative stories? Is this story true right now, was it true only in the past, or is it something that might only become true in the future?
  3. Ask “Is this story helpful?” The story might be true.  Perhaps you are about to have an important job interview, and it’s true that you might screw it up, and that that could prevent you from getting the job. But is it helpful to imagine all of the ways that you could fail?  Are you planning well, or just rehearsing all possible means of failure? As the popular saying goes, “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.” There are many true stories you could tell yourself.  Pick a helpful one.
  4. Ask “Is it helpful right now?” Even if the story is true and helpful, this might not be the time to think about it.  It’s true that you may need to develop an fire-safety evacuation plan for a future concert. But you may not need to do that when a good friend is opening her heart to you. If the story is helpful, but this is the wrong time to be thinking about it, you can always write it down and promise your conceptual mind that you will come back to it.

hurricaneEmotions change if we let them. Even large and powerful emotional weather systems, such as grief upon the loss of a loved one, are comprised of smaller, fleeting emotions.  In the midst of grief, we might suddenly find ourselves giggling. In the midst of joy, we might experience sadness. If we become concerned about whether our emotions are “appropriate,” we risk creating stories that generate the “appropriate” emotions.  Then our emotions are connected to those stories, and are no longer connected to the here and now. In this regard, the question “What are you really feeling?” is a dangerous one, as it invites us to create tidy stories which create appropriate emotions instead of experiencing the untidy and inappropriate emotions that happen to be arising in this moment.

Don’t worry about what you’re supposed to be feeling or whether there is some other “real” feeling lurking behind the emotion you seem to be experiencing.  Just sit, and allow your emotions to come and go. According to the teachings of Buddhism, or natures are fundamentally loving, compassionate and connected. So if we relax into our nature, and allow our emotions to freely come and go, we will ultimately experience loving-kindness, compassion and a feeling of connectedness.

Isn’t that a comforting story?

Hooked On A Feeling

November 27, 2012

As humans, the ability to control our impulses – or urges – helps distinguish us from other species and marks our psychological maturity. — Daniel Ploskin, MD, What Are Impulse Control Disorders?

I’m about to lose control, and I think I like it. – The Pointer Sisters, I’m So Excited

In our last post, we discussed kleshas — powerful emotions that drive us toward impulsive action.  A powerful klesha is like a friend who comes over the night before final exams and says, “You really need to relax.  Let’s go out drinking!” Your friend might be pointing out something valid – you might really need to relax.  But the strategy for coping with the situation that your friend is recommending – going out drinking –will only leave you hurting and hung-over during the exam, just when you need your mind to be at its sharpest.

The first step for working with kleshas is to exercise some damage control. We need to learn to welcome the friend, assess the information that they’re bringing us, and refrain from going along with their ill-considered invitation.  We can do that by practicing the following steps:

  1. Notice that a klesha has come to visit. (“I’m feeling very lonely.”)
  2. Notice the invitation that the klesha is extending. (“Eating a whole bag of Doritos would make me feel better.”)
  3. Refrain from accepting the invitation if you can.  If you’ve already accepted the invitation, at least slow down your momentum. (“Oh look, my hand is in a bag of chips right now, and I’m stuffing them in my mouth. Maybe I could just pause for breath.”)
  4. Open your awareness to other possibilities. (“Carrot sticks?”)

But even though we might choose to decline our friend’s unhelpful invitation, we might still want to keep our friendship. We can learn to decline the invitation in a kind way, and eventually we can develop our friendship to the point where our friend knows how to help us. We can learn to work the same way with our emotions: we can learn to develop a more helpful, friendly relationship with them.

If we really want to develop a friendly relationship with our emotions, we have to get to know them.  We can do this in meditation.  Here’s a meditation instruction for that: Use emotion as your object of meditation.  Notice whatever emotion arises. Allow yourself to experience the emotion without trying to change it. How does this emotion feel in your body? How does it feel in your mind?  You may feel as if you’re not experiencing any emotion at all.  In that case, notice the basic impulse of your feeling toward whatever object is in your attention.  Do you want to draw the object closer to you or push it away?  The impulse to draw an object nearer has some of the flavor of desire, and the impulse to push an object away has some of the flavor of aversion.  Do you want to change the object, or do you want the object to stay as it is?  The impulse to change the object has some of the flavor of aggression, and the impulse to preserve the object as it currently is has some of the flavor of attachment.

Many of us do not notice our emotions until they reach a certain level of intensity. This is dangerous, because our emotions are bringing us information about our unconscious response to our current situation.  The longer we leave our responses unconscious, the stronger is our attraction to our habitual responses.  The earlier we can catch our emotions the easier it is to work with them.

Here’s what the great sage, Oprah Winfrey, has to say:

“Your life is always speaking to you. First in whispers…. It’s subtle, those whispers. And if you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder. It’s like getting thumped upside the head, like my grand­mother used to do…. You don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head. You don’t pay attention to that, the whole brick wall falls down…Whispers are always messages, and if you don’t hear the message, the message turns into a problem. And if you don’t handle the problem, the problem turns into a crisis. And if you don’t handle the crisis, disaster. Your life is speaking to you. What is it saying?” — Oprah Winfrey,  May 25, 2011

Learn to hear your emotions when they’re still whispering.

down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin I’m in   — Robbie Williams, That Old Black Magic

A good sailor will notice the early signs of a storm and take measures to prepare the ship for the big winds to come.  But thrill-seeking wind-surfers may seek out gale winds and big waves. Many of us are emotional thrill-seekers. The energy associated with kleshas add a powerful kick to our experience. This energy can make us feel very alive. We might enjoy the heightened experience that klesha brings to us. We may provoke this emotional kick through the use of pornography, violent sports, music, movies, and other entertainment. (There is a book about college sports the title of which very nicely sums up the way in which we pursue our kleshas in order to enjoy their kick: To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever )

If we continually pump up an emotion, we can become dependent or addicted to it. Some psychologists claim that we are all emotional addicts. In order to work with an addiction, you must understand the nature of that addiction.  So what’s your favorite klesha? When it’s Unhappy Hour at the Samsara Bar and Grill and the bartender asks you to name your poison, which do you choose? Do you crave the energy of anger? The sweetness of self-pity? The electricity of lust? Do you like yours straight up, with a twist, or do you take a cocktail? (“I’ll have the anger and lust with a dash of self-loathing, please.”) You can notice this both in meditation and in everyday life.

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. ― Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”  — Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell-tale Heart.

 There are emotions that we actively provoke, and there are emotions that we try to repress. Notice which emotions you don’t want to feel. When this emotion comes to visit do you refuse to answer the door?  Have you tried to kill that “friend” and bury his body under the floorboards? If you do, you may find yourself haunted by the emotion.
If we are truly to make friends with our emotions, we must allow all of our emotions the freedom to arrive and depart in their own time. In order to grant our emotions this freedom, we need to recognize when we’re trying to draw an emotion to us, when we’re clinging to an emotion, and when we’re trying to push an emotion away from us.Here’s an instruction: As above, use emotions as your object of meditation. When you recognize an emotion, see if you can discern your relationship to that emotion.  Are you pumping it up or damping it down?  Can you just let the emotion run its course?

You might notice that there are kleshas that you would happily rid yourself of and others that you cling to.  For instance, perhaps you don’t want to be overcome by hatred, but wouldn’t mind being overcome by desire. Letting go of the kleshas that you enjoy may seem like consenting to a passionless, dull life. But that need not be the case: when you let go of an emotion, that doesn’t mean that it will never show up again. If a situation is emotionally resonant, emotions will arise over and over like waves breaking on the shore. You can enjoy the wave and the gap and the next wave.

One last analogy: learning to be open to emotions is like having an open house – all sorts of visitors may come by.  We can learn to welcome all of our visitors.  We can learn to listen to the ones who talk very quietly as well as the ones who shout. We can learn to allow our visitors to come and go in their own time – neither hustling out the door the ones we dislike, nor clinging to the ones we cherish. When we practice in this way, we open ourselves to our entire emotional spectrum and cultivate an emotional life that’s less monochromatic and more varied and vivid.