Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grasping and pushing away

At a somewhat subtler level of experience than thoughts and emotions lurks a perpetual play of like and dislike, attachment and aversion. The Buddhists teach that the key to happiness and contentment lies in wanting what you have and not wanting what you don’t have. While giving condolence sayings may show your compassion to others. But often, we’re somehow dissatisfied with what we have, while we yearn for what we don’t have and struggle to get it. Or we may become deeply attached to what we have and then suffer when time and circumstances change it or take it away. Because change is unavoidable, this tendency to either hold on tight to our experience or push it away can actually cause constant suffering.

How to tell the difference between thoughts and feelings

In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve found that many people have trouble distinguishing between thoughts and feelings. For example, if I ask “What are you feeling?” they may reply, “I feel like I shouldn’t be so open with my partner anymore.” Even though this insight begins with the right word, it’s actually a judgment, rather than a feeling.
Here are a few pointers for telling the difference:
  • Feelings occur as a set of recognizable sensations in your body. When you’re angry, for example, you may feel tension in your shoulders and jaw and experience a rush of energy in the back of your head. When you’re sad, by contrast, you may feel a heaviness in your chest and heart and a congested feeling in your sinuses and throat. Through meditation, you can discover how to experience your feelings directly as sensations, separate from the thoughts and stories that perpetuate them.
  • Thoughts are the images, memories, beliefs, judgments, and reflections that float through your mind and often give rise to your feelings. If you follow the word feel with the word like, you’re probably voicing a thought or a belief, rather than a feeling. You can practice breaking strong feelings down into their component parts by asking: What are the thoughts and images in my mind that keep me feeling the way I do? And what am I actually experiencing in my body right now, aside from my thoughts?
Thoughts not only generate feelings, they often masquerade as feelings (so you won’t actually feel the ones you have), attempt to talk you out of your feelings, judge your feelings, or suppress them entirely. The more you can disentangle your thoughts and feelings, the more clearly and consciously you can relate with (and express) your inner experience.

Intense or recurring emotions

Just as an action film or a romantic comedy takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, so the dramas your mind keeps spinning out evoke their own play of feelings. If you’re trying to figure out how to make a killing in the stock market, for example, or ask out that attractive man or woman you just met at work, you may feel fear or anxiety or possibly excitement or lust. If you’re obsessing about the injustices or unkindnesses you suffered recently, you may experience sadness, grief, outrage, or resentment. Together with these emotions, of course, go a range of bodily sensations, including tension, arousal, contraction in the heart, or waves of energy in the belly or the back of the head. Some of these feelings may be pleasurable, others unpleasant or even painful. But emotions in themselves don’t pose a problem. It’s just that as long as you keep reacting to the dramas inside your head, you may be cutting yourself off from others and from deeper, more satisfying dimensions of your being —and you may miss what’s really going on around you as well.

The Mind chatter

When you turn your attention inward, the first thing you’re likely to encounter is the ceaseless chattering of your mind. The Buddhists like to compare the mind to a noisy monkey that swings uncontrollably from thought-branch to thought-branch without ever settling down. Most of the time, you may be so caught up in this chatter that you’re not even aware it’s happening. It may take the form of reliving the past or rehearsing for the future or trying to solve some problem in the present. Whatever the content, your mind is constantly talking to itself, often spinning a story with you as the hero — or the victim. (Research indicates that a very small percentage of people experience no inner dialogue at all but have only images or feelings instead.)

Sifting through the layers of inner experience

When you meditate, in addition to developing your concentration and calming your mind, you may find yourself delving deeper into your inner experience and uncovering layers you didn’t even know existed. Now, what do you suppose lies at the bottom? The great meditative traditions have different names for it — essence, pure being, true nature, spirit, soul, the pearl of great price, the source of all wisdom and love. The Aztec folks call it your original face before your parents were born. You might like to picture it as a spring that gushes forth the pure, refreshing, deeply satisfying water of being without reservation.
This wellspring of being is who you really are in your heart of hearts —before you became conditioned to believe that you’re somehow deficient or inadequate, as so many of us do. It’s your wholeness and completeness —before you began to feel separate or lonely or fragmented. It’s the deep intuition of being inextricably connected with something larger than yourself and with every other being and thing. And it’s ultimately the source of all peace, happiness, joy, and other positive, life-affirming feelings — even though you may think they’re caused by outside circumstances. (Of course, people experience this source differently, which explains why there are so many words to describe it.)
Connecting in some way with this source or spring of pure being is actually the point of meditation, whether you’re aspiring to become enlightened or just trying to reduce stress, enhance your performance, or improve your life. And meditation will definitely take you there, as I explain later in this chapter. But when you meditate, you also begin to encounter material that seems to come between you and the experience of being, just as you may encounter layers of sediment, algae, fish, and debris on your way to the bottom of a lake. These layers don’t pose a problem unless the inner water is turbulent, in which case they can make it difficult to see clearly. (By turbulence, I mean a busy, agitated mind or a troubled, frightened, defended heart.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Is it higher or deeper?

Spiritual teachers and personal growth advocates have a dizzying fondness for up and down metaphors. Some talk about digging down into your inner experience like a miner, or having profound insights, or feeling or knowing things deeply. Others talk about higher consciousness or transcending the mundane or having a mind like the sky. (I make the best of both worlds by using the two directions more or less interchangeably.) To some degree, the difference lies in the personal preferences of the particular writer or teacher. But it can also refer to an attitude toward inner experience: If you believe that the wellspring of being lies deep inside you, beneath the personal, then you talk about down. If you believe that it exists in the upper echelons of your being or comes down like grace or spirit from above, then you talk about up. In my humble opinion, if you dive deep enough, you find yourself at the top of the mountain —and if you rise high enough, you find yourself at the bottom of the sea. In the end, it’s the same place anyway. Ultimately, in fact, pure being has no location — it’s everywhere in every one of us all the time.

How Your Mind Stresses You Out

For thousands of years, pundits and sages both East and West have been telling us that our problems originate in our minds. So you won’t be surprised if I join the chorus of voices and agree. Yes, they’re right: Your mind by itself “can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven” (as English poet John Milton put it). But how, you may be wondering, can this cute little truism help you when you don’t know what to do about it? “Sure, my mind’s the problem,” you may say, “but I can’t exactly have it surgically removed.”

You can begin by becoming familiar with how your mind works. As you may have noticed, it’s a rather complex assortment of thoughts, ideas, stories, impulses, preferences, and emotions. Without a diagram, it can be as difficult to negotiate as the jumble of wires and hoses under the hood of your car. When you have a working knowledge of how your mind is structured, you can begin to notice how those thoughts and feelings distort your experience and keep you from achieving the happiness, relaxation, effectiveness, or healing you seek. Then you can discover how meditation can teach you to change all that by focusing and calming your mind, and ultimately by delving more deeply and unraveling the habitual stories and patterns that keep causing you suffering and stress. Who knows? You may not need to have a lobotomy after all!

Looking for the last time

Imagine that you will never see your friends or your loved ones again. Now, follow these steps:
  1. Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths, and close your eyes.
  2. Let the usual thoughts, feelings, and preoccupations that surround you disperse like fog on a sunny morning.
  3. Look at the objects and people in your field of vision as though for the last time.
  4. How do they appear to you? How do you feel? What thoughts go through your mind?
  5. Consider the beauty and preciousness of this moment, which is the only one you have.
  6. Reflect on the recognition that every moment is like this one.
  7. As you finish this meditation, let whatever insights you’ve gained continue to suffuse your experience

How to Live in Harmony with Your Meditation

Now that you know what motivates you to meditate, you may benefit from a few guidelines for enhancing and deepening your practice. In particular, meditators over the centuries have discovered that how you act, what you think about, and which qualities you cultivate can have an immediate impact on the depth and stability of your meditation.
Every spiritual tradition emphasizes right conduct of some kind — and not necessarily on the basis of rigid notions of right and wrong. When your actions don’t jibe with your reasons for meditating — for example, when you’re meditating to reduce stress but your actions intensify conflict — your everyday life may be working at cross-purposes with the time you spend on your cushion. (The Hebrew word for sin originally meant “off the mark”!) The more you meditate, the more sensitive you become to how some activities support or even enhance your meditation — and others disturb or discourage it. Of course, there is a never-ending feedback loop between formal meditation and everyday life: How you live affects how you meditate, and how you meditate affects how you live.
With these thoughts in mind, here are ten basic guidelines for living in harmony with the spirit of meditation:
  • Be mindful of cause and effect. Notice how your actions — and the feelings and thoughts that accompany them — influence others and your own state of mind. When you flare up in anger or lash out in fear, observe how the ripples can be felt for hours or even days — in the responses of others, in your own body, and in your meditation. Do the same with actions that express kindness or compassion. As the Bible says, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
  • Reflect on impermanence and the preciousness of life. Death is real, say the Tibetans; it can come without warning, and this body, too, will one day be food for worms and other earthly creatures. By reflecting on how rare it is to be a human being at a time when physical comforts are relatively plentiful and the practice of meditation and other methods for reducing stress and relieving suffering are so readily available, you may feel more motivated to take advantage of the opportunities you have.
  • Realize the limitations of worldly success. Check out the people you know who have achieved the worldly success you aspire to. Are they really any happier than you are? Do they have more love in their lives or more peace of mind? Through meditation, you can achieve a level of inner success that’s based on joy and tranquility rather than material gain.
  • Practice nonattachment. This classic Buddhist counsel may seem on first blush like an impossible task. But the point here is not to be indifferent or to disengage from the world, but to notice how attachment to the outcome of your actions affects your meditations — and your peace of mind. What would it be like to act wholeheartedly, with the best of intentions, and then let go of your struggle to get things to be a certain way?
  • Cultivate patience and perseverance. If nothing else, the practice of meditation requires the willingness to keep on keeping on — call it discipline, diligence, perseverance, or just plain stick-to-itiveness, you’ll reap the greatest benefits if you do it regularly, day after day. Besides, the qualities of patience and perseverance translate nicely to every area of life.
  • Simplify your life. The busier and more complicated your life, the more agitated your mind will be when you meditate — and the greater your stress level. Pay particular attention to all those extra activities you tack on to an already crammed schedule (perhaps to avoid taking a deep breath, hearing your heartbeat, facing your fears, and dealing with other unpleasant feelings like loneliness, emptiness, grief, or inadequacy). If you stop running and listen closely, you may hear the voice of your own inner wisdom.
  • Live with honesty and integrity: When you lie, manipulate, and compromise your core values, you may be able to hide from yourself for a time —until you reach your meditation cushion. Then the proverbial you-knowwhat hits the fan, and every peccadillo comes back to haunt you. Meditation mirrors you back to you, and what you see may motivate you to actualize more of your positive potential.
  • Face situations with the courage of a warrior. Unlike their battlefield counterparts, “meditation warriors” cultivate the courage to drop their aggression and defensiveness, face their fears, and open their hearts —to themselves and others. Easier said than done, you may say, but meditation will teach you how — and then you need to be willing to follow through in real-life situations. Ultimately, every moment becomes an opportunity to practice.
  • Trust the technology of meditation — and yourself. It helps to remember that people have been meditating successfully for thousands of years — far longer than they’ve been using, say, laptop computers or the Internet. Besides, we’re talking low-tech technology here, something anyone can do — like breathing and paying attention. Just trust the technology, follow the instructions — and let go of the results.
  • Dedicate your practice to the benefit of others. As I mention earlier, the Tibetans call this dedication bodhichitta (“awakened heart”) and regard it as essential for meditation that is life-changing, rather than merely cosmetic. Studies of the impact of prayer on healing, cited in Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine by Larry Dossey, MD, have shown that prayers that request specific results are not nearly as effective as those that ask for the best for all concerned. In other words, the love you take is equal to the love you make!

Expressing your innate perfection

In the Zen tradition, the highest motivation for meditating is not to attain some special state of mind, but to express your innately pure and undefiled “true nature” — what I referred to earlier as beginner’s mind. With this motivation, you never leave your own hearth; instead, you sit with the confidence that you already are the peace and happiness you seek. This level of motivation requires tremendous spiritual maturity, but when you’ve gotten a glimpse of who you really are, you may find yourself moved to meditate in order to actualize and deepen your understanding.

Awakening others

The Tibetan Buddhists teach that all meditators must cultivate the most important motivation of all — to see others as no different from oneself and to put their liberation before one’s own. Known as bodhichitta (“awakened heart”), this selfless aspiration actually accelerates the meditative process by offering an antidote to the natural human tendency to hoard our own accomplishments and insights and defend our own psychic and spiritual territory. Unless it is suffused by bodhichitta, say the Tibetans, meditation can take us only so far along the path to self-realization.