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.

Negative beliefs and life scripts

Here’s another nature metaphor for you: Imagine that your thoughts and emotions and even the dramas that keep running through your brain form the leaves and branches of some inner, subterranean bush or tree. (Think wild and uncontrollable here, like blackberries or bamboo.) What do you suppose constitutes the root, from which the leaves and branches relentlessly spring?

Well, you may be surprised to discover that the root is a cluster of beliefs and stories, many of them negative, that have formed as the result of what people — especially people who are significant in your life, like loved ones and friends — have done to you and told you over the years. These beliefs and stories have intertwined over your lifetime into a kind of life script that defines who you think you are and how you view the people and circumstances around you. (I say “surprised” because most of us are clueless when it comes to life scripts — although you may have noticed some resemblance between your life and, say, Survivor, As the World Turns, or The Simpsons.) The point is this: Your tendency to identify with your life script actually limits your range of possibilities and causes you suffering by acting as a filter through which you interpret your life in negative ways. To return to the bush metaphor, you can keep pruning back the branches, but you’ll keep living out the same old story until you pull it up by the roots.