December 2016 – Tara Brach

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tara brachTara Brach

Tara Brach is simply one of our favorite teachers. Her books Radical Acceptance and True Refuge have touched us deeply, and we have read both multiple times. Tara is the founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. and serves as the guiding teacher to the community. Whether you listen to her meditations, attend one of her dharma talks, or read one of her books, Tara has a way of reaching people with authenticity and honesty.

Tara shares quite frequently about her own afflictions and struggles in life, and the power of the dharma in addressing these difficulties. She holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, writing her dissertation on how meditation practice can help in the healing of eating disorders. With decades of professional experience, personal practice, and teaching experience, Tara brings quite a bit to the table. Her years of study of both psychology and the dharma show in the way she teaches just as much as her own personal experience with the dharma.

We chose Tara Brach as our Person of the Month for December 2016 because of her work in bridging the gap between meditation and psychology. Specifically, Tara teaches quite a bit about trauma, addiction, and eating disorders. We are recovering drug addicts, have done extensive trauma work, and have dealt with eating disorders ourselves. Tara’s teachings have always touched us deeply. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha speaks to the power of the dharma in addressing trauma. With her own personal stories and studies in psychology, Tara has a deep understanding of the workings of the mind and body.

Here are some resources we recommend if you are interested in investigating Tara’s teachings:

www.TaraBrach.comTara’s website
Dharma TalksTalks on Tara’s site
Tara Brach PodcastTara’s podcast with talks and meditations
Insight Meditation Community of Washington – Meditation Center where Tara teaches

right livelihood

Right Livelihood in Buddhism

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Right livelihood is one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path that is talked about least. We discuss other factors with more frequency and don’t take a deep look at right livelihood. Money is an important part of our society. In general, we need it to live, to eat, and to take care of ourselves. Because of the importance of money in our world, our relationship to it has aspects of power, identity, and security/safety. One of the things we can do is investigate our relationship with earning money. Do we earn money in a wholesome way? And what is wholesome, or right, livelihood anyway?

What is Right Livelihood?

right livelihood

Let’s start with the traditional viewpoint on right livelihood. In the Vanijja Sutta the Buddha says:

A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

When we look at these forms of earning money, we can see why they may not be wise. Business in weapons, humans, meat, intoxicants, and poisons often cause harm to others. Although this instruction is fairly straightforward and pragmatic, we can use it as a jumping off point to investigate what right livelihood really is. In my opinion, the Buddha’s most basic point is that we should not cause harm in our livelihood. Specifically, we should observe the precepts with our work.

Practicing right livelihood does not just mean earning money in a way that doesn’t cause harm.  In AN 8.54, the Buddha says:

Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.

This is to say that we must practice the Middle Way with our earning of income. We must earn enough to live, but we must be diligent in our awareness of the arising of greed. Do we work too much? Sometimes we can earn a living and be comfortable without overworking or neglecting those around us. Sometimes we need to work hard and long hours in order to support ourselves or our families. This is a practice to investigate for ourselves. The point of practice here is to look at how much we work, and where we have clinging related to income.

Another interesting place in which the Buddha mentions livelihood is in MN 117:

And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain.

This is an important piece. Even if we are working in an industry in which we are creating happiness in others, we must be careful in how we go about our business. Part of my personal business involves sales. Selling something mindfully and with wisdom is a continual practice to which this sutta speaks. I essentially take this instruction to be a reminder of integrity in work. I can build my business, bring clients in, and generate income without “scheming” or “persuading” in an unwise way.

Mindful MarketingHow I Practice Right Livelihood

Personally, I feel confident in my practice of Right livelihood. All of my income comes from wholesome activities, and I’m able to support myself and my wife who is a full time student. I work quite a bit, but have the time to spend energy with her and my life. I own and am the project manager at Mindful Marketing, a boutique marketing firm that specializes in online marketing. We build websites, do search engine optimization, manage social media accounts, and strategize with individuals and companies to help grow their businesses. My favorite part is that we only work with clients who we believe are truly lessening the suffering in the world. We work with yoga studios, meditation teachers, therapists, addiction treatment centers, etc.

For me, this is incredibly wholesome. I have worked for many marketing companies in which we worked with whoever paid us. My goal with Mindful Marketing is to use my skills and knowledge to help people extend their reach in helping others. I enjoy seeing our clients succeed and help others. Because it is my business, I have the ability to set my hours and figure out what works for me. The struggle with right livelihood has come more around the amount of hours I work than the nature of my work itself. I have the tendency to work longer than I need to, work at times when my wife and I are supposed to be spending time together, and cling to income as a sense of identity. I meet these thoughts with awareness and compassion, tuning into the effect of my work on myself and others.

What Does Right Livelihood Mean for You?

Like all of the Buddha’s teachings, this isn’t something to just be taken at face value. Yes, we should steer clear of the obvious ways of earning unwise livelihood. However, we also must really investigate for ourselves. You may start by looking at the nature of your livelihood. Does your work cause suffering? Are you causing harm to yourself or to others with what you do? If you sell guns, it is possible that your guns may never be used to kill someone. But it also is possible the the gun could be used to kill someone or an animal, that the gun could cultivate violence in its owner, etc. Of course you cannot control what people do with something. Somebody could strangle somebody else with one of the malas we sell! We can look at the nature of what we do for work and see if we can get in touch with the harm or freedom toward which we are contributing.

Then, we can look at this piece of effort in relation to right livelihood. How much effort are we putting into our work. Is it enough? Too much? We can work in a way that is healthy, contributes to our security and wellbeing, and allows us to be present for other aspects of our lives. You can investigate your relationship to money. Do you really need to be earning more? We live in a time, especially in the West, where we think more is better. If you earn enough to save, live comfortably, and provide for yourself and a family, do you really need to work harder and earn more? When is enough enough?

Finally, investigate HOW you work. When you are on the clock, give your full attention. Watch the ways in which you procrastinate, don’t get the job done, or are performing under par. You may also tune in to the arising and passing of greed in your work and how it manifests. Are your sales tactics skillful and honest? Do you tell the truth to your coworkers, boss, employees, and/or clients?

To recap, there are really three places in which we can start looking at right livelihood: the nature of our business, the effort we put forth, and how we conduct ourselves in the workplace. This is just a jumping off point. We may discover quite a bit about the identities we are creating, our relationship with money, or how we can bring our practice to a new place in our lives.

I highly recommend visiting Access to Insight’s page on Right Livelihood to read a few more suttas about the topic.

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Breaking Down Delusion

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Delusion is one of the Three Poisons in Buddhism, one of the three foundational causes of our dukkha, suffering. We all experience it, even if we don’t recognize it (that’s the nature of delusion). Delusion is pervasive, and hard for us to see sometimes. When we avert from unpleasant experiences or find ourselves clinging to pleasant experiences, the suffering may be relatively easy to see. Because of the nature of delusion, we don’t notice its there. Even when we do, we aren’t always in touch with the suffering being caused.

Traditionally in Buddhism, delusion refers specifically to delusion around impermanence and not-self. Sometimes referred to as ignorance, this poison or mental state causes us to see things unclearly. When in a state of delusion, we don’t see things as they actually are. Before coming to practice, most of us are not in tune deeply with the ideas of impermanence and not-self in the world and our experience. This leads to suffering as we identify with experience, build identities around our thoughts, and cling to impermanent phenomena. Recognizing that this is the traditional understanding of ignorance and delusion, we’re talking in this post about delusion in a broader sense. There are many ways in which we find ourselves believing something that is untrue, hiding from our own truth, and holding on to delusions.

Holding onto Delusions

We all hold on to some delusions we have. We believe thoughts that arise, hold on to some hope that something will be permanent, have judgements about ourselves that are not true, and respond to others in ways that we think are helpful but really are not. I don’t say this so that you can sit there and beat yourself up. I experience delusion too! My whole intention in writing this post is to help you see where in your life you are holding on to something that isn’t serving you. Perhaps the word delusion is too harsh and doesn’t sit well with you, and that’s okay. Do you believe thoughts that are not true or create suffering? You probably do. In my experience, awareness of delusion in my thinking continues to grow. Quite often I realize I have been having/experiencing some sort of delusion and am just noticing it for the first time.

We hold on to the delusions for a reason. They serve us in some protective way. George Haas, a meditation teacher in Los Angeles, often says that our brains are hardwired for survival, not for happiness. The mind holds onto our delusions and thought patterns because they often protect us somehow. When we judge ourselves for making a mistake or causing harm, we may be protecting ourselves from feeling a deeper pain, guilt, or even compassion. The thought pattern of self-judgement takes us out of the actual emotions and puts us into thinking about the event. We buy into the thoughts, and suddenly take ourselves away from any awareness of what the mind/body reaction is. I have found myself falling into the delusive thinking surround the “fix-it” mind. The mind tries to fix some way I behaved (often in the past and out of my control) by thinking incessantly about it. I believe in that moment that I can outthink reality. This delusion serves me by giving me the feeling that I can control my behavior in the future. It’s wholesome to want to move forward and behave with more skill, but this chaotic, impulse-driven overthinking doesn’t help me understand more deeply. Instead, I can set aside time to really look at my experience with awareness and compassion. The seductiveness of this delusion lies in me not having to actually feel the pain or grief.

delusionLetting Go of Delusions

Letting go of delusion may be harder than we think. When we set the intention to look at our delusions, we may be a bit surprised to find out how many of our thoughts fall into the category of delusion. It’s natural that we don’t have perfect mindfulness 100% of the time in our daily lives. When we tune in, we can see how our thoughts are sometimes delusive and creating suffering.

In my own practice, the first step toward working with delusion was to simply practice bringing awareness to the thinking mind. You may use certain “thought-triggers.” These are thought patterns that you recognize as a trigger for awareness. Some of my thought-triggers are the fix-it mind, resentment, and not listening to somebody else speaking. When I notice myself doing these things, I recognize it as an opportunity to tune back into my present-time experience. Try bringing some awareness to the thoughts that are arising.

As you cultivate a mind that can bring more awareness to thoughts, you can investigate each thought a little more deeply. Is the thought true? How is it serving you? What does it feel like? By bringing awareness to the thought process, you can really break down some delusion in the thinking. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the thoughts again, so it can be good to investigate thinking in a formal meditation practice. There is a piece within us that knows. The wisdom within us recognizes if something is nudging us toward freedom or toward suffering. Trust yourself, don’t try to figure everything out, and just observe what thoughts arise and where they lead.

One thing that I have found extremely helpful in investigating the thinking mind is to remember that the thoughts are not personal. The mind makes connections we don’t want it to necessarily. The brain works without our control or desires. It’s the brain’s job to make connections, recognize patterns, and keep us alive. If we can practice letting go of our tendency to take the thoughts personally, we can look at them with more clarity, less guilt, and less judgement. When you find yourself in a moment of delusive thinking, you can simply ask yourself if that thought is truly “you” or even on purpose.

Can You Love Unconditionally?

This is a beautiful opportunity to practice metta. Although metta is traditionally practiced toward others or ourselves, I believe the core of metta cultivation is working to respond to our own personal experience with some loving gentleness. The thoughts are thoughts. Can you be gentle and friendly with the thoughts? When you break through the delusion and notice the pain, guilt, or lack of safety underneath, can you respond with compassion and care? Incorporating metta into our mindfulness practices can make a huge difference. We become less reactive and are able to respond with more wisdom and care.



Observe

Learning to Observe

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When you sit in meditation, what does your practice look like? When we sit in meditation practice, we practice observing what is occurring in our present-time experience. One of our tendencies is to pick each experience apart intellectually or to try to fix an experience or response. The Thai Forest monk Ajahn Chah stressed the importance of letting go in our practice. Letting go may look different from moment to moment, but in this case we can practice letting go of the mind that tries to solve or fix things.

observeMindfulness and Recognizing

As we have talked about in numerous blog posts recently, mindfulness is not just being present. We talked about this in our post on Seven Misconceptions about Meditation. A piece of true mindfulness practice is recognizing if the mind is creating the causes for liberation or the causing suffering. When we are sitting in open awareness practice, we may notice the mind responding to pain with aversion or perhaps clinging to a pleasant experience. The mind falls into one (or some) of the five hindrances, falls into a wandering state, or does something we can see is leading to suffering. Part of mindfulness practice, other than just being present with it, is to recognize these moments in which we are creating dukkha. It may seem counter-intuitive because we often are told to just “stay in the present,” but mindfulness means we must use our experience to recognize where we are headed in the near future.

The Fix-it Mind

One way that the mind may respond to a moment in which we are causing suffering is to try to fix it. In my own experience, this is a manifestation of the hindrance of doubt. If I find that the mind is restless during meditation, I find the mind analyzing what is happening and trying to figure out. I am completely drawn from the present time experience and mindfulness practice into an abstract and aversive thinking pattern. The mind falls into the “fix-it” state rather than resting with what is happening.  Just like anything else in our practice, we can simply bring awareness to this occurring and how it feels. We don’t need to push it down, or try to fix the “fix-it” mind. Rather, we observe it and see how it is compounding our suffering and taking us out of the present experience. We don’t need to try to force the mind to do something other than what it is doing. More on this in a bit.

On the other hand, there are times in which we can volitionally respond with more wisdom. For example, we may feel a moment of pain in the body and react with aversion. When we notice this, we can bring up some compassion and choose to respond in a way that will lead to more freedom. However, we must do so with concentration and wisdom. Instead of turning toward compassion out of aversion to how we feel, we turn toward compassion with the intention of simply being with what we are experiencing. You can investigate your experience yourself, and you will likely find that it feels different to fall into fix-it mode than it does to choose to respond with wisdom to something.

Simply Observing

Whether you are falling into a hindrance and trying to solve your suffering in the mind or choosing to respond more wisely, you can actually maintain awareness. In my own practice and working with students, I notice that people often “turn off” the awareness when they notice they are creating suffering. We may strain to bring the mind back to practice, back to the breath, or to do what we think it should be doing. Instead, you can just watch what is happening. When the mind falls into states of trying to solve problems or fix things, notice it! See how it feels, where it goes, and if your problems are actually solved. Is there even a problem in the first place, or is the mind just doing what it naturally does? As we practice this with continuity, we are able to see the processes of the mind with more ease. We can stick with the thinking mind and see where it leads us.

Learn to Meditate

Trusting Wisdom

James Baraz told me years ago that I should practice “trusting wisdom.” I was sitting a long retreat and the mind was consistently falling into the fix-it state, and it was one of the first times I had an acute awareness of this mental state. I had a hard time with this when he told me, as I like rational, logical, and intellectual instructions and explanations for my experience. What he said to me was extremely helpful and has served as a great reminder repeatedly in my practice.

Within each of us is the seed of wisdom. All we need to do is bring awareness to what is happening so that wisdom may attend to it. In the Satipatthana Sutta (the Buddha’s words on establishing mindfulness), the Buddha recommends simply being aware of the hindrances of the mind. Why does this work? The truth is that I have absolutely no idea, and that’s why it is unsettling to me! However, trying to figure it out doesn’t really serve me well. Rather, I have seen this practice helping me greatly. When we bring awareness to what is happening and trust wisdom, the wisdom naturally abandons the unwholesome states and recognizes how to cultivate the wholesome ones.

For me, trusting wisdom means trusting the dharma. Faith, or trust, can take dedicated cultivation. I began bowing after each sit, and to the chair after teaching. I recite the refuges and read the metta sutta. In meditation, I notice when the mind is trying to fix something or figure it out. When I notice this happening, I remind myself to trust wisdom and simply rest with the experience. Trust the wisdom that is within you, and just return to observing over and over again.

 



Ajahn Brahm

November 2016 – Ajahn Brahm

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Five years ago, when we began as The Easier Softer Way, we used to have a Person of the Month every month. Somewhere along our journey, we stopped doing this. However, we enjoyed it, and people seemed to like it. So here we are starting it up again here in November of 2016!

Ajahn BrahmAjahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm is a monk in the lineage of Ajahn Chah’s Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism. Born in London, Ajahn Brahm studied theoretical physics at Cambridge University. He went to Thailand in his early twenties to study Buddhism, ordaining at age 23. He spent a decade after his ordination studying with Ajahn Chah before moving to Perth, Australia. In the early 1980’s, they purchased a plot of land to become Bodhinyana Monastery. Bodhinyana is now the largest cohort of Buddhist monks in Australia, and was the first Thai Theravada monastery in the Southern Hemisphere. Because they didn’t have very much money to work with, the monks worked to construct the buildings themselves. In 1994, Ajahn Brahm took over as head of the monastery, where he has been since. He has written many books, with my favorite being Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?: Inspiring Stories for Welcoming Life’s Difficulties.

Ajahn Brahm is a wonderful teacher who dedicates his life to the dharma. He has done years of work in prisons, with terminally ill people, and those new to meditation practice. However, we picked Ajahn Brahm as our Person of the Month for a more specific reason. Our lineage of Buddhism has done a lot of good in the world, but there are major harms being caused. Over the past decade, one specific issue has come to the surface (finally) and is being addressed, and that’s the issue of the bhikkhuni (nun) order. I highly recommend reading THIS PIECE from The Lion’s Roar to further understand this issue, but here is a brief explanation:

According to Buddhist scripture, a Buddhist nun must be ordained by her teacher. Hundreds of years ago, the bhikkhuni lineage died out due to war and famine. Hence, there are no nuns with continual lineages to the Buddha. Furthermore, the rules of nuns dictate a second-class ordainment. A nun that has been ordained for 50 years is ranked below in the hierarchy than a male monk who ordained 15 minutes ago. The seating arrangements, order of alms receiving, and order of asking questions to the teacher are all influenced by these ancient rules. When a male monk is present (even if very newly ordained), the nun is not to be teaching. This has caused a lot of harm to bhikkhunis across the world. They’re not being respected in their roles and practice, they aren’t able to be treated as fully ordained Buddhists, and they are simply treated as “lesser than” because of their gender.

Back to Ajahn Brahm. Ajahn Brahm, along with Bhante Sujato, helped facilitate the ordination of four nuns in late 2009. These nuns were Venerable Ajahn Vayama, and Venerables Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna, and were recognized at fully ordained, equal nuns. A week later, the international order of monks in his lineage met at Wat Pah Pong in Thailand and asked Ajahn Brahm to denounce the ordination as it was not valid in the eyes of the larger international community. Ajahn Brahm politely refused to denounce the ordination. His lineage essentially excommunicated him. They delisted him and Bodhinyana from their official literature and websites regarding associated monasteries, and Ajahn Brahm lost all support from them. Nonetheless, Ajahn Brahm took a stand and did what he felt was right.

It isn’t easy to go up against an institution on which you partly depend. Ajahn Brahm didn’t do it alone by any means, but he helped pave the way for the full ordination of a bhikkhuni lineage. In addition, he stood by his practice of noticing what is causing harm and what is creating the conditions for freedom. He has continued to support the bhikkhunis as they travel and start new refuges, has spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage (performing some himself), and speaks frequently about doing what you find to be most skillful. His books are wonderful, his teachings are wonderful, but the way he has lived his life is perhaps the best teaching he has offered. He’s an example of walking the path, using discernment, and caring for the wellness of all beings. I don’t believe the Buddha would disagree with Ajahn Brahm. The Buddha encouraged his students to question the teachings for ourselves. Ajahn Brahm has done this, offering himself to those around him.


How can i block negative thoughts?

How Can I Block Negative Thoughts?

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There are many different ways we are asked this question… How can I block negative thoughts? What do we do with negative thinking in meditation? How do I stop thinking in meditation? We are asked these types of questions quite a bit, especially when we teach at a few of the non 12 step rehab centers we work with, and we thought it may be of use to elaborate and answer in a bit more depth.

There are a few different questions here to consider, but they’re all great questions. First, let me say that in responding, I am responding from a position based on my experience with Theravada Buddhist meditation. There are many forms of meditation with a variety of different methods of meditation. Second, although these questions are not all the same, they are all related to the thinking mind. Dealing with thoughts seems to be a struggle for most people new to meditation. These are good questions to be asking, and intending to better understand the thinking mind is a very wholesome intention. At the bottom of this post, we have left a few resources that we’ve found helpful with these questions.

How to Block Negative Thoughts

This is perhaps the question we are asked most. We receive it via email, on social media, in groups, and with our one-on-one practicioners. No matter who you are, you experience what you may refer to as negative thoughts. Let’s consider first what we are calling “negative” thoughts. In my experience, people often are referring to thoughts of judgement, resentment, worry, and fear. Sometimes these thoughts arise in relation to others, and sometimes they are thoughts about ourselves. It can be helpful to first drop the label of the thoughts being negative. When we call them negative, our tendency is to avert from them or push them away. We may benefit from perhaps referring to them as unpleasant thoughts instead. When we note the vedana, or feeling tone, of unpleasant we no longer are labeling the thoughts as something that we are habituated to push away. That is, we can immediately work on changing our relationship to the thinking mind with the simple words we choose to use.

Next, we must understand the nature of meditation practice. There are two separate practices that ask for different responses to the thinking mind. First, there is mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness practice, the thinking mind is part of the practice. As the British monk Ajahn Sumedho says, “Everything belongs.” In mindfulness practice, our intention is to cultivate awareness and recognition of our experience. Are thoughts not part of your experience? In the Satipatthana Sutta (the discourse on establishing mindfulness), the Buddha tells us to bring awareness to the mental objects in mindfulness practice. Whether the thoughts are pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or mixed, we aren’t to resist them or push them away. We can bring awareness to them, looking at the arising thoughts with some gentleness and wisdom. With mindfulness practice the answer to this question “How can I block negative thoughts?” is that you simply should not. It may be helpful to look at these unpleasant thoughts closely. See if you can notice the arising of the thought, the moment you find it unpleasant, and the tendency of the mind to label it as negative. Maybe you can see the aversion arising, some way in which you try to push the thought away or resist it.

There’s also concentration practice, in which our response may be a bit different. With concentration meditation, we are cultivating a mind that is able to focus on an object with sustained attention. We most often practice with the breath when cultivating concentration. When unpleasant thoughts arise during concentration practice, we take a bit of a different approach. Rather than investigating the thought and tuning into it deeply, we leave it be. This doesn’t mean we push it away; rather, we notice the thought is there and return to the breath. You may see the thoughts as bubbles, just floating on by. You don’t need to hook into the thought. Practice returning to breath with kindness when the mind does get hooked in. Don’t push the thought away, but leave it be.

Meditation for Positive Thinking

thinking positive meditation

On the other side of the same proverbial coin, we receive questions about meditations on positive thinking. As we discussed in a post about positive thinking, trying to think positive all the time isn’t necessarily healthy. My personal opinion is that every human being experiences unpleasant thoughts at times. If we strive for only positive thinking, we are missing the point of mindfulness practice. I do understand the question. I get waves of unpleasant thinking patterns that sometimes get the best of me. It’s not comfortable. Rather than trying to push away the unpleasant thinking and clinging to the pleasant thoughts, we can put our effort forth to detach from the thinking mind.

It may help to investigate impermanence and not-self, two of the three marks of existence. Thoughts are products of the thinking mind. We can practice not identifying with each one that arises. Yes, it is often more difficult and unpleasant when our thoughts are on the negative side. Instead of seeking to only have positive thoughts, perhaps through practice you can not put such heavy weight on each thought that arises. When we see things clearly, we see that thoughts are just thoughts.

It may also be helpful to practice metta toward ourselves and the thoughts. You can do this by simply offering yourself the traditional phrases of metta, or you can direct the phrases specifically at the thoughts that arise. You may offer the intention of kindness and gentleness toward the thoughts as they arise. What this does is helps us to respond more gently to the arising thoughts and not react so strongly.

How to Quiet Your Mind

This is one of my personal favorite questions to receive because I struggled with this concept for quite some time myself. When I sat down to meditate, it felt as if the mind began working overtime. The thoughts came up rapidly, never seeming to cease. Whether they were resentments, worries about the future, fantasies or planning, my silent meditation practice felt mostly like a thinking session.

Again, there are two different practices that call for different approaches to the thinking mind. I often recommend to my students that they start with some concentration practice. When beginning a meditation practice, it’s important to remember that it is a practice. If the mind was already perfectly concentrated, a concentration practice would be completely unnecessary. In concentration practice we are cultivating a mind that can concentrate, not showing off an already concentrated mind! Practice concentration, letting the mind think normally. One of the keys I have found in my concentration practice is to respond with gentleness. Rather than pinning the mind down forcibly on the breath, I try to gently rest the awareness on the breath. When the mind begins thinking, we can stay with the breath and leave the thoughts be. When we get wrapped up in the thinking mind, all we have to do is return to the breath. Sharon Salzberg says in her book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, or a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated.” It is like this with the wandering mind. When we bring the mind back to the breath, we have brought it back. It doesn’t matter how long the mind wandered.

In mindfulness practice, we don’t need to stop the thinking mind. We may quiet the mind a bit by not reacting and cultivating an aware state, but the goal isn’t to stop the thinking mind. Thoughts are part of experience, and we can bring awareness to the thoughts just as we would with anything else. To quiet the mind really just means seeing the mind and the thoughts more clearly. We don’t stop the thoughts; we bring awareness to them.

There are tons of meditation resources out there. I super recommend listening to guided meditations to start, as many find it helpful to have a walkthrough of the practice. Here are a few books we love that may help shed some light on these issues and practices:

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg is a great book that investigates metta and the heart practices, written by who I consider to be the “master of metta” here in the West.
Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas by Leigh Brasington is a deep investigation of concentration practice with pragmatic tips and walkthroughs that I have found very helpful.
Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization by Analayo is an in-depth look at the Buddha’s words on establishing mindfulness. This book is fairly dense and scholarly, but one of my absolute favorite books on dharma that can really help us understand what this word “mindfulness” means.

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Identifying with Experience

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When a feeling arises, how do we relate? Personally, I find that some experiences are consuming. Anger and anxiety are often two experiences that tend to consume me. Whether it is the physical body, the pleasant or unpleasant tone of experience, our perception, our will, or our consciousness, we tend to form a sense of identity around individual experiences and patterns of experience. This tendency serves some purpose, but also causes quite a bit of suffering.

The Buddha’s Teachings on Anatta

The Buddha’s teachings on anatta are perhaps one of the most misunderstood teachings. Often translated as “no-self,” anatta is a Pali word literally meaning “without soul.” I personally prefer the translation “NOT-self.” Although anatta is a deep teaching, it can be most simply understood as the teaching that form, feeling, perception, will, and consciousness are not self. These five khandhas, or aggregates, are what makes up a human’s living experience. In the Anatta-Iakkhana Sutta1, the Buddha gives a talk to five monks about this non-self and impermanence of experience. In this sutta, the Buddha explains that none of the five aggregates are “self,” and we should reflect that:

“Any kind of feeling whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.'”

When we look closely at our experience, we can see that we often identify with the experience that is present. Whether it is an emotion, a physical experience, a thought, or a mental state, we get lost in the moment. It happens with both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. This identification with experience comes from a state of delusion. This teaching of the Buddha’s has great potential to create causes for freedom when personally understood.

The Impermanence of Experience

Another of the Buddha’s foundational teachings is that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. We can see this in our experience. Take a moment to listen to the cars going by outside, a bird chirping, or the wind blowing. Although it may seem somewhat constant, the noises are in a constant state of change. Similarly, the breath is always in a state of flux. As Noah Levine points out in his book The Heart of the Revolution, many cells in our body regenerate every 7-10 years (with recent research showing that neurons on the cerebral cortex never regenerate). This means that for the most part, your body is not even physically the same body it was when you were a child.

Of course, we can also see the impermanence with thoughts and emotions. Although a mental state or thought pattern may be pervasive or persistent, the experience is constantly changing. For example, I love my wife. It’s fairly constant in that I love her every day. However, the experience of loving her is different when I am with her than it is when we are apart. The thoughts are different, the “mood” of the mind is different, and the experience in the body is different. Although I love her, the love is constantly changing from moment to moment.

When I truly bring awareness to my experience, I am confronted by the blatant truth of impermanence. When I’m happy and clinging to an experience, I can see it changing and fading, recognizing the grasping that is present (often by tuning into the body). When I’m angry or anxious, I can tune into the experience and see that it really isn’t as simple as anger or anxiety. An emotion is generally a somatic experience coupled with a mental state or thought pattern. When I bring the awareness back to my present-time experience, I can see the rapid changes often occurring. What I call “anxiety,” is often a huge variety of experiences, sensations, thoughts, mental states, and thinking patterns.

identityTuning into the Creation of Self

It may seem like I threw in a piece on impermanence there randomly, but I find it intimately entangled with the teaching on anatta. Understanding impermanence from personal experience has helped deepen my understanding of not-self. Or more appropriately, my understanding of impermanence has helped me see how a sense of self is constantly being created in the delusion. When the experiences that I identify as anger arise, I immediately identify as anger. When I experience anger repeatedly over a period of time, I begin identifying as an angry person.

Identity Moments

In the moment of experience, we naturally cling to our experience and turn it into a sense of self. When anger is present, I may believe that I am an angry person. On the other hand, I may simply believe that anger is present. That is, just because anger is present doesn’t mean that I am an angry person. Rather, it means simply that anger is present. When we can bring a wise and caring awareness to the experience and not resist it, we begin to see it a little more clearly. The experience is changing, ebbing and flowing in nature. The anger may stay with me for a couple of hours or even days, but it’s always changing. In and out of formal meditation practice, my experience has been that deeply tuning into the impermanent nature of experience helps break it down and we no longer become so seduced by it. We can detach with some clarity, seeing the arising and passing of the experience. As this happens, the mind doesn’t identify so strongly with the experience, and we can experience anger without “being angry.”

You can look at this in your own life and practice. When you have an emotion or thought arise, just watch it closely. Does it stay, or is it moving? As you bring the mind’s awareness to experience like this over time, you may find that your relationship changes. There is great freedom in this change of relationship. We don’t need to create further suffering by clinging to our experience as “ours.” When we can watch it arise and pass (whether it is pleasant or unpleasant) with equanimity, we are no longer resting our contentment and ease on what we are experiencing. Personally, I have found this to invoke quite a sense of curiosity in my practice.

Identity Patterns

The other piece of this puzzle in my own life is that I have a tendency to repeat certain behaviors. When I am in a moment of discomfort, I tend to either get very quiet and want to retreat or I grow angry. Some people resort to judgement, joking, anxiety, or crying. Although we may respond in different ways, we all have some way in which we avert from the uncomfortable experiences. As I habitually retreat or become irritated, I begin to know this about myself. And I think it’s healthy to know what the tendencies of our minds are. But we must be careful not to cling to who we think we are.

There’s a happy medium, or middle path, between knowing the habits of the mind and clinging to the identity created. When I believe that I am just an isolater and avert by retreating from a situation, I am creating a serious identity around my experience. Again, it is something that can be helpful to know about ourselves, but we should perhaps take it as a habit and not as a rule. When I’m in a moment of discomfort, I know that my tendency is to seek quiet isolation and I tune into these desires if they should arise. But I can’t only look for what I think is going to happen or who I think I am. We must tune in to whatever is present.

Furthermore, although I do react by isolating, this is by no means who I am. It is a habit of the mind that is trying to keep me from experiencing something unpleasant. Just because it happens repeatedly doesn’t make it permanent or “me.” In the same way that we tune into our present time experience and bring wisdom to what is present, we can bring a wise awareness to our habit energies. For example, if you tend to fall into moments of anxiety, you can recognize this about yourself. However, watch for the mind’s tendency to identify as an anxious person, or get sucked into the consuming nature of some experiences.

When we look at the impermanent and not-self nature of experience, we really find some freedom. Our attachment to identity causes quite a bit of restriction and suffering. It’s okay to know that you tend to get angry; but perhaps instead you can know that anger often arises in you.

Responding with Compassion

Responding With Compassion

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Compassion Definition

Compassion literally means to suffer with. It comes from the Latin root com, meaning with or together, and the root passio meaning suffering. So quite literally the meaning of the word compassion is to suffer with someone. In Buddhism the meaning of compassion is the same. However, it is important to note that in Buddhism compassion also requires equanimity or a balanced heart. This means that when practicing compassion we are not to become overwhelmed by someone’s suffering but rather to hold it with care and kindness. Suffering is not the quality of pity. The difference between pity and compassion is that when we pity someone we are feeling sorry for them. It contains in it an element of looking down upon the person who is suffering. Rather, with compassion we care for the persons suffering without being overwhelmed by it and without looking down on it.

Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving-Kindness tells a story about when she was teaching compassion practice in Russia. She was teaching through an interpreter because she did not speak the language. As her talk progressed she got the feeling that the word compassion was not translating properly to Russian. She asked the interpreter what he said when he translated the word compassion. He described it as a state of being absolutely overcome with someone’s suffering. So overcome that it is almost debilitating. Of course this was not what she was trying to convey, and had to work to communicate the Buddhist definition of compassion. She tried to explain that compassion is holding suffering with caring without being overcome with the agony of it.

compassionCompassion Takes Practice

Often when we first practice compassion we can be overcome by someone’s suffering or our own when we really take the time to reflect on it. At first it can be very difficult to have a balanced heart when reflecting on pain. However, with practice we can expand our capacity to hold suffering with compassion.

When I first started meeting with my meditation teacher I had a difficult time sitting in meditation for more than 20 minutes at a time. If I sat for 25 minutes I would be anxious for the last five. At first I tried to just notice the anxiety. I attempted to stay present for it as it overwhelmed me. I would find that my eyes would almost burst open when the timer went off because I was so uncomfortable by that time. When I told my meditation teacher about my experience she suggested that I try to respond to the anxiety with compassion. I went back to my meditation practice and I when I started to feel anxious I would repeat some compassion phrases for myself, saying “may I care about this suffering”. If the anxiety became too great I would open my eyes until I felt ready to try again. After a while of doing this I started to feel myself relax a bit. The anxiety was not so bad as when I was trying to bear down and feel it. Instead, using these tools helped me to hold the suffering with some balance. I was not so overcome by the suffering when I could offer my anxiety a word of caring.

Compassion Changes

How you practice compassion can change depending on the situation. Sometimes the compassionate thing is not to drown out the suffering by repeating phrases but just to listen to someone. It can be an act of great generosity and compassion just to listen to someone’s suffering.

Read our collection of Compassion Quotes for more thoughts on compassion!

At a meditation center that I went to some time ago there was a woman who came to the same weekly class as me who drove me crazy. Something about her set me completely on edge to the point where I cringed every time she spoke. I realized after a while that what drove me so crazy was that she was in pain and had a great deal of suffering but no capacity to be with it so she would spiritual bypass. I decided to start practicing compassion for her. At first every time she spoke I would repeat compassion phrases in my head so that I would not have to listen to her. Repeating phrases brought me some relief and I felt myself start to open to her a little bit.

After practicing like this for some months I noticed that I no longer cringed whenever she spoke. However, I started to think that drowning her voice out with my own in my head was not really an act of suffering with her. It was more an act of compassion to myself because it gave me the ability to hold my own annoyance without totally averting from it. I realized that if I wanted to truly open to her pain I should try to listen to her. From then on whenever she spoke I just listened to the words. My heart was much more open by that point. Of course I still noticed times of aversion and annoyance, and if I really needed to I would say some compassion phrases for myself, as a way of holding my feelings. This experience taught me how much compassion can change when we work with it.

The Goal of Compassion

The goal of compassion is not to drown out suffering with compassion phrases, but to be present for it and open to it without being overwhelmed. As we practice compassion we can see that we can open to pain and suffering without being totally sucked into it. There is a way for me to sit in meditation and notice my anxiety without gritting my teeth. There is also a way for me to listen to someone who annoys me without just saying compassion phrases in my head. In the end, we use something like phrases as a tool so that we become able to open to suffering. If we repeat the intention “may I care about suffering” enough times we will actually start to care about it.

Once we do find our heart is open we can respond to suffering as it arises with an open and balanced heart. We can suffer with someone, or our own pain, without being overwhelmed or aversion. Eventually we can see pain and our body will respond with almost an automatic feeling of openness and kindness.

 

WEvolve Box: A Pleasant Surprise

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Here at One Mind Dharma, we love connecting with like-minded individuals. We recently connected with a wonderful woman named Lalania who runs an organization called WEvolve Box. Lalania has been super friendly and we’re grateful to have connected. First, let me say that if you order something from WEvolve, we receive no compensation financially or otherwise. Well, we do receive the good feeling of knowing we get to work together with and support them, but that’s all. The world is full of competition, and we seek to collaborate with others and support each other rather than compete. When we find somebody doing something that we believe in or relate to, we like to support their work. You can see this on our social media pages, as we’re often posting things from other organizations we know and love. One Mind Dharma doesn’t take any financial contribution for posts like that; we just believe in the power of working together.

IMG_3986We signed up to receive a WEvolve Box, which comes every other month to us now. We received our first one a bit ago, but we have been out of town on our honeymoon! It was pretty exciting to receive the box, not knowing exactly what we were getting (other than knowing we are able to support Lalania and her work). The box looked, smelled, and felt wonderful immediately upon opening it. Inside were quite a few items that we are happy to say we utilize. There was a beautiful singing bowl with striker and cushion, a set of Tibetan prayer flags, Green Tara incense, a mala, and a postcard with information about the items. These items are all things that we love, and we couldn’t be happier with the contents. We’ve actually used the singing bowl for a few groups since returning home, we’ve burned the incense, the flags are hanging in my office, and the mala hangs right inside the front door of our house.

I called this post “a pleasant surprise” because there are so many organizations out there, it is often difficult to find ones that we love. WEvolve has been a pleasant surprise for us. We’re super grateful to connect with and support them in their growth. The box is wonderful by itself, and the love and energy put into it is just icing on the cake. The boxes are great for oneself, and make an awesome gift for someone else. You can subscribe to receive a box every other month, or do a six month subscription for 3 boxes total. Lalania has even offered $5 off your first box if you use the coupon code DHARMA on checkout. I super suggest visiting her at www.WEvolveBox.com or visiting her social media links below! Lalania also wrote a wonderful book that you should check out called Urban Soul Warrior: Self Mastery in the Midst of the Metropolis.

WEvolve on Facebook
WEvolve on Instagram
WEvolve on Pinterest

 

Relationships

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I rarely write about intimate relationships here. I do lead groups in which I speak about relational mindfulness and lead engaged practices, but I shy away from writing specifically about relationships with our significant other. I don’t consider myself a relationship expert, and don’t want to write cheesy self-help pieces. However, three weeks ago today I got married. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, and I act like an ass just like the next person in relationships. Over the past month or so, I’ve had many great conversations with friends, family, and students about what has worked for me in my relationship, and I thought it may be of use to share. Some of the headers or topics here may seem obvious, but these are the things that ring true to me.

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The Role of Dharma

Before we go into this… yes, I do know that you may think relationships, sex, and marriage go against many traditional Buddhist views. I recommend reading this post on Wildmind about love, sex, and nonattachment. The Buddha gave different teachings to his monastics and the laypeople, and we must find the teachings that are addressed to us. I strongly suggest reading the Pathama-samvasa sutta here. That being said, the dharma has so much to offer us in our relationships. Although we wrote our own statements of commitment, the officiant’s vows were actually based off the Five Precepts. They read: “Do you Matthew vow to protect and encourage Elizabeth and all life, to be generous to her and take less than you give, to speak truthfully and helpfully to her, to nourish and to keep your body and mind healthy, and to treat her with loving kindness and compassion?”

These vows are based off the Buddhist training precepts, and are a great place to start. In my relationship, can I keep these precepts? Committing to not harming (and protecting), not stealing and practicing generosity, being wise with our sexuality (more on this later), being honest and open, and encouraging wisdom and kindness are absolutely wonderful places to start. We can spend our whole lives working to master these simple rules. If we can bring this practice to our relationships, or at least set the intention, we are off to a great start.

Dharma is everywhere. The more I practice and learn, the more I realize that we are living “it.” On a podcast episode six months ago, Andrew Chapman spoke about the idea of “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.” We can realize the dharma in a moment, but work for years to cultivate the insights. Relationships are included in this. With my practice, I’m able to tune in to my thoughts, words, and actions and see how they effect myself and others.

One of the practices that has really made a difference for me has been the idea of external mindfulness. In the Satipatthana sutta, the Buddha speaks about retaining mindfulness both internally and externally. There are many opinions about what this means, but my experience is that external mindfulness is the practice of tuning in to the world around us. In my relationship, I practice tuning into simple things like the breath of my partner. She doesn’t know I am practicing, but I simply watch the rise and fall of the chest or stomach. I know how that feels in my own body, and it helps me connect to the humanity in her. The task isn’t to read minds or pretend that I know exactly what she is feeling. Rather, I can tune in to what I can plainly observe and grow to understand her experience more deeply.

Vulnerability

Cultivating a truly deep and intimate relationship for me has depended upon my ability to rest in vulnerability. Like any relationship, Elizabeth and I began dating and it was relatively superficial. As we grew together, began spending more time together, moved in together, and began building a life together, it naturally became deeper. Like many others, I find being vulnerable uncomfortable. It isn’t easy to open up and be truly honest with somebody. On the other hand, opening up is key to really knowing each other.

Every week, Elizabeth and I sit in a dyad, a practice between two people. We generally sit in meditation together first, and then face each other for our practice. While looking each other in the eyes, we ask a repeated question. The question may be something like, “What is something that brings you joy.” I ask Elizabeth the question, she answers, and I ask it again. We do this for a couple minutes before switching, and she asks the question and I answer. We do this with several different questions, and practice listening to each other and holding the feelings that are arising.

In this practice, we are encouraged to be vulnerable, sharing whatever it is that comes to mind. The listener simply practices listening, holding the vulnerability with care. This practice has helped us deeply in our relationship, as we are able to be honest with each other outside of the formal practice. During the practice, we are cultivating the ability to sit with the discomfort of vulnerability and the ability to hold the other person. As with private meditation practice, repeated practice helps us bring the cultivated qualities to our everyday life.

Just a few weeks ago, I was having a difficult time with something. I told Elizabeth about what was going on and was bluntly honest. She immediately offered her help in trying to fix the issue, which was generous and well-intentioned. However, in that moment, what I actually needed was just to be honest about how I felt and have my feelings held. I was able to tell Elizabeth that I just wanted my feelings heard and to be held, and she was able to respond by doing just that. We weren’t always like this. I attribute this largely to our practice individually and together. It even happens that Elizabeth can tell me that I am doing something that is upsetting her, and I am able to sit and listen to it, holding her feelings with compassion rather than reacting with defensiveness or denial. Of course, I’m not even near perfect, but I have continually grown to respond with more wisdom and patience.

13934927_10153850057363946_1748831454510636669_nIntimacy

Intimacy is an important part of our relationships. And not just sex. It’s important for us to find moments to be together. For Elizabeth and I, intimate moments are times when we are away from technology, spending time together. It may be a hike, going to the beach, sitting outside talking, or going to dinner together. Although we love each other very much, we are both busy people and sometimes have to set aside time for each other. Our recent honeymoon was a great example of this. We spent two weeks just with each other. In these moments that we are intimately together, I find myself enjoying things like the ways her eyes “smile” when she smiles, our mutual dry sense of humors, and the pleasant sensation of holding hands with her.

The habit energy keeps me moving. I work, teach, write, eat, and get caught in the daily routine. Stopping to be together has been a team effort, and it is something we both make a priority. Even after years together, spending intimate time together is still a new experience each time. Elizabeth and I do fun things. She had a week free from commitments and we decided last minute to go to Zion National Park and hike. We heard the wildflowers were in superbloom in Death Valley and left the next day to go see them. Just the two of us, we take adventures together. Today we are going to an accordion festival in Cotati, California (not sure what to expect). Last month we heard Tower of Power was playing and we went to go dance. Life is full of opportunities for us to spend intimate time together in fun ways, whether it is an event like this or a simple dinner together without our phones.

Sex

Sex is an important issue to discuss, and I am guilty of not discussing it enough as it relates to mindfulness. For many people, sexuality is a driving force in life. Misuse of our sexuality causes a significant amount of harm in our world, both to others and ourselves. Sexuality, for better or for worse, is a powerful force. Learning to engage in wise and healthy sex has been a progressive lesson for me, but there a couple things that have been especially helpful.

First, we can simply consider if we are causing harm with our sexuality. There are some obvious ways in which we can cause harm such as cheating, but there are many other ways we cause harm. Years ago when I was in college, I had a few one night stands. I would spend an evening pretending that I cared about somebody, just to fill my own sexual cravings. When I got what I wanted, I left the person with no regard for their feelings. This is incredibly harmful behavior. Today, I make it a top priority to not cause any harm with my sexuality.

Another thing we may take a look at is our intentions. A lot of the harm people cause in relation to sex is because of our cravings. We all experience craving in many forms, and succumbing to each and every craving certainly leads to more suffering. When I wish to initiate or engage in sexual activity, I must look at my intentions behind the desire. Is my intention simply to fulfill my cravings, or is it to actually love my wife? I don’t believe there is anything wrong with our natural cravings or even fulfilling them, but it is helpful to bring awareness to what is going on internally. My experience is that when I am wrapped up in a moment of purely carnal cravings, I am generally selfish. Similarly, my partner may have the same experience. If she has a more carnal craving, I know what that feels like in my own experience. Luckily for both of us, I can be present for her with it and help! Bringing mindfulness to the basic experience of sexuality can help me not be selfish, and help me be present for my wife when she needs me. We also can find the skillful way to bring love, intimacy, and sexuality together.

And finally, we can be generous with our sexuality. This goes with the above point about intentions. Just like me, my partner has desires, feels pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and feels love. When I recognize these pieces of information, I can find balance in our sex life. Her and I aren’t that different. We both enjoy pleasant experiences. I want her to be happy, and although her happiness doesn’t rest in my hands (shoutout to equanimity), I can act in a way that promotes her wellness. In my own experience, bringing awareness to this with somebody that I deeply love naturally creates caga, the quality of heart that is inclined toward generosity.

If I could sum up what I have learned to be useful in my relationship, it would be generosity, vulnerability, listening, and clarity of intentions. Sometimes I want to be right. Sometimes I have my own desires and delusions. Sometimes I get wrapped up in my own moments of pain. My deepest intention, however, is to be present for and love my partner. Elizabeth means everything to me. Although we both have our own individual experiences, practice, and lives, we also have an experience together, a practice together, and a life together. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes I need to remind myself of my intentions, and some times the intentions come naturally. As with other parts of my practice, I must actually practice and cultivate the qualities I wish to bring to the relationship.

Check out our collection of meditation practices for couples!