Tag Archives: suffering

The Mindfulness Backlash


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.


Is there a mindful response to terrorism?

Is there a mindful response to terrorism?

My daughter spent the fall of 2014 attending college in Paris, which gave me the opportunity to reignite my love affair with the City of Lights. Shortly after she returned home, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred. My thoughts and emotions were a welter of relief that my daughter was here and not there, and heartbreak for the people of Paris. Learning the news last night of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris brought all of those feelings back in a rush and by a factor of at least 10.

Is there a mindful way to respond to acts of terrorism? I can hardly believe I need to ask that question. It is so much simpler to contemplate mindful responses to hunger, fatigue, stress, rude people, etc. Everyday things we all have to deal with. It is sad beyond description that terrorism is common enough that it requires specific consideration with regard to mindfulness. But it is a fact, and needs to be dealt with.

The aim of terrorism is not the act itself – as terror-filled as the act may be – but rather to inspire lingering terror. Nations spend untold billions of dollars protecting “high-profile targets” such as government buildings and cultural sites. The most successful terrorist acts, though, are perpetrated in much more mundane and commonplace locations – on buses, in a concert hall, at a corner cafe. It is these acts of terror that resonate and that are the most effective from the terrorist’s perspective, because each of us can imagine ourselves on that bus, or attending the concert, or eating dinner with friends.

Terror and fear are not consonant with mindfulness because they innately focus on the future, on what may happen, rather than on the present moment. More human suffering is caused by the fear what might happen to us than is caused by the things that actually are happening to us. Mindfulness teaches us to open our eyes to our present circumstances, to tear away the veil of unreality that comes in the form of fear of what might happen, so that we can focus on what truly is.

Our minds and lives are most balanced and healthy when we mindfully live in the present moment. The insidiousness of terrorism extends far beyond the immediate physical destruction it causes – it shatters our mindfulness and continues to prevent us from regaining balance. We cannot live fully in the moment when our minds are focused on what terrors might lurk around the corner. When we turn that corner and see that our fears were unfounded, we are not relieved – instead, we shift our fears to the next corner, and the corner after that.

It takes considerable effort to focus on what is happening around us right now when our fears bombard us with nightmare visions of what could happen next. I won’t suggest otherwise. But it is a necessary effort if we are going to recover our balance and re-center our lives.

Should we ignore the possibility of more terrorism to come? Of course not. Precautions should be taken. Protections should be put in place. That is undeniably prudent. Nations should work together to fight groups that wield terror as a weapon. But it will not be enough to completely defeat terrorism. As is so often pointed out, when one terrorist is eliminated, another jumps up to wield the weapon in his place.

The only lasting approach to defeating terrorism, in my opinion, is to rob it of its power by living in the present moment. Terrorism persists because it continues to be an effective weapon. The effectiveness of terrorism derives not from the guns or bombs the terrorists use to attach, but in the lingering fear the attacks inspire. If we do not let the fear of terrorism master us, if we live in the here and now with compassion for all beings, then terrorism will lose its power. This I firmly believe to be true.

Students need meditation more than ever


My daughter is a sophomore in college. Among many eye-opening experiences I have had as a parent of a college student is discovering how stressful college has become.

In some ways, it is an exponential continuation of the experience of middle and high school, which seemed to me to be way more stressful than when I was that age. Granted, my 30th high school reunion was a couple of years ago, so perhaps my memory is dim. But I don’t think it is — I believe young people today are much more stressed in school than used to be the case.

All the more reason why students need to be taught meditation from an early age. I frequently share articles about meditation programs for students on the Dharma Beginner Facebook page and Twitter feed because I believe that meditation training is as essential — more essential, perhaps — to students as any academic subject they study.

The importance of meditation instruction and practice extends well beyond educational performance (though it is undeniably valuable in that regard). Young people need meditation to support their lives outside the classroom even more. School generally will end by the early 20s, but life will continue well beyond that.

Join me in supporting school-based meditation and mindfulness programs wherever you find them and in spreading the good word about their benefits.

Just a few examples…

*** Stop by and see us at the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook and follow @dharmabeginner on Twitter ***

Thinking about Syria


What am I to think about the developments in the U.S. regarding Syria? We appear to be slouching closer to some type of military action and I am personally distraught at the thought.

I abhor violence, plain and simple. I cannot condone any action that the U.S. may take in regard to Syria that involves violence. But…

How can I turn a blind eye to the plight of the Syrian people? More than 100,000 Syrians have died in this civil war. If a similar proportion of Americans died, we’d be talking about almost 1.5 million deaths. Think of the effect that losing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, has had on this country: What would happen to America if 500 times that many people died? That is what is happening in Syria.

Over 2 million Syrians have fled their homeland and are living as refugees in neighboring countries. That’s 9 percent of Syria’s total population, the proportional equivalent of nearly 30 million Americans. How can I stay deaf to the cries of these victims? My heart is troubled to the point of breaking for the Syrian people and compassion is pouring forth from my heart in torrents. It is a tragedy of epic scale and – even if peace broke out today – a calamity that the country will have a very difficult time recovering from.

I believe that the U.S. and other countries should do something, but is violence the best answer? The Dalai Lama has said that there is such a thing as a justifiable war, but that one cannot know if it was justified until afterwards. “War is violence and violence is unpredictable. Therefore, it is better to avoid it if possible, and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not.” He has also said, “Now the concept of violence, the concept of war, is outdated…Violence never seems now to produce positive results.”

That is where my heart lies, with the path of peace. But peace does not appear to be making sufficient headway to end the crisis in Syria. Is it possible to be more “forcibly peacful” without crossing a boundary into a realm of non-peace? I fear it is not. A violent reaction from the U.S. appears more and more likely, and I am heartbroken at the prospect.

dalai lama 4

Everyone Suffers


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


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

Mirror, Mirror


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.