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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.

Working With Strong Emotions: Impulse Control

November 9, 2012

Have you ever been so swept up by an emotion that you did something that you later regretted? Have you ever been so angry that you lashed out at someone, and later felt regret because you’d hurt them? So consumed with desire for something that you paid way too much for it (financially and /or emotionally)?  So full of lust that you entered into a romantic liaison and then wanted to flee the next day? (Hint: If you answered “no” to all of the above, you are a liar.)

We all experience emotions that are so powerful that they seem to compel us into action. When we’re seized by a powerful emotion, our judgment is clouded, and we often make bad choices. There’s a word for this kind of emotion in the traditional language of Buddhism: it’s klesha in Sanskrit (kilesa inPali, nyönmong in Tibetan.) In translations and commentaries, you may find kleshas referred to as disturbing emotions; afflicted (or afflictive) emotions; mental defilements; or hindrances to enlightenment or to spiritual growth.

“Conan! What is best in life?”

“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”

Conan, in the grips of a klesha.

Kleshas narrow our mental focus. If we’re overcome by hatred, for instance, our focus narrows down to an impulse to destroy our enemies. Like Conan the Barbarian, we don’t want to engage in mediation with our enemies; we just want to crush them. Kleshas bring tremendous energy to this narrow mental focus.  This combination of energy and narrow focus generates a lot of psychological pressure. When we’re in the grips of a klesha, we feel a powerful impulse to act; we feel as if we can’t wait. Because there’s so much energy generated by the klesha, if we act upon our impulses, we may act very powerfully, but we don’t act wisely. We plunge ahead like a bull in a china shop: breakage is likely. Our impulsive actions are neither precise nor gentle.  The Bad Lama says that when we allow ourselves to react impulsively to a klesha, we have a very “expensive” reaction.

The impulse that accompanies the klesha may be outwardly directed (for instance, when we’re angry we might have the impulse to yell at someone else) or it might be inwardly directed  (for instance, when we’re angry we may have the impulse to yell at ourselves).  Whichever way the impulse is directed, it causes damage.

We get better at the things we practice. Each time we act on our impulse, that impulse becomes easier to act on the next time. If we practice an impulse that causes damage, we get better and better at causing damage. The damage we cause has an effect on ourselves and also the world around us.  Our impulsive actions often end up reinforcing the kind of circumstances in our living situation that triggered our klesha in the first place. (In the technical language of Buddhism we would say that klesha leads to karma.)

When we are experiencing a klesha, our mind becomes focused on an impulse and emotionally energized. When this is happening, our habitual impulsive action may seem like the only option we have.  But afterwards — when we’re experiencing the hangover of our impulsive action — we might wonder, whether we could have acted in a way that caused less damage. The good news is that we can learn to respond to our kleshas in a way that cools the emotional heat and allows us greater freedom to make new and better choices.

Since kleshas narrow our mental focus and spur us to impulsive action, we can improve our response to klesha by learning to restrain our impulsive action and broaden our mental focus. A adage tells us “The best time to fix the roof is before it starts raining.”  In the same way, the best time to work on our habitual reactions to klesha is before we’re in the middle of a klesha attack.   If we  practice working with klesha when we’re in a relatively calm state, we can work with the relatively small kleshas that generate relatively weak impulses. Little by little we can develop our practice to the point where we can work with very powerful kleshas that generate very powerful impulses. We can practice working with our kleshas both in formal meditation and in everyday life.

Working With Klesha During Meditation

Meditation is an ideal situation for practicing a better response to our kleshas. During meditation, we can observe our own minds more clearly than we can during our hectic everyday lives.  We can also practice “taming” techniques that help calm our mind.  Meditation practice provides a situation in which we can observe our mind when its relatively calm and then watch what it does when a klesha arises.

Relax, don’t do it, when you want to get to it. – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Practicing Impulse Control

Kleshas push us toward impulsive action.  In order to make new choices, we have to build up the ability to resist our old habitual impulsive choices; we need to develop impulse control.  Luckily for us, we’re already practicing impulse control in our meditation. When we notice that our mind has wandered away from our object of meditation, we are practicing noticing that we have unconsciously followed an impulse. When we gently bring our mind back to the object of meditation, we are practicing consciously redirecting our mind from that impulse.  This gentle, persistent practice of conscious impulse control helps us build mental strength. This mental strength is like ballast in a ship – it makes us more stable when the storm rolls in and the big waves come.

When we practice in this way, we’re not asserting that our object of meditation is a better object than whatever object the impulse is focused on. It doesn’t matter if the impulse is focused on a really good idea or a resentful fantasy; whatever the object of our impulse is, we drop it and bring the mind back to the object of meditation. We bring it back so that we can practice recognizing when we’re following an impulse, and so that we can practice choosing not to follow the impulse, whatever it is.  Our goal in this practice is not to arrive at a state in which no impulses arise; our goal is to achieve the freedom to make choices about how we are able to respond to those impulses that do arise.

You can practice meditation in a way that emphasizes the development of impulse control. Here’s an instruction for that: Place your awareness on the object of meditation (for instance, your breathing) as usual.  When you notice that your attention is no longer on the object of meditation, give yourself a moment to recognize that you have been following an impulse.  Let yourself briefly feel the emotional charge of that impulse. How strongly is the impulse pulling you? Notice how this emotional pull feels in your body. Then make a conscious choice to let go of the impulse and gently return your awareness to the object of meditation.

An expensive reaction?

We generally respond to our impulses unconsciously, so it may take a while before you’re aware that you’ve following an impulse.  By the time you realize what you’re doing, you may not be just following an impulse; you may have jumped on its back and be riding it into battle.  The earlier you realize that you’re following an impulse, the less “expensive” your reaction will be. Imagine this scenario: You’re meditating in your room, and your roommate is right outside the room talking loudly on a cell phone. You’re irritated by this. You try to bring your awareness back to your breath, but your roommate’s conversation is impossible to ignore. You sit there fuming about how inconsiderate your roommate is. He must know that you’re in here practicing calm abiding meditation! Doesn’t he respect your practice? He’s always doing things like this!  You get yourself so worked up that you get up from the cushion, open your door, snatch the cell phone from your roommate’s hand and throw it against the wall.  This is going to be an expensive reaction!  You’ve damaged your own state of mind, your meditation session, your roommate’s phone and your relationship with your roommate! If you had managed to notice your impulse and drop it when you were in the middle of fuming, the reaction would have been less expensive.  And if you had noticed the impulse as soon as the irritation arose, and dropped it at that time, your reaction would hardly cost you anything at all.

Broaden your focus

More Space = Less Pressure. Click for animation.

The narrow focus of klesha increases the emotional pressure that drives us toward impulsive action.  We can decrease this emotional pressure by broadening our mental focus, and giving our emotions more space. Here’s an instruction to add this to your meditation practice:  As in the previous meditation instruction, place your awareness on your object of meditation.  When you notice that your attention is no longer on the object of meditation, give yourself a moment to recognize that you were following an impulse.  Notice the tightness of your mental focus at this moment. Then expand your mental focus to include your body. Expand your mental focus again to include both your body and your whole environment.  Allow your body and your environment to stay lightly in your awareness as you bring your attention back to your object of meditation.

 Working with Klesha in Everyday Life

 When you are angry, don’t make any decisions.  When you’re really happy, don’t make any promises. When you’re in a bad mood, don’t analyze.  – The Bad Lama

In everyday life, we can work with kleshas in the same way as in meditation:  when we find ourselves caught by a klesha, we can slow down our impulsive action and widen our mental focus.  If you find yourself in the midst of a klesha attack, take a quick mindfulness time-out. Bring your awareness to your body and take three, long conscious breaths. Expand your awareness to include your whole environment. If you can, drop whatever it is you’re doing and come back to it later. For instance, if you have just written a scathing email, DO NOT HIT SEND. Place the email in your drafts folder and look at it again tomorrow.

If you know that you are going to go into a situation that triggers kleshas, see if you can build a mindfulness time-out into the situation.  For instance, a website that promotes conscious eating recommends that you divide the food on your plate in half, and take a break from eating when you finish the first half.

Easier than riding an angry bull.

Kleshas have tremendous energy and momentum. When we’re in the middle of a klesha attack, it can feel as if we’re riding a huge angry bull. We may not have the ability to get off that ride, but we might be able to slow it down so we don’t cause quite so much damage to ourselves and those around us.   (Maybe instead of riding a huge angry bull, we’ll find ourselves riding a medium-sized irritated goat.)

When we’re practicing in this way, either on the cushion or off it, it’s important to remember that we’re not trying to rid ourselves of emotions, and we’re not trying to cultivate only the “correct” emotions. Our intelligence comprises our entire emotional spectrum. Anger, for instance, might be telling us that something in the situation is wrong and that we need to address it. We don’t want to ignore the wisdom of our emotions. But we also don’t want to be compelled by our emotions into the same old impulsive reactions. By practicing working with our kleshas, we can to learn to respond to all of our emotions in a flexible, intelligent, spontaneous way.

Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose

October 2, 2012

There is a story in the earliest Buddhist scriptures in which the Buddha helps a practitioner understand the principle “Not too tight, not too loose.” Here’s a paraphrase of that story:

A musician playing the vina

There was a monk named Sona who was very inspired by meditation and determined to practice it as diligently as he could. He practiced walking meditation so intensely that his feet cracked and bled. He thought, “This is terrible! I’ve tried really hard – as hard as anybody I know — and I haven’t achieved enlightenment.  All I got for my effort are bleeding feet.  Maybe I should just give up and go home.” The Buddha understood how Sona felt, so he gave him some advice.  Sona was a musician; he had played an instrument called the vina (often translated as the lute.) The Buddha asked Sona whether the vina worked well if the strings were strung really, really tightly.  Sona replied that it didn’t work so well like that.  Then the Buddha asked Sona if the vina worked well if the strings were strung really, really loosely. Sona replied that it didn’t work so well like that, either. Then the Buddha asked Sona if the vina worked well if the strings were strung not too tightly,  and not too loosely.  Sona replied that that was the way the vina worked best. So the Buddha advised Sona to treat his practice like that:  neither to practice too tightly, nor too loosely, but always to find just the right pitch of effort.  When Sona practiced in this way, he was able to achieve an awakening. (Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.55)

The too-tight approach can indicate a fundamental aggression toward ourselves and toward our situation in life.  Too-tight says, “This moment is not good enough.  There is another moment that would be better than this. I am not good enough.  There is someone better I could be.” Too-tight can be a rejection of our current state in favor of some potentially better state. But as the Bad Lama cautions: “Sitting won‘t make you any better.”  There’s nothing wrong with our fundamental nature, we just have layers of unfortunate habits that obscure our already-fine selves. Too-tight doesn’t trust in its own fundamental nature.

The too-loose approach can indicate that we’re ignoring our feelings and ignoring our current situation. Too-loose says, “It’s all good,” and then disengages from the current moment with a vacant smile. And while, theoretically, it may all be good, in our experience it doesn’t all feel good.  In fact, we are often suffering. Too-loose ignores that suffering.  It prefers not to acknowledge those layers of habits that cause us to continually wound ourselves and to wound those around us.  Too-loose doesn’t want to do the work of letting go of those habits.

If you find yourself steering a speeding race car in heavy traffic, it may not be the time for a formal meditation practice.

In our practice, we try to find a middle way between too tight and too loose.  We have to continually re-tune the pitch of effort of our practice. We can work on our re-tuning within a session: we may notice that we are over-tight, and relax; we may notice that we are spacing out, and tighten up a bit. It’s also helpful to be aware of our tightness and looseness on a larger scale.  Our lives go through periods of greater tightness and greater looseness; acceleration and compression, deceleration and decompression. Sometimes our lives are so accelerated and compressed — so packed with events and so speedy — that there is almost no time for formal meditation practice. A too-tight approach might say, “If I can’t meditate for an hour I won’t meditate at all.”  At those times we may have to loosen up our meditation practice. We might shift our practice to just the most gentle mind-soothing exercises.  We may have to fit these moments in the interstices of our day: some moments of stopping and breathing; some moments of releasing the tension in our bodies and minds; maybe just a moment of remembering meditation and aspiring to practice it again.  It’s good to do these things consciously – to make a voluntary choice to spend a few moments calming down. In this way, we won’t lose the pitch of meditation entirely. Then when our lives decelerate and decompress (however long that might take) we’ll still have some relationship to meditation, and we’ll be able to pick up the tune of meditation practice. Too-loose says, “Well, everything I do is meditation so I don’t really have to think about it, I’m just naturally doing it.” Too-loose might be more dangerous than too-tight in this situation:  not only have we lost the pitch of meditation, we don’t even realize we’ve lost the pitch.

Suzuki Roshi elegantly summed up the view of not-too-tight, not-too-loose: “Each one of you is perfect the way you are and you can use a little improvement.” When we find ourselves getting too tight, we can remember that our fundamental perfection is already here – we don’t have to strive any harder to make ourselves perfect. And when we find ourselves getting too loose we can remember that we do not currently have an unobscured view of that perfection, so we still have some work to do.

Happiness Boot Camp

September 21, 2012

Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux.
(Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.) — Émile Coué

 I remember when it was popular among the self-help New Age crowd around New York to recite affirmations. Affirmations are “positive auto-suggestions,” messages sent by the conscious mind to the unconscious mind that undo negative messages held in the unconscious. It’s a little like hypnotizing your self. A popular affirmation was “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” I had a very hard time sending myself that message because I didn’t believe it was true. I hated the idea of deceiving myself, of being a fool or a dupe. I imagined standing in front of the mirror, reciting, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better,” and the man in the mirror saying back to me, “Not only are you not getting any better, you’re also a lying sack of shit.” I didn’t take on the practice of affirmations because I felt that I’d rather know the truth and be unhappy then be deluded and happy.

I refused to practice affirmations, but without really being aware of it, I practiced negative auto-suggestions instead. I developed a persistent bad attitude; a snarky voice that repeated, “Every day in every way, things are probably going to suck.” I didn’t think that I was practicing auto-suggestions, though; I thought I was observing the truth. I had proof of this, too: whenever I approached a situation thinking, “This is probably going to turn out badly,” the situation usually did, in fact, turn out badly. It took years of meditation for me to realize what the clever reader has already figured out: things turned out badly because I was helping them to turn out badly.

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
(Where observation is concerned, fortune favors only the prepared mind) – Louis Pasteur

We get better at the things we practice.  We get better at noticing the things we practice noticing. I had trained my mind to notice whatever was not quite satisfactory; whatever could have been better; and especially whatever someone else had that might be better than what I had. I got really good at noticing what was irritating and unsatisfactory in my world, and as a result, I got to live in an irritating, unsatisfactory world. I thought that I was very smart since I was so good at predicting how things would work out. But I wasn’t happier as a result of this awesome prognostic prowess. In fact, I was making myself more and more miserable.  So really, how smart is that?

If you want to be happy, you should think about happiness, speak about happiness, and write about happiness. – The Bad Lama

To paraphrase the Bad Lama, if you want to be happy, don’t practice noticing dissatisfaction; practice noticing happiness instead. This does not mean that you should suppress or deny painful feelings. If you try to achieve happiness by suppressing painful feelings, eventually those feelings will erupt into your experience.  If your happiness depends on the absence of painful feelings, then painful feelings will destroy your happiness. Instead, see if you can open yourself up to a happiness that is big enough to include all feelings, especially painful feelings. When you open yourself up in this way, then happiness can manifest in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Trungpa Rinpoche talks about this kind of openness in The Heart of the Buddha:

A traditional analogy is that of the hunter.  The hunter does not have to think of a stag or a mountain goat or a bear or any specific animal; he is looking for that. When he walks and hears some sound, or senses some subtle possibility, he does not think of what animal he is going to find; just a feeling of that comes up.  Anybody in any kind of complete involvement — on the level of the hunter, the lover, or the meditator – has the kind of openness that brings about sudden flashes. It is an almost magical sensation of that-ness without a name, without a concept, without idea.)

A hunter

Many of us have a very small idea of happiness. We imagine that happiness is experienced as a certain set of feelings, and that it’s dependent on certain specific objects. Following Trungpa Rinpoche’s analogy, that would be like the hunter deciding that he will only have a successful hunt if he finds a specific animal at a specific place and a specific time. That hunter would often return from the hunt empty-handed. When we define happiness this narrowly, we are likely to experience not-happiness. We create the conditions for dissatisfaction. The happiness that the Bad Lama directs us toward is vast – it can encompass anything! You might think of it as contentment, or deep joy or an equanimity that warmly welcomes all experiences.

When the Bad Lama asks us to think about happiness and speak about it and write about it, he’s suggesting that our activities can be oriented toward opening up to this joy.  We don’t just hope to be happy; we get involved in the process.  We prepare the ground so that we can notice all of the flashes of vast happiness, in whatever form they take. We could notice it in our sadness, in our anger, in our boredom.

Another hunter

I don’t want to continue making myself unhappy.  I’d rather turn my mind toward happiness, so I’m willing to practice the Bad Lama’s happiness training.  This is fundamental Buddhist mind training:  to decide that you’d like to be happy, and to decide to change your behavior in order to experience happiness. There are many, many kinds of mind trainings in the Buddhist tradition, but this is the basis of all of them. This is Happiness Boot Camp: continually re-upping on the decision to open up to vast happiness. All of the other kinds of Buddhist mind trainings — contemplations and visualizations and analytic meditations — are just elaborations on this basic training. (So why do we need all of those various trainings? There are myriad trainings that lead us toward happiness because we have developed myriad strategies for creating dissatisfaction!)

Be a hunter for happiness! Join the happiness safari. Maybe, if you’re lucky, some giant ferocious happiness will roar out of the jungle and consume you entirely.

Meditating on Visual Objects

September 10, 2012

Shamatha/Vipashyana meditation has two aspects: taming and training.  When we tame our mind, we allow it to calm down and to rest peacefully.  When we train our mind, we develop (or uncover) our natural wisdom.  This wisdom allows us to undo those misunderstandings that cause the mind to freak out in the first place. We can use an object as a focus of meditation as an aid in taming or training. An object can act like ballast and help bring a wild mind down to earth. An object can also be a focus for investigation and training.

Let your mind rest on the object like a seal resting on a rock.

Visible objects can be used for both taming and training.  They are very helpful in taming the mind because they are often quite stable relative to a wild mind.  A wild mind zooms in and out of the room, into the past and out to the future.  A rock just sits there.   So if we let our mind rest on a visible object like a rock, the mind is encouraged to become a little more stable.

 Choosing a visual object as your object of meditation.

For the purpose of taming the mind, it is best to pick a neutral object – one that you don’t have strong opinions about and one that does not arouse strong emotion. (We’ll talk below on different kinds of visible objects.) A rock, a flower or a candle would be fine – not a picture of a loved one or an enemy. Take your meditation posture with the object in front of you.  It will be most comfortable for you if the object is slight below the horizontal plane of your eyes. (If the object is above the horizontal plane, you may find yourself tipping your head back to see the object, and developing a neck tension as a result.) Gently place your visual awareness on that object. It’s helpful to place your awareness where the object meets the ground – this naturally brings the eyes down. Allow your eyes to relax and rest. You may allow your eyelids to be half-closed if that feels natural. Keep the focus of your eyes soft, without much attention to detail. You’re not looking at anything in particular; you’re just looking. Relax and let go of any tension in your eyes.

Don’t seize the object with your eyes.

Many of us tighten focus in order to seize details. We grasp objects with our eyes. Try experimenting with this.  First, really try to grasp every tiny detail of your visual object with your eyes.  As you do this, notice the amount of tension that you experience in your eyes, your face, the rest of your body and your mind.  Then let go of the need to see any details.  Just let the visual object be the center of your visual field.  Let your eyes rest with no need to gain any particular information about the object.  Now notice the amount of tension that you experience.

Keep your gaze centered on one point, but allow yourself to see everything within your field of vision (this includes your peripheral vision.) You can make the focus of your attention smaller and smaller, but still don’t limit your peripheral vision. One of the main purposes of meditation is the cultivation of open awareness.  Our goal is to be open to all phenomena. We rest right on this object here and now, but we don’t exclude anything else; we allow ourselves to experience everything that goes on without being pulled away from our resting.

In an earlier post, we discussed Distinguishing Concepts From Physical Sensations . In the same way, you  can distinguish your visual perception from your concepts about the object.  Just rest your eyes on the object. Don’t try to determine anything about the object.  You don’t need to know its history, whether it’s good or bad, toxic or medicinal, where it came from or who owns it. Drop any conceptual mental chatter. Just rest your eyes on the object and be with it.  Don’t try to figure it out. Merely see the object.

Your eyes may do funny things. You may see colors differently than usually and you may experience the movement of objects through your visual field differently than usual. Don’t become fascinated by this.  It’s neither good nor bad – in fact, it’s irrelevant. Don’t try to make it happen or make it not happen.  Just rest and experience whatever goes on in your visual field.

Types of Visual Objects

In our everyday life, we receive a lot of information visually. We often judge whether things are dangerous or safe, good for us or harmful to us by way of visual information. Therefore, we may experience strong emotions when we perceive certain visual objects. For that reason, some people like to meditate in a dark room with their eyes closed.  But in shamatha/vipashyana meditation, we learn to rest comfortably with any object, so we are encouraged to meditate with our eyes open. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, if you’re using a visual object for the purpose of taming your mind, it’s best to use a neutral object. If the object has strong emotional associations, it will invite your mind to play.

A sacred image represents qualities of enlightenment.

However, if you are using the visual object for the purpose of training, then you might begin to use objects that have some emotional associations with them. In the Kagyu tradition, for instance, it’s traditional during retreat to begin meditating on a neutral object, and then to progress to an object of attachment, and then to an object of aversion. In the Theravadan tradition, it is traditional to use corpses as an object of meditation. Most religious traditions include sacred art, which can be understood as visual objects that represent sacred or enlightened qualities. When a practitioner meditates on sacred art, she may become more familiar with these qualities and begin to uncover them in herself.

After Meditation

You can bring some of this technique into your everyday life.  For instance, when you are looking at a computer, tablet or phone, keep the screen as the focus of your attention, but include your whole visual field in your awareness. When you’re reading, you can drop all your mental preconceptions and commentary.  Just see the letters, the edges of the book (or tablet or screen) and then the whole room. Notice that you can still understand the text even without the over-tight focus. Notice whenever your eyes grasp an object like an eagle seizing its prey.  When you notice that, see if you can loosen your focus and relax your eyes.  This will encourage the mind (which is also grasping that object) to relax, too.

Letting go of “I am”

August 31, 2012

Whatever gets involved with “I am” is not easy.   – The Bad Lama

In our practice of meditation, we can learn to distinguish concepts from physical sensations. Concepts are projections of the conceptual mind; they are interpretations, memories and predictions that we overlay on top of the direct experience of our senses. Concepts range from powerful fantasies to simple labels.  We often take these concepts very seriously.  We praise each other with concepts. We insult each other with concepts.  We get in fights over concepts. We are wounded to the heart over concepts. But when we realize that concepts are our own projection, not something inherent to ourselves or others, we can learn to take our concepts – our beliefs and expectations – lightly. Then we can be much more skillful in our use of concepts.  As Sangharakshita writes in The Three Jewels

Concepts…should be handled in the spirit not of logic but of poetry; not pushed hither and thither with grim calculation like pieces on a chessboard, but tossed lightly, playfully in the air like a juggler’s multicoloured balls.

There’s one concept in particular that we take very seriously indeed. But it’s such a persistent concept that we might not even notice it. It’s just there all the time, like the air that surrounds us. This is the concept that the Bad Lama calls “I am.” You could call it “Me.”

We usually make this concept the center of our experience, but  it is actually an overlay on top of our experience. As Shunryu Suzuki Roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

If you think, ‘I breathe,’ the ‘I’ is extra.

The concept “I am” can have enormous power over our lives. Try filling in some of the blanks in the sentences below.  Do it honestly.  You can fill out each sentence more than once, if you want.

I never ____ because I am ____.

I have to ____ because I am ____.

I am unhappy with myself because I am ____.

I am too embarrassed to ___ because I am ____.

I’ll never understand ____ because I am ____.

As you filled in those blanks, did you have an experience of the ways in which the concept “I am” limits your freedom of action and your experience of your life? (Honestly, I’d like to hear whether you did or didn’t – please leave a comment.) The Bad Lama says: ‘“I am” shrinks our minds.  It’s like looking at a black dot on white paper, and seeing only the dot — not seeing the paper and not seeing the room in which the paper is sitting.’

“I am” also limits our experience of our own physical sensations. Here’s an experiment for you to try.  Take your meditation posture, allow your mind to settle, then place your attention on your physical sensations. Whenever an unpleasant sensation arises, try mixing it with “I am.”  Let yourself speculate on how this sensation might affect you. Bring “I am” close to the sensation.  See what you notice about the sensation.  Does it feel any different? Also notice the state of your mind.  Does it feel more open or more closed? Next, try distancing “I am” from the sensation.  Just try to experience the sensation without any reference to yourself and how that sensation might affect you. See what you notice about the sensation.  Does it feel any different? Also notice the state of your mind.  Does it feel more open or more closed?

When you hurt your hand, you might think, “I’m hurt; I am in pain!” If you identify  yourself with only one aspect of your experience – the pain in your hand — your experience shrinks down to the size of your hand. “I am” can create physical and psychological knots which make a painful sensation much worse, and also prevent that sensation from going through its phases. When you let go of “I am,” you can release physical tension, and psychological and physical knots.  Just rest and let the sensation blossom, even it it’s painful and unacceptable to Me.

When we focus on “I am,” we distance ourselves from the full range of our sensations. In our meditation on physical sensation, we can distance ourselves from “I am” and experience all of the sensations that are happening.  If your foot hurts or your nose is itchy, don’t let “I am” shrink your experience down to your foot or your nose. Your life is bigger than your foot! Your life is bigger than your nose, too!

Because we have a strong habit of “I am,” when we experience a physical sensation we immediately try to assess it in terms of its effect on Me.  “How is this going to affect Me? Is this  good for Me or bad for Me; is this for Me or against Me?” When we engage in this kind of assessment, it becomes difficult to refrain from reacting to a painful sensation. “I am” gives us a justification for reacting: “This sensation means that something is happening that’s bad for Me.  I have a responsibility to take care of Me. I have a right and a duty to react!”

But the Bad Lama says: “Don’t use “human rights” as a cover for impatience.” Intense sensations challenge our patience.  When we meditate on physical sensation we practice refraining from reacting to our sensations both physically and mentally. Practice experiencing all of your sensations and letting go of the concept “I am.” If you can do that, you’ll find that painful sensations becomes less of a big deal.

Distinguishing Concepts From Physical Sensations

August 24, 2012

“There are a lot of ways to escape from pain.  But there’s only one way to meet pain — with no resistance and without labels.” – The Bad Lama

We are all Mitty.

When you meditate, you will notice that thoughts arise in your mind.  Some of these thoughts are relatively small and pass by quickly, but others are very captivating. These thoughts invite you to accompany them right out of the room.  Suddenly you’re on a safari in Tanzania, or suffering through the breakup of an old romance or smiting your enemies in an upcoming business meeting.  When this happens, bring your attention back into the room, back to here and now and let it rest on your object of meditation.

We call these large and powerful thoughts fantasies. It’s pretty easy to notice when you’re lost in a fantasy, because fantasies don’t correspond to what’s happening here and now. All you need to do is to come back to your senses, and the fantasy fades away. We may not want to leave the fantasy – it might seem much more pleasant and interesting to stay in the fantasy rather than the dull here and now – but we know that it is a fantasy.  Since fantasies don’t correspond to what our senses perceive here and now, we also know that fantasies belong to that part of our mind that is called the conceptual mind. (For more on the conceptual mind, see the post Enter the Monkey.)

There are some thoughts that are harder to notice than fantasies. These are thoughts about your object of meditation. Such thoughts can include, for example, the history of the object; how you might use the object; whether you like the object or not. The thoughts may be as small as a label for the object: “That sensation is pain and it is in my knee.” These thoughts are your projections; although they are about the object, they don’t belong to the object; they belong to you. But since these thoughts are related to the object, we often mix them together with our object of meditation, and think that somehow the thought is coming from the object.

It’s very useful to learn to distinguish the information that is coming from our senses from information that is coming from our conceptual mind. We can practice this in our meditation. Here are some instructions that develop the focused body scan instructions from the post Meditating On Physical Sensation:

…take your meditation posture, and allow your mind to settle. Then place your attention on the crown of your head. Notice any physical sensations that you might feel in that area. Don’t expect some special sensation; just be aware of any sensation that you might feel.  Remember that the goal is not to experience the right sensation, but rather to learn to rest patiently and alertly with whatever sensation arises. If you don’t experience any sensation, wait patiently.  If your attention wanders away from the crown of your head, bring it back.  When you notice a sensation at the crown of your head, move your attention to your forehead.  Again, rest patiently and alertly until you’ve noticed sensations on your forehead.  Continue in this way, moving your attention to the part of your chest over your heart; to your solar plexus; to your genitals; and to the base of your spine.

Follow the instructions above.  Each time a sensation arises, notice the labels that you project onto that sensation.  Notice whether you like the sensation or not, and whether you think it needs to be changed or not. Notice if you think it means something. See if you can let go of any labeling or interpretation and direct your attention to the raw physical sensation.

You may notice that even when you let go of a label or a judgment, it still hangs around.  Don’t worry about this. You don’t need to eradicate all conceptual thought. Just practice differentiating the raw sensations that your sense faculties perceive from the interpretations that your conceptual mind projects.

This transaction brought to you by Conceptual Mind.

Conceptualization is a natural function of mind.  Conceptual mind creates the languages that enable us to communicate with one another; it allows us to analyze an object into its elements and recombine those elements into something new; it allows us to record historical events and to predict future events. Thanks to conceptual mind, if you’d like to buy lemons, you can predict that lemons can be found in a market, remember how to get to the market, and participate in a financial transaction at the market.

But conceptual mind is dangerous when we don’t realize that we’re mixing our interpretation of an object with that object itself. For one thing, conceptual mind uses labels that tend to be fixed and unchanging (permanent) to describe objects that are fluid and changing (impermanent). We can cause ourselves a great deal of pain when we try to make something or someone conform to a label that used to fit, but no longer does. There are many songs written about the pain that results from the inability to release the label “lover” when that label no longer fits.

For another thing, labels almost always describe only one aspect of the object. We can easily confuse the label for the entire object. Then even if that label is accurate (for now), it can stand in the way of experiencing the whole object. Think of the labels that are extremely potent for you — for instance “toxic,” “radical fundamentalist,” or “homosexual.” Do they prevent you from seeing other aspects of that object? Now, just for fun, try taking a label that’s positive and combining it with one that’s negative. Perhaps you’ll end up with a peacemaking radical fundamentalist, a homosexual patriot or a toxic Buddhist.  Are your labels flexible enough to combine in this way?  Do they play well with others?

When we meditate on sensation, we can notice how our labels limit our perceptions.  Here’s an extension of the meditation instructions above: When you notice yourself labeling a sensation, see if you can notice whether the label describes the whole sensation, or only one aspect of the situation. For instance, if you experience a sensation that you label as an “itch,” when you return your attention to the physical sensation, see if you can notice any aspect of that sensation that’s not “itchy”. You might also notice when the label no longer fits the sensation – when the itch subsides and is no longer itchy. In this way you can practice noticing the difference between labels and actual sensations, and you can notice the ways in which labels do not adequately describe sensations.

There’s a popular saying “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”  When you become familiar with concepts, you can see ways in which they are helpful and the ways in which they are limiting.  You can become familiar with they ways in which you confuse labels for the objects that they describe. Then you can use your concepts to help you draw closer to your object rather than allowing concepts to hide your object from you.