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.

Meditation as an Appliance

One of the most poignant things I ever heard happened at the unlikeliest of moments.

I played in my first rock band during my middle years of high school. (We were terrible.) Since I was the drummer, we defaulted to rehearsing in my mother’s basement. Being a typical unfinished, damp basement, we had a portable dehumidifier on a shelf near my drum kit. As the humidity in the room rose, it would start up and run with a fairly loud hum; once the moisture dropped to a level the appliance considered acceptable, it turned off and waited for an increase to trigger it again.

Mindfulness as an Appliance

One evening, we were playing (if you want to call it that) a song (again, if you want to call it that), and when we finished, we started talking for several minutes. The dehumidifier had apparently kicked on while we were playing, and was still running when we stopped and talked. During a pause in the conversation, the humidifier happened to turn off, leaving a sudden, gaping silence. One of my bandmates perfectly summed up the experience:

“That’s one of those noises you don’t hear until it stops.”

Years later, this assessment came back to me during a sitting. The style of meditation that I practice and teach was developed and taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. His sole purpose for teaching was to show others how he released himself from stress and suffering so that we might do the same. Now, as then, so much of our stress and suffering comes from the thoughts, speech, and action we’re doing on auto-pilot.



Some of these patterns might have been useful earlier in our lives, and we never stopped to reassess them. Perhaps some of them were taught to us – explicitly or otherwise – and were never actually helpful, but became habitual regardless. Each auto-pilot habit – whether it’s an outward physical activity, or just an internal thought pattern – is like that noise we don’t hear anymore.

Until it stops.

Insight arises when the inner noise we haven’t been hearing finally stops.

Like that trusty old dehumidifier, we dial ourselves up and down based on how we’re perceiving our inner and outer environment. If our perceptions aren’t accurate, we can’t regulate ourselves properly. We end up running when we don’t need to, and find that we can’t operate properly when the time is right. Worst of all, because we haven’t honed our skills of perception, we can’t even perceive THAT imbalance accurately, and we remain trapped in the cycle of stress and suffering. This is what the Buddha referred to as “ignorance,” and this is how it compounds itself.

In vipassana (insight meditation) practice, we learn how to hear that noise inside … and also see how we’re creating it.

Fortunately, this is still OUR cycle, which means we can change it; it’s Karma 101 that we can each only change our own cycles. As we follow the Buddha’s guidance and develop skillful qualities like concentration and mindfulness, we sharpen our discernment. This paves the way for that “clear seeing” we’re always talking about, and it’s that clear seeing – or, more appropriately for our current metaphor, clear hearing – that gives us the information we need. Like how we should tune our levels for peak performance. Like which auto-pilot habits might not be serving us anymore.

Or like how crappy our band might be.

Questions? Comments? Ready to recalibrate yourself? Drop me a line or set up some time for some extra light on your path.

Fixing Our Requirements for Happiness

Fixing our requirements for happiness helps us avoid two classic traps.

We have requirements for happiness – or “RFH” – in all parts of life, ranging from our finances, careers, and relationships to … well, having just one more glass of wine, or maybe getting that new iPhone. (Is there a new iPhone right now? There must be, there’s always a new iPhone.) And then there are those other little areas where we have lots of requirements, like health, comfort, safety, and security. Do any of these resonate?

Requirements for happiness are about as sure as death and taxes. But if we can sidestep two big traps, we can turn them to our advantage.

Requirements for Happiness

We fall in the first trap when we send our RFH outward. If we have an RFH for how another person must feel or act, our well-being is in their hands. If our RFH is that a particular situation must go as we wish, our good humor teeters upon external causes and effects (some of which we can’t even see). And that RFH for having a desired thing? How many times have we seen that happiness fade away after we get the thing?

Avoiding this trap doesn’t mean denying that we care, not making a reasonable effort for optimal conditions, or not getting a new smartphone…

… it simply means that we don’t submit our equanimity to the whims of unstable circumstances.

And this leads us right to the second trap: not realizing that all of these requirements (commonly known as “attachments” in Buddhism) aren’t actually about the objects, people, or situations themselves. They’re about how we think we’ll feel if we have them just the way we want them. And how do we think we’ll feel? Wait for it …

Happy.

So the real requirement for happiness is … happiness? Now we’re starting to see the real flaw here …

Requirements for Happiness


Let’s short-circuit this catch-22.

There are different kinds of happiness, but the one we’re examining here has two important characteristics. First: it’s is a process, not a destination. Like anything else based on cause and effect, it arises, changes, and passes. And second: it’s a by-product. Happiness arises as a result of doing things other than trying to be happy.

In my experience, the fastest way to feel unhappy is to try to achieve – and hold on to – happiness.

“Am I happy now? How about now? Now?” 🙄

Just like the examples of external requirements above, if our RFH says that we must feel a certain way internally, we attempt to balance our well-being on inconstant states (in this case, the feelings themselves) where our direct control is limited.

In other words, we’re still submitting our equanimity to the whims of unstable circumstances; they’re just in a different place. And by trying to enforce stability on that place – which our mind likes to think it CAN – we unwittingly cause more chaos.

When our requirement for happiness is to feel happy, we’ve fallen into trap number two. (Or, more accurately, we’ve stepped in number two. 💩)

Ironically, every requirement for happiness creates the conditions for the exact opposite of its supposed purpose. Every RFH we have gives us another reason to decide that we are not happy.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t set goals, strive for self-improvement, and feel the pride of accomplishment? Of course not. That’s the process of living and growing; mindfulness practice itself is the honing of skills to build a more solid happiness. We see what happens when we decide that an outcome or feeling beyond our complete control must meet our requirement in order for us to “be happy,” and we fix the REAL problem with that system.

The actual sources of our unhappiness – not what we think are the sources – are often hiding in plain sight.

Mindfulness and insight meditation are the most powerful tools I’ve found for spotting, managing, and releasing these unskillful beasts. Why? Because we create a space where we don’t NEED requirements for happiness. Not only is it a freakin’ relief, it also allows for the clear seeing that flushes out our camouflaged agents of misery.

This is step one in fixing our requirements for happiness so they’re more effective and sustainable. And when we look back to see how we had been trying to create happiness using the mindset of “the beatings shall continue until morale improves,” it can be hard not to laugh a little.

But it’s ok if you don’t. It’s not required.

Questions? Comments? Ready to take the next step toward fixing your requirements for happiness? Drop me a line or set up some time for some extra light on your path.


Disintegrating Dread

Dread.

I led a couple of sessions about dread recently and wanted to share a high-level overview of three insights I’ve gained while working with this intense emotion.

I’ve always felt like dread was an invisible – yet impossibly heavy – blanket that kept me from being able to move. I thought of dread as being this static, monolithic THING.

Tidal wave of dread

But then I noticed that there was also a racing urgency contained within. There’s an energy that seeks to stave off the dreaded event, if not the dread itself. This feeling wasn’t just an immobile blanket … it was also a rushing, towering tidal wave.

I also saw the way dread shifted depending on various factors, like the time of day or quality of sleep. So it not only had movement, but its fluctuations were subject to the laws of cause and effect (which will sound familiar to those who have heard me discuss karma).

These characteristics led me to my first insight: dread is not a thing. Dread is a process.

The recognition of dread’s movement, fluctuations, and existence as a process led to my next realization: if dread is a moving, changing process, then something must be perpetuating it.

What I discovered was that dread shares a factor with so many other emotions: it self-perpetuates by feeding off of its own momentum. When we feel angry, we don’t usually just feel angry about the thing we think we’re angry about. We also feel angry about the fact that our ease has been thrown into a raging turmoil. We usually feel sad about feeling sad, depressed about being depressed, happy about being happy …

… and we feel dread about feeling dread.

But dread is a process, and that process is necessarily changed when we change the object of our attention. If we make the process ITSELF the object of our attention, we change its momentum. So how do we do that?

One way is by using a technique that arose from the third insight: disintegration. Not disintegration in terms of “poof, it disappeared” (although that would be nice too), but literal dis-integration: separating the components of the process. 

The physical, mental, and emotional components of dread – each of which are processes themselves! – create interconnected feedback loops. A mental storyline sparks an emotional reaction, which amps up the body’s fight-or-flight response … and that response “confirms” to the subconscious mind that there really is an emergency. We’re off to the races.

A mindfulness practice that focuses on each component individually – typically while using the breathing as an anchor – allows us to loosen these links, which robs the cycles of the fuel they need to perpetuate.

This gives us a solid foundation for understanding these links in real-time, as well as increasing our familiarity with each individual component. This familiarity with how each piece REALLY is (as opposed to the way we fear it WILL be) eases the discomfort that comes with unfamiliarity – which our fight-or-flight mind perceives as unsafe rather than simply uncomfortable. In this way, we dismantle this crippling contraption from several angles at once.

Of course, all of this isn’t to say that we’ll never feel dread again. It’s part of the package we signed up for (or more accurately, a couple of OTHER people signed us up for some number of decades ago). But if we can make our experience of the process of dread a little less dreadful … well, THAT’S something I’ll sign up for personally.

Questions? Comments? Ready to break some links? Drop me a line or set up some time to dis-integrate dread.


Housebound Revisited, Part 2: Grief

Part 1grief of Housebound Revisited looked at my first journal entry just after I hit bottom. As I was getting ready to publish this followup, I came across “I’m Grieving During the Coronavirus Pandemic. You May Be, Too” in the New York Times and found that it aligned.

In the midst of sudden or unexpected change, our survival mechanisms take over. At some level, most of us are in a holding pattern of fight-or-flight right now … but that’s not meant to be a holding pattern. It’s designed to be a short-term reaction to keep us alive so we can then deal with any other non-mortal concerns (like grief) soon after.

In this situation, however, we have a prolonged threat accompanying (and causing) our loss of life as we know it. Even for those of us fortunate enough not to be directly affected (or have loved ones affected) by the virus, there may be grief waiting to be processed … and it might not be waiting quietly.

When I told my psychologist in 1998 how my life had changed so quickly, he mentioned something fairly obvious that I had completely missed. Through the relentless panic and suffocating depression, I couldn’t see that I was experiencing grief for the loss of stable, long-term anchors I had suddenly left behind forever. I wonder how many of us might be missing a similar nuance through the haze of louder emotions demanding our attention … and whether that might be by well-intentioned – but unsustainable – design.

 

April 26, 1998

He said I’ve never suffered a “loss” like this before. That struck me; I haven’t been able to get that phrase out of my mind. Am I not depressed so much as grieving? Am I exhibiting symptoms like someone dealing with the death of a loved one?

I’m having difficulty getting through Sundays. I have a long history of feeling (situational) depression on Sundays anyway.

The most depressing part right now is not being able to see the end of the tunnel. Am I making it worse by being concerned about that?

I used to have lots of success and positive feedback in school and I realize how much I miss that. Now I’m in an area where I enjoy the work, but feel less confident because I’m still new, and these things are harder for me to grasp than psychology was. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything and I get worried when I feel that way.

April 28, 1998

I’m not used to feeling depressed without anger. At least anger gave me energy (and focus).

 

Heh. Yeah. The first recognition of the symbiotic relationship between fear/depression/anxiety and anger. What did Obi-Wan say about taking a first step into a larger world?

 

Housebound Revisited, Part 1: Anchors

anchorsIt was 22 years ago this month that I became housebound. There was no clear end in sight, and the only sure thing was that life couldn’t ever be the same if I made it through. For a very different reason, most of us are living that same scenario today. It seems like a good time to look back and share a journal from the very beginning of my practice.

This first entry came two days after full-on agoraphobia took over, and one day after first meeting the psychologist who would introduce me to mindfulness and insight meditation.

Three months earlier, I moved out of the only house I’d ever lived in. Three months before that, I landed a dream job in my new IT career … or so I thought. The dream soon became a nightmare of anxiety sparked by the unpredictability of a consulting job that could send me any place at any time. Ironically, before that anxiety set in, I felt like I had “reached my goal” of having the right job for the long haul; for the first time, there was no “next step” to work toward.

With both constants in my life suddenly gone for the first time within a few months, I felt ungrounded and dissociated. My finely honed skills of self-distraction and denial no longer stood a chance against the new tag team of job anxiety and panic disorder. Once the bottom finally fell out, I knew that I’d have to look for a more predictable job … but going back to ANY kind of work was a long way off …

April 22, 1998

I used to have solid anchors; my old home at one end, and my goals at the other. Now they’re both loose … there have been major disruptions in deep-rooted things that have never changed and I’m disconnected in strange territory. I’ve defined myself in terms of the two anchors; one establishing my entire past and one directing my future. Now one anchor has been uprooted and the other anchor is “gone” … and both for the first time. Nothing is pulling me toward the future. Job interviews may help but it’s probably better to get some work done on the issue of the other anchor first (I have to trust my own feelings on this issue). Who am I without my anchors? I’m not used to just “being.”

In retrospect: were the anchors really keeping me grounded? Or just holding me down?

 

Dystopia … Agoraphobia … WrestleMania?

This is how it all ended. Or maybe how it began.

Most people probably don’t know I’m a fan of professional wrestling. Even fewer people know about wrestling’s quirky little intersection with my mindfulness practice.

My psychological collapse – detailed elsewhere, such as The Art of War When Panic Attacks – cascaded on April 20, 1998. Three weeks earlier, I attended WrestleMania XIV (where Mike Tyson counted the pinfall for Stone Cold Steve Austin’s first WWF championship). And for three months before THAT, I freaked out about it.

agoraphobia

I got the first inkling that my mental walls were cracking in November of ’97. My foundation of load-bearing denial skills – honed over seven years – were finally buckling under the weight of anxiety and panic. The only comfort I found was in retreating from life. It was less anxiety-provoking to be near home; so I stayed near home. It was more comfortable to avoid crowds; so I avoided crowds.

And my comfort zone did what it does when it isn’t growing. It started shrinking.

Like the inverse of a drug tolerance, in order to maintain the same level of comfort, I had to be closer and closer to home. I had to avoid smaller and smaller crowds.

By January, I was already looking for ways to make it so I would theoretically never have to leave the house again. Having just moved into a new apartment with my (now) wife, my best friends lived one floor down. Perfect! Social life covered. And we just got one of those new cable modems; I wonder if I can do all my work remotely? Oh, and Stop and Shop has that Peapod thing now, right? Don’t even have to go out to buy food!

There was one problem, though. Four months earlier, I had bought tickets for WrestleMania. In Boston. At the Garden. With 18,000 of my closest friends.

I still remember watching the countdowns to the event on the wrestling shows … “10 weeks until WrestleMania!” “Eight weeks!” “Six weeks!” As the numbers went down, the terror shot up.

It was like watching the New Year’s Eve ball dropping on your death.

Obviously, I lived through it … and as mentioned, finally hit bottom less than a month later. My “comfort zone” had been reduced to our apartment. Even the house I’d grown up in – still “home” just a few months earlier, and all of seven blocks away on the same street – was not safe territory. For months, I was a shut-in on disability, quarantined by a mental prison. The walls that had once kept fear and panic out now trapped me within.

As a (really) famous former wrestler might say: why in the blue hell am I bringing all this up?

For most of us, it’s been pretty surreal to see what’s happening right now. Life – even more than usual – has quickly become a Black-Mirror-esque dystopia of empty streets and virtual gatherings. (I attended my first yoga class via Zoom last night.) But for me, there’s been an extra layer of deja-vu: it’s WrestleMania season.

I’m a shut-in at WrestleMania time again. With seven billion of my closest friends.

And that latter bit is my point here. Fear … anxiety … panic … uncertainty … lockdown … yeah, I remember these digs. Hell, my initials are still carved on that tree over there.

If you need a hand from someone who knows these trenches, I’m here.

Along with my (now free) guided audio sessions and (now Zoom-accessible) Meetups, I’m seeing my clients via Zoom and I’m increasing my flexibility by offering 30-minute sessions as well as sliding scales. For now, standard appointments (via Zoom) can still be booked on my sessions page; if you’d like to discuss an alternate arrangement, drop me a line and we can get something sorted right away.

Stay safe … and breathe.

 

Staying on Track When Under Attack

Staying on track takes practice.

During a recent conversation with someone, I asked a seemingly benign question … and received what felt like an ambush of sarcasm ridiculing my query.

I know – stop the presses, right? But that’s not the interesting part.

What’s interesting is watching the train-wreck of thoughts that often unfold from that kind of experience.

First, the initial surprise registers. “Wait, what just happened?”

Staying on track

It seems like anger immediately follows, but anger is merely the hard shell that quickly surrounds fear. (With practice, our awareness becomes sharp enough to spot that soft chewy center of vulnerability BEFORE the protective outer layer forms.) “They said what? Danger! Threat! Fire in the hole!”

Finally, anger swoops in to “help” the fear, setting up a symbiotic dialogue that calcifies our sense of identity as the starring player in this deepening storyline:

Anger: “Did you say you’re under attack? Oh, trust me, I’ll finish what they dared to start.”

Fear: “But did you hear what they said to me? Can they do that?”

A: “Hell NO they can’t.”

F: “But what if … what if they’re right? Did I screw up?”

A: “They are NOT right. YOU are right. Here, I’ll replay the whole thing to you over and over, showing you each time exactly why you’re right.”

F: “But even if I’m right, I can’t be seen as someone that people can just talk to like that! How do I stop that?”

Of course, what we actually do next – based on anger’s next response – varies from person to person (and varies across time for any one person). Typically, we direct that roiling energy as an outward counter-strike or an inward simmering rage. In both cases, the well-intentioned but dysfunctional dialogue often continues for minutes, days, or even years. That’s a long-ass train wreck!

A key turning point in my practice was noticing the real question underlying this frantic inner conversation:

“What do I have to do to regain the comfortable sense of self I had before this perceived threat to it?” As soon as I saw that more clearly, a second question finally had a chance to arise in the resulting space: “if the roles had been reversed in this situation, what would I have said differently?”

That’s when things broke open.

I saw myself fielding the original conversational question in a congenial way, juxtaposed against the reaction that I felt I received. And I realized that the more general question I was asking myself was this: “would I have handled this question or situation in tune with my inner moral compass?” My answer was an immediate “yes.”

Suddenly things became super-clear, at a felt, experiential level. What else could I possibly want beyond knowing that I’d have acted skillfully? What WAS there to be done beyond that? Simply put: nothing. With a wry smile, I felt that comfortable sense of self return … only to notice that I no longer found it necessary.

Yet another freeing paradox of insight meditation: when I finally found a sense of self that couldn’t be threatened, I discovered that I didn’t need it anyway.

Ultimately, we’re each responsible only for ourselves. What “they” say to us doesn’t actually reflect on us; it reflects where they are on their path. We can wish them well or ill (and that DOES reflect on us), but that’s about as far as it goes. The only question that we really need to ask is “where am I on my path?” The answer we receive gives us something we can ACTUALLY work on … and then let go.

Now that’s keeping things on track.

Questions? Thoughts? Ready to break things open? Drop me a line or set up a session to get on track.


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.

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.Insight

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.

Questions? Comments? Ready to call a cease-fire? Drop me a line or set up some time to make a little peace.


How the Flannel Buddha Reached Nirvana

“Nirvana? Whatever.”

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 a 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 Nirvana. 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.

Questions? Comments? Ready to rock? Drop me a line or set up some time for whatever’s been coming up.


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