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.