Friday, December 31, 2010

How to Make Friends with Your Experience

If you’re like most of the people I know (including me!), you tend to be exceptionally hard on yourself. In fact, you probably treat yourself in ways you wouldn’t consider treating any of your loved ones or friends. When you make a mistake, you may call yourself names or heap harsh judgments and criticisms on yourself, including a laundry list of all the other mistakes you’ve made over the years. When you feel some tender or vulnerable emotion, you may dismiss it as weak or wimpy and attempt to push past it, rather then give yourself time to feel it fully.
Just the other day, for example, when I couldn’t find my keys, I was startled to hear this irritable, impatient voice inside my head chiding me for being so stupid and forgetful! Sound familiar? Most of us hold some image of how we’re supposed to act, think, and feel, and we’re constantly struggling to get our experience and behavior to conform to it — and blaming ourselves when we don’t.
In meditation, you have an opportunity to reverse this trend and explore your experience just the way it is, without trying to judge it or change it. To replace the stress, conflict, and turbulence inside you with peace and harmony, you need to make friends with yourself — which means treating yourself with the same kindness, care, and curiosity that you would give to a close friend. You can begin by bringing a gentle, nonjudgmental awareness to your thoughts and feelings.

Meditation for Challenging Emotion

Meditation tends to make you calmer, more spacious, and more relaxed —at least most of the time. When you follow your breath, repeat a mantra, or practice some other basic technique every day, your mind begins to settle down naturally, while thoughts and feelings spontaneously bubble up and release like the fizz in a bottle of soda. The process is so relaxing that the folks in Transcendental Meditation call it unstressing. When you meditate regularly for a period of time, however, you may find that certain emotions or states of mind keep coming back to distract or disturb you. Instead of dispersing, the same sexual fantasies, sad or fearful thoughts, or painful memories may keep playing in your awareness like a CD stuck in the same old groove. Or you may be meditating on lovingkindness but keep coming up against unresolved resentment or rage. Instead of watching the mist rising from the lake, you’ve begun your descent into the muddy and sometimes turbulent waters of your inner experience. At first, you may be surprised, dismayed, or even frightened by what you encounter, and you may conclude that you’re doing something wrong. But have no fear! The truth is, your meditation has actually begun to deepen, and you’re ready to expand your range of meditation techniques to help you navigate this new terrain.
At this point, you may find it helpful to extend your practice of from your breathing and your bodily sensations to your thoughts and emotions. As you gently focus the light of your awareness on this dimension of your experience, you can begin to sort out what’s actually going on inside you. In the process, you can get to know yourself better —even make friends with yourself. If you keep it up, you can eventually start to penetrate and even unravel some old habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving — patterns that have been causing you suffering and stress and keeping you stuck for a long, long time.

How to Soften your belly?

Stephen Levine, an American meditation teacher who has written extensively on healing and dying, counsels that the state of your belly reflects the state of your heart. By consciously softening your belly again and again, you can let go and open to the tender feelings in your heart.
  1. Begin by sitting comfortably and taking a few deep breaths.
  2. Allow your awareness to gradually settle into your body. Become aware of the sensations in your head and slowly allow your awareness to descend through your neck and shoulders until you reach your torso and arms.
  3. When you reach your belly, gently soften this area of your body. Consciously let go of any tension or holding.
  4. Allow your breath to enter and leave your belly. When you inhale, your belly rises. When you exhale, your belly falls.
  5. With each breath, continue to soften your belly. Let go of any anger, fear, pain, or unresolved grief you may be holding in your belly. You may want to help the process along by silently repeating a word or phrase like “soften” or “let go.”
  6. As you continue to soften your belly, notice how your heart responds.
  7. After five minutes or longer of this softbelly meditation, open your eyes and go about your day.
Every now and then, check in with your belly. If you notice that you’re tensing it again, gently breathe and soften.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Seventy-two labors of Zen

Here’s a brief exercise to help you appreciate how dependent you are on the energy and hard work of others:

1. Begin by settling comfortably and taking a few deep breaths.
2. Bring to mind some modern convenience that you find indispensable. It may be your car, your computer, or your cellphone.
3. Reflect for a few moments on how important this object is to you and what your life would be like without it. Sure, you could always get another one, but right now you depend on this particular object — it’s the only one you have.
4. Think of all the people and hard work that contributed to creating this object, from raw material to finished product. If it’s your car, for example, you can think first of the miners in various parts of the world, possibly working in difficult circumstances, who extracted the iron and chromium and other ores that make up the metal. Then you can imagine the steel and iron workers who mixed the alloys and forged the parts. You can also imagine the oil workers who drilled the oil and the plastic workers who synthesized and then cast the plastic for the steering wheel, dashboard, and other plastic components. Next, you can imagine the engineers who designed your car and the autoworkers who put it together, part by part — and so on.
5. Take a few moments to appreciate these people. Sure, they got paid for what they did, but they also contributed their precious life energy. Without their love, sweat, and dedication, you would not have a car to drive. You may feel moved to thank them for their gifts. As you can imagine, you could spend quite a few minutes reflecting on the “innumerable labors” that brought you this car — or this computer or cellphone. The point, of course, is to reflect with gratitude and appreciation on your interdependence — on all the many ways that you depend on the energy and dedication and good intentions of others to make it through your day. When you’ve spent some time reflecting in this way, you may find that you see even simple things through fresh eyes.

Remembering the goodness in someone

Here’s an exercise that’s designed to evoke appreciation in even the most stubbornly negative person:
1. Begin by settling comfortably and taking a few deep breaths.
2. Spend a few minutes reviewing all the good things that happened to you in the past 24 hours. You may recall a moment when someone treated you with love or kindness — maybe it was a friend or family member or just a person in a store or on the street. Perhaps you’re reminded of some simple pleasure, like eating a good meal or seeing the sunlight in the trees or the smile on a baby’s face.
3. Reflect in the same detail on all the good things you did during the same 24-hour period.
4. Allow yourself to feel appreciation and gratitude for these special moments.
5. Reflect in the same way on the previous week. Continue to breathe while you recall all the good things that happened. If negative memories come up, set them aside for now.
6. If you have enough time, gradually extend the meditation to the past month, the past year — the past two years, the past five. Recall as much as possible all the pleasant, happy, joyful moments, as well as all the good things you did and all the ways you were gifted or supported by others.
7. Allow feelings of gratitude and appreciation to well up in your heart. If you have plenty of time, you can extend the meditation to include your whole life. Of course, you won’t be able to remember all the good things, but be sure to cover all the headline events, including the ways that your parents nurtured and supported you and made it possible for you to grow into the person you are today. If you have resentment toward one or both of your parents, do the forgiveness meditation in the previous section.

Forgiveness: The universal solvent

If resentment — which is just another word for old anger that has built up over the months and years — is the gunk that clogs the free flow of love in and out of your heart, then forgiveness is the universal solvent that washes it away. You may harbor resentment for one person in particular or for a room full of people, harkening all the way back to early childhood. Whatever your situation, you can dissolve the resentment if you choose — but you have to be willing! To make it easier, you may want to begin by including the people you resent in your lovingkindness meditation. (See the section “How to Generate Love for Yourself and Others” earlier in this chapter, or listen to the lovingkindness track on the CD.) And guess what? Here again, you may discover that the person you most need to love and forgive is yourself. Here’s a meditation to help you dissolve resentment, hurt, and guilt and open your heart again to yourself and others:

1. As usual, begin by sitting comfortably, taking a few deep breaths, relaxing your body, and closing your eyes.
2. Allow images and memories of words, actions, and even thoughts for which you’ve never forgiven yourself to float through your mind.
Perhaps you hurt someone you loved and drove him away or took something that didn’t belong to you or said no to an opportunity and later regretted it.
3. Reflect on how much suffering you’ve caused and how much you may have suffered yourself. Allow yourself to feel any pain or remorse.
4. Gently and wholeheartedly extend forgiveness to yourself, using words like the following:
“I forgive you for all the mistakes you’ve made and all the suffering you’ve caused. I forgive you for all the pain you’ve caused others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know that you’ve learned and grown; now it’s time to move on. I forgive you! May you be happy and joyful. I take you back into my heart.” (Here and elsewhere, feel free to use your own words, if you prefer.)
5. Open your heart to yourself and allow yourself to fill with love.
Feel the clouds around your heart dispersing.
6. Imagine a person you love toward whom you feel some resentment.
Reflect on how that person may have hurt you. Reflect also on how many times you’ve hurt others in a similar way.
7. Gently allow the clouds around your heart to continue dispersing as you wholeheartedly extend forgiveness to this person, using words like the following:
“I forgive you for the ways that you’ve caused me pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know that I too have hurt others and let them down. With my whole heart, I forgive you. May you be happy and joyful. I take you back into my heart.” Feel your heart opening once again to this person.
8. Imagine someone whose forgiveness you need.
Perhaps you hurt or mistreated him in some way.
9. Gently ask his forgiveness in words like the following:
“Please forgive me for what I did or said to cause you pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I ask your forgiveness. Please take me back into your heart.”
10. Imagine this person’s heart opening to you and the love flowing freely back and forth between you once again.
11. Imagine someone toward whom you feel great resentment — someone, perhaps, whom you’ve excluded from your heart because of how he once hurt you.
12. Gently allow the clouds around your heart to disperse, and wholeheartedly extend forgiveness to this person, as described in Step 7.
13. Reflect on all the many people toward whom you’ve closed your heart because of the pain they seemingly caused you.
Feel all the layers of resentment and pain that have built up around your heart over the years.
14. Reflect on all the many ways that you’ve acted as they did.
15. Imagine all these people in front of you, and, with your whole heart, forgive them all and ask their forgiveness in words like the following:
“I forgive you for whatever you may have done to cause me pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I forgive you. Please forgive me. May we open our hearts to one another and live together in peace and harmony.” Again, feel your heart opening wide and allow love to flow freely between you.
16. Take a few moments to breathe deeply and rest your attention in your heart before getting up and going about your day.

Instead of doing the full forgiveness meditation presented here, you can just extend forgiveness to particular people as the situation requires. But every time you practice forgiveness, be sure to include some for yourself.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

How to Transform Others?

  1. Imagine a friend or loved one who happens to be suffering right now.
  2. Breathe in the person’s pain and suffering with compassion and breathe out love, peace, joy, and healing.
  3. After several minutes, begin to widen the circle of your compassion to include first other people you care about, then those toward whom you feel neutral, and then those you dislike or find difficult. (For more on the order of this progression, see the section “How to Generate Love for Yourself and Others” earlier in this chapter.) Breathe in their suffering and pain and breathe out peace, love, and joy, using any images you find helpful.
  4. Extend your compassion in this way, first to all the people in the world and then to all beings everywhere. Though you won’t be able to visualize them, you can sense their presence as you breathe in and breathe out.
  5. End the meditation by dedicating any virtue you may have accumulated through this practice to the benefit of all beings.
You can do these phases out of order or separately, if you choose, but it’s important to begin the practice each time with yourself.

How to Transform Your Situation?

  1. Recall a recent situation in which you acted badly or inappropriately. Perhaps you blame yourself or feel guilty or remorseful, or maybe you’ve been resisting these feelings. Recollect the situation as vividly as possible.
  2. Notice how your actions affected the other people involved.
  3. Take full responsibility for your actions. Notice that I said responsibility, not blame. You blew it, and you wholeheartedly acknowledge that you blew it, without beating yourself up about it, but also without denying or justifying what you did.
  4. Breathe in the responsibility as well as any blame, pain, or other negative emotions involved and breathe out forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and harmony.
  5. Continue in this way for several minutes. If another situation comes to mind, set it aside and do this practice with it at another time.

How to Transform Yourself?

  1. Imagine yourself in front of you and become aware of your own stress, suffering, and dissatisfaction.You may find, for example, that you’re angry with your boss or afraid of an upcoming challenge or still hurt or bitter about some mistreatment you received as a child.
  2. Allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself and your own suffering.
  3. As you inhale, breathe in to the sphere of light in your heart whatever suffering you find and breathe out a soothing, caring, compassionate energy that envelops and fills the “you” in front of you. If you find it helpful to use a particular image for this energy, such as fresh flowers or a cool breeze, go right ahead. Or you can use the image of white light suggested in the previous phase.
  4. Continue taking in and giving forth in this way for five minutes or longer.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Transforming the atmosphere

  1. Take a moment to notice the state of your mind right now.
  2. On an inhalation, breathe in any negativity, agitation, darkness, or depression you find there and take it into the sphere of light in your heart, where you imagine it being transformed into clarity, calm, peace, and joy.
  3. On the exhalation, breathe these positive qualities into your mind and feel them filling and purifying it.
  4. Continue to breathe in the dark and breathe out the light for several minutes.
If it helps, you might imagine the negative as a hot, dark smoke and the positive as a cool, white light.

Transforming the atmosphere

  1. Take a moment to notice the state of your mind right now.
  2. On an inhalation, breathe in any negativity, agitation, darkness, or depression you find there and take it into the sphere of light in your heart, where you imagine it being transformed into clarity, calm, peace, and joy.
  3. On the exhalation, breathe these positive qualities into your mind and feel them filling and purifying it.
  4. Continue to breathe in the dark and breathe out the light for several minutes.
If it helps, you might imagine the negative as a hot, dark smoke and the positive as a cool, white light.

Transforming suffering with the power of the heart

As you may discover when you do the following practice, the heart is a powerful organ indeed. Of course, I’m not referring to the physical heart, but to an energetic center located in the middle of the chest, right near the anatomical heart. Yet the two have an intimate connection, as Dr. Dean Ornish’s work confirms: To heal your heart, you need to open your heart.
By doing this meditation regularly, you can actually develop the capacity to transform your own suffering and the suffering of others into peace, joy, and love. The amazing thing is, the process doesn’t weaken or overwhelm you, as you might fear. Quite the contrary, it helps you develop confidence in the strength and resilience of your own heart and in your ability to touch the lives of others.
If you don’t believe me, give this meditation a try. As soon as you get the knack, practice it regularly for several weeks, and notice what happens. Whether or not the people in your life suffer less (and they may), I can guarantee that you’ll eventually end up feeling more peaceful and loving yourself.
  1. Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, taking a few deep breaths, and meditating in your usual way for a few minutes.
  2. Close your eyes and imagine the most loving and compassionate individuals you’ve ever known or heard about gathered together above your head. If appropriate, include religious or spiritual figures like Jesus, Mohammed, Mother Mary, the Dalai Lama, or your favorite saint or sage.
  3. Imagine that they all merge into one being, who glows and radiates the warmth and light of love and compassion.
  4. Imagine that this being descends into your heart, where it takes the form of a sphere of infinitely radiant, infinitely compassionate light that merges with your own soft spot.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Some preliminary exercises for generating compassion

Here are some brief meditations for cultivating compassion. They have been adapted from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation teacher, who writes, “The power of compassion knows no bounds.”

Realizing that others are the same as you
When you’re having difficulty with a loved one or friend, look beyond your conflict and the role this person plays in your life, and spend some time reflecting on the fact that this person is a human being just like you. She has the same desire for happiness and well-being, the same fear of suffering, the same need for love. Notice how this meditation changes your feelings for her and affects your difficulties.

Putting yourself in another’s place
When you encounter someone who’s suffering and you don’t know how to help, take some time to imagine yourself in this person’s position. What would it be like for you if you were experiencing the same problems? How would you feel? What would you need? How would you like others to respond? Notice if you have a clearer sense now of how to help this person.

Imagining a loved one in place of another
Instead of putting yourself in the place of someone who’s suffering, you may find it even easier to generate compassion if you imagine that someone you love deeply is experiencing the same difficulties. How would you feel? What would you do to help them? Now transfer these feelings to the person who’s actually suffering, and notice how it changes your appreciation of the situation. (Not only will this meditation cause no harm to your loved one, assures Sogyal Rinpoche, she may actually benefit from having compassion directed her way.)

Dedicating the merits
When you know what compassion feels like, you can practice dedicating the value of all your positive actions to the well-being of others. In particular, you may want to follow the traditional practice of dedicating whatever virtue or merit may accrue from your meditations to all beings everywhere. You can do this simply by expressing the intention in words of your own choosing, accompanied by a heartfelt wish that all beings be happy and free of suffering.

How to Transform Suffering with Compassion

When you’ve become proficient in opening your heart and extending love to yourself and others, you may want to experiment with compassion, which is simply another form of love. (Or you could just start here and leave lovingkindness till later.) When you’re moved by the suffering of others and feel a spontaneous desire to help relieve their pain in some way, you’re experiencing the emotion known as compassion. Unlike pity, compassion doesn’t separate you from others or make you feel superior. Quite the contrary: In the moment of compassion, the walls that ordinarily keep you separate come tumbling down, and you feel others’ pain as though it were your own. You may be reluctant to cultivate compassion because you’re afraid of being overwhelmed by the enormous suffering that surrounds you. After all, the world is plagued by violence, poverty, and disease, you might argue, and there’s only so much you can do about it. But the truth is, the more you allow yourself to experience compassion, the less overwhelmed you actually feel! If you just want to use meditation to improve your life, you don’t have to bother reading this section (although I’d like to suggest that you can improve your life immeasurably by opening your heart to compassion). But if you want to extend the benefits of your meditation to others — and become a more compassionate human being in the process — then I couldn’t recommend a more helpful set of practices. Begin by cultivating compassion. Then, if you want, you can experiment with using it to transform the suffering of others in your own heart. Though these practices may be simple, they’re extremely effective for dissolving the clouds that hide the heart.

Allowing life to keep opening your heart

As you go through your day, you no doubt encounter moments when you feel a spontaneous rush of love or compassion. Maybe you glimpse a homeless old woman pushing a shopping cart or hear a dog howling unhappily or see the face of a starving child or a grieving mother in some faraway place on the evening news, and your heart goes out to this being in compassion. Or perhaps someone does something unexpectedly kind for you or a good friend reminds you that she loves you or you gaze into the eyes of someone you care about deeply, and you feel love and gratitude welling up in your heart.
Instead of rushing on to the next moment or pushing the feeling away uncomfortably, you can take some time to close your eyes, meditate on it, and allow it to deepen. Life has the capacity, all by itself, to keep opening your heart, if you let it. Your job is merely to gently extend those moments until they gradually begin to fill your life.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Directing the love flow

When you’ve initated the flow of love, you can channel it, first to yourself and then to the other people in your life. After practicing the preceding meditation for five minutes or longer, continue in the following way:
  1. As you allow lovingkindness to fill your being, you may want to express the wishes and intentions that underlie this love. For example, you might say to yourself, as the Buddhists do, “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.” Or you may want to choose something from the Western religious tradition, such as “May I be filled with the grace and love of God.” Feel free to use whatever words feel right for you. Just be sure to keep them general, simple, and emotionally evocative. As the recipient, be sure to take in the love as well as extend it.
  2. When you feel complete with yourself for now, imagine someone for whom you feel gratitude and respect. Take some time (at least a few minutes) to direct the flow of love to this person, using similar words to express your intentions. Don’t hurry; allow yourself to feel the love as much as you can, rather than merely imagine it.
  3. Take some time to direct this lovingkindness to a loved one or dear friend in a similar way.Direct this flow of love to someone for whom you feel neutral — perhaps someone you see from time to time but toward whom you have neither positive nor negative feelings.
  4. Now, for the hardest part of this exercise: Direct your lovingkindness to someone toward whom you feel mildly negative feelings like irritation or hurt
By extending love to this person, even just a little at first, you begin to develop the capacity to keep your heart open even in challenging circumstances. Eventually, you can extend love to people toward whom you experience stronger emotions like anger, fear, or pain.

Opening the love gates

The following steps are a meditation for connecting with your soft spot and initiating the flow of unconditional love, also known as lovingkindness. (To distinguish this kind of love from conditional love, imagine the love of a good mother for her baby. She gives her love freely and unconditionally, without expecting anything in return except her baby’s happiness and well-being.) As with all the meditations presented in this chapter, you may want to begin with five or ten minutes of a mindfulness practice like counting or following your breaths in order to deepen and stabilize your concentration. Once you get the knack, though, the cultivation of lovingkindness itself can be an excellent way to develop concentration.
  1. Begin by closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and relaxing your body a little with each exhalation.
  2. Imagine the face of someone who loved you very much as a child and whose love moved you deeply.
  3. Remember a time when this person showed his or her love for you and you really took it in.
  4. Notice the gratitude and love this memory evokes in your heart.n Allow these feelings to well up and fill your heart.
  5. Gently extend these feelings to this loved one. You may even experience a circulation of love between the two of you as you give and receive love freely.
  6. Allow these loving feelings to overflow and gradually suffuse your whole being. Allow yourself to be filled with love.

Four dimensions of love

Like water, love comes in many shapes and sizes. Just as a crystal-clear mountain lake, a still forest pool, a trickling creek, and a roaring river are all composed of water, so tender emotions like kindness, compassion, joy, gratitude, forgiveness, devotion, generosity, and peace or equanimity arise in the heart and ultimately consist of love. Remember: These aren’t abstractions —they’re natural human qualities that you can learn how to cultivate and communicate to others.
Among all these tender emotions, the Buddhists emphasize the following four as the cornerstones of a happy and fulfilling life:
  • Lovingkindness: Arises spontaneously in response to the kindness of others and consists of warm, loving, caring feelings that can be deliberately increased and extended.
  • Compassion: Takes love a step further. In addition to caring about others, you also feel their suffering and naturally feel motivated to help relieve it. (The word compassion means “to suffer with.”)
  • Sympathetic joy: Is the flip side of compassion. It consists of happy feelings that arise in response to the happiness and good fortune of others.
  • Equanimity: Can be cultivated through the basic meditation practices taught in this book; also known as steadiness of heart. No matter what happens, you expand to include it without allowing it to upset or disturb you.

Appreciating your own goodness

If you have difficulty extending loving feelings to yourself, you may want to take five or ten minutes to reflect on your good qualities or the good things you’ve done in your life. Go ahead, it won’t hurt you!
In the West, we have a cultural taboo against praising ourselves. Instead, we often focus on our shortcomings, which only ends up making us feel contracted and afraid. “Pride goes before a fall,” chides the old slogan, suggesting that you’d better watch out because any satisfaction you take in yourself or your accomplishments could destroy you. “Who do you think you are?” intones the childhood voice of an exasperated mother or father, unwittingly teaching shame and self-doubt.
Despite what your parents (or other influential people) may have implied or told you, it’s okay to be happy and to feel good about yourself. By focusing on your goodness, you actually generate positive, expansive feelings that nourish you and everyone around you. “Joy,” said the Buddha, “is the gateway to nirvana.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love begins with you

You may find it difficult to feel love and extend it to others because you didn’t get much of it yourself as a child. Even though you never really learned how to give and receive love freely, people are constantly asking you for what you believe you don’t have. You’re like a person living in the desert with a dry well; you can’t share any water with others because you don’t have any yourself. Or you may find that your well has water but constantly runs dry just when you need it most.
The meditations provided in this chapter dig a well deep into your soft spot, where the waters of love never run dry. (In fact, the love I’m talking about doesn’t belong to anyone; it just bubbles up from a mysterious and inexhaustible source.) You may need to prime the pump, though. That’s why the traditional instructions counsel you to begin each meditation on love and compassion by focusing on yourself. When you’ve filled your own well to the brim, you can begin to extend the overflow to include others as well. Just as you can’t really heal others until you’ve healed yourself to a certain degree, you can’t love others until you feel deeply loved yourself. Besides, you deserve love at least as much as anyone else. In the West, we often practice self-denial, while equating self-love with selfishness. Yet, the reverse generally holds true: People who love themselves give love more freely and generously than those who don’t.
As a remedy for the widespread Western disease of self-criticism and selfdenial, the meditative traditions offer the practice of self-love. In particular, as you work with opening your heart, you can remember to keep your heart open to yourself even, paradoxically, when your heart is closed.

The warrior of the heart

For all you tough guys (and gals) who believe that opening the heart is best reserved for sissies and fools, here’s some wise counsel from the Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa. (No stranger to toughness, Trungpa, like the Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans, escaped from his homeland when the Chinese invaded and walked across the Himalayas over a series of precipitous mountain passes to India.)
In his book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, he explains that facing your fear and negativity and being willing to keep your heart open — even in the most challenging circumstances — takes tremendous courage. Although you probably think of warriors as impenetrable, unfeeling, and heavily defended, Trungpa takes the opposite view. The sacred warrior who practices meditation, he suggests, is not afraid to feel tender — or to communicate this tenderness to others.
The point is, you can take care of yourself —even defend yourself from harm, when necessary — without closing your heart. An open heart doesn’t make you powerless or ineffectual. Quite the contrary, it allows you to respond to situations wisely and skillfully because you feel others’ suffering as well as your own.

Discovering your “soft spot”

One of my teachers, the Tibetan meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche, used to refer to the place inside where you feel tender, loving emotions as your soft spot. The soft spot can be found in your heart, beneath all the toughness and defensiveness. To reach it, you have to risk encountering feelings you might otherwise wish to avoid, such as fear, grief, anger, and the others talked about earlier in this chapter. You’ll know the soft spot when you get there because it has a tender sweetness to it that’s often tinged with a certain sadness or melancholy about the human condition. (In fact, you may find it slightly painful to open your heart at first, simply because of this sadness, which is actually one of the seeds of compassion.) Because you’ll need to be familiar with your soft spot in order to practice the meditations provided in the remainder of this chapter, you may want to experiment with the following exercise:
  1. Begin by closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and relaxing your body a little on each exhalation. Remember to be kind to yourself.
  2. Imagine the face of someone who loved you very much as a child and whose love moved you deeply. In the East, they recommend using your mother, but some Westerners tend to have more problematic relationships with their parents, so you may prefer to use your grandmother or grandfather or some other unconditionally loving figure. (If you never received love like this as a child, you can think of some famous person that you consider to be unconditionally loving, such as Jesus or Buddha or the Divine Mother.)
  3. Remember a particular instance in which this person showed his or her love for you and you really received it and allowed it to nurture you.
  4. Notice the tender, loving feelings this memory evokes in your heart. The place where you feel them is your soft spot.
  5. Notice if any other feelings accompany the tenderness and gratitude you feel.
  6. If you find it difficult to re-experience the love, pay attention to what gets in your way. What are some of the feelings standing guard over your soft spot?
  7. Begin to explore the area around your soft spot. What is the state of your heart right now? What are some of the other feelings you find stirring inside, in addition to (or instead of) love? Do you notice any tension or bracing around your heart that keeps it from opening to love?
  8. Be aware of what you find, without judgment or self-criticism.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Some good reasons for keeping your heart open

Imagine that an extraterrestrial lands on Earth and tries to make sense of us human beings from our pop music. It would probably conclude that we regard love (whatever that might be!) as infinitely more precious than everything else combined. But once the ET figures out how to measure love, it might be surprised to discover how little of the invaluable substance actually flows between us most of the time. Love, the ET would no doubt deduce, is not only precious, it’s incredibly hard to find.
For creatures who want to be loved, appreciated, even adored, we certainly go about fulfilling our desire in a curiously unfulfilling way. Instead of manufacturing it ourselves in the little love machine inside our chests, we complain about not getting enough of it, search frantically for someone else to give it to us, and try to make ourselves more lovable by improving our looks or earning more money. But the truth is, the Beatles song has it right: The love you take is equal to the love you make. In other words, the most effective way to get love is to generate it yourself.
By cultivating caring, loving feelings, you can actually provide yourself with the nourishment you seek. At the same time, by radiating those feelings outward to others, you can touch their tender hearts and naturally elicit the same feelings in them, creating a flow of love that keeps circulating between you and building on itself.
If you’ve never experienced this kind of flow with someone yourself, you’ve perhaps met people who live this way. Their eyes sparkle with positive regard, their words speak well of everyone, and they elicit love wherever they go. Through the practices described here, you, too, can begin to generate a flow of loving feelings. It all depends on you.
Here are a few of the innumerable benefits of learning how to love:
_ Energy and expansiveness: If you’ve ever been in love (maybe you are right now!), you know how vital and alive you can feel when your heart is wide open. Instead of the usual sense of limitation you ordinarily experience, you feel like you have no boundaries, as though you can’t really tell where you leave off and the outside world (or your beloved) begins.
_ Peace and well-being: When your heart is filled with love, you feel happy and peaceful for no external reason. In fact, love, happiness, joy, peace, and well-being are just different names and versions of the same basic energy — the loving, life-giving energy of the heart.
_ Good health: Yes, love is life-giving and life-enhancing. For one thing, it brings people together to create babies, and, in general, love contributes to optimal health by providing an immeasurable vital spark that not only nourishes the internal organs but also provides the body (and the person) with a reason to live. Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, found that love is more important than any other factor in the healing process, including diet and exercise. To heal your heart, he discovered, you need to open your heart.
_ Belonging and interconnectedness: As another old song puts it, love makes the world go round — and it certainly draws people together and keeps them connected. When you open your heart to others, you naturally feel joined with them in a meaningful way. In the deepest sense, love is the source of all meaning and belonging.
_ Spiritual awakening: As they gradually erode your sense of separateness from others, loving feelings can eventually reveal the essential nature of life, which is, paradoxically, also love. Ultimately, the Sufis teach, we are simply love searching for itself.

Kindness is the key

Although the cultivation of an open heart definitely deserves a chapter of its own, it’s traditionally considered the foundation on which meditation practice rests, rather than a separate technique or approach.
In Southeast Asia, for example, meditators are taught how to develop generosity, patience, and lovingkindness before they learn how to meditate. And Tibetan practitioners dedicate the benefit of every meditation to the peace and harmony of all beings, not just themselves. As the Dalai Lama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, says, “My religion is kindness.” You can follow every technique to the T, but if your heart’s not in it, you won’t reap all the wonderful benefits of meditation.
To be open to the present moment, for example, as mindfulness meditation teaches, you need to be open with every dimension of your being: body, mind, spirit, and heart. So be sure to bring a measure of love and caring to your meditation —especially toward yourself!

Some factors that keep closing your heart

Like most human beings, you close your heart, whether automatically or deliberately, because you feel angry, hurt, or threatened by others. Perhaps you’re afraid they’ll take advantage of your kindness or crush your tender feelings with their insensitivity or restimulate painful memories. Or maybe you’re just ticked off about all the times you’ve been mistreated, and you don’t want to let it happen again. We all have our own unique reasons for closing our hearts. Whatever yours happen to be, they may be preventing you from getting the love you really want.
Here are some of the most common factors that close the heart:
  • Fear: When you’re afraid, for whatever reason — of being attacked, criticized, manipulated, overwhelmed — you close your heart in selfdefense. As one popular slogan puts it, love is letting go of fear — and learning how to trust, both yourself and others.
  • Resentment: When you hold on to old hurts and let bitterness and resentment build up in your heart, you shut your heart, not only to the people who hurt you but also to life itself.
  • Unresolved grief: This natural human emotion can get stuck if you continue to mull over your losses and refuse to let go of the past. When grief fills your heart, you’re reluctant to open it because you don’t want to feel the pain inside.
  • Jealousy: Actually a brand of resentment, jealousy can close your heart to the person who has what you wish you had — and to yourself as well for being somehow “inferior.”
  • Pain: Also known as hurt, this feeling, if allowed to build to intolerable levels, may cause you to board up your heart completely and post a sign saying, “Keep out! No trespassing!”
  • Grasping and attachment: As long as you’re emotionally attached to having life go a certain way, you’re going to close your heart as soon as other people interfere. In fact, emotions like grief, pain, and even resentment are ultimately rooted in attachment — and the fear of losing what you’re attached to.
  • Self-clinging: If you believe that you’re an isolated individual cut off from other people and from your own essential being, you’re going to hold on to your own little piece of turf — your own possessions, your own accomplishments, your own happiness — and close your heart, if necessary, to defend it. Also known as ego in many of the meditative traditions, self-clinging perpetuates separation and gives rise to the other factors in this list.
Ultimately, of course, only the most enlightened, selfless people can keep their hearts open all the time. I mean, we’re talking Jesus or Mother Teresa here! As for the rest of us, we’re going to keep closing our hearts again and again. Only when we’ve dissolved the barriers that separate us from others —which is what enlightenment is all about — can we keep our hearts open even in the most difficult circumstances.
But, enlightened or not, you can definitely develop the ability to open your heart when you choose to do so. In fact, the regular practice of meditation gradually erodes the experience of separation that causes the heart to stay closed in the first place. Who knows? One day you may open your heart and never close it again!

Friday, April 30, 2010

How Your Heart Closes — and How You Can Open It Again

Needless to say, you weren’t born with your heart closed. As anyone who’s ever spent any time with a newborn knows, babies have hearts that radiate love like the sun in the tropics. But as you grow up, the bumps and bruises and hardships of life gradually force you to protect your tenderness and other softer emotions with a layer of toughness and defensiveness — the clouds I talked about earlier. This layer surrounds and encloses the heart, protecting your vulnerability — but also keeping your own love locked inside and the love of other people from entering.
Perhaps you’re one of those rare individuals whose heart remains open most of the time. If so, congratulations! Or maybe you wrap yourself in a cloud cover — or something even denser, like armor — when you head out the door each morning, but lay it aside when you spend time with friends or family members. Perhaps your heart naturally opens and closes in an ebb and flow like the weather. Or you may be among the millions of people who have difficulty letting love in or extending it to others. Don’t lose heart! You can definitely discover how to open your heart again, as I discuss later in this section. But first I’d like to describe the factors that keep closing your heart when it opens — or keep it closed entirely — and the benefits that come with an open heart, in case you haven’t already figured them out.

Breathing with your belly

Healthy breathing involves opening and expanding both your belly and your chest. As a culture, we tend to value big chests and small bellies. As a result, we learn early how to “suck it in” and not let our belly (or our feelings) show. (Believe it or not, there are cultures where a relaxed, expanded belly is considered attractive!) The problem is, we don’t allow ourselves to breathe with our bellies. This habit just limits the amount of life-enhancing oxygen we receive and accentuates the stress pattern of tightening our abdominal muscles and diaphragm (the big internal muscle that covers the bottom of the rib cage) and holding our breath.
To counteract this pattern and help you relax, try the following exercise, drawn from hatha yoga:
  1. Notice how you’re breathing right now. Which parts of your body expand when you breathe, and which parts do not? How deeply and quickly (or slowly) are you breathing? Where does your breathing feel tight or constricted? How do your belly muscles and diaphragm feel?
  2. Make a conscious effort to expand your belly when you breathe. I use the word “effort” advisedly because your abdominal muscles and diaphragm may be quite tight at first.
  3. Breathe deeply and slowly into your belly. Notice your body’s resistance to changing your habitual breathing patterns.
  4. Continue breathing in this way for five minutes and then breathe naturally. Do you notice any differences? Do your abdominal muscles feel more relaxed? Are you breathing more deeply than before? Do you feel more energized or calm?
Practice this exercise regularly — at least once a day. It can be especially useful when you’re stressed out or anxious and your belly starts to tighten and your breathing constricts. Just shift to belly breathing and notice what happens.

Accepting and letting go

Holding on tightly and pushing away hard, lusting and hating, defending and attacking — traditionally known as attachment and a version —are the primary causes of suffering and stress. Along with indifference, they form the proverbial three poisons of meditation lore.
Fortunately, you can cultivate the antidotes to these poisons by practicing the two most important gestures or functions of meditation: accepting and letting go. They’re inextricably entwined:
Until you accept, you can’t let go; until you let go, you have no room to accept again. As one Zen master put it, “Let go of it, and it fills your hand.” Here’s a little exercise that gives you an opportunity to practice both accepting and letting go:
  1. Begin by sitting comfortably and taking a few deep breaths. Now place your attention on the coming and going of your breath.
  2. After a few minutes, shift your awareness to your thoughts and feelings. Take the attitude that you’re going to welcome whatever arises in your experience without judging or rejecting it.
  3. As thoughts and feelings come and go, notice the movement to avoid or push away or not see what you find unpleasant or unacceptable. Accept this movement as you continue to welcome your experience, whatever it may happen to be.
  4. After five or ten minutes, when you have a feel for accepting, shift your attention to the process of letting go. Take the attitude that you’re going to let go of whatever arises, no matter how urgent or attractive.
Notice the movement to hold on or indulge or get involved with thoughts and feelings you find pleasant or compelling. Gently restrain yourself and continue to loosen your grip and let go.
When you have a feel for both accepting and letting go, you can combine them in the same meditation. Whatever arises, welcome and let go, welcome and let go. This is the twofold rhythm of mindfulness meditation

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


As your meditation opens you to an experience of pure being, you may begin to recognize the value of the second stage of the 12-step dictum: “letting God.” The truth is, the power or force that’s actually controlling your life (and which you essentially are) is far bigger than your small self, and it’s eminently trustworthy — some would even say it’s sacred or divine. When you begin to loosen your vice-grip on the steering wheel of your life, you don’t plunge headlong into the chaotic abyss, as you might fear; instead, you relinquish your apparent control to the one who has always been in control —call it God or Self or pure being. In your meditation, you may actually experience this surrender as a deeper and deeper relaxation into the sacred silence or stillness that surrounds, suffuses, and sustains you.


Letting go also has a deeper dimension: The more you loosen the stranglehold of your likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices, memories and stories, the more you open to the experience of just being, beyond any limited identities or interpretations. These identities are like the layers of an onion or clouds that hide the radiance of the sun. As your meditation deepens, you can learn to accept and then let go of these clouds, without mistaking them for the light they obscure. By disidentifying more and more with what you are not — the masks that hide your true nature — you gradually begin to identify with what you are: pure being.

Letting go

Participants in 12-step programs sometimes talk about “letting go and letting God.” The first stage involves letting go of the illusion that you have unlimited control over your life. In mindfulness meditation, you can practice letting go by dropping all struggles to control your mind — and all ideas you may have about how your meditation is supposed to look — and relaxing into the present moment as it unfolds, both inside and outside. Believe it or not, you already know how to let go — you do it every night when you drift off to sleep.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Acceptance Before Meditating

The flip side of suspending judgment involves learning to accept things just the way they are. You don’t necessarily have to like what you see, and you’re welcome to change it — but first you need to experience it fully and clearly, without the overlays of judgment and denial. For example, you may have lots of anger bubbling up, but you may believe that this particular emotion is bad or even evil, so you refuse to acknowledge it. In meditation, you have an opportunity to observe the anger just as it is —recurrent angry thoughts, waves of anger in the belly — without trying to change or get rid of it. (For more on meditating with challenging emotions and mind-states, see Chapter 11.) The more you welcome the full range of your experiences in this way, the more space you create inside yourself to contain them — and the more you defuse those old familiar conflicts between different parts of yourself.

Suspending judgment

If you’re like most people, you’re constantly judging your experience as good, bad, or indifferent and reacting accordingly:
  • “Ooh, I like that. I’m going to try to get more of it.”
  • “I hate that. I’m going to avoid it at all costs.”
  • “That doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not going to pay any attention to it.”
When you meditate, you begin to notice the steady stream of judgments and how they dominate your mind and distort your experience. Instead of indulging this habitual pattern, you can practice witnessing your experience impartially, without judgment. When judgments arise, which they undoubtedly will, you can just be aware of them, while avoiding the temptation to judge them as well. Gradually, the habit of judging will loosen its grip on your mind.

Cat-and-mouse meditation

To learn how to meditate with effortless effort, combining just the right balance of alertness and relaxation, spend some time watching cats. Although they seem so settled and self-contained, cats are acutely aware of what’s going on around them. If they hear the chirp of a bird or see a mouse scurrying across the floor, they can leap up in a heartbeat and pursue their prey at full speed.
As soon as their prey has escaped, however, cats don’t appear to become attached to the memory of what might have been. Instead, they settle down once again and resume their meditation. You would never associate cats with making an effort — they’re simply being themselves wholeheartedly, engrossed in the present moment, open to whatever occurs. Apply this same quality of energy and earnestness to your meditation, and you’ll get the knack in no time.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

How to Let Go — and What to Let Go Of

In certain parts of Asia, they have an ingenious method for catching monkeys alive. The hunter cuts a hole in a coconut just big enough for a monkey to reach in with its hand, but not big enough for it to remove its closed fist. Then the hunter puts a ripe banana inside, attaches the coconut to a string, and waits. Upon grabbing the banana, the monkey becomes so attached to keeping the fruit that it refuses to let go, and the hunter can reel the animal in like a fish on a hook.
As I mention in Chapter 6, your mind is like a monkey in more ways than one. Not only does it leap about from thought to thought like a monkey in a tree, but it also has the annoying tendency of holding tightly to certain ideas, opinions, thoughts, memories, and emotions, as though its life (and yours) depends on it — and pushing away others with equal force. This constant shifting between attachment and aversion causes you stress because you’re constantly struggling to control what can’t be controlled. Thoughts and feelings come and go whether you like them or not, and the stock market falls and relationships end despite your preferences to the contrary. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, people recite the following prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In meditation, you develop the power to control or change what you can — not the events or circumstances of your life, but how you relate to them — and the peace of mind to accept what you can’t.
Meditation teaches you how to loosen your monkey-grip on your experience and create a kind of inner spaciousness and relaxation by letting go of control and allowing things to be the way they are.

Making an effortless effort

When I was a neophyte meditator, one of my teachers, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, used to say somewhat mysteriously, “Follow the wave, drive the wave.” But I never really knew what he meant until I started to surf. Now I understand! When I’m out there on the ocean floating on my board, alone with the wind and the sky, I’m excruciatingly aware of how small and insignificant I am in comparison to the awesome power of the water. It would be presumptuous of me to say that I surf the waves — in fact, the waves surf me! I know that I can’t possibly attempt to control the water in any way. Yet I do need to exert a certain effort: I need to concentrate on the swell, paddle at just the right time, and position my body in just the right way to catch the wave at its apex so that it can carry me to the shore. And I need to stay focused as I shift my weight ever so subtly from side to side in order to ride the wave as fully as I possibly can.
Well, meditation is like surfing. If you push too hard and try to control your mind, you’ll just end up feeling rigid and tight, and you’ll keep wiping out as the result of your effort. But if you hang back and exert no effort at all, you won’t have the focus or concentration necessary to hold your position as the waves of thought and emotion wash over you.
Like surfing — or skiing or any sport, for that matter — meditation requires a constantly shifting balance of yang and yin, driving and following, effort and effortlessness. As I mention in Chapter 1, concentration is the yang of meditation (focused, powerful, penetrating) and receptive awareness is the yin (open, expansive, welcoming). Although you may have to exert considerable effort at first just to develop your concentration, try not to become tense or obsessive about it. Let your effort be effortless, like a seasoned surfer’s. Eventually, your concentration will arise quite naturally and take only minimal effort to maintain, and you’ll be able to relax and open your awareness to whatever arises. Even the notions of yin and yang (awareness and concentration) will ultimately drop away, and you can just be, with effortless effort —which is the real point of meditation.
In addition to effortless effort, meditation poses a number of other paradoxes that the mind can’t quite comprehend but that the body and heart find easy to grasp. To practice meditation, it helps to be
  • Serious yet lighthearted: After all, meditation is about lightening up —yet, if you’re not serious enough, you won’t make any progress.
  • Alert yet relaxed: Learn to balance these two qualities in your meditation. If you become too relaxed, you risk falling asleep, but if you’re too alert (that is, wired), you could become tense.
  • Spontaneous yet restrained: You can be totally “in the moment” and open to whatever arises in your awareness without becoming impulsive or indulging every fantasy or whim.
  • Engaged yet dispassionate: While being focused and attentive, you can avoid getting caught up in the compelling and emotionally charged stories your mind spins out.

Applying yourself “earnestly”

Where self-restraint keeps you from doing what might be harmful or unhealthy and wholeheartedness supplies the spark that ignites your meditation, earnestness keeps bringing your mind back to your focus. No matter what thoughts or feelings arise to seduce you away, you just keep plugging along — following your breaths or chanting your mantra or paying mindful attention in everyday life. Just as it takes consistency to return to your sitting day after day, it takes earnest application to return to the focus of your meditation moment after moment, without struggling or giving up. Earnestness isn’t sexy or exciting — it’s just essential!