Meditation techniques and what it offers me
Archive for the Meditation Category
Today, we are going to be answering a question from a user on on Instagram page that read, “How do I know that I live in honesty to myself?” Often, we hear advice about living true to ourselves, not pretending to be somebody else and not lying to ourselves about who we are and what we want. This question really made us think, and here are a few suggestions we came up with.
I know that it seems that we suggest meditation as a solution to almost every question, but it is because it truly helps! When we are trying to investigate if we are being honest with ourselves, there are a couple meditation techniques that can be of great help.
First, you may try a feeling meditation. Begin your meditation with a few minutes of concentration practice, simply focusing on the breath. After 5 minutes or so, turn your attention to your feelings. You may ask yourself the question, “What am I feeling?” Repeat this question at a pace that feels right to you. You may answer either with a feeling or with a simple, “I don’t know.” You may note when you are feeling anger, happiness, joy, confusion, etc. When you find that you are feeling something, don’t dive into the story. Simply note the feeling and how it feels.
This meditation practice helps us get in touch with ourselves. Although we may not immediately know when we are being honest with ourselves or not, this meditation can put us in touch with our hearts. When we repeatedly sit down with the intention of looking at our feeling states, we become generally more aware of what is going on within.
Open Awareness Meditation
Another meditation that we may practice to help us get honest with ourselves is a general mindfulness meditation. A mindfulness, or open awareness sit can give great insight. Again, start by focusing on the breath. After a few minutes open your attention to everything going on. Use the breath as an anchor, but allow your attention to turn toward sounds, smells, thoughts, and physical sensations. Your focus may be drawn to a pain in your knee. Simply note where your attention is, and return to the breath. Your attention may then be drawn to a thought. Note that you are thinking, and return to the breath.
Just like the other meditation above, repeated practice helps us get in touch with ourselves. Over time, we are able to know what we are feeling and where our attention is more easily. There are many things that go into the creation of our present moment experience. With daily meditation practice, we are able to see the causes of our experience.
Take an Inventory
Another great tool for trying to connect honestly with yourself is an inventory process. An inventory is fairly simple and can be done however you want. Twelve step programs stress an inventory as an important part of their program, and many religious and spiritual traditions encourage an inventory as well.
To take an inventory, simply sit down with a pen and some paper. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Begin by listing things that are going on with you right now. They may be resentments, fears, joys, successes, or anything else you have going on. Simply begin by listing these things, without judgement. Maybe somebody upset you today at work. Maybe you are fearing an upcoming event. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made earlier in the week. Whatever it is, jot it down.
When you feel that you have a good list of things you are carrying around, take some time to examine each of them. You may do this by writing more, or by taking a contemplative route and meditating. As you sit with each of these things going on with you, be sure to notice how they make you feel. Make an effort to be present for them. There’s no reason to run from them. Averting just pushes them down further, and doesn’t prevent them from affecting you. As you sit with them and get to know what is going on, you begin to know yourself a little better.
Follow Your Gut
Our last suggestion is to simply follow your gut. To judge your own honesty with yourself, sometimes you just have to go with your instinct. If something doesn’t quite feel right, it is probably not the right, honest thing to do. If you find yourself acting in a way that brings up some discomfort, you may not be acting in accordance with your true self. If you say things that don’t feel right, it is a sign as well.
It may help to check in with yourself before you do something that you are on the fence about. If you are not sure what to do or say, take a moment to see what your heart says. Often, a subtle discomfort or strange feeling is all we need to know what to do. Being honest with ourselves isn’t easy, but it is simple. We turn to our bodies and listen to what it has to tell us.
These ideas for practicing self-honesty are just a few. There are many other ways you may practice. We encourage you to find a way that works for you. Look out for the judgement and fear, for when you begin to touch your true self, you often come into contact with the protective wall you have built up for years.
A user on our Instagram asked us, “How can we start syncing meditation and technology?” I really enjoyed this question, as I think the technology of today (and tomorrow) can make huge differences in our practice. There are several areas in which technology can affect us.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of meditation and technology is the plethora of studies being done. A study taking fMRI’s of meditators found that the brain showed increase attention levels http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2010/132717/abs/). An article on Huffington Post lists many ways that mindfulness can help your life, all backed by scientific research (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html?utm_hp_ref=gps-mindfulness-research). Another study on compassion meditation found through use of fMRI’s that the subjects were able to “alter the activation of circuitries” related to empathy (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001897#pone-0001897-g004). Finally, a study of the jhanas found that experienced meditators are indeed able to self-stimulate the brain (http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2013/653572/abs/).
That may be a lot of information to take in. My point is that technology has helped us understand mindfulness, compassion, concentration, and other types of meditation. As technology progresses, so does our understanding of meditation. For those that enjoy having evidence behind their beliefs, these studies (among hundreds of others) may create some faith. These studies may not seem applicable to you in your daily practice, but they can be a great tool in further understanding what is going on during meditation. For example, you may learn that in a jhanic state, ”extreme joy is associated not only with activation of cortical processes but also with activation of the nucleus accumbens (NAc) in the dopamine/opioid reward system.” The Buddhist teachings of cause and effect apply here. With modern technology, we are now better able to see what meditation is doing to our consciousness.
If you are interested in this kind of information, I highly recommend checking out Buddhist Geeks, a community of Buddhists interested in the intersection of Buddhism and technology.
The Internet, Social Media, and Smartphones: Benefits
The technology available to us today can be of great benefit to us. To begin with, we have the Internet. The Internet is a great resource for us in our meditation practice. All across the web, we can find dharma talks and guided meditations. Places like Dharma Seed, Dhamma Talks, and Against the Stream offer free audio files. Sites like these did not exist twenty years ago. There are also numerous podcasts on iTunes offering free meditation material.
The Internet also hosts thousands of websites related to Buddhism and meditation (like us)! From Zen to secular mindfulness, you can find virtually anything you are looking for. One of my favorite sites is Access to Insight, a site that contains translations of many Buddhist suttas. Using the Internet to our advantage, we can make it a great tool in our practice.
Although social media is not often thought of as a tool for meditation, it absolutely can help us in our practice. Pretty much every major social media platform has accounts or pages related to Buddhism and/or meditation. Not only can we read about the experiences and opinions of others; we can connect with them. The social media boom and the Internet are important factors in globalization. Today, more than ever, we are able to connect with others around the world with ease. We need not struggle to find like-minded people. With social media, we can connect with and learn from other people. We can share ideas and experiences, and create communities encouraging growth. Sites like Google+ offer us the opportunity to lead group meditations on the Internet. If you are interested in a free online meditation group we do, email us at Meditate@TheEasierSofterWay.com.
Social media interaction isn’t the same as face-to-face interaction. Obviously we should strive to create connections in person. However, social media sites may help us build new friendships. Services like Meetup, Facebook Groups and Events, and Yelp allow us to find people and places in the real world.
Finally, there is a huge influx in smartphone and tablet use. There are many apps that I find to be just wonderful. My favorite is Insight Timer. Insight Timer is a meditation timer that offers multiple starting and ending bells, interval bells, meditation statistics, and Insight Connect, a social media for meditators. I also really enjoy the Dharma Seed, Access to Insight, and Podcast apps. Although the smartphone may be a huge distraction (see below), it also may be a great tool.
One thing to consider with the use of cell phones is that we are able to reach out more easily. I have a few mentors and teachers that I call and text regularly. Cell phones give us the opportunity to reach out when we need to, and for us to be there when others need someone. The cell phone is a truly powerful tool. Joanna Harper tells a story about mudita buddies. Mudita buddies are two people that call or text each other to share their joy. It may be something simple such as hearing a bird sing or finding a good parking spot. Cell phones allow two people to connect and share their practices.
The Internet, Social Media, and Smartphones: Hindrances
These new forms of technology can also be detrimental to our practice. We often use technology to check out. When we find ourselves experiencing something unpleasant, we turn to our phones, computers, and other gadgets. Our relationship to technology is often one of escaping and of aversion.
Although new technology has much to offer us in our meditation practice, we must be aware of the harms it may cause. I like to make a point to leave my phone behind or shut it off when appropriate. Times that may warrant freedom from technology include meals, conversations with friends or loved ones, and during meditation groups. For you, there may be different times to leave the phone behind.
The point is that we must use technology mindfully. I don’t think we should stay off social media and cell phones. I think it is far more beneficial to learn to use them wisely. It is not an easy practice; most of us use our gadgets mindlessly most of the time. Like our sitting meditation practice, it takes time.
Your attachment to technology may be a great teacher! Try going on retreat for a week or so. You will probably find yourself thinking several times about missed calls, emails, friend requests, and much more. Rather than beating yourself up over the craving, use it as an opportunity to learn. Dive into the craving. Get to know it. It is in the moments of suffering that liberation is possible.
Yesterday, we were asked on our Instagram page, “What’s the easiest, softest way to clear an anxious mind for meditation?” We do our best to answer the question as given, and our answer is: don’t.
We don’t need to clear our anxiety in order to meditate. Our anxiety makes for a great meditation subject. Often, we think that in order to meditate, we must have a completely clear mind. However, meditation is not about stopping the mind from thinking. Racing thoughts do not prevent us from meditating.
When we are anxious and sit down to meditate, we can turn our attention to the anxiety. How do you know you are anxious? Do you feel it in the body? When we sit in meditation, we may be able to see how anxiety affects us. We may feel a tightness in our chest, increased heart rate, or tension in our extremities. When we turn toward our anxiety, we gain insight about it. Rather than an overwhelming or all-consuming feeling, we are able to experience anxiety as it is: a feeling in the body, coupled with a quality of the mind.
The Buddha taught an antidote to restlessness and worry, or uddhacca-kukkucca in Pali. He said that when experiencing restlessness and worry, we should practice relaxation (passaddhi), concentration (samadhi), and equanimity (upekkha). When we are practicing these qualities, it is not that anxiety will immediately leave us. These qualities help us to see our anxiety more clearly and understand it. We eventually change our relationship with anxiety and are no longer under its control.
This passage from Analayo makes another great point:
Recently, we were asked on our Instagram page, “What can I do to help cultivate a commitment to regular practice?” The user also said, “…some ‘me time’ such as yoga or meditation would really benefit me, but my mind is rebellious and fights against the idea.” Another user added, “So hard to make it a regular practice.”
What a wonderful question. So many of us have seen the benefits of a meditation practice for ourselves, yet we somehow still resist. Even with the experiences we have had, we still can’t seem to sit regularly. When we are suffering, we think about meditating, but don’t actually get it done.
There are many ways to begin cultivating a commitment to regular practice. In the end, we all must discover what works for us. It may be different for you than for me. Here are a few tips we find helpful…
Find a Time
Finding a regular time to sit has been very beneficial for us. Some people enjoy sitting first thing in the morning, while others prefer sitting before bed. Maybe the middle of the day is best for you. Try to sit at different times to find what works for you. When something feels good, make it a part of your schedule.
For example, you may sit after waking, before eating breakfast. As you begin to do this more regularly, you may find that it becomes an important part of your daily routine. Meditation is a PRACTICE. It takes time and repeated effort. Finding a consistent time to practice every day helps us regulate our practice. Some people like to set alarms to remind themselves to sit during that day.
Sometimes, you just have to sit. One Instagram user, @merehut, contributed, “Some days are easy, some are not. Just don’t fret or judge your efforts.” Wise advice. We tend to get down on ourselves or anxious when we don’t want to sit. After years of meditation practice, there are still days when I have to drag my ass to the cushion.
When we sit, we are able to be present for this aversive feeling. Sometimes we sit in these circumstances and are not able to concentrate one bit. Other times we may gain some insight into our mind’s behavior. Whatever the case, sitting even when we don’t want to is a practice in facing our emotions head on.
Get a Meditation Buddy or Mentor
Having somebody to check in with about your meditation can be of great help. It may be just a friend. Having somebody else who meditates in your life is a great start. Connecting with this person, you can talk about your practice, and encourage each other to sit. We have found that making friends who also meditate benefits us greatly.
In addition to having a meditation buddy, you may find a mentor or teacher to connect with. This person doesn’t have to be the world’s foremost expert on meditation or Buddhism. Having somebody in your life that has a bit more experience than you do is incredibly beneficial. A mentor is somebody you can go to with your questions and thoughts. It is somebody to connect with and be accountable to. If you ever would like to check in, ask questions, or try to connect with one of us here, you may call or text us at (323) 790-6252. We do have both male and female mentors available to talk and text at no cost!
Join a Meditation Group
One way we can create a regular practice is to join a local meditation group. Many areas have groups that meet frequently. Building a sangha, or community, helps encourage us and drive our practice. We feel some accountability to practice, and often learn new techniques and practices.
Because we liked this question so much, we are starting a daily check-in routine for our meditations. Check it out and join us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/TESWmeditation/. You also may check out Insight Timer, an app for your mobile device. Insight Timer allows you to track your meditation sessions, connect with others, and listen to guided meditations. If you are unsure about meditation groups in your area, please feel free to ask us on our social medias or via email.
These are just a few suggestions. In the end, we have to buckle down and sit when we don’t want to. Maybe start with just 5 or 10 minutes every day. Be gentle with yourself, don’t judge, and allow yourself some wiggle room. If you really want to sit every day and get into the habit of a regular practice, you may have to experiment, and you definitely will have to deal with some discomfort.
When you think of Buddhist meditation, what do you think of? For many, especially those new to the practice, the word meditation brings up the idea of focusing on the breath. When our minds wander (as they so often do), we bring out attention back to our breathing. However, this is but one type of meditation. In Buddhism, there is a distinct difference between concentration and mindfulness.
What is Concentration?
Concentration, or samadhi in Pali, is the quality of single-pointedness of mind. In order to gain the quality of concentration, we must practice repeatedly turning our mind back to whatever we are focusing on. In concentration, we do not entertain thoughts, other stimulus, or anything else that draws our attention away. In this sense, concentration can be a bit forceful. This does NOT mean that concentration is unkind or harmful; it simply means that sometimes we must force ourselves back to the object of our focus.
What Does Concentration Practice Look Like?
The most common way that concentration is practiced is by focusing on the breath. In concentration practice, we turn our attention to our breath and let our thoughts go. We may focus on one point in the body, such as the tip of the nose or the abdomen. We also may focus on the breath’s path through our bodies.
When a thought arises, we let it go. We may see our thoughts as cars on a train. If we cling onto a thought, it often takes us quite far before we are able to get off. We practice not hooking into the thoughts, and returning to our breath. When we do get carried away, we try to come back. We must come back in a gentle way. We must be careful not to judge ourselves or be harsh when our minds wander. The practice is simply to come back to our breath.
What is the Point of Concentration Practice?
Different traditions may have different opinions about samadhi. In Theravada Buddhism, the jhanas are commonly spoken about. Jhanas are states of extreme concentration, and lead to nibbana. As verse 372 of the Dhammapada says:
There’s no jhana for one with no discernment,
no discernment for one with no jhana.
But one with both jhana & discernment:
he’s on the verge of Unbinding.
Concentration practice has other benefits as well. Any meditation practice benefits from a concentration practice. Whether we are practicing metta, compassion, or mindfulness, a concentration practice helps us to stay focused. Furthermore, concentration practice helps us in our daily lives. When practicing concentration, we are often able to focus and stay attentive more naturally.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or sati in Pali, is a quality that is broader than concentration. Theravada monk and scholar Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) stresses frequently that the Pali word sati that we often translate as “mindfulness” is more appropriately defined as “wise remembering.” When we think of mindfulness meditation, we may think of focusing on our breath, often more of a concentration practice.
Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment. The “remembering” part that Than Geoff speaks about is remembering what is useful and skillful, and what is not. If a thought or impulse arises that has caused harm in the past, we must remember, or be mindful, of its nature. Mindfulness is an open awareness of what is happening right now, and exhibiting wise judgement, or discernment.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a wisdom practice like concentration. However, we don’t focus on one object in mindfulness meditation. We may start with a concentration practice to center ourselves, but a mindfulness practice includes more than just our breath. In mindfulness meditation, we open up to other stimulus.
We may have thoughts arise, hear a sound, smell something, or have a physical sensation in our bodies. When these draw our attention, we investigate. This doesn’t mean we need to bounce around like crazy. When our attention is grabbed by a sound or thought, we stick with it for a moment. In mindfulness practice, we take the time to notice how it feels, what the cause is, and what it creates within us.
For example, if our attention is drawn to a thought about becoming very successful in our business, making great amounts of money, and finding happiness, we turn towards it. We may notice that it is a fantasy, and probably feels a bit pleasant. We may also investigate more deeply and see that it created a relaxing feeling in our bodies. Furthermore, we may discover that the root of this thought is a discontentment with the way our lives are in this moment.
Mindfulness practice is not as forced as concentration practice. In mindfulness practice, we don’t need to continually return our focus to one thing. If our minds wander and we get lost in thought, we do need to bring it back. For this, the breath is often a great anchor. On a final note about general mindfulness meditation, it can be useful to be present for your breath, so that you may identify what kind of breath your body needs next.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Again, the benefits of mindfulness meditation can be found both on and off the cushion. On the cushion, mindfulness is an essential quality. The Buddha spoke extensively about sati, specifically with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps bring us into contact with the three marks of existence: anicca, dukkha, and anatta (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self). The Buddha taught that full understanding of these leads to liberation from suffering (nibbana). Similar to concentration, mindfulness is a quality that helps in all of our practices. When we are practicing forgiveness and our mind wanders to other thoughts, our mindfulness practice may help us to understand why we are having these thoughts or what the wise response is.
Off the cushion, mindfulness simply helps us stay present. Mindfulness is about present time awareness and investigation. In our daily lives, mindfulness helps us be present for what is happening. With strong mindfulness practice, our minds don’t wander quite as much, and when they do we are able to investigate more easily. Mindfulness practice also helps us recognize what we are doing, and often helps us not cause suffering in the world about us.
So What’s the Big Difference?
There are a few major points to consider:
When you think of meditation, what do you think of? It probably includes somebody sitting still in a chair or a cushion, maybe with folded legs or touching palms. When we have spoken about walking meditation in the past or recorded guided walking meditations, people have scoffed. Many slight walking meditation, but it is an incredibly useful and important practice.
Theravadan Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Silananda says:
Unfortunately, I have heard people criticize walking meditation, claiming that they cannot derive any benefits or good results from it. But it was the Buddha himself who first taught walking meditation. In the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha taught walking meditation two times. In the section called “Postures,” he said that a monk knows “I am walking” when he is walking, knows “I am standing” when he is standing, knows “I am sitting” when he is sitting, and knows ‘I am lying down’ when he is lying down. In another section called “Clear Comprehension,” the Buddha said, “A monk applies clear comprehension in going forward and in going back.” Clear comprehension means the correct understanding of what one observes. To correctly understand what is observed, a yogi must gain concentration, and in order to gain concentration, he must apply mindfulness. Therefore, when the Buddha said, “Monks, apply clear comprehension,” we must understood that not only clear comprehension must be applied, but also mindfulness and concentration. Thus the Buddha was instructing meditators to apply mindfulness, concentration, and clear comprehension while walking, while “going forward and back.” Walking meditation is thus an important part of this process.
Walking meditation is important! The satipatthana sutta advises us to know when we are standing and when we are walking. Just as we focus on the breath when we are sitting, we focus on our footsteps when walking. It is an essential part of the First Foundation of Mindfulness.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the esteemed Thai Forest monk, even suggests that there are times when walking meditation is more helpful than sitting meditation:
These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation. Which five?
He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed & savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.
These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation.
Get out there and try a walking meditation. Somebody said to us of walking meditation, “A fine alternative to pacing aimlessly in the middle of the night.” When we fully understand what walking meditation is, the importance of it, and the Buddha’s teachings of it, we begin to see it in a new light. Walking meditation is an important part of my practice, and I hope that others give it a shot! We are constructing a labyrinth here in a public open space in West Los Angeles to encourage walking meditation (photo above, not finished yet)!
I used to think success was for others, but not for me. Even still, I sometimes find myself feeling unworthy of successes that I achieve. Recently, I have truly built esteem with my actions, and am beginning to know the good feeling of success. From a hopeless addict behind bars to who I am today, I would like to take a moment to share some recent successes and a lot of hope.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of recent successes is my relationship. I have always struggled with relationships in my life, especially intimate ones. Today, I am in a wonderful relationship with an amazing young woman. We aren’t always walking on sunshine, but we communicate, are honest, and keep trying. We both have our own personal programs and practices, but we share in our growth. We practice separately, and grow together.
This healthy relationship is a great success for me. In the past, my relationships have always been a source of major stress in my life and have not encouraged growth. My relationship today is far different from anything I have experienced. For the first time, I am able to be myself, and be with somebody who helps me grow. Instead of a source of stress, my relationship is a source of insight, wisdom, and growth.
The Easier Softer Way
One of the greatest successes I have had in my life is The Easier Softer Way. I started TESW in April 2011 as a small, personal blog. I was working at the time for an online marketing firm, and was using The Easier Softer Way to test my skills. I chose the name “The Easier Softer Way” as a reference to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous’s claim on page 58, “We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not.” To me, this is stating that the program of action as outlined in the book is the easiest, softest way. The name The Easier Softer Way was chosen as a reminder that working a twelve step program (of which meditation is an important part) is truly the easier, softer way.
The Easier Softer Way has grown since then. Now, almost three years later, we are a much larger site with many contributors. We now have three Daily Inspirational Emails available to our members. We also offer free guided meditations on Youtube, and have many free dharma talks and twelve step speakers. Finally, we now make and sell Buddhist Malas and Handmade Gifts. Users may join The Easier Softer Way for just $1/month to get access to our daily emails, download our guided meditations, and receive coupons to our store.
In the past year, I left my regular day job. I decided to take The Easier Softer Way a bit more seriously. I make a living off jewelry sales, memberships, and a private mindfulness coaching practice. I absolutely love my work with The Easier Softer Way. I love reading the responses to our gratitude posts, I love hearing the opinions and experiences of our users, and I love sharing my own personal practice. I didn’t think when I started TESW that it would ever turn into anything more than a guinea pig for my marketing skills. Today, I get to do what I love all day, talk to like-minded people, and market something I am truly passionate about and believe in.
Recently, I put on an event in Santa Monica. The poet Anis Mojgani came in from Austin and performed. Anis won the National Poetry Slam Championship twice and the International World Cup Poetry Slam once. He is an amazing poet, and I have been an avid fan for the past 6 or 7 years. Recently, I contacted him about doing a show in the Los Angeles area. He didn’t have any tour dates in Los Angeles, and I was wondering if he could come do a show. I am neither a promoter nor a producer, and have no prior experience putting shows on.
I worked hard to make the show happen. I set up ticket sales and ticketing, marketed the show, and organized with Anis. On February 12th, Anis showed up with Jeremy Radin, a local poet. We also had the blessing of having Sarah Key, a poet from New York join us. They performed, quite wonderfully, to a crowd of about 150 people. We were sold out, with people sitting on the floor of the theater.
Seeing the line of people before the show, the crowd in the theater, and everyone waiting after the show to meet the poets, I was overcome with a feeling of accomplishment. With the help of my partner, Elizabeth, the show went perfectly. A few artists who I admire greatly were performing to a sold-out theater, and we helped make it happen. I have always had great doubt about myself. To put this much work in and make something happen was a great point of growth for me. I followed my heart, and made something great happen with some hard work.
Recently, I have begun to take my personal wellbeing more seriously. Attending twelve step meetings and meditating have been great tools for me in the past years. However, I now am looking at myself as a whole. I have begun eating more healthily, exercising regularly, and generally taking better care. This is an extremely important part of my life today, and I am grateful that I have had teachers who have encouraged holistic wellbeing as an important part of my practice.
I share all this to encourage those that feel hopeless. I once sat in a jail cell with a few Class A Felony charges. I couldn’t get a few hours sober, let alone several years. Every day I struggled to get anything done. My ambition was nonexistant. Today, with much work, I am living a life I love, and no longer have a sense of impending doom. Life does grow, and as it grows, so do my obstacles. However, I am able to meet my obstacles today with more stability and determination. I am able to find contentment more easily, and struggle less.
According to Forbes, only 8% of New Year’s Resolutions are kept. Instead of making a huge promise to yourself, take some action one day at a time! Here are some of our suggestions for enhancing your meditation practice in 2014:
2. Sit somewhere new – Many people find a place that they enjoy sitting regularly, and this is great. However, we can sit anywhere! Try sitting somewhere new! Sit outside, at a meditation center, or at work!
3. Engage with a sangha - The sangha is an essential part of our practice. You could check out a local meditation center, or find online sanghas to engage with.
4. Find a mentor – You don’t necessarily need a formal teacher, but finding a mentor can be greatly beneficial. This can be a casual relationship with somebody that you can go to with questions and thoughts.
5. Don’t sit and breathe – You may try meditating in a way other than sitting and focusing on the breath. There are many ways to meditate. You may try walking meditations, listening meditations, body scans, or any other meditations you find. Note: please don’t stop breathing!
6. Keep a journal - Keeping a meditation journal is a great way to stay accountable to yourself. You also may find what works for you as you look back over your practices.
7. Find your flow – Maybe using the journal, find your flow. If sitting in the morning feels best but you don’t do it as often as you would like, really put forth the effort to make it happen!
8. Eat mindfully – Eating mindfully is a truly wonderful practice. Personally, I find mindful eating to really address my craving and greed. Hint: cook your own food!
9. Practice right speech – Right speech is not easy. Try practicing speaking only the truth. Try not speaking about people when they are not present. Try not to exaggerate. Try to avoid idle chatter.
10. Look at drugs and alcohol – If you consume alcohol or drugs, take a look at your consumption. Is it conducive to your practice? You may even look at caffeine or sugar intake, being mindful of how it affects you.
11. Be sexually responsible – Take a look at your sex life. Are you practicing mindfulness and love with your sex life, or are you in craving and aversion? It is possible to have sex mindfully. You may simply try to not hurt anyone or take a look at your greed when looking at your sexual behavior.
12. Try a meditation challenge – There are many meditation challenges out there. Some are a week long, and some are a year long. I really like Sharon Salzberg‘s Real Happiness challenge.
13. Go on retreat – Go on a meditation retreat! Many meditation communities host daylong retreats or residential retreats. The late S.N. Goenka has free retreats across the world. Many monasteries are also open to visitors.
14. Volunteer – Although not really related directly to meditation, volunteering is a great way to practice loving-kindness and compassion.
15. Forgive – You may have people that you don’t forgive right now. Work on forgiving them and freeing space in your heart. Even if they are old resentments, they still affect us.
16. Listen to dharma talks and meditations - There are many great sources online for free dharma talks. We have a section with tapes and dharma talks, and we also recommend dharmaseed.org and dhammatalks.org.
17. In or out? - When you wake up in the morning, try to see if you are on an inhale or an exhale. At first, we may find ourselves waiting quite a bit after waking up before remembering this practice. Over time, we are able to fall into mindful awareness more quickly.
18. Read - Although reading is not the same as putting something into practice, it is a great way to learn about new ideas. If you ever need a book recommendation, feel free to ask us!
19. Take care- Our practice should not just be on the cushion. We must also take care of our minds and bodies. This involves eating well, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and doing what you need to be at your best.
20. Remind yourself – There are many ways we can remind ourselves to practice. Thich Nhat Hanh advocates keeping a stone in our pockets to remind us of our practice. You may also wear a mala or set a reminder on your phone.
21. Just breathe - You may try just focusing on your breath anywhere that you are. Meditation truly is the ultimate mobile device.
If you have any other thoughts or ideas, please feel free to comment and share them! Much love to all, and Happy New Year!
Although it is our natural tendency to turn away from suffering and wish for happiness, it is actually the suffering itself that leads to wisdom. It is inevitable that we suffer and experience discomfort. When we just run from it, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from it. However, our suffering really can be the gateway to freedom.
People have suffering in one place, so they go somewhere else. When suffering arises there, they run off again. They think they’re running away from suffering, but they’re not. Suffering goes with them. They carry suffering around without knowing it. If we don’t know suffering, then we can’t know the cause of suffering. If we don’t know the cause of suffering, then we can’t know the cessation of suffering. There’s no way we can escape it.
These words from Ajahn Chah put it another way. If we don’t take the time to know our suffering, we won’t be able to understand it. If we don’t know and understand the roots of our suffering, we can’t experience the cessation of suffering. Looking at it this way, it is a wonder that we ever deny our suffering.
Why Do We Turn Away from Suffering?
The answer to this question is fairly simple. We turn away from suffering because it is unpleasant and doesn’t feel good to us. When we are suffering, we are uncomfortable, discontented, and generally dis-eased. It seems natural that we turn away from such feelings.
One of the reasons we turn away from the suffering is this natural instinct. For survival, we are programmed to avert from suffering. In nature, if we feel some sort of pain or suffering, it is often in our best interest to move away from it. If humans didn’t move away from the pain, we may have been hurt or killed. This natural instinct lives on today, and we move away from even the slightest discomfort and unpleasantness.
The other factor in our aversive relationship with suffering is our conditioning. Since the moment we were born, we have been taught that pain is bad and pleasure is good. Maybe we are not taught this overtly, but our society as a whole presents things this way. Especially in Western cultures, we are presented products and services that make us happier, cure unhappiness, or “fix” us. Although we may try not to fall victim to the society we live in, it does affect us.
Looking at the root of our aversive relationship with suffering, it may seem difficult to turn toward it. One thing that really helps me turn toward my suffering is understanding the benefits.
First, when we look at our suffering, we are given a sincere opportunity to awaken. Maybe we won’t fully awaken from looking at our suffering just once, but liberation is available because of suffering and our honest look at it. Our delusion, greed, and hatred are what cause suffering. If we are to truly change our relationships with them, we must understand them. It follows that in order to truly understand our suffering and its causes, we must experience them.
However, just suffering is not enough to understand it. In order to understand it, we must actually investigate it. Investigating our suffering, we begin to see which of the Three Poisons are present. The more we investigate our suffering, the more easily we are able to identify our suffering and its causes when they arise. In this way, suffering is a pathway to wisdom.
Second, turning toward our suffering is a great practice in compassion. The practice of compassion is extremely important. It is one of the Four Brahma Viharas, and absolutely essential in our relationship with suffering. Turning toward suffering is the essence of compassion. Jack Kornfield describes compassion as “the quivering of the heart.” Whether we are looking at ourselves or the suffering of another, our hearts only quiver if we experience it. If we deny the suffering, we deny compassion. When we face our suffering without the need to get rid of it, but just to understand it, we are acting with great compassion.
How Do We Turn Toward Suffering?
To turn toward our suffering and learn from it, we must be aware of suffering when it arises. Practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a great way to do this. We may begin by simply sitting in meditation, allowing our suffering to arise. It may be a physical pain, a recurring thought, or emotional suffering. As we allow our suffering to arise, we look at it with a bit of curiosity. How unpleasant is it? How can you tell it is unpleasant? Where do you feel it? What is your natural response to these feelings?
Looking at our suffering in meditation, we bring this practice to our daily life. When we notice ourselves suffering emotionally, physically, or mentally, we can stop and investigate. In this way, we are able to gain wisdom each and every time we suffer. The key to turning toward our suffering is to notice it. Once we can say, “I am suffering,” we often are able to remember our practice and look at it wisely.
Love Your Enemy? Impossible!
If you didn’t suffer regularly, would you have the drive to practice spiritually? Would you look to understand greed, hatred, and delusion? The moments in which we suffer are the moments that hold the greatest potential for growth. When we truly experience and believe this, our relationship is changed to our suffering. Instead of the enemy, suffering becomes a friend. We will leave you with this thought from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh:
To love our enemy is impossible. The moment we understand our enemy, we feel compassion towards him/her, and he/she is no longer our enemy.
This past weekend, I stayed at Deer Park Monastery, a monastery founded by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. At the monastery, we did not sit in meditation as much as I am accustomed to while on retreat. Instead, the focus of my stay was living mindfully in a variety of daily activities. My mentor at the monastery, Brother Wisdom, urged me to find a state of unconditional contentment, and to not allow my happiness to be swayed by anything.
Sitting in meditation, it is relatively easy for me to be mindful of what is going on in the present moment. When I notice a sound, sensation, or thought, I am able to turn my attention toward it more easily. When I am attentive, I am generally able to treat things with more equanimity. With equanimity, my contentment is not as easily affected by anything going on. It is more sturdy and stable.
Although I may find this unconditional contentment at times in my meditation practice, I think it is important to look for it in daily life. I don’t have to strive for perfection, but I can strive to have a more resolute happiness. I worked this past weekend on finding this contentment in my daily life. We sang, danced, chanted, washed dishes, gardened, rested, and hiked in mindfulness. Although we also meditated, I found that bringing my practice off the cushion was greatly insightful and beneficial. I think I began to dig a little deeper into the roots of my contentment.
Brother Wisdom pointed out to me the irrational logic that we use when we rest our happiness on conditions. Everything is impermanent, including our feelings, thoughts, and everything outside of us. We often have the habit of resting our happiness on these same things. We say or feel things such as, “I’d be happy if she loved me,” “I can’t be happy until my body isn’t sore,” or “I am happy because it is sunny out.” However, all of these conditions are impermanent and changing. Can we be happy when she doesn’t love us anymore? Will we actually be fully happy when our bodies feel better? Will we be sad when the clouds cover the sun? When we rest our happiness on impermanent conditions, our happiness is bound to change as the conditions change.
If we are to have true, stable happiness, we must find it regardless of any conditions within us or externally. With equanimity, we may do so. We may find contentment equally whether we are washing dishes, gardening, or hiking. Although this is a bit idealistic, we always have room to progress. I found while staying at the monastery that I had great room to grow in this area. I find contentment in certain situations, but am easily discontented in others. I find it interesting that the word disease (such as addiction, alcoholism, depression, etc.) actually comes from the words “dis” and “ease,” meaning “not at ease.” This is how I feel when not contented: dis-eased (or diseased).
With my new-found knowledge about myself and the possibility of finding unconditional contentment, I am beginning to work more diligently on staying present in seemingly mundane activities. After experiencing contentment in all kinds of situations, I hope to bring this out of the monastery and into my daily life. This is the idea of our Daily Mindfulness Emails, and we hope to make them better through this experience!