A poem by Annabel Laity, a 19-year-old young woman living in the Himalayas.
Tag Archives: Buddhism
Ignorance may not be bliss, but often it’s a tempting option.
What “ignorance” is, from a mindfulness perspective, is simply tuning out. Specifically, tuning out and not being aware that we are tuning out. It is being unaware, and then being unaware that we are being unaware.
Some of us specialize in this particular form of unskillful behavior, but all of us do it to some extent, much of the time. Actually, we cannot be aware of one thing, if we do not tune-out other things. Much like a camera, we cannot focus on something without de-focusing something else.
When we are skillful, we choose consciously what we wish to tune-out, and we do so motivated by our values. When we are unskillful, we are not so aware of what we are tuning out, and we do so motivated by comfort and discomfort.
Like the main character of the rock opera “Tommy,” we are “deaf, dumb and blind” a fair bit of the time. We do not see what we do not wish to see. We hear what we want to hear, and disregard the rest.
Mindfulness involves becoming more and more open to what is — even the parts we are not so happy about, the information and experiences that we do not like very much on first encountering them. Practicing mindfulness, we slowly become more and more willing to see, hear, and speak what is not so pleasant, but what is in fact here, and is in fact important. We have less and less time for what is pleasant, but unskillful. We have less and less time for what is just a distraction from reality.
Do you want to see, hear and speak what is? Or would you rather be deaf, dumb and blind, but protected from unpleasant realities? That is the choice we make again and again when practicing mindfulness.
Short and sweet, as I am packing to leave: Besides practicing mindfulness meditation every day, I practice what I preach by attending intensive retreats. I try to go to a weeklong meditation retreat each year (missed a few after my 2nd child was born), and when I can’t, I go for an intensive weekend.
There is simply no substitute for intensive practice. I do NOT like it. I do it because I like what it does for me. I have thoughts of home on and off the whole time and often feel an urge to leave. But I stay, and I return, because I like what it does to my being.
If you want to do intensive retreats, there are many places in Oregon, the US, and elsewhere, in the Zen school of meditation, and many others. We at Portland Mindfulness do not yet offer more than daylong retreat (and that in the context of MBSR thus far). I highly recommend to serious students of mindfulness that they find somewhere to practice in this way.
See you next week!
Ever seen a parent dealing unskillfully with a child in public? It’s so easy to judge them and think “I would ….” We think we’d do better, until we have children of our own and see that it’s not so easy. That parent is not facing this problem behavior for the first time, and probably not for the 10th time. More like for the 1000th time. And they may have been more skillful the first 999 times.
I once explained to a Young Woman what being a parent was like for me. I put it this way:
Me: “What’s your favorite food?”
Me: “OK. Imagine that you wake up one morning, and you ask your boyfriend ‘what’s for breakfast?’ and he says, ‘Pizza.’ You shrug and say, ‘OK, I love pizza. Why not?’ Then when lunch rolls around, he says, ‘Hey, I made you lunch. Your favorite: pizza!’ You look at him oddly and say, ‘um, alright, I love pizza. Why not.’ Then when dinner rolls around, he says, ‘Let’s go out for dinner. I know a great place.’ You, hungry for salad or perhaps grilled fish, say, ‘Great! What kind of food?’ He says, ‘Pizza!’ The next day, it starts all over again. It’s pizza from now on.”
YW: ‘I think I’ll be talking to my doctor about birth control.”
We love our children and they give us joy. But truthfully, as a parent of 2 preschoolers (well, one just started kindergarten), I can say that a good bit of the time it’s not a lot of fun. It’s repetitive as all heck, and often mind-bendingly boring for me. Not infrequently, it’s irritating beyond belief. It’s like one of those movies about parenting and kids in which the kids are acting so crazily and stereotypically that you say (as a non-parent), “kids aren’t really like that.” Except you’re wrong. They are exactly like that.
You are trying to eat, say, a bowl of cereal. One child is asking you for some so you feed her. She eats it while spilling your milk on the rug (she is holding the brim of your cereal bowl, which you are eating from in the living room because your son is making monsters out of Mega-Bloks <tm> ). Meanwhile your son is narrating the plot of his monster battle, and NEEDS for you to repeat everything he says back to him so he knows you’re listening. He yells at you when you don’t. You are distracted by him and now your daughter has tilted your cereal bowl until its contents spill on your lap. Then your son pushes his sister down because she stepped into his monster-fighting-zone. And so forth. And the day has just started, the kids don’t go to school today because it’s a random holiday, you have 2 more hours of parenting to do, THEN you have to get ready to go to work. For a full day. When you get home, it’s more of the same until they go to sleep.
So it seems, sometimes: An endless parade of mild suffering mixed with mild joy.
A friend of mine compared parenting his preschool daughter to “being pecked to death by a duck.”
A duck that you love to pieces.
Mindfulness is perfectly designed for situations in which you are constantly frustrated, in which your desires are constantly being subordinated to someone else’s needs.
The breath is always there for you. The breath cannot fail you. Your attention, your capacity to notice the breath, to notice the physical body, cannot fail you.
No, you will not always be “calm” when you practice with the breath.
No, you will not always be as skillful with your kids as your mind says you “should,” “ought,” or “must,” no matter how much you practice mindfulness.
But if you keep part of your attention on your breath as much as possible, you may find you are more skillful and patient than you are otherwise. You may find that, while you may not be calm on the inside, you can do the right things on the outside, no matter how you feel.
You might also find that you are better prepared to take care of yourself effectively with the little time you have to do so. You may not spend as much time dreading what’s to come and regretting what’s past; you may find yourself appreciating what’s happening right now.
This breath. This sunrise. This cup of coffee. This child, whose eyes can see the world as it should be seen, as an endless source of fascination. And whose tantrums show you what YOU really are, underneath all that adult control. We are all preschoolers, but we have learned to cover it over.
When we learn to parent ourselves effectively, we can parent our children effectively.
When we learn to parent our children effectively, we can parent ourselves effectively.
There is no book that can really help you do this very much.
It is the breath, it is mindfulness, that will teach you what you need to know, if you practice with an open mind and an attitude of willingness.
Fiery, explosive, caustic and destructive, anger can ruin relationships, even lives.
When we indulge anger, rage and irritability, we do not really FEEL them: we act on them without full awareness of our feelings or of the potential consequences of our actions. Much can be said on that topic, but I want to keep focused on how to channel these upheavals skillfully.
Using mindfulness, you can channel the energy of these common, human emotions into valuable endeavors. To do so you must be aware of body sensations.
Direct attention to the body, not the mind. The mind cannot solve these problems, and the mind cannot skillfully redirect the underlying energy. Only the body, infused with mindful awareness, can do this.
So bring awareness to the body, shine awareness into the body, as you would shine a flashlight into someplace that is dark. As you do so, consciously separate from the “story,” from the “reasons” you feel angry. Keep detached from that beloved story about why so-and-so is wrong, and why you are right. Why things and people “should” be different from how they in fact are.
Notice exactly what the emotions feel like in THIS MOMENT. Do you sense heat? Pressure? Prickliness? Swirling? Try to find some words for these immediate sensations. Even better, find some imagery: If these sensations were painted by an artist, what would they look like? If they were smells or tastes, what would they be like? Practice with them for several minutes. Notice how difficult it can be to detach from the “story,” from the “reasons” you are angry, and focus on the sensations themselves. Keep coming back to the sensations.
Now that you have practiced in this way, you are ready to use that underlying, powerful energy for anything that you choose. Something physical would be perfect: Exercise, dance, practice martial arts. Or, write that articulate and civil, but strongly-worded letter to the bank that you’ve needed to write for some time. Or, do some artwork or music. Just stay detached from your anger-story, and focused on the sensations themselves.
You may be surprised by what happens.
Look at this meditator, photographed at the Portland Dharma Center. Does what he is doing look easy? Does it look hard?
I’ve written here before claiming that “Mindfulness Meditation is Simple!” And, of course, I think there’s much merit to that argument, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it!
However, to put a finer point on the matter, it would be more accurate to say, “meditation is neither easy nor hard.” That would seem to be a contradiction in terms, one of those paradoxes that sound Zen-like but may come across as unnecessarily confusing, mystifying, or even nonsensical.
However, experienced meditators would probably agree that there are ways in which meditation is very hard, and ways in which it is quite easy — and that the apparent contradiction between these represents an important aspect of the experience of meditation, and one that we would do well to get a handle on.
Mindfulness Meditation is easy because all it is, is sitting still and paying attention. Paying attention, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “In a particular way: On Purpose, Non-Judgmentally, and in the Present Moment.” It is not usually difficult to sit still, unless we are extremely agitated. Even then, we may, with a little effort, sit relatively still.
It is not difficult either, in any given moment, to direct one’s attention to a particular source of stimulus (say, one’s breathing in and out). This is the part about paying attention “On Purpose.” Then it’s not actually difficult to take a step further, and return attention to the target stimulus every time our minds wander away from it. Each return to the target of attention is actually accomplished rather easily.
So in what way is meditation “hard”?
That would be in the remaining part of Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness: “Non-Judgmentally, in the Present Moment.” Let’s handle these two components separately.
This is really the hard part, but not as hard as it first appears. We naturally have judgmental thoughts about just about everything; that is part of why we need to practice mindfulness! So we tend to think that this instruction means, “Squash any judgmental thoughts until they go away!” However, that’s not the instruction. The correct instruction is, “Notice any judgmental thoughts, and hold them lightly, don’t take them too seriously.” We do particularly well to notice and NOT take seriously our evaluations about our meditation, whether we are “good at it” or whether it is “working.” The mind thinks meditation is supposed to take away and neutralize any negative experiences, but that is not the purpose of meditation. The purpose of meditation is to separate from the mind and take it less seriously, so that we may live authentically. How can we do that when we are taking the mind’s judgments ABOUT our meditation so seriously?
So, some friction, some conflict in the mind, some apparent difficulty with meditation is manufactured in the mind, from this instruction to pay attention “Non-Judgmentally,” from the repeated injunction meditation teachers give us not to judge. But what if having judgmental thoughts were okay? What if we just focused on not taking them too seriously? Anyhow, do they go away when we command ourselves not to judge? I’m thinking not.
“In the Present Moment”
This instruction is particularly confusing to meditators, even ones who have been at it a long time, I think. As a particularly clever and astute participant in one of our recent workshops said, “Aren’t we always in the present moment?” And this is true: There is no other place to be but the present moment.
However, our minds THINK that we are elsewhere, sometimes. There are times in which we lose contact with the present moment to some extent, and are immersed in an imaginary experience of the future or past, or some other hypothetical realm. These are realms of “was,” “could,” “should,” “might have been,” “ought to be,” “ought not to have been,” and so forth. These are the psychological states that Buddhist practitioners call ‘clinging.’
The true meditation instruction is to NOTICE when we have pretty much lost contact with the present moment, and then gently return our attention to stimuli that are actually present in this moment. It is skillful and expedient to use some kind of bodily sensation (such as breathing), as an anchor, as a place to which we return when we notice we’ve wandered.
Now, since the tendency of the mind is to wander — OFTEN — to such hypothetical realms, to engage in thinking, we therefore frequently end up finding ourselves returning the attention again, and again, and again, and again to the point we’ve chosen as our focus for meditation (be it breath, body sensations, sound, or a mantra). And then we get frustrated. We think, “I SHOULD be able to do this BETTER than I’m doing it!” That is how our minds manufacture the “difficulty” of meditation. There is actually no difficulty there, but because we believe our judgmental thoughts so habitually, we have an experience of conflict, of difficulty.
So is meditation easy or hard?
Yes, it is.
Anxiety stinks. We hate it. Feelings of anxiety can be incredibly uncomfortable. We often respond to them by wavering, seeking safety, and even abandoning our valued goals.
We have a whole range of ways we try to feel safe when our minds say “I am not safe.” One of them is worrying. “Maybe if I think about this enough, I’ll feel safer.”
Avoiding feared situations, or entering the situations and “white-knuckling” through them are other ways we try to feel safer. All the various ways we avoid the basic feelings of insecurity and “Not-safe-ness” can result in a lot of long-term losses. Often, they do not even make us feel better in the short term. When they do, they are often very costly in the long term, and ultimately, unsuccessful in making our world seem safe and secure to us.
If you’ve been reading this blog or other articles on mindfulness for awhile, it probably comes as no surprise that our suggested response to anxiety is acceptance: learning to allow insecurity to exist, learning to be open to discomfort. We practice mindfulness in order to learn how to keep going with our lives, even when we do not feel safe.
Fundamentally, we are not safe: we cannot avoid illness, pain and death, and never will succeed in doing so. Worse yet, we cannot avoid failure, embarrassment, shame, humiliation, and other emotionally painful experiences. Neither our social world nor our physical world is safe.
We practice mindfulness meditation regularly, following the breath, opening our minds and hearts to our experience, letting thoughts be thoughts, letting discomfort be discomfort, not trying to fix anything, cultivating open observation. As we do this over a long period of time, and as we deliberately apply in our everyday lives what we have learned on the meditation cushion — perhaps with the help of a teacher or therapist — we gradually become more “OK” with not being safe.
Then, in time, much more time than our hurried, anxious minds would like, in time, we begin to feel that, not-feeling-safe, is not unsafe. We lose, gradually, our fear of fear. We become more open to “I Don’t Feel Safe,” begin to let go of the struggle to feel “safe,” and focus more and more on living this incredible life in which we find ourselves existing.