Just start again

As the year comes to a close, many people’s minds turn to changes they want to make. Even those who shy away from “resolutions” often will set an intention to change or work on something.

I recently made some big changes in my life, and I’ve been talking to a lot of people working on similar changes. I see a lot of concern about backsliding or mistakes or failing to reach a stated goal.

Relax, friends. Whether you make a formal resolution, an intention, or whether you just want to be a little better today, there is only one rule to follow if you fall short.

Just. Start. Again.

Proceed as if the mistake never happened (unless you’ve done something unethical while on a bender, in which case, make amends first).

Treat the mistake as an oopsie, not an OH MY GOSH I’M A FAILURE.

So you ate the cookies? You didn’t exercise? You Facebooked instead of meditating, again? Forgive yourself. There is no failure. Start again. You can always start again.

Have you ever watched a toddler learning to walk? What do they do when they fall down? “Well, I’m down here, I guess I’ll never walk. <shrug>”

Of course not, they just get up and keep trying. They don’t see failure because it’s not there.

This is part of what is meant by beginner’s mind in Zen. Forget what you think things mean. “Failure” isn’t permanent, and it isn’t a character trait.

Get up. Start again. You can do it.

Be well, friends.

What seeds will you water today?

I recently saw the following meme on Facebook.

I sure wish I could credit the author, because they are a genius. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to how Facebook affects me lately, and I’ve decided to turn it off (for now). I predict I’ll get a lot more books read and I’ll pay more attention to my family. Maybe I’ll even vacuum more often.

Our brains, priming, and ancient feedback loops

There is a wonderful book, one of my favorites, that does a much better job than I will at explaining these concepts. Go pick up “Why Buddhism is True,” by Robert Wright, and if you’re not a Buddhist, don’t let the title scare you. It isn’t about Buddhism being the One True Way or anything like that, but it looks at neuroscience that supports what the Buddha intuited about how our minds work, and ways we can improve how we think, feel and perceive.

Before I get into brain science, I want to steal a few more metaphors. There is a Native American story about a grandfather counseling his grandchild that we all have two wolves inside us, a wolf of hate and a wolf of love, and whichever we feed more often will be the stronger one. There is a classic idea in Western Judeo-Christian culture that we have an angel and a devil on each shoulder trying to tell us what to do. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen monk and teacher, says that each of us has a “storehouse consciousness” that contains the seeds of all emotional states, and we must be careful which ones we water. Motivational author and speaker Wayne Dyer used to say that whatever you focus on, you get more of.

These are all pointing to the same idea. Essentially, we all have the capacity to be all the things — generous, selfish, loving, hateful, scared, brave, etc. So what determines which one we are at any given moment?

There are two concepts in neuroscience that I think apply here: one is priming, and the other is modularity. The first is the idea that our brains can be primed, or loaded, toward one mental state/behavior or another. If you watch cute kitten videos and then your kid does something that could be cute or could be annoying, you’ll probably find it cute. If you watch videos of a riot and then your kid does the same thing, you’re much more likely to get angry. Have you ever noticed that on days when you set a loving intention or read/recite a verse about generosity from your tradition’s scripture, that you are more loving and generous? (At least at first — we’ll get into rebound effects later!) If you’ve ever mentally rehearsed for a physical task, you’ve used priming to your benefit.

The second concept is that the mind is not a unified thing, but a set of modules designed for specific tasks. Sort of like computer software programs. We’re switching from one module to another all day long, based on social and emotional cues sometimes below conscious awareness. As a kid I remember being amazed by my mother’s ability to scold me angrily in one breath and smile sweetly to the neighbor in the next. You may or may not be aware of some of your modules. If you’ve ever over-responded to something that you later realize wasn’t that big a deal, your brain was probably running a trauma module to keep you safe.

Most of our modules operate on feedback loops. The meme I posted at the beginning of this article references one mechanism for this, which is dopamine. Whenever we do something that is likely to benefit our survival (eating, mating, finding something shiny that may be useful later), we get a little blast of dopamine, which is a brain chemical that makes us feel good, briefly. It doesn’t last long, though, and it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of trying to get another dopamine blast … and another, and another. And before we know it, we’ve spent an hour scrolling through social media and found ourselves feeling more and more unsatisfied as we do so.

Choose which seeds to water

If I squeeze an orange, what will I get? (Orange juice, obviously.) Why? (Because that’s what’s inside). If I squeeze you and get anger, did I put the anger there? No, no more than I put the juice in the orange. You have all the possible emotions and behaviors in you already. No one else makes you yell, or smoke, or eat too many potato chips.

But.

Remember that old phrase, “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future”? That’s priming. Another good book on the subject is “Influence,” by Robert Cialdini. He cites interesting data showing that when we see people (who seem like us and with whom we identify closely) doing something, we are more likely to do that thing. You can show your 4-year-old that jumping in the pool with the floaties on is perfectly fine, but he’s much more likely to do it after he sees another kid do it.

So the people you surround yourself with, and the things you watch, and the information you take in (watch less news, please, for real) affect your mental/emotional state and therefore your behavior. I say therefore because you have never, not once, behaved in a way that wasn’t spurred by an emotion. E-motion. Feelings move us in a direction.

So how do you water the seeds of positive emotion? I have some ideas.

Mind the external inputs

  • Limit social media. Stop looking at carefully chosen excerpts from other people’s lives and believing that they’re all true. No one has life figured out. It’s. All. Bullshit.
  • Limit the news. For real, how does it help you to know that someone died or got sick or their house burned down 500 miles away? It doesn’t. Try no news for 3 days and see if your life is actually missing anything, and then choose how much news you really need.
  • Seek out people who are positive. Spend less time with complainers and negative Nancies (unless you live with them, in which case, imagine your body is made of Teflon and all their complaints slide right off you).
  • Whatever your spiritual tradition, find verses that speak to love, kindness and peace, and spend time with those each day. If you have no spiritual tradition, find quotes from famous people you respect that speak to these topics.

Mind the internal inputs

  • Stop criticizing yourself.
  • Stop criticizing yourself.
  • Stop criticizing yourself.

You can’t punish yourself into being a happier or kinder person. It doesn’t work that way. You have to love yourself into it. Just like you would with your child or your spouse or your friend. Wish good things on yourself. Enjoy the good things you have. Savor those damn potato chips instead of beating yourself up for eating them. You deserve to be nurtured. We all do.

Also go meditate, or pray, or walk in the woods, or imagine walking in the woods if you’re housebound. Use all your senses. Literally stop and smell the roses. Touch the bark of a tree. Get present with life. Recognize what emotions are driving you in this moment. Water yourself.

May you all be happy.
May you all be healthy.
May you all be free from suffering.

Everything is hard before it is easy

Beginning and maintaining a meditation practice, like establishing any other habit, can be challenging. It seems like it should be easy to choose to do something that we know is good for us, but anyone who has tried to quit smoking, give up sugar, or start an exercise program knows that it isn’t. But why is it so hard? Are we just lazy, thick-headed or gluttonous? Nah. It’s not you, my friend, it’s your brain.

Blazing new trails

Imagine for a moment that it’s 1720 or so, and you live on a farm with your family, fairly distant from the next town or farm. Let’s say on Sundays you hitch up your horse and wagon and haul your family to the neighbor’s farm for dinner. After the first few trips, your wheels would start to make ruts in the earth between your house and the neighbor’s. After many trips, those ruts would get deeper and deeper, making it easier and easier to make the trip. After a while, the ruts are so deep and your horse is so trained that you don’t actually need to guide him. You just end up at your neighbor’s house with little effort.

A similar thing happens in our brains when we do something repeatedly. The brain wants to automate as many things as possible so that it can devote more attention to learning new things and watching for danger. So anything we do repeatedly over short periods of time will become automated. If you get into the habit of eating ice cream after dinner, after a while you don’t even think about whether to eat the ice cream — you just find yourself looking down at a bowl of rocky road that’s already half finished. You’re on autopilot.

Now imagine a new neighbor moves in near your 1720 farm. You want to hitch up the wagon to go visit. But what happens? Your wagon wheels really want to stay in the ruts you’ve already made. It’s really hard to go in a new direction because the old one is so perfectly fitted to your wheels. So you have to work hard to turn that wagon, and it’s a bumpy ride at first. It feels like your wagon might break, or you might fall off. It feels uncertain and uncomfortable for quite a few of those early trips.

Choosing any new behavior will feel like this at first. It is infinitely easier to just follow the old path than it is to blaze a new one. Once you do the same thing enough times, your brain actually changes to make that thing easier to do in the future, much like the wagon ruts in my example. After enough repetitions of the new behavior (visiting the new neighbor), that route will have cozy little ruts for your wheels, as well, and will become automated.

Be willing to feel like you’re failing

In my old gym, there was a phrase written on the wall. I’ll paraphrase: In order to do something well, you first have to be willing to do it badly. When people first learn to meditate, they often feel that they aren’t good at it or are doing it wrong. It feels uncomfortable to just sit still and watch your breath or your thoughts. It feels wrong, because it goes against all the prior learning of our productivity-defines-our-worth culture.

But sitting still to meditate for a while is worth it. And guess what? It also can change your brain for the better. It improves concentration and focus, emotional regulation and compassion, as well as bringing about an increased sense of well-being. (There are more studies than I can cite here, but feel free to Google). And every day that you sit down to meditate, you strengthen the habit of sitting to meditate and make it easier to do. But first you have to get through the boredom, the fear of missing out, and the worry that you’re doing it wrong.

It helps to refer here to an analogy about meditation as taming a wild horse. Your mind is used to going wherever the hell it wants, all the time. What should I eat for lunch? Why did I say that thing 5 years ago? I really should call my grandmother. I wonder why Tarzan didn’t have a beard.

So the early days of meditation can be a struggle. Your wild horse of a mind does NOT want to be tamed. It will throw everything at you that it can find to get you to give up, get up and do something more entertaining. Take these thoughts for what they are, just thoughts. Before you sit, make a list of all the things you need to do today so your brain knows it doesn’t need to keep reciting them to you. Set a timer so your brain knows it doesn’t need to worry that you’re going to fall asleep or forget to get ready for work. Give yourself permission to feel like you’re a terrible meditator for a while, and commit to doing it every day. Remind yourself of your intention, and sit. down. on. the. cushion. Give yourself some grace, and keep going. Let this habit become automated, and pretty soon you will feel like a “real” meditator.

Be well, friends.

A calm mind creates no suffering

rock pile

(This post originally appeared on another Web site of mine).

Last year I attended a long (very long) silent meditation retreat. When I told people I was going to meditate for 10 days, I got one of two reactions.

1: “Wow! That sounds amazing and relaxing!”

2: “That sounds like torture.”

Funny how the same thing can create such opposite reactions. Both perspectives turned out to be true, and not true.

Things I learned by shutting up:

Meditation sometimes sucks

It wasn’t relaxing, at least not very often. Being able to focus your mind intently on something and keep re-placing it there all day long is hard. It’s boring. Sometimes your body starts to hurt and you have a whole conversation with yourself about pain. Sometimes your mind brings up painful content. (Sobs were heard at times).

But sometimes it’s really great

If you’ve ever gotten really into an activity and entered what some call the “flow” state, you’ll understand this. There sometimes comes a point in a long period of meditation where the mind slows down, the chatter quiets a bit, and you’re just doing what it is you’re doing without really thinking about it. This is the feeling I think most people are trying to get from meditation.

Which brings me to:

Hope is not your friend (i.e., drop all expectations)

You cannot try to achieve the flow. You might as well try to catch smoke. The effort has to be entirely in maintaining focus on your meditation object, not in generating a certain feeling or experience. One of the real purposes of meditation is to achieve equanimity (calm non-reactivity to good as well as bad experiences). If you’re moving away from or toward any thought or feeling, you are not equanimous. (I promise that’s really a word.)

Balance is dynamic, not static

If we drop our favorite illusion, that we can achieve happiness and keep it forever, we learn that staying calm is a journey, not a destination. True balance requires constant monitoring and adjustment. Try standing on one leg and you’ll see what I mean. Many small movements are required to maintain the balance.

Most of what runs through your mind is useless

Seriously, all the stories that your mind generates aren’t helping you. The belief that your life is full of problems that you have to manage is false. Unless someone is bleeding out, urgency is a mind creation. Most things can solve themselves. You don’t have to listen to every urge or emotion. You don’t have to scratch every itch.

We all talk too much about too little

On the last full day of the retreat, we were allowed to talk again before venturing back out into the loud, loud world. We didn’t talk about our favorite TV shows or the president. After 10 days of silence, we talked about real things in our lives. With complete strangers who felt like friends. It was weird, but refreshing.

A calm mind is a happy mind

One thing the teacher said which struck me is that in order to harm anyone else through speech or action, we first harm ourselves. Anger is actually really painful if you examine it closely. The pain starts with you, and what you really are trying to do when you “lose” your temper is to give away your anger so you can be free of it.

But if you never let anger ramp all the way up, you never yell at the driver who cuts you off, or at your spouse or your child. You have to be really present with your feelings and take responsibility for them all — ALL — in order to maintain internal balance. If you stay balanced, lashing out becomes impossible because there’s no need to give your anger to someone else. Make sense?

Wayne Dyer gave this example in a talk once. What do you get when you squeeze an orange? (Orange juice, obviously). Why? (Because that’s what’s inside). So if I squeeze you, and out comes anger, why did that happen? Because that’s what’s inside you. It has never come from anywhere else.

Take good care of your mind. Take good care of your heart. May you all be well.

My mind won’t be quiet

When we first learn to meditate, there are many obstacles we need to overcome. The first, I find, is the title of this post. We get stuck fighting with our mind to get it to shut up. Because that’s what meditation is, right? A quiet, serene mind? Well…not exactly.

We think the steps of meditation look like this:

  1. Set timer and sit down
  2. Focus on the breath
  3. Meditate blissfully for 20 or 30 minutes

But really it looks like this:

  1. Set timer and sit down
  2. Focus on the breath
  3. Notice attention has wandered to what’s for lunch
  4. Re-focus on the breath
  5. Notice attention has wandered to an itchy nose
  6. Re-focus on the breath
  7. Notice attention has wandered to why beavers build dams
  8. Re-focus on the breath
  9. Feel the mind settle down for 5-30 seconds
  10. Notice attention has wandered to whether the dog needs a diet
  11. Re-focus on the breath
  12. Notice attention has wandered to what “I should have said”….

You get the picture?

Mind wandering is normal. It is to be expected. It is part of the path.

Mind wandering isn’t a problem

Someone (I’m too tired to look up who just now) said that the mind makes thoughts like the mouth makes saliva. It is constant, and it is outside our control. You cannot order thoughts to stop. They might, if you get concentrated enough in meditation, but it’s better to think of this as a side effect. Psychology labs have done plenty of experiments showing that thought suppression has the opposite effect. The act of not thinking about something requires your mind to monitor for those thoughts, which basically keeps you thinking about the thing. Make sense?

But the good news is, meditation works even if your mind is wandering.

The practice, the real practice, is noticing that your mind is wandering. The point is to become conscious of what we’re doing as we’re doing it. This is a far cry from our usual mode, where we find ourselves in a room without remembering why we came in, or reacting to a single word someone speaks with anger or even rage. We spend our lives unconscious of what’s happening in our minds and bodies. Meditation aims to change that, but it won’t necessarily be a blissful or easy ride. Some meditation sessions will feel like wrestling an octopus. Enjoyment is not required for meditation to do its job.

I like to compare this to exercise. As a former marathon runner, I can tell you that runners don’t run because it always feels good. Sometimes it sucks, and it hurts, and it’s boring. But every run benefits your heart and lung function. Even if it rains or you take a lot of walking breaks or you legs just don’t have much gas. Similarly, every time you catch the mind wandering in meditation, this leads to greater attention. Celebrate!

Tools for success

There are some tricks that can help us stick to a meditation practice when it feels fruitless or too hard. First, know that doubt is actually part of the path, like hunger is part of life. It doesn’t mean anything bad about you or your meditation. Second, find some way to keep yourself accountable. Absolutely use a timer and perhaps a guided meditation. Find some meditative friends (online groups are all over the place) and sit together to practice. It’s always easier to show up for others who are expecting us. Third, ask questions of more experienced practitioners. Often we think what’s happening for us is wrong, bad or not good enough. Find someone further along the path to bounce these things off of. And fourth, be flexible. Your practice doesn’t have to look the way you think it does. If life is throwing a lot of stuff at you and all you can manage today is 2 minutes of meditation in the shower, let that be enough. You’ll do more when you have more to give. Consistency trumps quantity here. Two minutes a day is as good or better than 10 minutes every five days.

The last piece of advice I’d give is to read books about this stuff. My go-to list is as follows:

  1. Why Buddhism is True (Robert Wright)
  2. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Jack Kornfield)
  3. Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach)
  4. When Things Fall Apart (Pema Chodron)
  5. Mastering the Hard-Core Teachings of the Buddha (Daniel Ingram)

What questions do you have? Feel free to email me or comment!

May you be well. May all beings be well.

So you want to be a meditator?

You can hardly open a magazine or self-help Web site these days without seeing an article telling you to meditate or learn to be more mindful. Many people have added meditation to their mental list of things they should be doing to be happy and be better at everything. Exercise, eat right and meditate – three pieces of advice everyone wants to follow and everyone struggles at times to follow.

Let’s start with some basics: what meditation is, and reasons to engage in this practice. Then we’ll talk about reasons not to engage in it (because everything isn’t best for everyone all the time).

What meditation is

Meditation is a set of techniques aimed at training the mind in specific ways to create certain benefits. All training is specific, and meditation is different from training yourself to do calculus or read French literature. Meditation techniques involve focusing the mind on an object or a series or set of objects – usually beginning with the breath but also encompassing things as far-reaching as sounds, body sensations, thoughts, visualizations of gurus and deities, and empty space – in order to cultivate useful mental states and cognitive abilities.

What specific things are we training with meditation? I call them the 3 C’s:

  1. Concentration
  2. Clear seeing
  3. Calm acceptance

The first C will be pretty obvious to most readers, as mental focus is probably the most famous benefit of meditating (think Zen archery and martial artists breaking bricks). The ability to place your attention on a thing and keep it there is desirable in a lot of ways. If you have a job that requires you to do boring or repetitive tasks, it probably is a struggle to stay focused. Concentration skills also help you tune out unimportant information or distracting stimuli, allowing you to stay engaged in a conversation with your long-talking in-laws or your 5-year-old. Being able to remember why you walked into the kitchen would be nice as well, yes?

The second C, clear seeing, is a bit different. Here we’re talking about the ability to see things as they actually are, not how we want them to be. With training in clear seeing (generally called vipassana or insight in the Buddhist tradition), we stop buying our own bullshit stories about why we do what we do. We see through the stories we play in our heads about who we are and who we should be. We learn to be with what is really happening right now. For example, if you get stuck in a traffic jam or someone else scoots into the parking space you were eyeing at the grocery, it’s tempting to get into a long story about who is right and who is wrong here (pro tip: you’re probably not right, nor are you totally wrong). If you get caught in ideas about how no one can drive and traffic jams shouldn’t exist and that was “your” parking spot, you are having what the spiritual author Eckhart Tolle calls an argument with reality. Imagine, instead, that you could see the situation as cars on a road, with drivers who sometimes make good decisions and sometimes make poor ones. Suppose you saw the traffic as other humans also doing what you’re doing – trying to get somewhere for reasons that matter to them – rather than as something that happened to ruin your day. Meditation can help with this.

The final C, calm acceptance, could really be 2b, in that it’s a logical extension of clear seeing. This concept is what Buddhists call equanimity. It is accepting all experiences equally, without rushing to judge them as good or bad. This is where compassion lives. This aspect of training is the real key to happiness. If you could see your experiences as simply experiences (dropping the “your” and with it the emotional stake in them), how much more joyful might you be? If you could address the problem of your leaky roof without spinning out about fairness or unfairness, if you could hear someone’s criticism of you without it turning into an argument, if you could enjoy the food on your plate regardless of whether it was seasoned to your liking…how might that be?

All these things are possible with meditation training.

The warning label

Full disclosure, I stole “the warning label” phrase from Vince Horn at Buddhist Geeks. Google him, and watch his video on this because he does a much better job than I will at explaining it.

But here goes my explanation. Meditation is wonderful in many ways. It can make us more calm, loving, and joyful. However, there are times when it isn’t advisable to start a meditation practice. It’s best to meditate while sober, and not in any acute psychological crisis. Some problems are better addressed via medical care or therapy. Meditation can’t solve everything.

And regular practice WILL stir things up. I did a 10-day retreat a few years ago where I literally cried for the first nine days (not constantly, but at least once a day). Every other long-term meditator I’ve met has a similar story. It is said that if you haven’t cried deeply, you haven’t truly begun to meditate yet. When you cultivate clear seeing, you see flowers more clearly – this one always surprises me, but for real your visual awareness will improve acutely with lots of meditation – but also you see your flaws more clearly. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron shares an analogy of a pond. She says we imagine that meditating will make our minds quiet like a still pond. This is true, but in the stillness we can now see the old tires and the rusty refrigerator and the dead fish at the bottom of the pond. Meditation will not allow you to lie to yourself or ignore your pain. It will bring it all up to be dealt with. This is beautiful. This is not to be missed. It is the reason the lotus flower is often used as a symbol for the meditative path. We see the pretty flower on top of the water, but to get there it first had to push up from the muck and the darkness and reach toward the light. If you’re ready, the path is here for you.

How to start

First, consider the question of why you want to meditate. Having an intention and knowing what it is will help you in any difficult endeavor. So what do you want? More concentration, more clarity, more equanimity? The whole enchilada of nirvana, liberation from suffering? Excellent, write down your goal somewhere so you don’t go astray, and keep reading.

To begin a meditation practice, you simply begin. Any meditation is better than none, so please don’t think you can’t do it if you can’t do a 10-day retreat or meditate for an hour every day. Even 5 minutes, done daily, will make changes in you. More is better, of course, but some is better than none.

Pick a time of day that you think will work, and don’t be afraid to try something else if your first plan doesn’t work. Try 6 a.m., try 10 p.m., try noon! Meditate in the bathroom or in bed or before starting your car. Try it sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Try it all until you find what fits for you. Take a class or listen to guided meditations at first. There are many good apps for this, including Insight Timer, Headspace, Calm and Buddhify.

If you don’t use an app or guided meditations, the basic instructions are thus: Set a timer for the amount of time you intend to meditate and sit down in a position where you’re stable and comfortable, with your back straight. Bring your attention to the breath either at the nostrils, the upper chest or the belly. Notice all the sensations you find in the spot you picked. When your mind wanders, bring it back. Repeat until the timer goes off.

It’s that simple, but it’s not easy. Your mind will wander a lot, and this will make you think you’re meditating wrong. You aren’t. Anything you start paying attention to, you will notice more of. You will notice more mind wandering than you think is normal. You’re normal. Your only job as you meditate is to catch the mind wandering (yay! you noticed! congratulate yourself!) and bring it back every time. This is the entirety of the practice.

I also suggest that you use mental noting to help with focus, such as saying to yourself “breathing in” when you’re breathing in and “breathing out” when you’re breathing out and “thinking, thinking” when you notice mind wandering. Start with just these three notes at first. I’ll write more on noting in a later blog. Feel free to email me with questions about this or about anything else I’ve written.

Good luck in your practice.

May you be well. May all beings be well.

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