Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What to do from the waist down

Just as a tree needs to set down deep roots so it won’t fall over as it grows, you need to find a comfortable position for the lower half of your body that you can sustain for 5, 10, or 15 minutes — or even longer, if you want. After several millennia of experimentation, the great meditators have come up with a handful of traditional postures that seem to work especially well. Different though they may appear from the outside, these postures have one thing in common: the pelvis tilts slightly forward, accentuating the natural curvature of the lower back.

The following poses are arranged more or less in order, from the easiest to the hardest to do, though ease all depends on your particular body and degree of flexibility. For example, some people take to the classical lotus position (whose name derives from its resemblance to the flower) like a duck to . . . well, to a lotus pond. Besides, the lotus, though difficult, has some definite advantages, and you can work up to it by stretching your hips using the yoga exercises described in the section “Preparing Your Body for Sitting,” later in this chapter. Above all, don’t worry about which looks the coolest; just experiment until you find the one that works best for you

Dealing with pain and Meditation

If you sit in the same position for an extended period of time, you’re going to experience some physical pain or discomfort, no matter how much stretching you do! An ache in your back here, some knee pain there, a twinge in your shoulder, pins and needles in your foot — the list of complaints is potentially endless. And the longer you sit, the more intense the discomfort may become — and the stronger the temptation to move or fidget to avoid it.
Instead of instantly shifting your position or struggling to ignore your discomfort, practice gently expanding your awareness to include your discomfort, while continuing to attend to your breath or other object of meditation. If the pain is strong, you can explore it directly with the same mindful, compassionate attention you bring to your breath.
Notice also how your mind responds to your discomfort. Does it fabricate some story about your discomfort: “I’m not sitting correctly. There must be something wrong with my back. Maybe I’m ruining my knees”? And does it intensify your discomfort by judging it as bad or undesirable, causing you to tense up around it? By opening your awareness to your pain and how your mind responds to it, you can actually begin to soften and relax in relation to the pain — and you may notice that it diminishes accordingly. Because physical and emotional pain are unavoidable, sitting meditation provides a wonderful laboratory for experimenting with new ways of relating to suffering and discomfort in every area of your life — and ultimately moving beyond them.
By the way, you also have the option of moving (with awareness) when the pain or discomfort becomes too intense. Just play at your own edge between opening and resisting. And remember that certain kinds of pain may merit your immediate attention — especially shooting pain, pain that begins as soon as you start sitting, and sharp (rather than dull) pain in your knees. In such cases, you’re better off trying a different sitting position.

How to Sit Up Straight —and Live to Tell About It

If you examine the meditation poses depicted in the world’s great spiritual traditions, you’ll find that they all have one thing in common — the unshakable stability of a mountain or tree. Look at the kneeling pharaohs in the Egyptian pyramids, for example, or the cross-legged Buddhas in Indian caves or Japanese temples. They sit on a broad base that appears to be deeply rooted in the earth, and they have a grounded presence that says, “I can’t be budged. I’m here to stay” .

When you sit up straight like a mountain or a tree, your body acts as a link between heaven and earth — and, by analogy, connects your physical, embodied existence with the sacred or spiritual dimension of being. Many traditions talk about the importance of bridging the apparent chasm that separates us from God or the Absolute. Jewish and Sufi mystics teach that the soul is a spark of the heavenly fire that yearns to return to its source. Christians depict the soul as a dove ascending, and Indian tantric yogis describe the ecstatic union of Shakti, the feminine energy of spiritual evolution that rises through the spine, with Shiva, the masculine principle of detached transcendence. If you find all this spiritual stuff too esoteric or airy-fairy, you might consider that sitting up straight confers some practical benefits as well.

By aligning the spine and opening the channels that run through the center of the body, upright sitting encourages an unimpeded circulation of energy, which, in turn, contributes to wakefulness on all levels — physical, mental, and spiritual. Besides, it’s a lot easier to sit still for extended periods of time when your vertebrae are stacked like a pile of bricks, one on top of the other. Otherwise, over time, gravity has this irritating habit of pulling your body down toward the ground — and in the process, causing the aches and pains so typical of a body at war with the forces of nature. So the most comfortable way to sit in the long run is straight, which puts you in harmony with nature. Of course, you can always lean against the wall — or so you may think. But your body tends to slouch when it leans, even subtly, in any direction; and the point of doing meditation is to rely on your direct experience, rather than to depend on some outside support to “back you up.” When you sit like a mountain or a tree, you’re making a statement: “I’m deeply rooted in the earth, yet open to the higher powers of the cosmos — independent, yet inextricably connected to all of life.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sitting still, doing nothing

When I was a young Zen meditator, I worked as an attendant in a nursing home that hosted a range of patients, from a young woman recovering from bone cancer to our local Congressman’s father, who was dying of emphysema. Amidst this busy throng, I was fascinated by one person in particular — an old Italian fisherman who had lost both legs in a fishing accident. When his family members came to visit, he would hold court with great dignity, receiving their respect as the family patriarch. Where other patients might be content to lie in bed all day in their hospital gowns, he would dress and groom himself each day and sit with pride —and upright posture — in his wheelchair, silently observing the drama that unfolded around him. One day, I was running back and forth, unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. Seeing this, he called out to me, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, “Hey! You got nothing to do?” “Yeah,” I said,” obviously flustered, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.” “You got nothing to do,” he said, “then sit down!”

The Subtle Art of Sitting Still

When talking about the practice of sitting still, one of my first meditation teachers, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, used to say that the best way to show a snake its true nature is to put it into a hollow stick of bamboo. Take a moment and give this unusual metaphor some thought. What could he have possibly meant by it?
Well, imagine that you’re a snake in bamboo. What does it feel like? Every time you try to slither, which is after all what snakes like to do, you bump against the walls of your straight-as-an-arrow home. If you pay attention, you start to notice how slippery you actually are.
In the same way, sitting in a certain posture and keeping your body relatively still provides a stick of bamboo that mirrors back to you every impulse and distraction. You get to see how fidgety your body can be — and how hyperactive your mind can be, which is actually the source of your body’s restlessness. “Maybe I should scratch that itch or answer that phone or run that errand.” For every plan or intention, there’s a corresponding impulse in your muscles and skin. But you’ll never notice all this activity unless you sit still. The funny thing is, you can sit in the same position for hours without noticing it when you’re happily engrossed in some favorite activity like watching a movie or surfing the Net or working on a hobby. But try to do something you find boring or unpleasant — especially an activity as strange and unfamiliar as turning your attention back on yourself and following your own breath or paying attention to your own sensations — and suddenly every minute can seem like an hour, every ache can seem like an ailment of life-threatening proportions, and every item on your to-do list can take on irresistible urgency.
When you’re constantly acting and reacting in response to thoughts and outside stimulation, you don’t have a chance to get to know how your mind works. By sitting still like the snake in bamboo, you have a mirror that shows you just how slippery and elusive your mind can be. Keeping still also gives you a tremendous edge when you’re working on developing your concentration. Imagine a heart surgeon or a concert pianist who can’t quiet her body while plying her craft. The fewer physical distractions you have, the easier it becomes to follow your breath, practice your mantra — or whatever your meditation happens to be. A word of caution, however: These sitting instructions aren’t intended to turn your body into a stone, any more than the bamboo is meant to turn the snake into a stick. As long as you’re alive, you’re going to keep moving. The point is to set your intention to sit still and notice what happens. The Buddha liked to use the metaphor of a lute — if the strings are too loose, you can’t play it, and if they’re too tight, they’ll break! If you’re too rigid with yourself, you’ll just end up miserable — but if you keep shifting your body this way and that, you’ll never get your mind concentrated and quiet enough to reap the benefits of meditation.

Coming back to your breath

Set your watch or clock to signal the beginning of every hour. When the alarm sounds, stop whatever you’re doing and follow your breath with full attention for 60 seconds. If you’re doing something that can’t be stopped, like driving a car in traffic or talking to your boss, follow your breath as attentively as you can while engaging in the activity.

Working with your mind at first

Right now, the whole notion of working with your mind may seem totally incomprehensible. After all, thoughts may fill your head like fog, and you can’t see even the faintest trace of blue sky beyond them.
The good news is, you don’t have to pay any attention to your mind, at least initially. Just keep following your breath, and when you become lost in thought, which you will no doubt do again and again, gently come back. The point is not to stop your mind — an impossible task in any case — but to stay focused on your breath no matter what your mind does.
After weeks and months of regular practice, you may begin to notice that your mind settles down more quickly during your meditations and that fewer thoughts disturb your concentration. In any case, the quality of your mind will no doubt vary from day to day and from meditation to meditation.
Here, the point is not to make your mind work differently, but to slowly but surely strengthen and stabilize your concentration. Eventually, you’ll begin to notice that your mind doesn’t have the same power over you that it once did and that you have moments of deep peace and tranquility. Trust me — it will actually happen, even to you!

Just sitting

As an alternative to mindfulness meditation, you may want to experiment with the Zen practice known as just sitting, which usually involves two phases or steps: just breathing and just sitting. When you’re adept at following your breath, you can practice becoming your breath — merging yourself completely with the flow of the inhalation and exhalation, until you, as a separate observer, disappear and only your breath remains. Now you’re no longer breathing; instead, your breath is breathing you. Like welcoming whatever arises, this practice, known as just breathing, is supremely simple but requires a quality of awareness that’s both focused and relaxed.
The next step, just sitting, involves expanding to include the whole realm of sensate experience. But instead of being aware or mindful of your experience, you “disappear,” and only your experience remains — seeing, smelling, hearing, sensing, thinking. As a Zen friend of mine put it, “When you sit, the walls of the meditation hall come down, and the whole world enters.” Ultimately, this practice takes you to the same place as mindfulness; it’s simply the Zen alternative.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reining In Your Wandering Mind

Like a wayward puppy, your mind means well — it just has a will of its own and some pretty obnoxious habits to unlearn. Just as you wouldn’t hit a puppy for peeing on the carpet, but you would keep carrying it patiently back to its little pile of papers, you need to keep leading your wandering mind patiently back to its focus of concentration, without anger or violence or judgment of any kind. After all, you want your “puppy mind” to like you and treat you as a friend, instead of cowering in your presence. In fact, your mind deserves even more patience than a puppy because it’s developed the tendency to fantasize, worry, and obsess through a lifetime of poor training. As you practice being kind and patient with your mind, you naturally soften and relax into the present moment — which is, after all, the point of meditation. On the other hand, if you force your mind to concentrate like a drill sergeant pushing his troops, you’re just going to wind up tense and uncomfortable — and you probably won’t be motivated to meditate again. As I note in other chapters, discovering how to meditate is a lot like practicing a musical instrument. First you need to assemble some basic techniques; then you get to practice the same scales over and over. Like following your breath, playing scales can seem incredibly boring — but week by week, you become imperceptibly better, until one day you graduate to playing simple tunes. And the more you practice, the more subtleties you notice, and the more interesting even playing simple scales — or following your breath —becomes.
The historical Buddha compared meditating to tuning a lute. If you make the strings too tight, they break, and you can’t play the instrument at all. If you make them too loose, you can’t get the right sounds. Likewise, you need to listen to your instrument — your body and mind — when you meditate to determine what kind of tuning you need. If you’re tense, you may want to begin with some deep relaxation; if you’re sleepy or foggy, you may need to sit up straight, pay attention, and emphasize your concentration. As you gently bring your puppy back again and again, you also get to notice the themes and stories that repeatedly draw your attention away. Perhaps your mind keeps returning to worries about job security, or arguments with your partner or spouse, or sexual fantasies, or popular songs. Whatever the favorite bones your puppy likes to chew, you gradually become familiar with them as you watch them distract you.
After weeks and months of regular practice, you develop a deeper understanding of how your mind works — and how it causes suffering and stress.
And like hit tunes you love at first but eventually get tired of hearing, the same old stories start to lose their power to disturb you, and you develop greater equanimity and peace of mind.

Keep it simple

The point of meditation is not to discover some cool techniques to occupy your leisure hours; it’s to make the simple but momentous shift from doing to being. Don’t make the mistake of turning your meditation practice into another urgent item on your list of things to do. Use it, instead, as a welcome oasis from doing, an opportunity to be, without strategy or agenda. In other words, keep it simple. Play with a few of the techniques at first to decide which one feels right for you; then stick with the one you’ve chosen. It really doesn’t matter which method you use — they all end up depositing you in the here and now.

Welcoming whatever arises

When you become accustomed to including sensations, you can open your awareness gates wide and welcome any and every experience — even thoughts and emotions — without judgment or discrimination. Just like sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go in your awareness like clouds in the sky without pulling you off center.
After all, the sky is never disturbed or constricted, no matter how many clouds pile up; it continues to be as vast and spacious as ever. In the same way, you can sit with a spacious, skylike mind. At first, you may find your attention drawn here and there like a flashlight, exploring one object and then another. But just keep coming back to a spacious, skylike mind. (A note of caution, however: This practice, though supremely simple, is actually quite advanced and requires well-developed powers of concentration to sustain.)

Expanding to sensations

As soon as you’ve developed a certain ease in following your breath, you can expand your awareness as you meditate to include the full range of sensations both inside and outside your body — feeling, smelling, hearing, seeing. Imagine that your awareness is like the zoom lens on a camera. Until now, you’ve been focused exclusively on your breath; now you can back away slightly to include the field of sensations that surrounds your breath. If you find it difficult to expand your awareness all at once, you can begin by exploring a sensation when it calls attention to itself. For example, you’re following your breath when a pain in your back cries out for your attention. Instead of staying focused on your breath as you would have done before, you can turn your attention to the pain and explore it fully until it no longer predominates in your field of experience. Then come back to your breath until you’re once again called away.
You can also experiment with expanding your awareness to include one particular kind of sensation, such as bodily feelings or sounds. For example, you can spend an entire meditation just listening to the sounds around you, without focusing on any sounds in particular. In this way, you’re able to balance the highly concentrated awareness required to follow your breath with the more receptive, all-inclusive awareness necessary to welcome a broad range of sensations. This blend of focus and receptivity lies at the heart of the practice of mindfulness.
As you get the knack of including sensations in your meditations, you can experiment with expanding your awareness to include the full sensate field (that is, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting). Begin by following your breathing and then just open your lens wide, allowing sensations to arise and pass away in your awareness.

Minding your body instead of your breath

Some people seem to find it virtually impossible to count or follow their breaths. Instead, they find it helpful to focus on their body as a whole when they meditate. You can begin by drawing your awareness slowly down through your body from your head to your feet; then switch to holding your whole body in your awareness at once. When your mind wanders off, just come back to your body. Or you can use the Zen approach of focusing on a particular part of the body, like the lower back or lower abdomen. When you find a focus that works for you, however, stick with it. The point is to develop your mindfulness, not to meander through your body in search of a place to meditate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Following your breaths

Begin by sitting and breathing exactly as you did for counting your breaths. When you feel settled, allow your attention to focus either on the sensation of your breath coming and going through your nostrils or on the rising and falling of your belly as you breathe. (Although you’re welcome to alternate your focus from one session to the next, it’s best to stick with a single focus for the entire meditation — and eventually you’re better off using the same focus each time you meditate.) Give your full attention to the coming and going of your breath the way a mother tracks the movements of her young child — lovingly yet persistently, softly yet precisely, with relaxed yet focused awareness. When you realize that your mind has wandered off and you’re engrossed in planning or thinking or daydreaming, gently but firmly bring it back to your breath.
At the end of your exhalation (and before you inhale again), there’s often a gap or a pause when your breath is no longer perceptible. At this point, you can allow your attention to rest on a predetermined touchpoint, such as your navel or your hands, before returning to your breath when it resumes. Thoughts and images will definitely continue to skitter and swirl through your mind as you meditate, but don’t worry. Just patiently and persistently keep coming back to your breath. Gradually, you may even develop a fascination with all the little sensations — of your belly and ribcage shifting and opening and changing shape as you breathe or of your breath caressing the tip of your nose, tickling your nostrils, and cooling your nasal passages as it enters and leaves. You may also notice that your mind tends to quiet down or your thinking tends to change on either the exhalation or the inhalation. By attuning to a subtler level of experience while you meditate, you can open yourself to a subtler appreciation of each moment of life as it unfolds.

Getting to know your breathing

When you first begin paying deliberate attention to your breath, you may be surprised and somewhat frustrated to discover that your body tenses up and your breathing becomes stiff, labored, and unnatural. Suddenly, you can’t remember how to breathe anymore, even though you’ve been doing it just fine ever since your first breath at birth.
Don’t worry — you’re not doing it wrong. You just need to develop a lighter, gentler touch with your awareness so that you’re following but not controlling your breath. It’s kind of like learning to ride a bicycle — you keep falling off until one day, miraculously, you just keep going. From then on, it’s second nature.
You may find it helpful to begin by exploring your breathing, without necessarily trying to track it from breath to breath. Notice what happens when you breathe — how your rib cage rises and falls, how your belly moves, how the air passes in and out of your nostrils. You may find that some breaths are longer and deeper, while others are shorter and shallower. Some may go all the way down into your belly, while others barely reach the upper part of your lungs before exiting again. Some may be rough or strong, others smooth or weak.
Spend five or ten minutes exploring your breathing with the fresh curiosity of a child encountering a flower or a butterfly for the first time. What did you discover that you didn’t know before? How does each new breath differ from the last? When you feel comfortable with your breath, you can begin the practice of counting or following your breaths.

Counting your breaths

Begin by finding a comfortable sitting position that you can hold for 10 or 15 minutes. Then take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. Without trying to control your breath in any way, allow it to find its own natural depth and rhythm. Always breathe through your nose unless you can’t for some reason.
Now begin counting each inhalation and exhalation until you reach ten; then return to one. In other words, when you inhale, count “one,” when you exhale, count “two,” when you inhale again, count “three,” and so on up to ten. If you lose track, return to one and start again. To help you concentrate, you may find it useful to extend the number in your mind for the full duration of the inhalation or exhalation, instead of thinking the number quickly once and then dropping it. For example, allow “o-o-o-n-n-n-e” to last as long as the inhalation, “t-w-o-o-o-o” to last as long as the exhalation, and so on. You may also find it helpful to subvocalize the numbers, especially at first, saying “one” ever so softly to yourself as you inhale, “two” as you exhale, and so on.
As Mickey Mouse as this exercise may seem at first-read, you may be surprised to discover that you never manage to reach ten without losing count. You don’t have to stop your mind chatter in any way. But if you get distracted by your thoughts and lose track of your breath, come back to one and start again. When you get the knack of counting each in-breath and out-breath — say, after a month or two of regular practice — you can shift to counting only the exhalations. If your mind starts wandering on the inhalations, though, just go back to the first method until you feel ready to move on again. Eventually, you may want to simplify the practice even further by simply noting “in” on the inhalation and “out” on the exhalation.

Focusing on your breath

Compared to surfing the Net or catching a movie on HBO, watching your breath may seem like a boring way to spend your spare time. The fact is, the media have conditioned us to be stimulation junkies by flooding our senses with computerized images and synthesized sounds that change at laserlike speed. Recently, I heard the head of an ad agency brag about how his latest TV spot bombarded the viewer with six images per second — far faster than the conscious mind could possibly register them. By contrast, paying attention to the coming and going of your breath slows your mind to match the speed and rhythms of your body. Instead of 6 images per second, you breathe an average of 12 to 16 times per minute. And the sensations are far subtler than anything you’ll see or hear on TV — more like the sights and sounds of nature, which is, after all, where you and your body came from.
Besides, the great thing about your breath as a focus of meditation is that it’s always available, always changing yet always more or less the same. If your breath were totally different each time, it wouldn’t provide the stability necessary for you to cultivate concentration; if it never changed in any way, you’d quickly fall asleep and never have an opportunity to develop the curiosity and alertness that are so essential to the practice of mindfulness. As a preliminary to the practice of following your breath, you may want to spend a few weeks or months just counting your breaths. It’s a great way to build concentration — and it provides a preestablished structure that constantly reminds you when you’re wandering off. If you were a neophyte Zen student, you might spend years counting your breaths before you graduated to a more challenging practice. But if you’re feeling adventurous or already have some confidence in your concentration, by all means start with following your breath. Trust your intuition to tell you which method is right for you.

The meaning of the breath

Traditional cultures identified the breath with the life force that animates all things. For example, the Latin word spiritus(the root of both spirited and spiritual), the Greek word anima(from which we derive the word animated), the Hebrew word ruach, and the Sanskrit word brahman may sound quite different, but they have one thing in common: They all mean both breathand spiritor soul.When you follow your breath with awareness, you’re not only harmonizing your body and mind, which gives you a sense of inner harmony and wholeness, you’re also exploring the living frontier where body, mind, and spirit meet — and attuning yourself to a spiritual dimension of being.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

How to let go of your expectations?

When you invest in the stock market or work out at a gym, you expect results — and you keep checking the quotes or the scale to tell you how well you’re doing. If you bring the same attitude to meditation, however, you’re defeating the purpose — which is to let go of your thoughts altogether and just be present in the here and now. One of the great paradoxes of meditation is that you can’t reap the benefits until you drop all your expectations and accept things the way they are. Then the benefits come back to you a thousandfold.
In the beginning, of course, you’re going to keep wondering whether you’re doing it right. But don’t worry, there’s no wrong way to meditate —except perhaps sitting and trying to measure how well you’re doing! One day you may feel like you’re on top of the world — you’re full of energy, your mind is clear, and you can follow your breath with relative ease. “Wow, now I’m getting the hang of it,” you think. The next day you’re so overwhelmed by thoughts or emotions that you sit for 20 minutes without even noticing your breath. Welcome to the practice of meditation! The point is not to do it right, but just to do it — again and again.
One of my Zen teachers used to compare meditation to walking in the fog on a warm summer day: Though you may not pay attention to what’s happening, pretty soon you’re drenched in dew.

Awareness of the Here and Now

This section highlights an approach to meditation known as mindfulness —moment to moment awareness of your experience as it unfolds. Mindfulness combines concentration (highly focused awareness) and a more receptive awareness that simply welcomes whatever arises. Because mindfulness grows like a house on a foundation of concentration, you’ll need to strengthen and stabilize your concentration before you can proceed to the full practice of mindfulness. That’s why the initial meditations provided here emphasize focusing on a particular object of concentration — your breath. Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness meditation is to develop the capacity to be fully present for whatever is occurring right here and now. When you’ve stabilized your concentration by focusing on your breath, you can expand your awareness to include the full range of bodily sensations — and eventually you can just welcome whatever presents itself in your field of experience. Though supremely simple, this advanced technique can take years of patient practice to master, but you may have glimpses of a more expanded awareness after only a few weeks of regular meditation.

The Deep Relaxation Technique

Here’s a meditation you can do any time you have 15 or 20 minutes to spare and want to shed some of the tension you’ve accumulated in your busy life. It’s also a great way to prepare for the other meditations in this book, because it leaves you feeling relaxed, refreshed, and in touch with yourself.
  1. Find a comfortable place to lie down. Take off your shoes, loosen your belt and other tight clothing, and stretch out on your back with your arms resting at your sides, legs slightly apart.
  2. Sense your body as a whole, including the places where it contacts the surface of the bed or floor.
  3. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your feet. Wiggle your toes, flex your feet, and then let go of all tension as much as you can, allowing your feet to melt into the floor.
  4. Shift your awareness to your lower legs, thighs, and hips. Imagine them becoming heavy and relaxed and melting into the floor. If the image of melting doesn’t appeal to you, you might try dissolving, sinking, or disappearing.
  5. Bring your awareness to your lower abdomen. Imagine all tension draining away, your breath deepening, and your belly opening and softening.
  6. Bring your awareness to your upper abdomen, chest, neck, and throat, feeling the areas opening and softening.
  7. Bring your awareness to your shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, and hands. Imagine them becoming heavy and relaxed and melting into the floor.
  8. Bring your awareness to your head and face. Feel the tension melting away from your face across your head and into the floor.
  9. Scan your body from head to toe, searching for any remaining areas of tension or discomfort. If you find any, just imagine them relaxing completely.
  10. Experience your body as one field of relaxation, without parts or edges.
  11. Continue to rest in this way for five or ten minutes more; then very slowly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes, stretch your arms and legs, open your eyes, and gradually come up to a sitting position.
Check in with yourself and notice how you feel. Do you feel more relaxed? Does your body feel lighter or more expanded? Does the world appear different in any way? Now gently get up and go about your day.

Five brief relaxation techniques

  • Shower of relaxation: Imagine taking a warm shower. As the water cascades across your body and down your legs, it carries with it all discomfort and distress, leaving you refreshed and invigorated.
  • Honey treatment: Imagine a mound of warm honey perched on the crown of your head. As it melts, it runs down your face and head and neck, covering your shoulders and chest and arms, and gradually enveloping your whole body down to your toes. Feel the sensuous wave of warm liquid draining away all tension and stress and leaving you thoroughly relaxed and renewed.
  • Peaceful place: Imagine a safe, protected, peaceful place — perhaps a forest, a meadow, or a sandy beach. Experience the place fully with all your senses. Notice how calm and relaxed you feel here; now allow that feeling to permeate every cell of your body.
  • Body scan: Beginning with the crown of your head, scan your body from top to bottom. When you come to an area of tension or discomfort, gently allow it to open and soften; then move on.
  • Relaxation response: Choose a word or brief phrase that has deep spiritual or personal significance for you. Now close your eyes and repeat this sound softly, again and again.

Relaxing Your Body

As the emerging field of mind-body medicine reminds us — and yogis and sages have been telling us for millennia — your body, your mind, and your heart form one seamless and inseparable whole. When your thoughts keep leaping like the proverbial monkey from worry to worry, your body responds by tightening and tensing, especially in certain key places like the throat, the heart, the solar plexus, and the belly. When the discomfort gets intense enough, you register it as an emotion — fear, perhaps, or anger or sadness.

Because it connects you with your direct experience — and ultimately with a realm of pure being beyond the mind — meditation naturally relaxes yourbody while it focuses your mind. As a beginner, though, you may not experience this natural relaxation for days or even weeks. So it can be helpful to practice one of the techniques in the following list before you meditate, especially if you tend to be noticeably tense. (If you’re one of those rare people who are generally so relaxed that you tend to drift off to sleep at the slightest provocation, you may want to skip this exercise.) Of course, relaxing your body has its own wonderful benefits — but your body won’t stay relaxed until you’re able to work with your mind.

If you’ve never deliberately relaxed your body before, start with the meditation in the “Deep relaxation” sidebar. Because the meditation takes at least 15 minutes to complete, you probably won’t do it each time you meditate, but it does show you how to relax your body part by part. When you’ve practiced this exercise a few times, your body will have a memory of what it’s like to be deeply relaxed, and you can then advance to one of the five-minute relaxations listed here. By the way, deep relaxation is a great antidote for insomnia — just practice it in bed and then drift off to sleep!

Related dimensions of turning yourself inward

  • Content to process: Instead of becoming engrossed in the meaning of what you’re sensing, thinking, or feeling, you can shift your interest and attention to how experiencing occurs — or to the mere fact of experience itself. For example, instead of getting lost in thinking or daydreaming, you can notice how your mind flits from thought to thought — or merely observe that you’re thinking. Instead of becoming transfixed by your fear or what you imagine it means or is trying to tell you, you can notice how the waves of tension move through your belly — or simply note that you’re feeling.
  • Outer to inner: Initially, you need to balance your usual tendency to be so outer-directed by paying particular attention to inner experience. Eventually, you’ll be able to bring the same quality of awareness to every experience, whether inner or outer.
  • Secondhand to direct: Even more helpful than inner and outer is the distinction between secondhand experience and direct experience. Secondhand experience has been filtered and distorted by the mind and is often concerned with thoughts about the past or future, whereas direct experience is only found in the present and accessed through the senses. In addition to turning inward, meditation involves turning your attention away from the story your mind spins about your experience and toward the direct experience itself.
  • Doing to being: You spend virtually all your waking hours rushing from one task or project or activity to another. Do you remember what it’s like to just be, the way you did when you were a baby or a little child, whiling away a summer afternoon just playing or lying in the grass? Meditation gives you the opportunity to make this crucial shift from doing to being.

Turning Your Attention Inward

As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the case of meditation, this simple but essential step involves turning your mind away from its usual preoccupation with external events — or, just as often, with the story it tells you about external events — and toward your inner sensate experience.

If you’re like most people, you’re so caught up with what’s happening around you — the look in other people’s eyes, the voices of family and co-workers, the latest news on the radio, the messages appearing on your computer screen — that you forget to pay attention to what’s happening in your own mind, body, and heart. In fact, popular culture has been designed to seduce you into searching outside yourself for happiness and satisfaction. In such a confusing and compelling world, even the most rudimentary gesture of selfawareness can seem like a challenge of monumental proportions. Just take a few minutes right now to turn your mind around and pay attention to what you’re sensing and feeling. Notice how much resistance you have to shifting your awareness from your external focus to your simple sensate experience.

Notice how busily your mind flits from thought to thought and image to image, weaving a story with you as the central character. Because these habitual patterns are so deeply rooted, doing something as seemingly innocuous as returning your attention again and again to a basic internal focus like your breath can take tremendous courage and patience. You may be afraid of what you’ll discover if you venture into essentially unknown terrain — or afraid of what you’ll miss if you turn inward even for a few moments. But this shift from outer to inner is precisely the simple but radical gesture that meditation requires.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stopping your mind

Many people believe that the point of meditation is to stop the mind. To get a visceral sense of the futility of such efforts, you can attempt to stop your mind and see what happens. Try the following exercise:
  1. Sit quietly and take a few slow, deep breaths.
  2. For the next five minutes, try to stop thinking. That’s right — do whatever you can to keep your mind from generating more thoughts. Try humming to yourself or concentrating on your big toe or recalling a beautiful day in nature. Or just try being as still as you possibly can. Do whatever you think will work for you.
  3. At the end of five minutes, reflect on your experience. How successful were you? Could you actually stop thinking for an extended period of time? Did you find that the struggle to stop thinking just generated more thoughts? This exercise reveals how stubborn and tenacious your thinking mind can be — in case you hadn’t noticed

Freeing yourself from your story

When you’ve caught a glimpse of who you really are, beyond your mind (and even your body), you can keep reconnecting with this deeper level of being in your meditations — and in your everyday life as well. To resurrect the metaphor of the lake, you can dive down to the bottom again and again because you know what it looks like and how to find it. Even though your story may continue to play on the video screen of your brain, you can develop the capacity to disengage from it — or even disidentify from it entirely. As a friend of mine put it, you come to realize that the personality is a case of mistaken identity — and that who you are is the vast expanse of being itself, in which your personal thoughts and feelings arise and pass away. Such a profound realization may take years of meditation to achieve, yet it’s always available to you, no matter how long you’ve meditated — indeed, whether you’ve ever meditated at all! Many people report laughing uproariously when they finally see that their true nature was right there all along, as plain as the proverbial nose on their face.
Contrary to popular belief, people who learn to integrate this realization and live their understanding in a moment-to-moment way don’t become more detached and disengaged from life. Rather, because their story and their sense of separation have lifted like a fog, they actually perceive situations and people with more immediacy and compassion, and they’re able to act more appropriately, according to circumstances.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Seeing beyond your story to who you really are

Even though you may become aware of your story, gain some distance from it, and begin to alter it in certain fundamental ways, you may still identify with it until you can catch a glimpse of who you really are, beyond your story. Such glimpses can take a number of different forms. Perhaps you have unexpected moments of peace or tranquility, when your thoughts settle down — or even stop entirely — and a sweet silence permeates your mind. Or you may experience a flood of unconditional love that momentarily opens your heart wide and gives you a brief glimpse of the oneness beyond all apparent separation.
Or maybe you have a sudden intuition of your inherent interconnectedness with all beings or a sense of being in the presence of something far vaster than yourself. Whatever the insight that lifts you beyond your story, it can irrevocably alter who you take yourself to be. Never again can you fully believe that you’re merely the limited personality your mind insists you are.
I can still remember how fresh and clear everything appeared after my first meditation retreat — the colors so vivid, people’s faces so radiant — even though I’d spent five days doing nothing but struggling to count my breaths from one to ten without losing my way. I felt as though a bandage had been ripped from my eyes and I could see things clearly for the first time. Everything
I encountered seemed to radiate being, and I knew as never before that I belonged on this Earth. Of course, the intensity faded after a few days, but I never forgot that first glimpse of clear seeing, free from the perceptual filters I’d been carrying around for a lifetime.

Put the story down and move on

Two Zen monks were walking along a country road when they came to a stream swollen to a raging torrent by the heavy spring rains. There they found an attractive young woman waiting on the shore, unable to cross.
One of the monks approached the woman and offered to help her. With her consent, he lifted her in his arms and carried her across the stream. Then the two monks continued on their way in silence.
When they got back to the monastery, the monk who had watched his friend carry the woman could not contain himself any longer. “You know we’re not supposed to have any contact with females, especially attractive ones. How could you possibly do that?” “Ah,” said the other monk, “I put the woman down hours ago, but you’re still carrying her with you.”

Changing your story

As you may notice after you meditate for a while, just being aware of your story can begin changing it in subtle (or even not-so-subtle!) ways. When you develop a certain distance from your story — knowing at some level that it’s just your story, not who you really are — you naturally become less reactive, people respond to you differently, and circumstances shift accordingly. Soon your life is just not the same old story anymore! Of course, you may already be struggling to change your life by manipulating circumstances or reprogramming your mind with affirmations or positive

Friday, September 12, 2008

Becoming aware of your story and how it confuses you

When you meditate regularly and observe your thoughts and feelings, you begin to notice recurring themes and story lines that keep playing in your mind. Perhaps you become aware of the tendency to obsess about all the times people misunderstood you or failed to give you the love you wanted. Maybe you watch yourself comparing yourself to other people and judging yourself better — or worse. Possibly you find yourself fantasizing about the ideal mate, even though you’ve been happily married for years. Or you may notice that you’re constantly planning for the future while ignoring what’s happening right here and now.
Whatever your particular patterns may be, you can observe how they keep arising to disturb you and pull you away from the reality at hand — which may be some simple task, like following your breath or reciting your mantra. Gradually, you realize that your story is just that — a story your mind keeps spinning that separates you from others and causes you pain. As John Lennon put it, “Life is what’s happening while you’re busy making other plans.” When you start seeing your story for what it is, you don’t allow it to confuse you in the same way anymore.

Becoming aware of your inner experience

When you sit quietly for 10 or 15 minutes and notice your thoughts and feelings, you’re making a radical shift in your relationship to your inner experience. Instead of being swept away by the current, you become, for the moment, an observer on the shore, watching the river of your experience flow by. Though the difference may seem inconsequential and you may not feel that you’re making any headway, you’ve actually begun to loosen your story’s stranglehold on your life. Gradually, you begin to notice spaces in your mind’s chatter, and what once seemed so serious and solid slowly becomes lighter and infused with fresh air.
You may find yourself laughing at your tendency to worry and obsess, or perhaps you pause and notice what you’re feeling before you react. As you practice welcoming your experience just as it is, including your judgments and self-criticisms, you may also discover that your attitude toward yourself begins to change in subtle ways. Instead of impatience or contempt, you may begin to notice a certain self-acceptance creeping in as you become more familiar with the repetitive patterns of your mind. Hey, you may even develop a measure of compassion for yourself as you see how self-critical or distracted or frightened you can become.

Allowing spontaneous release

When you meditate regularly, you start to notice that thoughts and feelings that have accumulated inside you naturally dissipate like mist rising from the surface of a lake. You don’t have to do anything special to make this happen —it just occurs naturally as your concentration deepens and your mind settles down. You may sit to meditate feeling weighted down by worries or concerns and then get up half an hour later feeling somehow lighter, more spacious, and more worry-free.

Who knows how this mysterious process happens? You might say that meditating is like lifting the lid on a boiling pot of soup — you create space for the water to evaporate and relieve the pressure that has been building up inside. To encourage this process of spontaneous release, you can practice meditation techniques that involve receptive awareness — open, spacious awareness that welcomes whatever arises. (You’ll need to develop your concentration first.) When your mind’s not fixated on a particular object — be it a thought, a memory, or an emotion — but expansive and unattached like the sky, you’re no longer investing energy in your drama, but rather inviting whatever’s churning inside you to unfold and let go.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cultivating positive emotions and mind-states

You can also use the concentration you develop to cultivate positive alternatives to agitation, fear, anger, depression, and the other powerful emotions that arise when you’re involved in your story. (In fact, the practice of cultivation itself can develop your powers of concentration.) These positive mindstates include lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and joy.

Returning to the present moment

When you’ve begun to develop your concentration, you can use it to keep shifting in everyday life away from your inner drama and back to the present moment. You may not eliminate the turbulence, but you can keep seeing beyond it. It’s kind of like taking off your sunglasses and looking at things directly — or like opening your eyes wide when you start falling asleep. The more you look past the drama, the more you see the freshness of being itself reflected in what you see. Returning to the present moment again and again forges a trail that allows you to do an end run around your drama and strengthens your direct connection with life.

How to stabilize your concentration?

If you’ve ever tried to quiet your mind by preventing it from thinking, you know how hopeless that can be. But the more you invest your mental energy in a single focus during meditation, the more one-pointed your mind becomes, and the more the distractions recede to the background. Eventually, you can develop the ability to stabilize your concentration on a single focus for minutes at a time, gently returning when your mind wanders off. With increased one-pointedness comes an experience of inner harmony and stillness, as the sediment in the turbulent lake of your mind gradually settles, leaving the water clean and clear. This experience is generally accompanied by feelings of calm and relaxation — and occasionally by other pleasurable feelings like love, joy, happiness, and bliss (which incidentally originate at the bottom of the lake, in pure being).

At deeper levels of concentration, you may experience total absorption in the object — a state known as samadhi. When this power of focused concentration is directed like a laser beam to everyday activities, you can enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow — a state of supreme enjoyment in which time stops, self-consciousness drops away, and you become one with the activity itself.

How Meditation Relieves Suffering and Stress?

Now for the good news! In case you found all the talk earlier in this chapter depressing, let me reassure you: Your story or drama may masquerade as who you really are — but it’s not. Your essential being remains pure and unharmed, no matter how elaborate and compelling your story becomes. Besides, as stubborn and intractable as they may seem, your mind and heart are actually malleable. Through the regular practice of meditation, you can reduce your suffering and stress by stilling and ultimately dissipating the turbulence and confusion inside you.

As one ancient Zen master put it, “If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this moment is the best moment of your life.” To begin with, you can develop the skill of focusing and concentrating your mind, which calms it and prevents it from becoming agitated. As your concentration deepens, thoughts and feelings that have been building up inside naturally bubble up and evaporate — a process I like to call spontaneous release. When you’ve developed strong concentration, you can expand your awareness to include thoughts, feelings, and the deeper patterns and stories that underlie them. Then, through the power of penetrating insight, you can explore the various layers of inner experience, get to know how they function, and ultimately use this understanding to dismantle the patterns that keep causing you stress.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Distinguishing between suffering, pain, and stress

Yikes! Who wants to burden their brain with such an unappetizing topic? Yet, the clearer you are about suffering and stress, the more easily you can minimize their impact on your life. With this in mind, you may want to consider the following helpful (and admittedly unofficial) distinctions:
  • Pain consists of direct, visceral experiences with a minimum of conceptual overlays. Your best friend says something mean to you, and you feel a painful constriction in your heart. You hit your thumb with a hammer, and it aches and throbs. You get the flu, and your head feels like someone’s squeezing it in a vice. Pain hurts, pure and simple.
  • Suffering, by contrast, is what happens when your mind makes hay with your pain. For example, you decide that because she hurt your feelings, she must secretly hate you, which means that there’s something terribly wrong with you . . . and the next thing you know, you’re feeling depressed as well as hurt. Or you turn your headache into a sure warning sign of some serious illness, which just heaps a big dose of fear and hopelessness onto an already difficult situation. Suffering, in other words, results from seeing situations through the distorting lens of the story your mind tells you.
  • The stress response is a physiological mechanism for adapting to challenging physical or psychological circumstances. Certain physical stressors, such as extraordinary heat or cold, an extremely loud noise, or a violent attack, will be stressful no matter how your mind interprets them. But the stressful effect of most stressors depends on the spin your mind adds to the situation. For example, driving to work in heavy traffic, sitting at your desk for eight hours handling paperwork and phone calls, and then driving home may be only mildly stressful on a purely physical level —believe it or not. But when you are afraid of arriving late, have a conflicted relationship with your boss, feel angry at several of your clients or coworkers, and are still mulling over the argument you had with your spouse or best friend, no wonder you crawl home at the end of the day completely exhausted. Just as your mind can transform pain into suffering, so it can parlay ordinary stressors into extraordinary stress.

Clinging to a separate self

The great meditative traditions teach that the root cause of suffering and stress, which gives rise to your stories, is the belief that you’re inherently separate — from others, from the rest of life, and from being itself. Because you feel separate and alone, you need to protect yourself and ensure your survival at all costs. But you have only limited power, and you’re surrounded by forces beyond your control. As long as you keep struggling to defend your turf, you’re going to keep suffering, no matter how hard you try. Meditation offers you the opportunity to relax your guard, open your awareness, and ultimately catch a glimpse of who you really are, beyond your stories and the illusion of a separate, isolated self.

Fixation of attention

The tendency of the thinking mind to obsess or fixate on certain thoughts and emotions causes the body to contract in response. Have you ever noticed how tense and anxious you can get when you mentally rehearse the same scenario again and again, even when it’s an ostensibly positive one? By contrast, an alert, open, fluid mind — which you can develop through the regular practice of mindfulness meditation — allows you to flow from experience to experience without getting fixated or stuck. Ultimately, you can practice receptive awareness, the spacious, skylike quality of mind that welcomes whatever arises.

Overwhelming emotions

Although you can’t necessarily identify your story, you may be painfully aware of how powerful emotions like anger, fear, longing, grief, jealousy, and desire cloud your mind, torment your heart, and cause you to act in ways you later regret. Initially, meditation won’t get rid of these emotions, but it will teach you how to focus and calm your mind and prevent them from distracting you. If you want, you can then use meditation to help you observe these emotions as they arise without avoiding or suppressing them. Over time, you can develop penetrating insight into the nature of these emotions and their connection to the underlying stories that keep generating them —and ultimately you can investigate these stories and even dismantle them entirely.

Learned helplessness and pessimism

As numerous psychological studies suggest, your ability to deal with stressful situations largely depends on whether you believe you have the resources necessary to cope. That’s right — the belief that you have what it takes is perhaps your greatest resource. If your story keeps telling you that you’re inadequate, it’s just making stressful situations more stressful. Meditation can teach you coping skills such as focusing and calming your mind; returning to the present moment; and cultivating positive emotions and mind-states that help you avoid negative, distracting thoughts and empower you to deal with difficult circumstances and people Ultimately, you can discover how to see beyond your story and make direct contact with the true source of optimism and joy, the wellspring of pure being inside you.

Judging and comparing mind

The tendency of your mind to compare you to others (or to some impossible ideal) and to judge every little thing you do as imperfect or inadequate just keeps you anxious, frustrated, and upset. Generally, this tendency originates in your stories or life script, a deeply held cluster of often negative beliefs. After all, if you believe that you’re lovable and inherently perfect just the way you are, your mind has nothing to compare you with. When you practice meditation, you can develop the capacity to observe the judgments and comparisons of your mind without identifying with them or mistaking them for truth.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Resistance to pain

Like change, pain is inevitable — but so, of course, is pleasure. In fact, you can’t have one without the other, though most of us would love to have it some other way. When you tighten your belly and hold your breath against the onslaught of pain, be it emotional or physical, you actually intensify the pain. And when you affix a story to the pain — for example, “This shouldn’t be happening to me,” or “I must have done something to deserve this” — you just Velcro an extra layer of suffering on top of the pain, which causes your body to tighten and resist even more and only serves to perpetuate the pain rather than relieve it.
Through meditation, you can learn to breathe deeply, soften your belly, cut through your story, and relax around your pain. Often, the pain will naturally let go and release —and even when it doesn’t, it generally becomes much easier to bear.

Resistance to change

Like it or not, constant change is unavoidable. If you try to resist the current of change by holding on to some image of how things are supposed to be, you’re going to suffer because you can’t possibly get life to hold still and conform. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus used to say, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
Through meditation, you can discover how to flow with the current by developing an open, flexible, accepting mind. In fact, meditation provides the perfect laboratory for studying change because you get to sit quietly and notice the thoughts and feelings and sensations coming and going. Or you can stiffen up and resist and make the process more painful. Did you ever notice how some people become more crotchety and depressed as they age, while others age gracefully and with a joyful twinkle in their eyes? The difference lies in their ability to adapt to the challenging changes life brings their way.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Resistance to the way things are

Most of us struggle unhappily to get what we believe we need in order to be happy, while ignoring or actively disliking what we already have. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that you just sit back passively and do nothing to improve your life. But as one of my teachers used to say, the secret to improving your life is first to accept things just the way they are — which is precisely what the practice of meditation can teach. In particular, resistance to the way things are usually comes in one of two flavors: resistance to change and resistance to pain.

Preoccupation with past and future

Like most minds, yours may flit from past to future and back again — and only occasionally come to rest in the present. When you’re preoccupied with what may happen next month or next year, you churn up a range of stressful emotions based on hope, fear, and anticipation that have nothing to do with what’s happening right now. And when you’re reliving the past — which after all has no existence except as thoughts and images inside your brain — you may bounce from regret to resentment to sadness and grief. By contrast, when you meditate, you practice bringing your mind back again and again to the present moment, where, as the Persian poet Rumi says, “the only news is that there’s no news at all.” By returning to the simplicity of the here and now, you can take refuge from the stressful scenarios of your mind.

Thinking and feeling with a meditator’s mind

In case you’re worrying that meditation may stop you from thinking and feeling, here are a few helpful distinctions I picked up from one of my teachers, Jean Klein, author of Who Am I? and The Ease of Being.
Jean likes to distinguish between ordinary thought and creative thought; functional thought and psychological memory; and emotivity and emotion. (Although he teaches a direct approach to spiritual truth through self-inquiry rather than meditation, I’ve taken the liberty of applying his insights because I believe they’re also relevant to the practice of meditation.)
  • Ordinary thought versus creative thought: When your mind keeps churning out an endless series of thoughts linked together like boxcars on a train, with no spaces between them, you’re trapped by your own claustrophobic thinking process and don’t have any room for fresh, original thinking or problem solving. But when your mind is completely open and unfurnished, as Jean likes to say — a state of mind you can cultivate in meditation — you have plenty of inner space for creative thoughts to bubble up from their source in pure being. Unlike ordinary thoughts, these thoughts are completely appropriate to the situation at hand.
  • Psychological memory versus functional thinking: The more you meditate, the more you free your mind of psychological memory, which is the turbulent, obsessive, self-centered kind of thinking that’s generated by your stories and centers on the separate, fragmented person you imagine yourself to be. Instead, your thoughts become primarily functional, arising in response to circumstances and then stopping when they’re no longer required.
  • Emotivity versus emotion: Likewise, the powerful, disturbing emotions that sometimes seem to run your life — which Jean Klein calls emotivity — are actually rooted in your stories, not in reality, and have little in common with true emotion. Subtler than emotivity and rooted in love, true emotion arises naturally from being itself in response to situations where the illusory sense of separation has been diminished or dissolved through the practice of meditation — or some other spiritual practice like self-inquiry.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

You are not your thoughts or feelings

Find a quiet spot where you can sit for the next ten minutes. When you’re comfortably settled, do the following:
  1. Take a few slow, deep breaths.
  2. Turn your attention to your thoughts. (If you tend to be an emotional person, you can do the same exercise with your emotions.) Instead of getting caught up in your thoughts (or emotions) as you might usually do, watch them closely, the way an angler watches the tip of a rod or a tennis player watches a ball. If you find your attention wandering, come back to the task at hand. At first, your mind may seem like wall-towall thoughts or emotions, and you may have difficulty determining where one thought leaves off and the next one begins. You may also find that certain thoughts or emotions keep recurring like popular tunes — for example, repetitive worries or favorite images or fantasies. If you’re especially attentive, you may begin to notice that each thought or emotion has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  3. At the end of the ten minutes, stop and reflect on your experience. Did you experience some distance from your thoughts or emotions? Or did you keep losing yourself in the thinking or feeling process? The point of this exercise is not to see how well you can track your thinking or feeling, but to give you the experience of being the observer of your thoughts. Believe it or not, you’re the thinker not the thoughts! As you begin to gain some perspective on your thoughts through the practice of meditation, you may find that your thoughts start losing the power they once had over you. You can have your thoughts, but they won’t have you.

How Your Mind Stresses You Out?

Recently a friend of mine in her mid-30s decided to ask for a raise. Even though she’d worked with the company as a graphic designer for years and was long overdue for a pay increase, she was overcome with self-doubt. Every day as she drove to work, she would agonize and obsess as conflicting voices and feelings battled it out inside her.
In particular, she kept rehearsing her upcoming conversation with her boss and reviewing all the things she’d done to make her worthy of more money —the projects she’d completed, the successful ads and brochures she’d designed. Sometimes she would emerge from these imaginary conversations feeling triumphant; other times she would emerge crestfallen and defeated. As she listened to all this mind chatter, her feelings fluctuated wildly, from excited and confident to afraid and uncertain.
At times, she could hear a barely audible voice (sounding suspiciously like her father’s) arguing that given her overall ineptitude, she didn’t deserve a raise and that she was lucky to have a job at all. In response, she would feel ashamed and hopeless.
Next, an angry, vindictive voice would step in, arguing that her boss was an ungrateful autocrat and she should barge into his office and put him in his place. Then a confident, affirmative voice would remind her how much she had contributed at work and what a fine person she was overall. Finally, a voice that sounded a lot like her mother’s would counsel her to stay calm and unruffled and be thankful for whatever crumbs life sent her way. After nearly a week of intense inner struggle and stress, during which she had difficulty sleeping and could barely function at work, my friend finally made an appointment with her boss. Filled with conflicting emotions, she entered his office — and was immediately offered a raise even larger than the one she had planned to request! As it turned out, all the images, emotions, and ideas her mind and body had churned out over the days leading up to the meeting had no connection with what ultimately happened.
Does any of this sound familiar? Like my friend — indeed, like just about everyone I know, including me! — you may spend much of your time engrossed in the captivating but ultimately illusory scenarios fabricated in the original “fantasy factory” (the one that predates Disney and Lucasfilm) —that is, the neocortex.
One moment you may be worrying about the future — how am I going to make enough money, orchestrate a great vacation, impress my lover, amuse my kids — and you’re lost in a reverie filled with hope and fear. The next moment, you may be obsessed with the past — why didn’t I tell the truth, take that job, accept that proposal — and you’re overcome with regret and self-recrimination.
And like my friend, you may have noticed, much to your chagrin, that you have remarkably little control over the worrying, fantasizing, and obsessing your mind generates. Instead of having thoughts and feelings, it may often seem that the thoughts and feelings are having you! The reason these thoughts and feelings seem uncontrollable is that they spring from a deeper story or life script that may be largely unconscious. For example, you may hold the subliminal notion that nothing you do is quite good enough, so you push yourself anxiously to make up for your shortcomings. Or, quite the contrary, you may believe that you deserve more than you’re getting, so you’re unhappy with what you have. Perhaps you believe that you’re inherently unattractive, so no matter how much you compensate, you feel embarrassed and uncomfortable around the opposite sex. Or maybe you see intimate relationships as inherently threatening, so you do all you can to avoid being vulnerable.
Your inner story or drama has a powerful momentum that carries you along, whether you’re aware of it or not. Sometimes it may seem like a tragedy, complete with villains and victims. At other times, it may seem more like a comedy, a romance, a fantasy, or a boring documentary. The point is, you’re the center around which this drama revolves, and you’re often so enthralled by the scenery that you can’t really see what’s going on outside, in the real world around you.
As a result, you may be constantly acting and reacting excessively and inappropriately, based not on the actual circumstances but on the distorted pictures inside your brain. (If you’re like me, you’ve no doubt had moments when you suddenly woke up, as though from a dream, and realized that you had no idea what the person you were interacting with really meant or felt.) Besides, you risk missing entirely the beauty and immediacy of the present moment as it unfolds.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s this inner drama that causes most of your suffering and stress, not the experiences themselves. Not that life doesn’t serve you up your share of difficult times and painful situations or that the homeless in American cities or the starving children in Bosnia don’t really suffer. But the mind often adds an extra layer of unnecessary suffering to the undeniable hardships of life by interpreting experience in negative or limited ways.

Discovering how turbulence clouds your mind and heart

Needless to say, when you’re experiencing inner turbulence, you may find it difficult to connect with being when you sit down to meditate. Sometimes, of course, you may have moments when your mind just settles by itself and you can see all the way down to the bottom of the lake. (To use another nature metaphor, think of those overcast days when the cloud cover suddenly parts and the sun shines through with all its warmth and radiance.) These moments may be marked by feelings of inner peace and tranquility, upsurges of love and joy, or intimations of your oneness with life. But most of the time, you may feel like you’re doing a breaststroke through muddy water.
Well, the turbulence and confusion you encounter when you meditate doesn’t suddenly materialize on cue. It’s there all along, clouding your mind and heart and acting as a filter that obscures your clear seeing. You may experience it as an inner claustrophobia or density — you’re so full of your own emotions and opinions that you have no room for the ideas and feelings of others, or even for any new or unfamiliar ideas and feelings that may well up inside you. Or you may get so caught up in your drama that you’re not even

aware that you’re filtering your experience. For example, I have a friend, a computer programmer, who received plenty of love and support as a child. Now, as an adult, he thinks of himself as inherently competent and worthy, even though he’s no Steve Jobs. As a result, he enjoys his career, experiences only minimal anxiety when he makes work related decisions, sees others as inherently supportive, and exudes a palpable self-confidence that draws others to him and invites them to trust him. By contrast, I have another friend, an independent entrepreneur, who has several advanced degrees and has taken countless work-related trainings but who believes deep down that he’s inherently unworthy. No matter how hard he works, he can’t seem to get ahead. Besides, he doesn’t really enjoy his work because he’s constantly anxious that he may fail, and he imagines that others are conspiring to undermine or discredit him.

In each case, the way my friend views himself and interprets what’s going on around him determines whether he’s happy or stressed out. As these examples indicate, it’s the inner turbulence and confusion through which you filter and distort your experiences — not the experiences themselves — that causes most of your suffering and stress. The good news is that meditation can teach you how to calm the troubled waters of your mind and heart, turn some of your inner claustrophobia into inner spaciousness, and find your way past your filters (or avoid them altogether) so you can experience life more directly — and reduce your stress in the process. But before I describe how meditation delivers these goodies, let me explain in some detail how suffering and stress occur in the first place.

Becoming aware of your inner dialogue

Begin this meditation by paying attention to your thoughts. After several minutes, notice what the voices inside your head are telling you. (If you’re not aware of any voices, you may want to observe feelings or images instead.) Does one voice predominate, or do several voices vie for your attention? Do they criticize or encourage you? Shame or praise you? Or do they focus primarily on the other people in your life? Do any of the voices argue with one another? What kind of emotional tone do these voices have? Are they loving and gentle or angry and impatient? Does one voice sound more like you than the others? Do any of them remind you of people in your life — past or present? How do these voices make you feel?
Allow ten minutes for this exercise initially. When you have the knack of it, you can stop from time to time during the day and pay attention to your inner dialogue. The important point is, you’re not your thoughts — and you don’t necessarily have to believe the messages they impart.

The sense of separation

Even deeper than your stories — some would say the soil in which the stories grow — lies a feeling of being cut off or separate from life or being itself. Although the meditative traditions teach that separation is actually an illusion and we’re inextricably connected to one another, the sense of being separate runs deep indeed. Often it dates back to early childhood experiences, when you were forced by circumstances to separate prematurely from your mother or some other nurturing figure. Sometimes it can be traced to the birth trauma itself, when you had to exchange your placental paradise for a colder, harsher reality. (Or maybe, as some traditions contend, it comes packaged with the embryonic hardware.)
Whatever its origins, this feeling of separation may give rise to a kind of primordial fear: If I’m separate, then I must end at my skin, and everything out there must be other. Because these others are often bigger than I am and I have only the most limited control over their actions, my survival must be at stake — and I need to protect myself at all costs. Life scripts evolve as strategies for surviving in a world of apparent separation, in which others are perceived as potentially unfriendly, withholding, demanding, or rejecting.