Meditation helps us in many ways. Practising mindfulness meditation regularly helps to develop mental stability and reduce habits of reactivity which get us into trouble, and it can give us a vehicle for working with difficult emotions. Heart-opening practices such as metta and compassion help us to cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart-mind and extend those to others.
Another way meditation can help is to provide insight into our lives, by shining a light on processes which normally take place under the radar, in the unconscious or subconscious mind. For example, through regular meditation practice you might start to notice patterns that you've never consciously identified before.
Looking a little deeper, we start to see major trends in our behaviour. We start to notice that we play many different roles in our lives. Using myself as an example, depending on the situation at the time, I might be in any of these roles:
Each of these roles places different demands on me and comes with the expectation of a different set of behaviours, and in some cases even different ways of dressing and speaking. As I go through a typical week, I have to shift from one role to another many times.
Roles are not inherently good or bad by themselves; they're useful vehicles to help us relate to one another. But sometimes our relationship to our roles can be a problem. Sometimes a role demands something of us that we can't give at that moment. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in roles that have outlived their usefulness, unable to move on. Learning to understand that roles are just roles, nothing more or less, and to be mindful of the process of inhabiting these roles in our own lives, can bring about a great loosening of tension and sense of openness, lightness and freedom.
(You might like to think about which roles you find yourself playing as you go through life. Which ones do you find particularly stressful, and why?)
Going further still, some of the deepest insights available to us in meditation practice concern more fundamental aspects of who we are and how our sense of self is constructed from moment to moment. These insights have the power to change our relationship to our own experience in fundamental ways, leading to significantly greater freedom and well-being. (This is the process sometimes called 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' in spiritual circles. In Zen we talk about 'kensho', or 'seeing one's true nature'.)
Many meditation techniques can result in insight - the key is to have a sense of investigation, inquiry, looking to see what's going on. We aren't trying to think our way to insight, to analyse ourselves and come up with a clever way of understanding what's happening; rather, we simply observe our minds, and allow the insights to come to us in an intuitive, experiential way. So insight meditation practices typically involve a technique which sets up a good environment in which insight can arise and encourages us to pay attention to see what happens next.
One very effective way to generate insight into the self is to work with the question 'Who am I?' If you'd like to try this, you can find a 10-minute 'Who am I?' meditation in the Audio section of this website. Give it a try and see what comes up for you!
In meditation circles we talk a lot about mindfulness, non-judgemental awareness, and letting things be as they are. This is a beautiful practice that can bring about a great deal of freedom and joy. For some people, though, it can be more helpful to cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart and mind directly. Fortunately, there are meditation practices which do just this.
For millennia, meditation practitioners have worked to cultivate four beneficial attributes in particular, sometimes called the 'four immeasurables' because of their priceless value. Since these practices have a long tradition behind them, you'll sometimes find them called by their Pali names. (Pali is an ancient language related to Sanskrit, and is the language of the teachings of early Buddhism.)
There are various ways to cultivate these qualities in meditation. One approach is to repeat certain phrases silently to ourselves in meditation: 'may this person be happy, may this person be free from suffering'. People who are more visual tend to prefer visualisations, such as imagining a golden light shining in your heart and radiating out to touch other people. Some people simply tap into a physical sense of these qualities in the body and stay with that feeling, allowing it to grow and develop over time like a carefully tended garden.
It's worth saying that, for some people, these practices can be surprisingly difficult. For some people it can feel cheesy or inauthentic to try to cultivate kindness towards someone if they don't already feel it. If this is you, that's absolutely fine - it doesn't make you a bad person! You might try giving it another go in six months (or six years!) to see if anything has shifted, but in the meantime you're much better served finding a different practice that works better for you personally. Meditation is one of the most personal activities you will ever undertake, so it's important to be honest with yourself about what you get on with rather than forcing yourself to do something you don't like because you think you 'should' do it.
One more note of caution: many people in our society already give a tremendous amount of their time, energy and love in the service of others. Occasionally, these practices can end up as a guilt trip - 'Oh, I need to give even more compassion to other people instead of taking a holiday and looking after myself!' If you're one of these people, I strongly suggest you start with loving kindness and compassion for yourself. To put it another way, put on your own oxygen mask first!
If you'd like to try out these practices, you'll find some guided meditations in the Audio section of this website. There are two each for loving kindness and compassion: one for people who are primarily auditory, using the phrases, and one for people who are primarily visual, using a golden light visualisation. If you are primarily kinesthetic, and prefer to work simply with a physical feeling of love or compassion, I suggest using the guided audio with phrases, and treat the phrases as reminders to keep checking in with that felt sense of kindness or compassion.
In my last post I talked a little bit about mindfulness, how it can help us in our busy lives, and how we can start to develop it.
Today I'd like to say something about how mindfulness can help with emotional pain, something that is all too prevalent in the modern world. Many people suffer greatly from anxiety, grief, regret, anger, worry, lack of self-esteem - the list goes on.
The mindful approach to working with difficult emotions is simple yet powerful. The key is to bring awareness and acceptance to our experience - in other words, to be mindful of what's going on for us. We are often very unwilling to look directly at our experience and see it for what it is; we have strong habits of avoidance, turning away from it, trying to distract ourselves or put on a brave face and pretend everything is fine when it isn't. Unfortunately, in the process we can end up compounding the problem - we become afraid of our fear, angry with ourselves for becoming angry, and so on.
It's important to realise that there are two aspects to any situation: the situation itself, and our relationship to that situation. If I stub my toe, my foot will hurt - that's the situation. But how do I react to it? Do I curse myself for being so clumsy, or wish that my foot didn't hurt despite all evidence to the contrary? Or can I find a way to recognise and accept the situation for what it is? In the first case, my relationship to the pain is adding negative mental activity on top of the physical experience. In the second case, there's just the pain itself - the extra burden of suffering has vanished, so the whole experience feels lighter and less difficult.
Paradoxically, bringing the non-judgemental awareness of mindfulness to our difficult emotions - looking at them without trying to change the experience at all - starts to shift our relationship to those emotions, and, over time, brings about a powerful transformation.
Working with emotions is a delicate process, and one that requires great care, patience and self-compassion. It can be helpful to think of the way you might approach a frightened animal - trying to be forceful will only make the situation worse. Being quietly, calmly present and allowing the animal to come to you in its own time is far more helpful. In the same way, we can't resolve our difficult emotions forcefully or instantaneously - we must work patiently and gently with them each time they arise, allowing them to change at their own pace.
Emotions can be powerful forces, and if we work with them on the level of the mind it's easy to get swept away. Instead, you may find it helps to work with the body. Each emotion is felt in the body as well as the mind - butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest, and so on. When difficult emotions arise, we can look at what's going on in the body. This allows us to turn towards the experience more easily, with less risk of getting caught up in the emotion.
Many people are not used to working with their bodies in this way. Some people even find that they aren't particularly aware of their bodies and can't feel much going on at all. The good news is that the awareness does develop over time, with practice.
A well-known meditation practice which helps to develop greater body awareness and sensitivity is the body scan. This involves moving the attention around the body from place to place, usually following a specific sequence. There are two body scan meditations - one 10 minutes long, the other 25 minutes - in the Audio section of my website. Give them a try!
Starting on Friday January 11th, I'll be starting a new six-week beginners' course in meditation - see the Classes page for details. We'll explore the wide world of meditation, seeing where it can take us and how it fits into our busy lives.
In the first week of the course, we'll start by taking a look at mindfulness. Mindfulness has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in recent years, with a large and growing body of scientific evidence supporting its benefits, and even a wide-ranging cast of celebrity endorsements. But what is it, how do we practise it, and why would we want to?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered modern mindfulness while working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970s, defines mindfulness as: 'the awareness that arises when paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally'.
Paying attention to something, on purpose, is a fundamental skill in all meditation practice, and it's pretty important in the rest of our lives too! It's hard to get anything done if we can't stay on task without getting distracted. Through meditation and other mindfulness practices we learn to strengthen our powers of attention, so that we remain calm, focused and stable in the middle of whatever life throws at us.
The present moment is another key aspect of mindfulness. Many of us spend much of our lives worrying about the future or dredging up the past again and again. Being mindful doesn't mean that we have to live from moment to moment, never making plans, but it encourages us to be present in the midst of our lives as much as possible. Over time, we can find a powerful sense of freedom, openness and richness right here and now, even in tough times.
The final piece of the puzzle is developing a sense of non-judgmental acceptance. We don't become fatalistic or passive, but rather we learn to let go of our reactivity, so that we can choose our actions wisely rather than being pushed around by forces outside our control. The non-judgmental attitude of mindfulness helps us to suspend our inner critic and deal with whatever's in front of us calmly.
Mindfulness is a powerful way to live. It helps us deal with the tough times, and encourages us to be fully present to enjoy the good times too. Any activity at all can be performed mindfully, and becomes richer and more rewarding as a result - even something as mundane as brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. So what are you waiting for?
If you'd like to give mindfulness a try, you can find a 10-minute introductory meditation, plus some guidance on setting up a sitting posture, on the Audio page.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!