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Vipassana and Mindfulness Blog

Mindfulness is simply practicing awareness with what's here. That's meditation, whether you're on a mountaintop, at work, or on a roller coaster.

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Seeing Your Courage

It’s been a year!

Today marks the first anniversary of Mindfulness in Blue Jeans. I feel like I’m supposed to say something dramatic and profound, but I realized a long time ago that the little voice that tells me what I’m supposed to do isn’t always right.

So this will be short and to the point. (Often a rarity with me, as many of you already know.)

What jumps out at me the most from the last twelve months is seeing people’s strength; in many cases, strength they didn’t think they had.

 

Like the woman who forced herself to come to her first meditation session, and then tearfully approached me afterward to say that it was the first time she’d smiled in three months. (Same woman, second session: “this is better than any pill.”) Or the numerous people who felt lost and directionless, but kept showing up … and are finding answers and purpose. Or the members of an anxiety support group on Facebook who have reached out with deep resolve. Or the clients of a psychiatry program who made leaps after the director shared Unlocking Acceptance with them. And definitely the woman rebuilding her life — after having half of it effectively stolen — with an energy and determination that might make an Olympic trainer say “whoa, take it easy there.”

These are just a handful of the hundreds of people who have come to my meetups, attended my workshops, consulted with me privately, and shared their stories of deep inner shifts with me online after hearing my sessions on Insight Timer and Simple Habit. These shifts simply could not have happened without their willingness to decide “the time is now.”

There was a time when it took all of my strength just to step outside the front door. I know that’s the case for some of you right now, and that victory counts too,¬† just as much as any other. Getting out of bed in the morning might take more bravery for you than skydiving would for someone else. Back when that was the case for me, I realized: the size of the accomplishment is dependent upon whether you showed up, not what you showed up for.

The ending point of anything — a task, your day, even your life — means very little without the context of where you started.

 

I’ve met an incredible number of amazing people in the last year. With gratitude:

I see your courage.


Our next workshop:

Saturday, November 23, 2:15 pm @ The Watertown Center for Healing Arts

 

Insight. Not incite.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a grammar lesson. ūüėĄ

I recently spotted someone accidentally use the word “incite” when they meant “insight.” That same day, I saw someone else mention that he wrote in his journal to deal with experiencing anxiety — and called it “fighting back” against his demons.

Funny how we default to that “me vs. you” mindset — even when the “me” and the “you” are both us. (continued below)

It becomes less surprising when we consider the messages we’ve been receiving in this culture since childhood (and which have their roots going back much farther). Rugged individualism; competition and comparison; who’s winning and who’s losing.¬†

There was a time when this wasn’t the worst thing. When our ancestors were trying to survive on the African savannah, sometimes the best strategy was to shoot first and ask questions later. That’s the part of our human heritage, baked deep in our DNA, that’s being activated every time human interaction is being framed as some kind of cage match.

Most of us don’t face the danger of an attacking saber-tooth tiger anymore, but ironically, these messages have only become stronger and more pervasive in recent decades. Debates are now “showdowns,” political elections have become “battles,” and we have “wars” on drugs and disease. When some form of problem or disagreement arises, a violent motif often follows. It’s an easy way to generate emotional turmoil (and profit).

So when discomfort inevitably arises WITHIN us, our conditioning kicks in, and we draw battle lines — against ourselves.

 

The very first insight I ever had when I started my practice was “if you fight yourself, you’ve already lost.” Inner civil wars are neither sustainable nor winnable. Beating an unwanted inner voice into submission today only drains the energy needed to do it all over again tomorrow.

To the person who “fought back” against his anxiety with his journal, I offered a reframing of “listening” to what it had to share. It resonated; he said that it was much more accurate to say that he had paid attention to what was there, processed it as needed, and moved on.

That’s insight. Not incite.

 

How the Flannel Buddha Reached Nirvana

“Whatever.”

The term “Gen X” still gives me hives. In early ’90s, someone decided that was our name and deemed us to be slackers. Society said that we were disillusioned, disenfranchised, disgorged, disemboweled, dis- this, dis- that … and oh yeah, Kurt Cobain apparently spoke for all of us. Our dutifully assigned anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ended with “oh well, whatever, never mind.” If “Generation X” was in the dictionary back then, the picture would have shown a grungy, unemployed, utterly indifferent scruffball posing in mid-shrug. (Dear Millennials: this flannel-clad scruffball sees you and is sorry for what you’re going through.)

At our recent Stop Poking the Bear event, we had a charismatic first-timer who’s exploring meditation to make deep, lasting life changes. He introduced himself and said “I’m just trying to find peace and … whatever.”

I think he’s going to do well.

One of my greatest blessings with this practice is that I didn’t think it would do a damn thing.


The utter lack of expectation (let alone a goal) meant I was open to receive … well, whatever. And I’ve gotten a LOT of whatever, in various shapes, flavors, and degrees of pleasantness. Anything that ever presents itself in the course of practice needs to be seen, but we often miss “whatever” is there because we’re looking for peace.

It can seem kind of weird to think about doing something without an end result in mind. What’s the point? But that’s just one of the fun paradoxes of mindfulness and insight meditation; this practice will give you everything if you ask nothing of it.

I suppose the Buddha wasn’t actually the first Gen X member, and while may have reached nirvana, I’m fairly certain he didn’t listen to them. Even still, I invite you — regardless of which generational stamp you received — to join me and embrace your inner slacker during your practice.

I normally start my guided sessions with a reminder to sit tall and allow your shoulders to relax, but just this once, let’s close our eyes, open our hearts … and shrug.


Then see what comes up.

Whatever it is.

The Art of War When Panic Attacks

 

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” — Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
“We experience moments absolutely free from worry. These brief respites are called¬†panic.” –¬†Cullen Hightower

 

How do you tell people you’re falling apart from¬†the most first-world problem ever?

 

Just after graduating from high school, I experienced a traumatic event whose parting gift was panic disorder. I developed a fear of panic attacks, and the vicious cycle of fear led to constant vigilance for the hellish symptoms. Swirling thoughts … heart palpitations … icy sweat … feeling trapped and disassociated. And that horrible moment when breathing broke free of my control … that was the final signal that my ticket was punched, the train had left the station, and I didn’t know if (or when, or how) I was going to make it back. The terror was relentless: “What if I lose it in public where everyone can see?” “What if I lose it in private where no one can help?” “Am I going crazy?”

Through the horrifying haze of exhaustion and desperation, I managed to notice that the attacks only happened when I was worrying about them — which, of course, was all the time. But in those rare moments when my attention was drawn elsewhere, I seemed to be ok. Unable to find a more suitable escape from my own mind, I learned to avoid my feelings of fear through distraction. When the demons stirred, I occupied myself with thoughts about ways to fix other issues I was having at the time: school, money (or lack thereof), and girls (same).

 

I was a skinny, broke college kid with a bad complexion. I had no shortage of material.

 

Ruminating on how to solve those kinds of problems gave me enough distance from my REAL uglies to get by. Ironically enough, I earned an honors degree in Social Psychology while deliberately waging this campaign of denial. Cute, no?

Then, at 25, a funny thing happened. Actually, several funny things happened very quickly. I started a new career. I landed a good-paying job. I met the right girl and we moved in together. For the first time, everything was terrific.

Um. Houston?

It was the most first-world problem ever: I had “solved” all my problems, and without those trusty distractions available, eight years of suppressed fear rushed to fill the void.

 

I discovered that denial — like any other unsustainable tactic based on brute force instead of genuine power — can seem to work really well, until it doesn’t.

 

Behind me: an escape route buried by an avalanche of fear. Dead ahead: grinning beasts sensing freedom. And within: psychological armor and weaponry in a smoking ruin. The harder I tried to hold it together, the faster I circled the drain. Sleep became rare and disjointed, and I rapidly lost weight after years without wavering a single pound. The body I occupied became an alien threat, feeling frighteningly weightless and yet impossibly heavy at the same time. Intensely suspicious of betrayal by my own mental and physical form, the inevitable fall came within weeks and I hit bottom with an unceremonious thud. Moving as if underwater and unable to go beyond my front door (let alone make the unthinkable 15-minute commute to work), I became housebound and went on short-term disability. Diagnosis: clinical depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia.

I explained my situation to a therapist and presented my idea for how to deal with my crippling cycle of panic and dread:

 

“I need you to help me kill it.”

 

He allowed a small compassionate smile and offered, “I’m not sure if that’s what we really want to do; maybe we should find ways of working with it instead.” Too weak to argue, I mustered a small nod, but inside I was quite certain: “No. I want to kill it.”

It turned out that he was a mindfulness teacher — decades before mindfulness went mainstream! —¬† and he guided me through a short session of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) and vipassana (insight meditation). I’d love to tell you that my life changed that day, but frankly, the experience didn’t affect me one way or the other. Regardless, he recommended I do it at home at least once a day. My thought:

 

“Doc, you better have something stronger than this; I’ve got real problems.”

 

I decided to try it anyway; I was already trapped at home all day with no other options. Once this little experiment inevitably failed, we could move on to the real treatment, right?

My first solo sit the following morning lasted 17 minutes, and it felt like 17 hours … but my utter lack of expectation actually worked in my favor. In the last couple of minutes of that sitting, I actually felt … hope. It was shocking; I hadn’t felt anything remotely close to hope in months.

 

If hope could surface, unbidden … what else might come up? What else had I been missing?

 

With the help of my unexpected new teacher, I slowly and painstakingly learned how to safely open to discomfort, then fear, and finally terror. Light began to seep into the cracks formed by deep inner shifts.¬†With ever-increasing clarity, I saw “myself”– and what is not my “self.”

Except for a couple of bouts with the flu and a nasty round of food poisoning¬† — neither of which I can recommend — I’ve sat every morning for over 20 years. I’ve learned how to skillfully navigate my mental trenches and forge new paths from them. I’ve learned how to surf the inner waves instead of getting swept away by them. And I’ve learned that your knees might have questions if you force lotus pose every morning. (Really, don’t do it.)

I’ve also pretty much given up on this experiment ever failing.

But while the sitting is important, it isn’t the point. We don’t practice for the sake of the practice; it’s about taking the practice off the cushion and living. And now I live — really, actually LIVE — not just more than I did during my long dance with denial, but far more than even before the trauma nearly a decade earlier.

 

You can gain much from this practice, but what’s truly remarkable is what you can LOSE.

 

I’ve lost the need for psychological weapons, along with the misguided desire to fight the inner beasts and demons; I know their names and their backstories now, and sometimes we swap old war stories over beers. A decades-long anger management issue that never quite got out of hand — but was always just THAT close — packed up and left town with no forwarding address. And that early recognition that I seemed to be ok when my attention was drawn somewhere other than fearful rumination? I’ve gained understanding about this exact effect from recent scientific research about the wiring of our minds and brains, but more importantly, I’ve seen the source of self-condemnation that so often comes with this package of quirks we call the human condition, and have learned to let that go too.

 

Our stories are unique, but they’re rarely all that different. We are only ever in the wars that we bring with us.

 

I spent years on my eventual plummet to the bottom, then more years working my way back to the light. My very first insight when I started practicing was “if you fight yourself, you’ve already lost.” The hundreds of pages of insights that I’ve logged over the two decades since then — and their distillation into a workable, modular framework I call the MINDFUL Spiral of Growth — are based on teachings over 2500 years old: clear seeing, developing wisdom, skillfully responding instead of reacting, and ultimately reducing suffering. These are so universal that they still apply to all of us right here, right now.

 

Mindfulness and insight meditation will give you everything if you ask nothing of them. It’s less about knowing where to look and more about learning how to see.

 

Today, I run¬†Mindfulness in Blue Jeans¬†and host free¬†Boston Mindfulness and Insight Meditation Meetup events where I share my insights and experience so others may enjoy the profound benefits that changed my life.¬†Insight Timer¬†is an outstanding free app that I use daily, and they recently published my first guided audio meditation (“The Art of True Release”). I’ve connected with wonderful people on Insight Timer; in fact, many members of my Meetup group are people I met using their social community features. People locally and globally are sharing gratitude for the way I’ve sparked long-needed shifts for them, and there aren’t words to describe the incredible sense of connection and mutual accomplishment that comes with that.

But as happy as I am to share my story, I want to hear yours. Are you at war? On a path to peace? A little of both and looking for a signpost? Or maybe you’re completely lost and unsure where to begin (which I know can feel hopeless and overwhelming, but is truly full of possibility)?

 

I invite you to sign up for my monthly mailing list at the bottom of this page and respond to the welcome message that includes a free download of The Art of True Release.

 

I’m also happy to talk via my web page, Meetup, Insight Timer, Facebook, or a message in a bottle. You can tell anything to a guy who had to explain that he couldn’t go to work because he ran out of problems.

 

 

Why I Meditate

As one of my yoga teachers is fond of saying:

“We shouldn’t be surprised when a baby cries about something trivial; it’s literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.”

Remember when we were kids, and we were confronted with discomfort? (I’m referring to typical, garden-variety growing pains, not abuse.) We devised — and were sometimes deliberately taught by well-intentioned adults! — all these neat tricks to avoid unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We could deny reality, or pretend it was different, or distract ourselves with a new bright shiny object. We wielded this incredible power: the ability to “stop” feeling pain.

Of course, life has a way of being pushy and invasive. Sometimes it became enough of a nuisance that it tested our defenses, but we weren’t out of tricks. In the short term, we strengthened our resolve and reinforced our walls. Over time, we developed increasingly complex coping mechanisms that resembled Rube Goldberg machines. 

An automated napkin. All this, to avoid the “pain” of manually wiping one’s mouth. How many of these contraptions are we carrying in our heads and bodies every day?

There are a couple of funny things about Rube Goldberg machines, though … even besides how they look.

First, the simplicity of the original problem becomes obscured by the comical complexity of the “solution.” Even if the solution works, it’s largely wasteful, unnecessary, and unsustainable. This leads to the second — and for our discussion, even more critical — characteristic of these elaborate designs:

The more complex the system, the more fragile it becomes.

We keep adding pieces to an inner defense network in an attempt to make it impenetrable, but if any one of these parts fails, the whole system falls apart. Just maintaining this delicate ecosystem is draining, but it’s so habitual that we don’t even understand why we feel so exhausted.

We spend the first part of our lives developing coping mechanisms for dealing with pain, and we spend the rest of our lives dealing with the fallout from using them.


Mindful.org asks “why do you meditate?”

I practice on and off the cushion every day not to “do” things, but to “UNdo” things. For better or worse, we’re wired to avoid pain at any cost. That’s simply what we’ve been given to work with.  Mindfulness and insight meditation provide the space and conditions for clear seeing … and doing that work.

The practice always boils down to one question: is this skillful, or unskillful? 

It’s not about blame. This is the human condition, and literally every person you know feels this struggle. Your closest relative, your best friend, your worst enemy, global heroes, infamous dictators, and that guy who busted out a tuna melt on the bus this morning; no one is exempt. We were all that crying baby once, and we’ve all been doing our best to deal with life’s curveballs ever since. But what I have found over and over again for two decades is that my practice keeps making my best … a little better.

Serenity Now?

I was sitting quietly waiting for a yoga class to start during a stressful time a few years ago when a teacher walked across the room to tell me:

“I have to say, you’re the chillest person in this room, sitting here like the Buddha.”

I gave him a wry grin and said he should see the mayhem happening on the inside. He responded that the inside and outside are connected, and I couldn’t possibly sit in such a manner if it was all that bad. I thanked him and good-naturedly said something about begging to disagree.

I recalled that experience some time later when I saw a Buddhist sutta which is commonly translated as follows:

They do not lament over the past,
they yearn not for what is to come,
they maintain themselves in the present,
thus their complexion is serene.

I had seen those words many times, but suddenly they carried new meaning.

It’s incredibly easy to mistake “that person looks serene” for “that person IS serene.”

It’s just as easy to attempt to force a serene outer appearance in the hopes that the inner experience will follow. Neither of these are skillful. A problem-free life is not a requirement for a serene complexion. (If it was, the first serene human face would still have yet to be made.)

Our outer appearance is simply a reflection of our inner capacity to relate to our problems in a skillful way.

I wasn’t trying to control how I looked as I waited for that yoga class to start, but in a room full of people who seemed far more relaxed than I felt, the teacher came to me. It was an “a-ha” moment for my practice; an unsolicited confirmation that I had developed the ability to give my internal turmoil enough space and compassion that it didn’t spill out into my face … or actions.

And that’s one of the funny paradoxes of holding it together: it rarely FEELS like holding it together.

Everything doesn’t have to be ok for us to relax; it’s enough to simply be ok with the thought that they aren’t.

Serenity now.

 

Why We Dance With Anger

I had an experience one recent evening that gave rise to anger.

I noticed the following morning that the flammable energy had subsided, both physically and emotionally. For some reason, however, I kept coming back to it mentally. I felt a pull in my mind to keep replaying the event in spite of my sense of restored calm and peace.

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t prefer to be angry, yet still finds a perverse sort of pleasure in it. (The Buddha himself referred to anger as having a “poisoned root and¬†sweet¬†sting.”)¬†Why?

I opened the door to see what anger was bringing with it that was so enticing, and found my answer pretty quickly.

May I have this dance?

Anger, in its purest form, is a natural and healthy function that gives us the energy to change situations where something is wrong. If we’re angry at something — or someONE — then that thing (or person) must be wrong. Which can only mean one thing.

We must be right.

 

Anger simply cannot appear without a degree of self-righteousness (justified or otherwise). Think of some of the things people have done to feel “right.” Suddenly it’s not surprising that we so easily trade our inner peace for a tango with that sweet sting.

Anger gets a bad rap (especially in spiritual circles), but it’s like anything else; it can be used skillfully or unskillfully. Through practice, we can develop our powers of observation to discern when our anger is serving its intended purpose and when we’re merely using it to feel (or NOT feel) something else.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think they’re playing my song.

Achieving Enlightenment Before Lunch

A good friend sent me a picture a few days ago.

It’s a flyer for a meditation program that makes incredible promises, and I mean that in both senses of the word. (I’m not going to quote them here; suffice it to say that they literally claim to bestow god-like status.)

She said she’d “100% read a blog post by you on how this is presented.”

I considered it briefly before deciding against it. I’ll certainly express my thoughts on things like this if asked directly, but creating a ball of negativity and sending it out into the world just didn’t feel right. So I left it aside.

As serendipity would have it, a teacher in the UK took care of it the following day.

In The Dangers of Diluted Buddhism, Lama Jampa Thaye describes exactly this approach to practice that we often see in the West.

You’ve seen it. It’s the one that says “use mindfulness to get that promotion.” Or “follow me, I’ll be your guru and fix everything.” Or “three easy steps to achieve enlightenment before lunch.”

The Buddha himself taught that we each must find our own way, and that blindly believing his teachings without personally testing them showed a total misunderstanding of the teachings themselves. And if that applied to the Buddha, I think we can safely conclude that it applies to all teachers.

Insight meditation is riddled with paradoxes, none more crucial than this: the practice will give you everything, so long as you ask nothing of it.

You might find happiness. You may find peace. And yes, what you learn might even set the conditions for material gain.

None of these are bad. And none of them are the point. They are side effects, artifacts of a gift that has much more to give. They are they pretty presents under the Christmas tree.

The practice is the tree itself.

I can’t promise you anything. I don’t even know what I’ll find under my own tree until it shows up. The practice is about making that discovery. So how can any teacher (or “guru”) possibly know what you’ll find under yours?

What a good teacher can do is show you how to grow your own tree and where to look for those shiny presents (and presence).

Let’s do lunch.

 

 

Karma: More Now Than Zen

“That’s bad karma.”

Karma is often summarized as “what goes around, comes around” or “someday, they’ll get theirs.” These interpretations are based on justice and vengeance, which add baggage and mystique that are irrelevant to such a basic process. More importantly, they imply that we can’t watch karma unfold directly, let alone produce and experience karmic changes now.

Neither assumption is true.

To illustrate: one way we self-sabotage is through a pair of cycles that appear to actually reward our own dread.

In the inner cycle, we anticipate a stressful event and picture how we’ll feel when it happens. “Can I handle this? Will I be ok?” Our irrational fears paint worst-case scenarios in a misguided attempt to “be prepared.” Our subconscious mind and body do not distinguish imagination from reality; they react as if this nightmare is really happening. These physical and emotional signals form a feedback loop and mistakenly “confirm” for each other that we are facing an actual, immediate threat. What happens next?

Instead of finding a comforting answer to “will I be ok,” we trigger our fight-or-flight response. Sound familiar?

To relieve that turmoil, we do the worst possible thing: we REPEAT the process, hoping we’ll get a more reassuring answer “this time.” Unfortunately, the anxiety caused by each trip through this cycle snowballs into the next, and we dig ourselves in deeper. Lather, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t even matter how the event actually unfolds (or the fact that it rarely matches our relentless dread-filled rehearsals); our thoughts, actions, and relationships have been infused with our self-induced suffering all this time.

After experiencing this cycle enough times, we see it’s ridiculous and we stop needlessly worrying about things. Right?

Yeah, not so much.

Rather than dropping this thought pattern, our fear develops another cycle (lovely, no?). This outer cycle is based on faulty logic: “I always worry about events, and then they turn out fine, so if I just keep worrying, I should be ok.” (This is a classic “correlation does not imply causation” scenario.) As noted above, the inner cycle’s physical and emotional signals “confirm” an immediate threat; similarly, because actual events don’t live up to our worst-case scenarios, the outer cycle always sees “positive” results from perpetuating the inner cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Wait, are we still talking about karma? How does all this relate?

We plant the seeds of our own suffering and nurture their growth. Such seeds can only bear bitter fruit, whose own seeds start the cycle anew. In our attempt to “be ok,” we ironically cultivate a garden of misery.

That is karma. It’s not off in the future; it’s the way we experience our lives RIGHT NOW as a result of our own intentions and actions (including how we use thought). It’s not cosmic justice; it’s basic cause and effect. It’s less “what goes around comes around” and more “if we do what we’ve always done, we get what we’ve always gotten.”

There are at least two great things about this. First, each person’s karma is their own business. We only have to deal with our own; by definition, we can’t affect anyone else’s. Second, making small changes at any given moment can improve our karma here and now. Mindfulness and insight meditation allow us to observe our unskillful patterns — and their immediate results — in real-time. This paves the way for developing skillful intentions and actions based on clear seeing. Oh, we still prepare for upcoming events; but we do so without causing stress and suffering for ourselves and others.

The process of observation and insight builds upon itself and becomes our new cycle. A sustainable cycle.

Now that’s good karma.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Recommended further reading: We Are Not One by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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