Category Archives: Suffering

Meditation When We Most Need It

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Meditation When We Most Need It

Imagine someone who will take aspirin for a mild headache but, when they get a really bad headache, decides not to take the aspirin.

That’s what we do sometimes with meditation when we are under great stress or feeling unhappy or not feeling well. At the moment when we most need meditation, when mindfulness would be most valuable to us, we decide not to practice them. We don’t have time, or we don’t feel like it, or it doesn’t seem like they’re helping us.

I almost never say someone has to do this thing or must do that thing. But this is one instance in which I insist that you push through the resistance and practice meditation and mindfulness anyway, because I know that the payoff will be worth it. Stress is reduced, or we are better able to deal with it. Spirits are lifted, or we realize that it’s normal and okay to feel down sometimes. The psychological burden of “being sick” dissipates, and we recover more quickly.

So, try hardest to meditate at those times when the resistance to meditating is greatest. And take an aspirin when you’ve got a headache – we suffer enough without enduring maladies that are easily resolved.

The Mindfulness Backlash

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Seems like anything that garners attention in this age of unavoidable social media eventually suffers a backlash. For several years now, there has been a steady stream of articles about the benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation. More recently, there has been a growing number of missives attacking mindfulness and meditation – in other words, the backlash has begun.

I think I understand the motivation for the usual backlash – people are just sick to death of hearing about a particular topic. It happens with equal frequency for things of great importance – like presidential campaigns – and things of no importance at all – like planking.

Where these anti-waves lose me, though, is when they begin to attack the thing itself, rather than the ridiculous amount of attention that the thing has received. Which is why I’m bewildered by the backlash against mindfulness and meditation. True, they are both receiving much more attention than they used to, but not nearly as much as other things that collapse back on themselves. Worse, some people are characterizing meditation and mindfulness as ineffective, faddish, and a waste of time. Both practices can withstand a close critique, in my opinion, but much of the criticism I have seen is ill-informed and reveals a startling lack of understanding of the things they are condemning.

A typical example appeared recently under the title “In defiance of mindfulness,” as if mindfulness were somehow oppressing the author. Her opening paragraph was a jaw-dropper:

Mindfulness is so big these days that someone has even made an attempt at calculating its impact on this country’s GDP. I, however, have not seen anyone to whom mindfulness has made any substantial difference. In fact, all the confused people that I know regularly meditate and go on yoga retreats. Some even teach at them.

Let’s just skip over the hyperbole and address the notion that the author knows no one who has benefited from mindfulness. That suggests to me that she doesn’t know what mindfulness is. Of course, I’m attuned to it as a practitioner, but I see mindfulness’ benefits everywhere I look; even when I’m not looking. Her next lines confirm what I thought:

While mindfulness can calm us down and we may even decide, after too many deep breaths, that we have “found ourselves”, we then invariably go back to the real world and all its limitations. And our old circumstances stare us in the face and create the same stress and aggravation.

The most common misunderstanding about meditation and mindfulness is that their purpose is to withdraw from the world or hide from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although meditation often takes the form of sitting in quiet, its intent is to benefit you when you’re not “on the cushion.” Mindfulness is about improving your awareness of life as it happens and, thereby, your ability to cope with the stress and aggravations of every day.

BTW, if the practice of mindfulness involves “finding ourselves” (not a phrase I’ve ever used in relation to mindfulness) it does not seek to hide from world. Rather, mindfulness is about finding yourself where you actually are, in the circumstances you actually are living in.

And here comes the message of this article. It is breathtakingly naïve to claim that all a modern individual needs is inner calm, and all else would fall into place. How can half an hour of yoga and meditation a day fix a stalled career, for example? So instead of chasing some elusive sense of self which we hope will keep us happy at all times, we should instead focus on improving our circumstances and getting rid of the problems that caused us the stress in the first place.

This paragraph breathtakingly mischaracterizes mindfulness and is further proof the author doesn’t know what it is. No one who truly understands mindfulness would make such a claim. It is a tool for living in a world of suffering, not a method for eliminating suffering. It works best, in my opinion, when integrated into your life, including any other things you do to promote physical, mental, and emotional health.

Let me answer the author’s question: A half hour of yoga or mediation a day won’t make your job any better, or increase your income, or stop someone from abusing you. It will change your outlook, the orientation of your mind, your attitude. It will equip you to deal with the suffering you encounter so that you can find the strength and motivation to seek a new, better-paying job; or to find a way to escape from an abusive situation. Mindfulness helps you cope with the difficulties of life by opening your eyes to the true source of those difficulties – it is virtually impossible to remedy difficult circumstances if you don’t truly understand their nature and what causes them.

One last item: The author refers to mindfulness as “new-age,” which is a code word for “the latest fad.” Of course, mindfulness and meditation are thousands of years old, hardly a recent development. If anything is new, it’s the author’s awareness of the practice.

It is unfair to characterize mindfulness as something it is not intended to be and then tear it down for not being that something.

Everyone Suffers

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We are apt to compare our suffering with that of others, and to think things like, “He’s in much better shape than I am. My problems are much worse.” And we somethings convince ourselves that some other people don’t suffer at all.

Everyone suffers, even the people who seem to have it made in the shade. We cannot see their suffering, so we do not, in fact, really know.

The Buddha taught that all people suffer, even those who appear to be very wealthy and healthy and happy. Those people suffer, for example, from fear and anxiety over losing those good things they have, to the point that they cannot even enjoy their blessings.

So treat everyone with compassion and, thereby, avoid exacerbating anyone’s suffering.

be kind

Stuck in a Moment

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Man Sitting In Valley

A recent blog post by Wray Herbert describes sunk-cost bias as “the tendency to persist with an endeavor once we’ve made an investment of money or time or effort.” He paints it in a negative light, calling it an “irrational” behavior.

I get what he’s talking about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve put up with an unhappy situation as if there were no alternative. Part hopelessness, part fear of change (even if just about any change would be an improvement), part stubbornness (“No one’s going to make me do something against my will…”).

This may be an instance of painting with too broad a brush, though. Sometimes, even when we are suffering and a situation is far less than ideal, there are good reasons for remaining right where we are, continuing to do the exact same thing. We may know that things will get better soon. We may believe that the intolerable situation we’re experiencing is worth it to achieve a goal we consider important.

I’ll give you an example. My first marriage, for all practical purposes, was over after about a dozen years. It would be 18 years, though, before we divorced. Some of those intervening years were among the most painful of my life. If I had physically left the marriage after 12 years, though, I never would have experienced the final three years. During that time, we attended marriage counseling, where we discovered that, ultimately, we did not wish to save the marriage. In the process, though, we worked out most of the issues that had undermined our marriage. Consequently, as we worked through the particulars of the divorce and chafed at the shackles of trying to sell our home in the wake of the 2008 housing market collapse, we rediscovered the friendship that had brought us together in the first place. We also gave our daughter a lasting image of her parents as friends, rather than as mortal enemies and screaming lunatics. Tough as those years were, I wouldn’t go back and redo any of them.

Mr. Herbert points to mindfulness as the solution to the inertia of sunk-cost bias. I’d amplify that notion, though, to say that mindfulness allows us to discriminate between the moments when we are being irrationally anchored to a painful experience and the times when the best course is to stay put. Sticking out an unpleasant situation is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes the right thing for us and those around us.

The teachings I have received as a Buddhist also remind me that change is always occurring – in fact, change is an immutable part of existence. Which means that no situation is permanent, no specific form of suffering unending.

In dire times I remember the words of a Sufi poet, “This too shall pass,” as well as those of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And then a song by U2, “Stuck in a Moment,” starts playing in my head. I sing along and the present situation seems less dark, less inevitable.

I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool
But darling, look at you. Ooh.
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
‘Cause tears are going nowhere baby

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

I will not forsake the colors that you bring
The nights you filled with fireworks
They left you with nothing
I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me
I listen through your ears
Through your eyes I can see

You are such a fool to worry like you do.. Oh
I know it’s tough and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now
My, oh my

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh love, look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh lord look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment  and you cant get out of it

I was unconscious, half asleep
The water is warm ’til you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass

It’s just a moment
This time will pass

Persistence and Attachment

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Yesterday I reposted a picture on the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook with a quotation from Chögyam Trungpa’s book Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.”

A good question was posed in response: “How is this idea consistant with the idea of no attachments and no attachment to an outcome?”

The teacher in me wants to respond, “How is it inconsistent?” But I’ll refrain. 🙂

I don’t see persistence as being the same thing as attachment. I believe one can be unflagging in their efforts to show compassion to all beings, for instance, without becoming attached to it in a way that causes suffering. Attachment is possible, to be certain. Heck, it’s more than possible, it highly likely. Everyone has attachments and everyone suffers because of them. Even things considered “good” — like love, happiness, health — can be attachments that lead to suffering.

Many teachers warn against becoming attached to enlightenment, for example, but they still teach us to work toward enlightenment and we are naturally drawn to seek it continually. It is in our nature to do both — to be persistent and to become attached to things — but our nature also contains the potential for persistence without attachment.

Mirror, Mirror

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Have you ever tried to look at yourself in the mirror without judgment? I mean, simply observe your reflection without commenting in your mind on what you see? It’s really hard, isn’t it?

The actual reflection is the real you – everything else you think about what you see is unreal. The things that we think when we view the reflection – old, ugly, fat, skinny, pimply, undeserving, bad, monstrous – are the stories we layer upon reality. They’re not real, but we act and live as if they are.

I heard a story recently about a landmark house whose original owners made their sons paint the inside walls as punishment for misbehaving. When the home was restored not long ago, more than 50 layers of paint were found on those walls and had to be peeled away, layer by layer.

One of the goals of meditation and mindfulness is to find the real person inside of us. The real person is the original, unpainted wall – but throughout our lives we have added layer after layer of self-judgment so that the real person is no longer visible. We have convinced ourselves that we are bad, that we do not deserve good things, that we have earned our suffering and do not deserve to be free of it. We have labeled ourselves gluttons, liars, perverts, thieves, cheaters, and many other unpalatable titles. But those are not who we are – they may describe things we have done, but they are not us.

For example, almost everyone lies at one time or another – that does not make one a “liar.” Liar is a label we attach to ourselves because – as astounding as it is to grasp – it is simpler for us to believe that we are incapable of telling the truth than it is to wrestle with the notion that being a natural human being and lying are not mutually exclusive. We are so hard on ourselves, so quick to judge ourselves (far quicker than we are to judge others, and that’s pretty quick), that it is easier to accept the delusion that we are inherently bad than it is for us to accept that we sometimes do things we would prefer not to do. The healthy path is to show remorse and to make amends when we have hurt another person; the path we more often take is the one of self-recrimination, self-loathing, and self-punishment.

Through a practice of meditation and mindfulness, we strip away the labels and judgments that we have laid upon ourselves, slowly but surely, until all that is left is the true person beneath. At the same time we are stripping away those falsehoods, we learn not to add any more layers, concoct any more stories, apply any more labels. We learn to treat ourselves with compassion, to love ourselves – the true selves that are buried beneath dozens of layers of untruths we tell ourselves.

The common translation of the Summary of the Law has Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if we loved our neighbors the way we really “love” ourselves, we wouldn’t be doing them any favors. We often treat others far better than ourselves, are more willing to show them compassion, to cut them a break, to give them the benefit of the doubt, than we are ourselves.

What many of us really need to do is to learn to love ourselves as we love others. When we learn to do that, then our ability to love others and act compassionately toward them will grow by leaps and bounds.

If you’re interested in hanging with people interested in meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual growth, come check out the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

Meditation and Mindfulness at Work

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Is there a place that is a greater source of stress than the workplace? Maybe, but not much greater. Yet, the workplace is one of the last places that many people think of to practice their meditation and to act mindfully.

I very much enjoy my job and the people I work with are special to me. Nonetheless, work can be intense, burdensome, and tiring. At least once or twice a day, I need to reset my brain with a little meditation, to refocus myself and set my sight back on the present moment. I have a cushion in the corner of my office; I close my door when I feel the need for relief and I sit there for 5 to 10 minutes. It is remarkably refreshing mentally and physically.

Of course, many people don’t have the luxury of a space to put a meditation cushion, or even a door to close, at their place of work. If you are not bombarded by noise and coworkers at your desk, then simply sitting up straight in your desk chair, feet planted flat on the ground, can be a serviceable meditation posture. Or step outside for a walk around the building or the block.

The idea is to break the flow that develops during the work day in which we focus intently on our work and tune out the world around us. That kind of focus is terrific for productivity but not so much for a healthy, aware mind. It is very easy to plunge headlong into that flow and lose track of time, not coming up for air until the proverbial factory whistle blows. A pause for meditation once or twice during the day – or just lifting your head up from the desk or computer, unfocusing your eyes and taking some long, deep, cleansing breaths – brings your mind back to the present and wakes you up to your surroundings and the beings around you. The result should be both a healthier mind and a better work product.

For more thoughts about mindfulness in the workplace, check out this post by Daniel Goleman. Rachel Nickless of Financial Review recently wrote, “How being mindful makes for a happier workplace.” 

And check out the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

Be well and have peace in your mind and heart.

Everyone feels stress, everyone suffers. Thank goodness for meditation!

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Everyone gets stressed out, even the “experts.”

How do you think they became so adept in the first place? They needed what meditation had to offer so much that they made a concerted effort to practice it. Meditation teachers are not superhuman, unless by superhuman you mean “even more subject to the frailties and flaws of being human.” They’ve been in the same place we all have, and they’ve survived in no small part because of their meditation practice.

So take heart: if they can do it, so can you. You have the very same ingredients in your being that they do, all the elements necessary to pursue a beneficial meditation practice and lead a mindful and compassionate life. Buddhists might say that we all have the same essential Buddha-nature inside us and, therefore, the same potential to achieve enlightenment.

All of us suffer and all of us desire to be free of suffering. That’s all that is necessary to begin meditating and for meditation to bear fruit.

Along those lines, here’s an article from Pooma Bell of Huffington Post titled, “What Does The Founder Of Meditation App ‘Headspace’ Do When He Gets Stressed Out?

Check us out at the Dharma Beginner Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

The Best (and Worst) 12-12-12 I’ve Ever Experienced

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The night of 12-12-12 was a study in contrasts for me. On the one hand, I was very fortunate to be able to attend the 12.12.12 Concert to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims. If you saw any of it on TV, then you have a sense of what an incredible experience it was. The emotions in Madison Square Garden were real and palpable.

On the other hand, there was an extraordinarily challenging person standing next to me for over six hours (when she wasn’t excusing her way in front of me over a dozen times to fetch beer or whatever). Long story short: she spent much of the night invading my personal space. Perhaps you might say that it is ridiculous to expect to maintain personal boundaries during a crowded and often raucous concert. No disagreement there; I attend many concerts every year, frequently standing in general admission, and am well familiar with the experience of a tightly packed and enthusiastic crowd. I’ve done my time in the mosh pit.

But this was no run of the mill invasion of private space. It was a full on, preemptive tactical nuclear strike at my private space. The private space version of Seal Team Six storming Osama bin Laden’s compound. This otherwise pleasant woman (we chatted amiably for the first hour or so) would not stop touching me—holding my hand and lifting it up into the air, looping her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. No matter how far I turned away from her, no matter how I contorted my body like a yogi, I could not escape her tentacular reach.

Did I mention that I brought my 16 year old daughter to the concert? I inched closer and closer to her on my right-hand side as I sought to escape my friendly neighbor to the left. At one very loud point in the concert (Kanye West’s lower-intestine-vibrating performance?) my daughter shouted in my ear, “What is that woman’s problem?” Actually, it sounded like, “Why do goblins hate Gollum?” But that would be a ridiculous thing to have said at that moment, even with The Hobbit opening this week. Somehow, my brain intuited her meaning.

Upshot: At a time when I should have been out of my mind with excitement at the panoply of stellar musicians performing before my eyes, my attention was being divided between the stage and the seat next to me. I wrote recently about praying for challenging people, so with that freshly in mind I offered some prayers for my grabby new friend. Except, my initial prayers came out mostly as pleas that some greater power would stop her. Praying for her necessitated thinking about what was going on with her, why she was behaving that way, what kind of suffering she had experienced and wished to be relieved of.

With everything that was going on in the arena, that was nigh on impossible. But I did elicit some personal details. She had lost her home last year during Hurricane Irene. No doubt, she can feel more keenly than most the losses that Sandy victims have endured, and that reminder must have been painful to experience. What’s more, here she was witnessing an outpouring of love and financial support to the victims of Sandy, likely making the efforts to help the victims of Irene seem paltry by comparison. As she said to me, no one helped her rebuild her home.

The focus of the prayers I offered from that point on—relief from the lingering pain of losing her home and from the reopening of fresh wounds from last year—shifted my perspective on the situation. Gradually, I felt myself relax, the tension in my back and neck melt away, as compassion for a fellow being replaced discomfort and annoyance at her behavior. I didn’t, by any means, offer myself up to be groped, but I did stop turning away from her, both physically and emotionally. I could not see how to ease her pain at that moment, but I certainly could refrain from adding to it.

In the words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Be well, my friends. Peace be yours.

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.