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.

OG Mindfulness Isn’t About Awareness

We often hear that mindfulness is just about practicing awareness, but the “original gangster” of mindfulness never said that.

“Mindfulness is about paying attention to what you’re doing.” “Mindfulness means observing what’s happening.” “Mindfulness is simply being with the present moment.”

We usually hear about this “mindfulness” thing in the context of awareness, and even hear the terms used interchangeably. There are two problems with this. One, we already have a word that means awareness. (That would be “awareness.”) And two, mindfulness – as taught by the Buddha 2600 years ago – isn’t about merely being present.

Cultivating present-moment awareness is a skill that the Buddha called “alertness.” But alertness by itself isn’t going to be much use without some recollection of our past. To create a better present moment (and better present moments-to-be!), we need to hone different skill set.

We need the ability to remember what we’ve done in the past that’s led to a happiness that has been harmful to none (including us!) … and we need the ability to remember what we’ve done that hasn’t.

We also need to be able to hold this in mind while we’re being alert to the present moment, so we can apply this mindfulness-based wisdom to shape our lives skillfully.

That’s mindfulness.

Confusion and misinterpretation about the Buddha’s teachings arise from missing this context. Without it, we quickly slip into the defeatist mindset that says “freedom is just completely surrendering to whatever is here, because you can’t do anything about it anyway.” And when we start practicing, we sometimes think that’s actually the case, because we find that surrender feels better than fighting! But …

This practice isn’t about passively surrendering, because that’s not freedom.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in Ask Yourself the Buddha’s Question: “Sometimes we hear about meditation as being all about accepting, accepting, accepting. Well, the things you want to accept are the facts that you are acting, and your actions are having an impact on your experience.” The skills of mindfulness – as it was originally taught – allow us to change our input to the various cycles in our lives. We act in cycles. We speak in cycles. And most critically, we think in cycles. Mindfulness, combined with alertness, makes it possible to create better input to get better output.

Like any other skill, we usually suck at first. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s expected. Building a new skill is mostly learning how to suck less. There’s lots of experimentation involved: try one thing, see the result, try something else based on the result, and see that result. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The process of doing this continuously is what the Buddha called “ardency.” It’s a persistent effort. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an all-out, exhausting effort. The example I like to give is the way water slowly wears away rock. It doesn’t happen all at once; it’s from gentle, continuous contact.

The powerful combination of mindfulness, alertness, and ardency can take us to actual freedom.

Observing the present moment isn’t wrong; it’s just not the whole story. And it’s not mindfulness … at least not according to the OG.

Questions? Comments? Ready to build mindfulness skills? Drop me a line or set up some time for guidance.

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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.

The Art of War When Panic Attacks

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 my panic.”


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 unable to see through my panic-stricken haze?


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 Unlocking Acceptance.


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.



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