Sometimes the hardest thing about the practice is doing the practice! For me, this has continued to evolve. We explore tips and techniques for building a routine that can last through the busy and difficult times in life.
Happy Thanksgiving. Hoping gratitude and thankfulness won out over commercialism. I’m very grateful to be here with all of you.
The topic today is how to become your own best friend. The first thing that Buddha said, the most important thing to becoming your own best friend, is to close all your social media accounts. He talked about the comparing mind, which is brutal and always present. It is very difficult to wiggle out of the comparing mind with all the opportunities to compare-whether it be social media, entertainment industry, etc. I happened to come by an article about A-list actresses and plastic surgery. Almost everyone has had plastic surgery! Even Megan Fox, who is absolutely beautiful as is, had plastic surgery after the first Transformers movie. Taking pop culture as an example, what part of her said she wasn’t good enough? She was successful in her career at that point already, yet there must’ve been some comparing mind that told her she wasn’t good enough. It’s within all of us–a part that is not totally content, not fully loving and accepting of who we are.
How can we move into a state of self-acceptance? Out of all the relationships we have in our life, this relationship with self is one we have to work out. Other relationships we can maybe work on, maybe not, but this one we definitely need to work out. If there is someone you can imagine avoiding, because there might be conflict, you can get by with that outside of yourself. But we can’t do that to ourselves. It’s like not wanting to come home. You stay out and entertain yourself because your home environment is not nourishing or healthy. If we want to come home to ourselves, we talk about meditation and learning more about ourselves.
How can we rest in meditation if we don’t want to come home? We have to work it out. If there is someone you have conflict with, it may be a good idea to dialogue with them to achieve a sense of repair. Sometimes people say, when you don’t get along with someone, that you just need to get to know them better. The same concept applies to our relationship with ourselves. There may be pieces of ourselves that we’re not proud or happy with, but if we get to know ourselves a little bit better, a little bit deeper, we might find that we are actually pretty good people. Maybe the things we did we did out of difficulty with holding the first noble truth: that suffering exists. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for not being able to hold the suffering of life because how we react to these situations is often times what we are not proud of; we react in a manner that brings upon even more suffering. When we cause more suffering to ourselves or others, wisdom can grow, but only when we can meet ourselves with loving friendliness, forgiveness, and kindness. If we meet ourselves with shame and guilt, then there is more and more self hurt.
Luckily, meditation gives us the opportunity to unravel ourselves, yet with an explicit intention to meet this unraveling with a non-judgmental compassion and awareness. When we sit to meditate and look within ourselves, we are setting the intention to meet whatever we find with non-judgmental compassion and awareness. This is the piece that is different from reacting with harsh judgement. Our very hurt is self-compassion. Our avoidance of hurt, our coping mechanisms, all arise from aversion to suffering, which is driven out of compassion. The definition of love is wanting self and others to be happy. The definition of compassion is not wanting self or others to suffer. If we are not careful, aversion to suffering can manifest as a surface emotion such as anger.
To befriend ourselves we need to understand the qualities of a good friend. They are kind, present, understanding, non-judgmental, honest, trustworthy, and accepting. How many of these qualities can we say we offer to ourselves? Or do we meet ourselves with the harsh inner critic? Reflect on how these qualities land within you. How can I be more kind to myself? Present for myself? Understanding to myself? Trusting of myself?
When we practice this form of metta on ourselves, we have to remember that it takes work, just like all relationships take work. There might be someone or some being in your life, an animal, friend, significant other, with whom your relationship feels effortless and comes with ease. You would never want to harm them in any way. For example, I would never want my cat to have any negative suffering thought. If I could take away the suffering thought from her, I would. Yet, the only way to suffer is to believe in a suffering thought. With ourselves, we not only believe them, but we also encourage them and enhance them. We do it all the time. This conviction of loving oneself takes a intense amount of effort and intention. If I cannot love myself and accept myself, how can I do that for others? How can I be of service to others? How can I want to come home? How can I find sustainable happiness? We are all here in this practice because we want to look inward and do the work. There’s an innate truth to removing self-hate to find self-love.
The next step is finding forgiveness. Jack Kornfield likes to say, “Forgiveness is giving up hope of having a better past.” Forgiveness is not condoning our actions or the actions of others–many times it take the form of actions. It is the acceptance of how things are. We are imperfect. In our ability to love ourselves and others, we are imperfect. Yes, with practice in finding our Buddha nature, hopefully we can eventually find that place of of peace and acceptance.
A good place to start our forgiveness meditation is to pick a situation or person that is of intermediate impact. Not to the extreme. Hear how the phrases land on you and feel the energetic impact of forgiveness.
In any way that I have harmed you knowingly or unknowingly, in thoughts, words or actions may I ask for your forgiveness — as much as is possible at this time.
In any way that I have been harmed by you knowingly and unknowingly in thoughts, words or actions may I ask for your forgiveness — as much as is possible at this time.
In any way that I have harmed myself knowing or unknowingly in thoughts, words or actions may I forgive myself — as much as is possible at this time.
In any way that I have been unable to hold the suffering of how things are, within me and within the basic nature of life arising, may I forgive myself — as much as is possible at this time.
One aspect of mindfulness is non-judgment. It’s the key to the whole process. We are not only tuning into the present moment but opening to it with an attitude of non-judgment; opening to it as it is. This is the real essence of mindfulness: learning to open to what is arising, just paying attention to it a little more closely–even to what is uncomfortable.
You can sense how non-judgment–this ability to shift into noticing things as they are–might automatically releases some tension. This is because the tension, the stress, comes from resistance: resisting what is arising, resisting the moment. We tune in to the tension in our body or to the uncomfortable emotions we might be feeling. Noticing those sensations and tuning in to what is arising can help us to start to release it. To let it unwind. And then the tension can start to pass.
When we tune into the sensations and into what is actually happening, we are automatically bringing ourselves out of the world of thought. We can’t be caught up in thought and pay attention to the present moment at the same time. It is our thoughts about things that stir up the tension. So coming into this moment, and opening to it as it is, is a huge relief. This is the practice of non-judgment, and this is a key aspect of mindfulness.
What we begin to notice, when we are practicing mindfulness and non-judgment, is that our judgments are happening all the time. They are constant. We are constantly resisting aspects of the present moment or things that irritate or annoy us, or make us uncomfortable or uneasy. By opening to those experiences, to those things that we are resisting, by opening to the judgment, we have an opportunity to release judgment, and, therefore, to release the tension.
We begin to realize when we are judging the moment, judging another person, judging ourselves, or judging our environment or situation. We notice that we want something to be different than how it is. Then, we can move beyond judgment by simply noticing and not judging it. We can say to ourselves, “Well, I’m judging my reality right now,” or “I’m resisting my reality.” Noticing this automatically begins to open us up to non-judgment. This is our opportunity to shift it, to shift into just being with it, just feeling it.
One of the things we tend to judge the most is ourselves. This is a key source of our suffering. When things are not going well in our life, or when something is not right, we often look for someone to blame, and a lot of the time we blame ourselves. We criticize ourselves, thinking, “You are such an idiot,” or “You are so lazy.” This critical voice can arise. By beginning to notice these judgments of ourselves, we begin to see how they add additional tension, stress and suffering to the situation. They make a difficult situation even worse. When we notice a self-judgment arising, it is an opportunity to notice it, to open to it and to say, “Oh, I’m judging myself.” By not judging the judgment, by just being with how it makes you feel, by coming into the sensations, we drop out of the critical thoughts and back into the moment; back into the body.
Non-judgment is an attitude that we bring into our awareness of the present moment. There are a few other attitudes that we can bring into the practice, in addition to non-judgment, such as an attitude of care, or an attitude of appreciation. These are additional ways of enhancing the mindfulness practice that allow us to really open our hearts to the present moment.
This is part two on the topic of resilience. The title of this talk is “Time for Practice”. It’s always time to practice. It feels like with everything that’s gone on in the past year that now, more than ever, is a time to practice.
Why do we practice? To be centered, for peace, to remember, so we don’t go crazy, for lovingkindness, for freedom, to feel a part of, for insights, to build a relationship with ourselves and others, to end suffering, to feel better. I had a teacher who said, “We practice so we decide what we want to think about- on a relative level. On an ultimate level, to find out what we are.”
What is our practice? Pausing, watching, being mindful, breathing, counting to ten or twenty before responding, coming back, being purposefully happy and kind without any reason, paying attention without judgement, having no expectations, being here now, letting go, relaxing intense situations, being okay with not knowing, feeling the flow, loving for the sake of loving, sensing, being. A lot of times when we think of practice, when I ask people how their meditation is going, they say, “Really bad! I haven’t been meditating that much.” Which refers to the formal practice–being on the cushion. But listen to what we’re saying: letting go, being patient during tense situations, loving. How much does that happen on the cushion? How much of it is informal? How much of it can be done in any situation throughout our life? For me, practice is also what we touch during our formal or deeper practice, like going on retreat; when we practice and come into connection with something. This could be a short time, many times. It could be that informal “feeling the flow”; paying attention on purpose to the present moment non-judgmentally. What are we when we’re not following the thoughts and emotions? Really focusing on tasting each moment.
I was talking to a long time spiritual friend of mine, one of my deepest spiritual connections. He’s an African-American man from Louisiana. When I was a pipe fitter in South San Francisco, they were remodeling a Whole Foods. We were building it from the ground up. He and I were demoing a piping system beneath the flooring. We were talking about something and I started to move towards the topic of spirituality. We were both tiptoeing around the topic and finally he said to me, “Have you ever heard of Kundalini?” I said, “Yeah!” That was it. We were best friends from then on. I was talking to him yesterday. He is somebody who, in my opinion, carries and embodies peacefulness. He is a phenomenal man. Things come to him before they happen. He was sharing with me that he doesn’t sit much anymore. He never really did. Before he fell asleep he would get into a very meditative state and that’s where the depth came from. He is someone who when I look at him, when I’m around him and I talk to him, I know he’s already there. It’s already integrated into each moment.
For myself and for others, I’ve seen us tippy-toe in the conceptual and comparing mind for way too long–into the readings, the books, spiritual materialism, dogma–when none of that really matters! This is not about buddhism, teaching, or the technique you’re doing, because none of it exists in truth. When we say it’s time for practice, it’s time to already know beyond belief. When we’re talking about who’s right, who’s wrong, what technique is the best–that’s called belief. What do you believe in? It doesn’t matter what you believe in. What do you know? People talk about paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. That’s not mindfulness. Those are the instructions for mindfulness. Mindfulness is your experience of that instruction. Until we taste it we’re just bouncing around, lost. We need to actually taste it to know where to go. It’s a place of refuge within each and every one of us. That’s why we say we practice to find that place of refuge: to know that in the chaos of the world–whether a shooting or political chaos–that there is a place of refuge where the ultimate truth is that everything is okay as it is, with me, in this moment. Whether we’re working, relaxing, arguing, in pain, in pleasure, that there is a place where we can go and feel safe and loved. That place has no words, no dogma, no religion, no instruction. There’s nothing that can describe it. You can’t tell anyone about it effectively. We need to come home to that as often as we can so we can remember what it feels like. The process is the practice.
The best meditation is non-meditation. Drop the meditation. Drop the technique. Drop the meditator. Drop the expectation and rest in trust.
I work at a depression and anxiety clinic. This week has been an interesting week where the events that have been happening have affected many of us. Today we can do a practice that the Tibetan Buddhists have been doing for thousands of years called “diaphragmatic breathing” in yoga. It’s wonderful for the parasympathetic system. At an esoteric level, it brings us back into center by collecting our chi, prana, life force. When we have anxiety, we leave the roots of the tree and sway with the wind.
Find a meditative posture. When you inhale, expand the abdomen away from the spine. Then have a slight pause for the breath to oxygenate the blood, because if we do it too quickly without pausing we may start to feel light headed. On the exhalation allow the abdomen to collapse back down towards the spine. Slight pause. Repeat this cycle.
The mind itself can be placed on the abdomen or on your hand. This is a body meditation. Around the area of the naval experience the expansion and contraction of your abdomen. We are used to breathing with our chest–we’re shallow chest breathers–so this may feel uncomfortable to some. This is how we would breath as babies. Also, because we live in Southern California, we’re not used to pushing out our belly. We’re used to holding it in. Just let it release. When the mind wanders, bring it back with kindness to the expansion and contraction of the abdomen. This is a great practice to use counting. One inhalation and one exhalation counts as one circulation of breath. Doing this for five circulations, concentrate on each cycle, one breath at a time. This is a practice we can do during times of high stress. If you do it enough, you’ll catch yourself breathing like this.
When we are feeling anxiety or agitation, we are stuck in fight, flight, or freeze. It’s very easy for the primitive part of our brain to tell us that we’re in trouble even when we’re not. It’s part of our survival make-up. When we get an email from the boss, same thing happens: sabertooth tiger reaction. Science has figured out that there is a way to go the other way. Have you ever noticed yourself stressed out and anxious but nothing really is going on? Maybe you’re thinking of something in the past or future, but right now you’re actually safe? We need to find a way to let the wholeness of our being and brain know that we are ok.
One way to go back the other way is compassion. We get oxytocin from compassion. It’s a chemical in our brain that lets us know we are okay even when we are suffering. If a child is sick, mom brings the child soup. The child knows she’s suffering but also knows that she’s taken care of.
Mindful Self-compassion Break has four parts. The first part is acknowledgement that this is a moment of suffering. If we look at it the same way we would look at someone else suffering, would you walk right by? No, you would meet their suffering. Often times though we don’t meet our own suffering. We go into distraction. We hide it. We’re not there for it. The first part is just to acknowledge that this is a moment of suffering.
The second piece is to know that you’re not alone. When we suffer, we contract, which is the opposite of what we should do. We move inward for many different reasons–we don’t want to be a burden, we don’t want to do anything, we feel depressed. But suffering is part of the human experience. Everybody suffers. There’s a connection in suffering because nobody is immune to it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you are in the world, how much money you make, everybody suffers. And there are people suffering just like you in this very moment. You are not alone.
The third step is to self-soothe. Hugging releases oxytocin. We can self hug by placing our hands on our heart and the same chemical releases. To the best of our abilities we want to evoke that same nourishing, nurturing quality that you’d have if you were with another. Bring the warmth into it. You can do ninja self compassion if you’re in a public place, such as rubbing your hand on your leg. Then talk to yourself. You can say: “This too shall pass. May I be patient. May I be kind.” The best time to practice is to practice when we’re okay. That way it’s readily accessible when we really need it.
How can one establish a longstanding gratitude practice? Pick three new things everyday. Be specific with details. It is very important that we are keenly aware of how the brain works. At 0, we can practice deeper meditation. If we’re on the negative side of the number line, let’s say we’re in depression, really feeling down, we can practice something different like a gratitude practice to help us get back to baseline. Sometimes we need medication to help us get back to baseline and support it with our practice. The neural pathways that we create through our practice everyday are very important. If you walk down the neural pathway of sadness everyday, the mind is trained to be sad. When we go to sleep, our brain checks in on itself and looks at the pathways that were used each day. It takes effort. Whatever was used is strengthened. It’s smart, survival-wise but he more stressed we get, the easier it is to get stressed. Gratitude practice is taking control and saying, “Hey, brain, don’t forget that everyday there are awesome things to be grateful for, even though on the surface it might’ve appeared to be a bad day.” Keep those paths open.
Working at the clinic, we can take a picture of a depressed brain. In a depressed brain the imaging we see through diagnostics is blue. When the brain is stimulated out of depression, we can see a much more active brain that lights up with the release of neurotransmitters. In meditation, we are accessing neural pathways of compassion, loving kindness, joyfulness, and happiness. It takes effort to keep walking down those paths, until the brain wakes up one day and knows that everything is okay, like an enlightened mind would be. Matthieu Ricard wrote the book “Happiness” and shared the studies on Urgyen Rinpoche. In the book it discusses when they bring in signals to his brain, they only go to happiness or compassion. Babies can be screaming for an hour and the input goes to compassion. They’ve established a superhighway to love and compassion. They would light of firearms and 99.9% of us contract. They used slo-mo to capture reactions of these enlightened beings. When the firearm goes off, not only do they not contract, they actually expand into it. When it goes off, they lean in in curiosity. This is so deep that it goes beyond primal instincts of survival. When a being knows that it can ultimately not be harmed, that it’s not its body, this is the part of safety we can feel beyond all harm. The body will contract but the enlightened mind will not be harmed. They asked Suzuki Roshi, “How much ego is healthy?” We live in a relative world, we need ego. He said, “Just enough not to walk in front of a bus.” Just enough for that bodily self preservation. We want to feel the safety of the ultimate truth.
There’s time for practice and time for play. Play is not emphasized in our culture and sometimes there’s shaming of play. Animals play. Nature plays. Enlightened beings play! Smile! At the clinic I work at the physician prescribes smiling–ten minutes, twice a day. It’s a prescription. Activating those muscles release happy hormones. Practice is dose dependent. We have to keep doing it over and over again, just like a taking a vitamin. We can do it many ways though, sit, practice gratitude, diaphragmatic breathing, smile, play, dancing, exercise. When we have a healthy maintenance program for ourselves, we can be more resilient and will not be paralyzed by suffering.
If we want to do good things, we cannot be under the covers. We can be empathic but not so sensitive that we cannot take action. We need people who are resilient. Meditators are the people who go in war and grab people because they see they’re beyond just this body. This is what we’re looking to touch. We need to take care of our brains and recognize that it can go into trauma quite easily. We need to move into self compassion training, diaphragmatic breath, to let this being know, “dear one, you’re okay. It’s going to be okay. There’s nothing to fear.” Allow this love to arise from within and subdue the brain. Go to the rational part of the brain. Tell yourself it’s okay. Then we can sit in deep practice and be with ourselves, which can be challenging.
This is the season when it’s especially easy to get caught up in the rush of life. So many of us find ourselves stressed out by gift buying, social engagements, and even strained interactions with certain family members. We feel the pressure of all that needs to be done; of everything pulling for our attention. We find ourselves frantically rushing to get everything done. Even in these busy, chaotic times, there are actions we can take to bring our attention and energy back to ourselves and move gracefully through. The following inquiries and practices can help us return to our center, even when we need to move quickly:
Part of slowing down is becoming mindful to what it is that you want. We can look at the actions we are taking in our lives with curiosity to see if they match with our desires. If we want things like spiritual growth, for example, we can ask, “are we saying yes to things that nurture and support that growth?”
How badly do we want it? Are we able no say to other things in life when it comes time to make choices? What elements do we really need in our life? What elements do we really love in our life? Are we saying yes to the things that matter? Or are we saying yes to things that just keep us busy? This can be especially tricky at this time of year, when we are told that it is normal to abandon ourselves and follow the endless stream of obligations. Check in and see which of your actions actually bring you closer to your desires.
So often, we focus on quantity over quality. However, if we are focused on a few things, then we can go very deep with these few things. We do not have a lot of time, and the time we do have can be spread very thin. Out of all the things you do, how many of them really matter?
Being selective in choosing the things that we really want to experience in this lifetime is very important. It’s very easy to get sidetracked with “life”. Sometimes I work with patients who are dying. With them, I see that when death comes up, then we really look at how we spend our time. The lesson is to live as though we are dying, as the say, because we are. Creating boundaries can help keep us focused on what we do want. To create boundaries you have to know what you really want–to be able to say yes or no accordingly. What are your boundaries?
Watching Your Attention
If you are like me, you see your attention being pulled away by more distractions in more frequent intervals. When I was a kid, we did not have computers or cell phones so my attention was not pulled away as much. I think it’s obvious how life has sped up. Device addiction is a very real thing. How do we combat that? And why do we combat that?
If we sit down to meditate and our mind is used to being pulled away time and time again, we recognize that this is a tendency, a habit. Every time we allow our attention to be pulled away, we are cultivating that habit. Mindfulness is a habit too. We always have a choice. The choice is between distraction and mindful awareness.
One trick is to use a distraction as a moment of mindfulness. For example, every time the phone vibrates or computer dings, we can take a mindful breath. Just as in meditation, we can tie that moment to our true nature.
Say your text message goes off as you are driving. We know we really shouldn’t check it. We can use the moment of wanting to check our phone. We can sit with the desire and ask: “What exactly is the craving that I am feeling? What exactly is the grasping? What do I feel I “need” by checking my phone? Is it connectedness? What is it exactly?” We feel like we get something out of this doing. If we look with openness, we can find the “why” behind the doing. It takes courage and honesty, but we can find this why.
We can also use food as an entry to mindfulness. Your body may not even be hungry, but the mind is telling you that you need a snack. Sit with the thought, “I need something to eat”. Ask yourself, “What am I really getting out of this?” Say you’re craving ice-cream. Is it the sweetness you desire? A feeling of fullness? What exactly about the experience of eating ice cream is so gratifying? Take a look at it. Am I fulfilled with this?
In these ways, we can use the distractions as tools to strengthen the habit of coming back to ourselves.
Input causes us to look outside ourselves, and usually in a very unconscious way. In our usual daily habits, we can choose to limit our input. For example, when we get in the car, sometimes our habit is to push the radio dial. Or even when we get home and we are around family, there is input of talking. There is so much input: TV input, music input, social media input.
When the input ceases, then we get the opportunity to look inside. What if you limited or reduced your input by 50% next week? Take the opportunity!
There is a “slowing down” of life when we look at our habits. Part of the slowing down is awakening to the speed at which we move–bringing in the awareness to it. Slowing down does not mean physically slowing down. It means slowing down with the whole of our being. In fact, we can be very calm inside while moving quickly.
We have to run alongside the movement of life with a sense of stillness. It is like jumping into the river and flowing with the current. When we are in stillness, and there is noise outside, there may be a feeling of dissonance. Sound is just bubbling up in that stillness. It can be beautiful It can become the stillness–just being with what is, as it is. By doing this, we allow the mind to settle in its natural state. If the mind continues to be agitated by external phenomena, then it is difficult to allow it to settle. This allowing is training ground for a non-reactive mind. Once we are good at it, when things are chaotic, we can still rest in evenness.