Category Archives: Meditation

Electric Shock or Stillness? A Lesson in Self- Compassion

 

Sad love heart symbol background

I was teaching a group of beginner meditation students and told them that we were going to do a 3-hour meditation. I was not serious, but they didn’t know that. I wanted to see their reaction. They looked at me like I was crazy.

I thought, “If I would have said we were going to go dig a ditch or something, they would have been happy to do that”. I asked them, “What exactly is the problem? Why don’t you want to sit with yourself? I’m not saying that you have to do anything. We are going to just sit. Just going to be. What is so scary about that?”

I said, “So if we sit here and I put a screen in front of you, you’re going to fine, right? We can watch a movie, no problem? But if you look inside, if you’re just with yourself for 3 hours, this is scary?”

The answer is yes, it can be. This breaks my heart. What has happened to us that we don’t want to sit with ourselves?

Electric Shock Anyone?
It gets worse. In a study by Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, they found that in 700 tested subjects 64% started to administer self-inflected electric shock while spending only 15 minutes alone with themselves.

Crazy, right?

They had people go into a room and just sit with themselves for about 15 minutes. They were allowed to bring in their phones, but asked not to use them. Afterwards they were asked, “How was that?” They said, “I didn’t like that at all. That wasn’t good.” Some of them even cheated, admitting to checking their phone.

It wasn’t just young people. They did this with all age groups, and they all had a difficult time.

Next, with the participants consent, they gave them a small electrical shock and asked them how that felt. Of course, it did not feel good, and the participants said that they would even pay to not be shocked.

Afterwards the participants were put back in the room by themselves; alone. What do you think happened?

Yep, they shocked themselves.

It is sad isn’t it? Rather than just being with themselves, they prefer to be distracted by something they don’t like. Can you relate to that? I know I can. How many times do we distract ourselves by doing things that hurt in the short or long term?

We turn to our vices. We may be home alone eating bad food and binge watching TV shows on Netflix. These things distract us, but they don’t necessarily feel good.

Yet, the saints and sages ask us to “know thyself”. You’re it. You’re the most amazing thing in existence. In fact, nothing else can give you what you already are. Yet, we really can’t sit with what we are because we think we are these little fragments that we’re grabbing onto; a thought, a belief, a body–this is what we think we are. And sometimes we don’t like what we see. We don’t like the beliefs about ourselves; our self-identity, and these things come up in the stillness of meditation.

On the surface, we have an agitated mind. When those surface-level things come up, we attach our self-identity to them, and then judge ourselves just for that little piece that’s arising. We can never really know what’s beyond that. When we dive deep into the waters of self, what do we find there? When we abide in that state, how do we feel? Well, of course we could feel really amazing then, but can we even get over just the surface-level stuff that’s coming up that’s arising?

How to Sit Still and Not Give Yourself Electric Shock

Heart beat


There is amazing research that has been done in recent times on self-compassion spearheaded by the University of Texas professor Kristen Neff. Self-compassion can be a key ingredient to loving ourselves again, to accepting who we are long enough to behold our own greatness.

Before we begin outlining some steps to self-compassion lets first investigate how we show compassion for others. How do we show compassion for a loved one for example? First we need to have awareness, to have mindfulness. Let’s say we see this person is not feeling well. We need to actually be awake and notice, “Oh, dear you don’t look well, are you ok?”

If you saw a loved one hurting, maybe sobbing, would you just walk on by? Of course not. Yet we tend to bypass our own hurt. If we sit still it may arise, but then we move into distraction, leaving ourselves to suffer and therefore exhibiting a behavior that we would not as likely do to others.

3 Steps to Self- Compassion

  1. Acknowledge that you are suffering:
    As discussed above, often time we “walk right by” our own suffering. To work with it we must first be willing to acknowledge and stay with it. From here you can simply note what is arising. “I’m hurting. This is difficult to bear. I’m having a hard time.”
  1. Acknowledge that everyone suffers:
    Often our hurt is connected to a sense of loneliness, isolation, or a feeling of separation. We can remedy this by remembering what Kristen Neff calls the “Common Humanity of Suffering”. Indeed, we all suffer. This is a natural part of life, regardless of where you live or how much money you make we all suffer in some way.Coming in contact with our suffering we’re more aware, and can be more compassionate that this is something we all share. It’s not only me. Actually remembering the common humanity of suffering we could say, “Wow, I’m not the only one suffering. Everyone suffers in some way.”

Be kind to Yourself
We have to be mindful of what we’re saying and doing to ourselves. Within we may find we have a quite active inner critic. That little know-it-all is really quick to point out all of our negative traits and may be very slow to point out the positive ones. So we need to notice, “Did I just say that to myself?” Sometimes we say things to ourselves that we would never say openly to another person.

Mindful self-compassion is the ability to expand all that we are. It’s learning how to hold it, accept it, and eventually come to care for it in a loving way.

Sometimes we even judge ourselves for suffering. We may tell ourselves, “Get over it. What the hell am I doing, still suffering like this?” Very harsh.

While putting your hands on your heart, or on a place that feels good to you, repeat kind phrases to yourself:

  • May I be kind to myself
  • May I love myself just the way I am
  • May I have patience
  • May I forgive myself
  • May I feel comforted in this difficult time

These are just suggestions, you can find the ones that you resonate with you the most and use those.

(Access the Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion Break Here)

Obstacles You May Encounter

The great Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. I’m taking care of you now.”

Now this might be a radical shift in how we have been conditioned to treat things that arise, like anger, within us. The difference is the non self-identification. We usually move into, “Wow, I have so much anger in me”. Then we tend to self-identify with that anger. We can even say, “I am an angry person”. Instead of the prior example where Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that anger is something that is arising within us, but is not us.

So, in that moment, we have to opportunity to transform what is there. We use mindfulness, love, and compassion. Whatever we look at disappears. Whatever we love melts away. Until we love something, it cannot leave. Until we can truly love something, it cannot go away. We cannot push it away. We can’t will it away. We cannot anger it away. Whatever we push away, we feed. Whatever we love, can be allowed to go in it’s own accord.

One of the obstacles to this self-compassion is that we think that being easy on ourselves, means that we will not improve. We think that we have to be hard on ourselves–go, go, go. The harder that we are on ourselves, the better that we’re going to do, the more that we’re going to achieve, and we all know achievement equals happiness, right? So we’re all going to be happier if we just push ourselves, and don’t let ourselves get away with anything. That’s really going to make the difference.

In actuality however, it is highly motivating for us to nurture and forgive ourselves, and to say things like, “Yes, you know what, you might’ve made a mistake, but that’s okay. I knew you were doing the best you can. I really believe in you to do better the next time.”

Kristen Neff uses the example of a child coming home with bad grades. If the parent says, “Oh my gosh, I cannot believe you are that bad at math. This is just horrible. There’s no reason for that,” they might get such a complex about math and just say, “Oh, I must be horrible at math. I don’t even want to try.” But, of course, if the parent says, “I didn’t know you were struggling that badly. What can we do to help? Can we get you a tutor? I know you must be good at math, if you apply yourself. Let’s give it another try,” this positive reinforcement has so much more power. We just need to turn this power into ourselves.

The Reward

Free Happy Woman Enjoying Nature. Beauty Girl Outdoor.
Yes, meditation and coming into stillness can be difficult, extremely difficult in fact, but the things in life that are the hardest often times offer up the greatest rewards. This is the case with meditation and stillness.

There is no sustainable happiness found outside of ourselves. You cannot purchase a suitcase of happiness and unfortunately this world provides no guarantees. So even if things are going well, they are always subject to change, and this uncertainty allows for fear to arise.

The well of happiness that we find inside is the only thing that is sustainable. It is a place of refuge, the eye in the tornado of life. We can find a solace within that far surpasses the transitory sensory pleasures we find outside of ourselves.

The key is to love ourselves enough to want that kind of peace. Do we love ourselves enough to do the work? To show up consciously when we are hurting so we can move beyond the hurt to a state of peace?

The answer at first may be no, and that’s ok, it’s honest. Start where you are, take just one event, one sorrow, one disappointment and stay with that. Send yourself compassion.

This is the first step towards peace.

seeking enlightenment

The Great Spiritual Paradox- Seeking Vs. Being

Explorer in a lake

There is a great paradox in spiritual work. It is the paradox between seeking and being.

First, lets look eclecticism since this is common in the west, especially where many of us are not brought up in a particular eastern tradition, but we are drawn to them and their more non-dogmatic spiritual elements. This is a big part of our seeking.

In the west, a spiritual aspirant is exposed to just about everything you could imagine. When you go to the bookstores in the spiritual sections there are sometimes hundreds of books. I remember back when I started seeking. I used to go to the bookstore and there would be this small little section, maybe called “Metaphysics”, or something like this. Now, there is New Age, Metaphysics, Psychic, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Occult, etc.

So we are exposed to all of this, which is good. And then, of course, it can be overwhelming to have so many choices. We can get spiritual indigestion. There is so much to take in, and where does each piece fit? What order does it go in?

We just take something here, there, and everywhere. We read a book, it leads us to a teacher or a teaching, and all of a sudden we are over here now, and we are learning this practice, and doing this practice. But, actually, the core teachings from most long traditions have a more systematic approach designed around a gradual path.

Lost traveler

Of course there are exceptions but I would say the majority of enlightened beings have followed a gradual path. Take the Buddhist tradition. It has been turning out enlightened beings like an assembly line for thousands of years. It is an organized gradual path. It has a beginning, middle and end. There are practices designed for each stage. There are several other traditions of course that share the same trajectory.

This is not to say we have to follow just one set of teachings, the important piece is to be aware of what we are doing. Are we seeking just to seek or are we seeking to collect the necessary tools to experience and be with who we are?

If we are aware and committed to experiential knowledge then we can dance within different traditions and still keep grounded and focused.

Our seeking can become the path itself if we are not careful

Without structure we can become addicted to seeking and can become unclear on when to rest in our being-ness. I was listening to athlete who had just acquired a new fitness coach. He said he used to train on his own and he was always worried that he had not trained enough. So he either over trained or he was worried that he may have not done enough. His new trainer had a proven program, so he trusted him.

He said now he could relax. He could get his training done, and then just be; move on with the rest of his day.

Our practice needs to be like this. We need both of these elements. We need to know what do, and how to do it. But we also must know when to abandon the instruction and sit with the experience of who and what we are.

From seeking to being

This process is like a musician, for example. This person may be born with the raw talent of being an amazing musician. If that musician never practiced, would they be able to achieve greatness? Or an athlete that never had a proper coach or practiced the fundamentals of their game, could they ever be at the top, reaching their full potential? Not likely.

It is like this with us. Within us are the seeds to our true limitlessness, but if we don’t cultivate what is innately there, we wander in other directions. In short; we need seeking, we need effort.

But we also need to just be. Like those musicians, those athletes, when they are at the very top of their game, they have studied and trained for all those years, and what do they do at the very end? When it is time for the performance, the game?

They forget everything and move on instinct.

They forget everything that they have trained for and they just are. They are in the zone. When the athlete gets in the zone or the musician, they are not thinking about technique, about those ten thousand shots they practiced and all those things that they learned in music theory. They are living it, in the present.

But there is the paradox. They couldn’t let go and just be without all of the practice. So, the simple answer is both. We need both until the veil of separation is lifted.

It is like this in our practice, in our meditation. In every meditation, the technique is there to be dropped. The technique is there to be forgotten. If we meditate on the breath, it is just to stabilize the mind, and then we sit.

 We already are what we are seeking

Illuminating Thoughts

The greatest paradox is that we already are what we are seeking. We seek until we find out what we have been seeking has been here all along waiting for us. This is rarely a final event; we can go back and forth continually. Learning, striving, then resting. Knowing, forgetting, remembering.

The key is to practice. Sit. Meditate. Be still.

Give yourself the opportunity to know the teaching experientially, beyond the intellectual. This will lead to a natural unfoldment of innate being-ness. Effort will turn into effortlessness, seeking mind will meet non-seeking mind, you will go from a human-doing to a human-being. All of it is the path.

Adapted from the talk “The Great Paradox” Oct 3rd 2014, by Cayce Howe, Sacred Roots Healing Center Long Beach CA.

Enlightened Work

Can we bring our practice to work with us?

Smiling emoticon

In some work environments, the more stressed someone is and the busier they are, the higher up in the corporate hierarchy they are perceived. This in turn equates stress with job security.

What have we done? Does being calm and happy mean that we are not working hard? What if we are having a great “fun” day at work? Is that bad? Does that mean our position is not needed or that we are a slacker?

I would like to challenge this thinking. It has been proven that someone with a calm spacious mind is more productive, more creative, less accident prone, better at communication, and improves company morale.

Recently I did some research for a corporate wellness project that would bring meditation to a leading international shipping company. My research has been enlightening. Here are a few stats I found interesting.

• World Health Organization study 2012: Cost of workplace stress in the US is $300 billion annually

• Bureau of National Affairs: 40% of job turnover is due to stress

• Northwest National Life: 1 million workplace absences per day are stress related

• 2012 Absence Management Survey by CIPD (A global HR development organization) found that stress was the most common cause of long-term sickness absences

•  1/4 of large US Companies have launched stress reduction programs

Making Work Your Meditation

New idea of a businessman

Whatever activity we are doing we can always bring mindfulness to it. Mindfulness, kindness, and mortality building are all fertile grounds at the workplace. There is a saying; “If you think you are enlightened go live with your family”. Well, often times our workplace becomes like a family.

Here are 3 reasons why work is the perfect place to expand your meditation practice.

Karma Yoga: Karma Yoga is a practice of selflessness and non-attachment while performing activities. At the retreat centers that I lived at for several years, we would call Karma Yoga any task that one would perform that was unpaid and done with the intention of selfless service; retreatants did it as a way to give back. Of course, the workplace is one of reciprocal exchange involving monetary compensation. Yet, I see this as a matter of intention.

The people that seem to rise to the top in their respective fields usually have a passion or love of what they do that extends past what they are paid. We have all come across someone in retail, for example, that emanates a genuine warmth and kindness. Whatever we do, it involves people; customers, co-workers or those we connect with to get the job done. All of it can be used to build our patience, compassionate communication, selflessness and equanimity. Which leads us too…

Relationships: In spiritual circles we call challenging relationships the “rubbing of stones”. When we rub stones they get polished. In relationships, people become our mirrors, revealing our hidden obstacles. When we encounter something that we have opposition to, it is like hitting a snag. When we are free from internal opposition we can respond without coming from a place of defensiveness. Defensiveness comes only when there is a created “self” that needs defending.

Hands joined in unity

We can respond appropriately and take action, and if we can move beyond a selfish perspective, we can do so from a place of peacefulness and loving intent. Creating a working environment with such mindful intention can be a strikingly beautiful way to work and it starts with just one person dedicating himself or herself to this conscious choice.

Focus: Concentration is a pillar in inner development. It is not much help to sit on the cushion and meditate for hours a day only to let it all go the moment we leave the cushion. Work on the other hand gives us many opportunities to settle the mind on a task. The key is to break up your tasks to smaller chunks and then make a firm commitment to bring the mind back to that task. This can work anywhere. I have worked in retail, construction, corporate marketing, and as a solopreneur and I have always found segments of my day to turn into meditations.

Here is a big tip: Practice analytical meditation during work. Many forms of meditation are geared toward turning the mind away from thoughts but with analytical meditation you can take a problem, planning project, or creative endeavor and make it the support. If the mind wanders into an off subject area, simply bring it back.

We spend a large portion of life at work, and 100% of our life can be conscious. We never need to be asleep to the fullness of what we are. Letting go of the finite version of oneself can be liberating no matter where we are or what we are doing. There is no work/life balance, there are just moments. Throw out the notion of meditation and post meditation, of spiritual life and work life. Bring in the intention to make each moment a sacred, whole, unified fulfillment of truth.

Meditation is Not Escapism

Meditation face

Sometimes while ending my meditation at the beach I will slowly begin to open my eyes only to find that there is nothing there. The mind has temporarily forgot its labels and “sand”, “ocean”, and “sky”, are, for the moment, without description. Free from the bounds of conceptual reification, consciousness just sits with itself. The “I” that thought it was going to sit down and do some meditation is now reduced to a momentary experience of being-ness.

Soon the material constructs begin to build once again. The mind, drawing lines around the infinite, starts to bring shape to the shapeless, and before long the walls of time and space are firmly fixed. Fixed enough for a “bird” to “fly” through the “sky”.

I am reminded that this is a great illusion; a beautiful one, and sometimes a sad one, but an illusion through and through. The invitation is to meditate, to pass through the veil so much so that the illusion and truth are no longer separate. The dreamer and the dreamed are seen as one.

Meditation is not escapism, as some think. It is realism. Our beliefs and concepts are, by their very nature, false. They are temporary, and not one of them can be universally agreed upon. Outside the confines of beliefs and concepts reality awaits.

Here, beyond uniqueness and individualism we can all touch the universal. Since this space is free of boundaries and opposition, love is here in its full measure. We can come to meditation for all sorts of reasons, yet I always find love and happiness to be the central call in all our pursuits. Love and happiness are frequently hidden from our view by imprisoned imaginary objects that are supposed to release contentment when acquired. Of course it is not the object ripe with love but the perceiver, our very selves that are innately brimming over.

It is quite counter intuitive to find this love and happiness already at our door, without threshold or effort, and free of object. As counter intuitive as it is, this does not mean difficult. All we must do to acquire freedom and enter into our fullness is to decide not to be ruled by our mental constructs, the self-imposed divisions, categories and dualism. Instead we must give into the heart, give into intuition, give into being.

On this journey we may meet many interesting people and discover many fascinating things, but not one of them can be as illuminating as the moment we let go of the path, let go of the journey altogether and decide once and for all to discover ourselves.

 

 

The Great Non-Doing

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After a particularly difficult run the other day I was looking in the refrigerator and I was thinking about eating something less than healthy. Then I thought, “Why would I eat something unhealthy when I just went for a run?” All I had to do was “not do” in that moment. In addition, not doing would be easy right? Well, easier than running. There was no work involved. The running was physically difficult, the non-eating of the unhealthy food required no physical effort at all.

We have all been there, trying not do something we know in the long run is not going to be the best for us. Non-doing is an art really, and it might just be the key to a little something called happiness. This non-doing boils down to one simple skill and that skill is to “liberate” thought. To liberate a thought is to let it be, simply noticing it and allow it to move on without enhancing it further. All of our actions are based on thought. Non-doing is a choice made available by non-reaction. It is a state of allowing; even allowing all the thoughts, sensations and emotions associated with an action to arise and still choosing not to follow them. This opportunity comes up regularly in meditation. The body will have an itch for example, and one can be aware of the natural tendencies of mind and body to relieve the itching sensation. At the same time the option of non-doing is present because the mind is conscious, no longer blindly reacting.

Let’s say you are having a good day, things are going just fine, and then a thought comes up that, if given attention, can lead down the road to a negative mindset. Often times negative thoughts have a certain appeal to them; an attractive, almost magnetic quality. You like to entertain them, yet at the same time they don’t feel good. What if you did some sky meditation instead and just allowed that thought to drift on by, like a passing cloud? Then you may ask yourself, “What am I without this thought”?

The practice of non-doing takes practice and it takes courage; courage to be with what is arising and the courage to know that your very being-ness is enough. Nothing needs to be done, cultivated or manufactured. The spaciousness garnered by the simple noticing of thought without judgment is the space inhabited by peacefulness. In this space, if we were to abide there at length, we would find joy, contentment, and happiness in plentiful supply, patiently waiting there without any effort at all.