Sensations and Suffering

A wonderful, and quite forensic breakdown of the how sensations become suffering., and the role our conditioned reactions play in that transition. Essential viewing if you’re as fascinated by the processes within Vipassana meditation.

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LINKS

 

Get Some Sleep!

head“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
                                                                           – John Steinbeck

James was a chef at a large hotel where he did breakfasts and lunches, and he hadn’t taken a holiday for three years. The skin on his face was dry and slack and the bruised bags under his eyes indicated a metabolism struggling with exhaustion. He complained of frequent headaches and lethargy. He told me he had to drink coffee constantly throughout the day just to keep his energy levels up so he could complete his shift.

“Part of the trouble is my hours,” he went on, “I get home about 3.30 in the afternoon, and I’m so stuffed I’ve just got to sleep. I try not to, but it’s overwhelming. So I sleep until about 7 PM and wake up feeling lagged as hell. So I have something to eat – but then, when I go back to bed I can’t sleep. So I toss and turn all night and get up at 4 in the morning feeling terrible again.”

He thought meditation would help his fatigue, but I had my doubts – he seemed too exhausted. Even so, we tried it out – but sure enough, within minutes, he was fast asleep. I let him sleep for about twenty minutes, then woke him up. He looked surprised when he opened his eyes and apologised, saying, “let’s try it again.”

I said, “James, it’s no good. You haven’t got a hope of learning to meditate in the state you’re in. You’re punch-drunk with fatigue. What you need is about two weeks holiday so you can get some good unbroken sleep.”

“Can’t.” he said flatly.” I’ve got a mortgage, kid’s at school, car payments…”

And so it goes. I told James if he didn’t get some quality sleep soon, his deteriorating health would force him to stop. He shrugged and said he’d think about it. I never saw him again.

James’s case is not exceptional. As time goes on I’m meeting more and more men and women just like him – people so tired they’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel fully awake. At this time in the Western world, most of us are chronically under-slept. And as the studies and research into our sleep habits are done, it’s becoming clear that this cumulative exhaustion is a possible cause of many other apparently unrelated problems, such as obesity, cancer, allergies, heart disease, colds, and the list goes on.

Sleep is essential – without enough of it, we fall apart – quite literally, we mentally and physically disintegrate. If prevented from sleeping, a laboratory rat will die after about two weeks – and what they die of is a total breakdown of their immune defences, leaving them susceptible to to infections, cancer cells, and bacteria and other infections. And when we’re deprived of sleep, that’s what happens to us as well.

Sleep is the ultimate healer of so many things – mental as well as physical. During sleep our mind and body rejuvenate and recharge with essential hormones that regulate our immune system, brain functions and organs.

For instance, there is a hormone called Leptin, which tells the body when we’ve eaten enough. As we sleep, Leptin levels are replenished in the body. But without sleep, Leptin levels drop. And when Leptin levels drop, our body craves carbohydrates, even when we don’t need any more food. The result is we develop a habit of craving ‘comfort foods’ that, when combined with the sluggish metabolism of an exhausted body, inevitably leads to obesity.

And so it is with many other small and subtle body adjustments that take place in the workshop of sleep, which regulate and sustain our body.

One of the biggest problems we have with sleep is that, in the world we have gotten used to, we’re working harder for longer hours than ever before – so we’re taking our leisure later and later. Where our forbears were usually in bed by 9 or 10 pm, the average Westerner considers it normal to go to bed at 11 pm or midnight.

“Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming so universal that Thomas Wehr, chief of the section on biological rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested. “Perhaps we modern humans have never really known what it is to be fully awake,” says Wehr.[Brink, Susan, Sleepless Society, US News & World Report, October 16, 2000, p.64]”

It’s interesting that lack of sleep has come to be seen as a kind of badge of honour among the more hairy chested among us – a signature of prowess. They’ve been named “the short-sleeping elite” – a club that famously features Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, as well as many top executives and leaders, each of whom swears they don’t need sleep. And some may well have that kind of constitution – but most are probably just good at masking the effects of slow coming exhaustion. Because though these people may appear to function adequately, the physical and mental attrition of sleep deprivation is cumulative and slow-building, and depending on their levels of stamina, will eventually compromise their health.

It’s estimated that the average urban human needs around 7-9 hours of solid sleep every night. And for every hour of sleep we miss, we need to make it up later – a ’sleep debt’ to be paid at some time in the future. So if we only sleep for 6 hours a night throughout a five day week, to keep our mind and body clear and healthy, we need to make up that lost 10 hours on the weekend, on top of the 16 hours we would sleep over those two days.

If we are under-slept, we instinctively reach for nervous energy to push through. Nervous energy is a resource our body usually only keeps for emergencies. For this reason, the hormones of adrenalin and noradrenaline that cause it are commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormones. We produce this nervous energy by using various substances – coffee, tea, sugar foods, cigarettes, and the many energy drinks that have large amounts of guarana on them – another form of caffeine.

Though these things certainly boost our energy levels, it’s the wrong kind of energy if used over a long period of time. Nervous energy is a frenetic kind of energy more suited to violent action than the consistent concentration and calm attention we need to deal with our daily life.

Trouble is, when we’re under-slept and fatigued, this kind of nervous energy is very seductive – it lifts our mood and makes us feel more confident. Plus, with so many culturally sanctioned ways of accessing this kind of energy, it’s easy to lapse into the habit of a quick coffee to get us going – a Red Bull to compensate for the sleepless night before.
The more we resort to this kind of energy, like any drug, the more we need it, and gradually it usurps our perception of normality – that is, the frenetic energy of adrenalin becomes a substitute for the normal, calmer metabolic energy we should be using.

For a few years, we can get away with it – the physical costs are slow to accumulate so we don’t notice the way we’re ruining ourselves until we become ill. First indications that we’re not handling it are, we find ourselves getting more colds and more susceptible to the ‘bugs that are going around’. Our body begins to ache, and our moods become more changeable.

And if we ignore these signals and keep on using nervous energy to push through, we eventually develop ‘adrenalin toxicity’ which manifest is all kinds of different ways, the most notable being:

  • Digestive problems, ulcers, irritable bowel, diarrhoea or constipation, occurring because adrenalin has diverted blood away from the internal organs, causing them to become sluggish.
  • Aching muscles caused by a build-up of lactic acid (residue of unused sugars –unused energy) in the muscle fibres.
  • Irritability, anxiety and depression.
  • Inability to sleep because the body and mind have been overstimulated and are still processing excess adrenalin.
  • General fatigue caused by inability to sleep, or inefficient sleep.
  • Inability to concentrate with any deep understanding. (While adrenalin certainly mobilizes aspects of the brain that make quick decisions, it dampens the deeper, more analytical aspects. And when adrenalin stimulation has gone on too long, profound mental exhaustion sets in. At that point even the most basic functions shut down and the mind tends to either wander or go unconscious. Hence the famous indication of battle fatigue in soldiers who had been in extended action, the ‘thousand yard stare’ where the subject would gaze at an unseen distance, not thinking, or feeling, or able to engage – in a semi catatonia of exhaustion. The stage after this is nervous breakdown, where the mental and perceptual processes break down and profound mental confusion occurs.)
  • Apathy, a lack of interest in love, or giving – a strong feeling of emptiness.
  • Sexual dysfunction. (Though in the short term, the sex function is stimulated by adrenalin, if the wear and tear continues for a continued time, eventually the sex drive will shut down.)

And there are many more problems  – but you get the idea.

To meditate, we need the calm alertness of metabolic energy – not the jittery hyper activity of nervous energy. Nervous energy creates restlessness and an aching body.

If you’re building a meditation practice, it’s important to be well slept, at the very least, and control your use of stimulants. Though meditation certainly has a calming effect, it’s difficult to develop the skills it entails if your mind and body crave sleep every time you practice.

So if you ever find yourself becoming drowsy when you begin meditating, perhaps take a nap and try again later.

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LINKS

 

Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear

NEUROSCIENCE NEWS DECEMBER 7, 2016

Summary: A new study reports the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement.  Source: Northwestern University.

Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

Image shows the location of the amygdala in the brain.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.

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ABOUT THIS MEMORY RESEARCH ARTICLE

Other Northwestern authors include Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Dr. Stephan Schuele and Dr. Joshua Rosenow.

Funding: The study was supported by grants R00DC012803, R21DC012014 and R01DC013243 from the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Marla Paul – Northwestern University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Video Source: The video is credited to NorthwesternU.
Original Research: Abstract for “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 7 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016


 

The Brain Changes Itself

Meditation is not a panacea or any kind of quick fix. Nor is it simply a relaxation exercise, as it’s often marketed.

When we meditate, we’re training the mind to be more efficient. We’re training it to be more in command of its processes and less cluttered with superfluous thinking. And this training is long and subtle, and sometimes quite difficult – there’s no way of avoiding that, regardless of what the commercial media tells you about meditation.

As such, it’s very valuable to understand the processes within meditation – to know what you’re actually doing when you sit for long periods of time, patiently altering the way you apply your attention – which is one of the purposes of this blog.

And one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge to cling to, is the clear fact that, in patiently sitting, and mindfully altering the way you use your attention, you’re not just changing mental habits – you’re creating an incredible physical transformation of the most important organ in your body.

This physical transformation is called ‘neuroplasticity’, and it refers to  the brain’s ability to constantly reorganize itself by forming new neural connections in response to the way it’s being used, and the habits that are being enacted.

And this physical dynamic is particularly intensive during meditation.

With that in mind, I strongly recommend you watch the following documentary, based on a fascinating book by Norman Doidge – ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’.

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LINKS

Don’t Fight to Meditate.

img_0349-001Hi Roger .. I’ve been learning to meditate and I’ve been to a number of teachers who keep instructing me to concentrate on the breath. It is supposed to relax me and make me calm. For sure in the first few minutes it does. It’s relaxing to close my eyes and be with my breath.

But I find, as time passes, the breath tightens up and meditation begins to feel like a prison and it becomes extremely unpleasant.

I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Thanks in advance,

Brian

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When I first began to meditate, I experienced something similar. Whenever I focussed my attention on the breath, either of two things would happen -either like yourself, my body would tighten up around me, or I’d drift into a disorienting unconsciousness. Some time later I realised what the problem was – and I’m wondering if it might be what’s causing your own problem.

Speaking for myself, I’d turned meditation into a kind of competition. I was channelling all my energy into a kind of competitive battle to ‘own meditation’. To win. To become a fantastic meditator. To progress.

To this end, I focussed on the breath in an almost muscular way, trying to fix my attention to it with ever more effort. As a result, awareness slowly closed down and my body tensed up with the effort, and a claustrophobic kind of mindset took over – with the result that I either closed down by falling asleep, or sat inside a body that felt like a block of concrete. Either way, it was extremely uncomfortable.

In this, I think the habits of my Western culture were showing themselves. And I see similar indications of this conditioning in the attitudes of many of the meditators I’ve worked with over the years – as sense that meditation is another skill that must be mastered. As such, they bring a muscularity to meditating that runs totally counter to the spirit of it – and only end up tying themselves up in knots.

And it’s understandable.

From the time we’re born, we in the West are instilled with the spirit of competition and the urge to win. It’s a kind of cultural anxiousness which permeates even our most benign interactions. Even in social situations, we are covertly competing with one another. Winning and competing is a huge part of the social conversation, and it’s propagated by the media, our schools and workplaces and almost every aspect of our lives. In this, the goal is everything – we do things with an imagined outcome in mind, then strive to make it happen.

And then we come to meditation. And suddenly everything we’ve learnt is wrong.

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So let’s go back to the beginning.

For sure, there is a goal that’s implied in meditation. The goal is to learn how to be still, and create a relationship with stillness.

By stillness, I don’t mean unconsciousness. I mean conscious and calm disengagement.

So we’re using the meditation methods to practice disengaging our attention from all the things it usually reacts to – desires, fears, opinions, pain, emotional reactions, gossip, memories and so on.

This complex landscape of triggers are where our attention usually spends most of its time. From waking to sleep, it’s used to bouncing from one event to the other, creating all kinds of hormonal changes in the body as each reaction it generates blooms in the mind. As stressful as this unrelenting excitement is, we view it as ‘normal’ because that’s what we’re used to, so we don’t really notice the effects until its too late.

So our purpose in meditation is to create a kind of ‘reactive silence’ in mind and body.

To this end, we use the meditation methods to train the attention to gently disengage from everything that usually stimulates us. In this way we enter a paradoxical state where, though mind and body are still active, and we’re aware of everything that’s happening inside and outside of us, our attention is utterly disengaged from it all – either resting on the breath or, in more absorbed state, merged back into the awareness.

Either way, no reactions are being generated so, in mind and body, we are still.

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But here we see some confusion arising from the use of this word ‘stillness’. The word implies nothing is happening. It implies complete silence – no activity.

But stillness is actually quite an active state. It’s only our meddlesome attention that has gone still – for the rest of mind and body, things go on – the only difference is, our meddlesome attention is not interfering any more.

With the attention still, the mind and body naturally turn their energies to ‘housework’. In this, they take the opportunity to re-organise and re-balance themselves. Recent experiences and reactions get filed into the unconscious. Concepts and ideas currently in process in the mind are intuitively refined. And all this happens without the attention needing to be present.

To the meditating mind this ‘housework’ shows itself as shifting clouds of thinking, memories and daydreams passing through awareness as we meditate. If we don’t pay attention to this mental stuff, it all passes away as quickly as it arises.

In the body this clearing process is felt as changing landscapes of sensations – aches, tingles, itches coming and going. And feelings – happiness, peacefulness, or sadness or anger, or even boredom. And if we don’t react, but keep meditating through them, we see they pass away quite quickly.

This is mind and body doing what they naturally, intuitively do. Left to themselves, they devote themselves clearing and reorganising themselves.

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As I said, it is our attention is the key to this cleansing/reorganising process – which is why it is only the attention we are concerned with when we meditate. It’s our attention we’re training to be still.

We’re not interfering with awareness. If anything, as the attention becomes more still, we will become more aware. We become aware of deeper substrates of thinking and emotional undercurrents, and deeper tensions and imbalances in the body, which can feel quite uncomfortable at first.

Commonly, to the inexperienced meditator, these things can be misleading – it can seem as if meditation ‘isn’t working’, because, understandably, the attention becomes more and more restless in this uncomfortable environment.

And this is when our competitive spirit can kick in and create even more problems. We think if we just try harder, we can get the calm and peace we’re trying to win. So we begin using brute strength to bury our attention in the breath.

But the more muscular we become, the more our awareness shrinks.

And meditation, instead of being the open, unconditionally aware and accepting environment it is supposed to be, becomes a prison in which we lock ourselves.

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Try to always remember, the game you’re playing here is not meditation – it’s stillness. So you’re not trying to become a good meditator. You’re simply reaching for stillness, however it comes – and meditation methods are an array of tools to help you.

So don’t fixate on the breath if it’s only making you tighten up.

The breath is simply a convenient main object for the attention to rest on. It’s bland (not much to think about) and it’s constant and easy to feel. Also, the breath is in the centre of the body, which helps us learn the delicate balancing act between paying attention to the breath while maintaining passive awareness of the rest of the body. Other than that, there is no special significance with the breath.

So as I said, if, as you rest your attention on the breath, you feel your competitive spirit kicking in, and you begin tightening up in a tussle with to keep your attention there, then let go of the breath.

Go to the body sensations. The whole body.

Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.

And if it helps, note ‘sitting, sitting’ as you do this, and just feel the body. Feel the layers of sensations of the skin, the muscles and organs. Feel the weight of the body, and the mass. Feel the tensions that have built up and allow them to let go if you can.

 

When you are paying attention to bare sensations – as they are and without thinking about them or reacting to them – you are in stillness. It doesn’t matter how painful the sensations might be – if you simply feel them as they are, and give them all your attention, you are in stillness.

This is because, unlike thinking, which creates reactions in the body, sensations are simple and ‘in the moment’. As such, paying attention to any or all body sensations will calm the attention down.

In fact, it’s a good idea, even when you’re not meditating, to keep breaking your experience down to sensations. Every so often, as you move through your day, bring your attention back to basic sensations.

In this, unconditional acceptance is essential. Keep bringing your attention back to how you feel rather than what you think about how you feel. This will slowly acclimatise your attention to the habit of feeling rather than thinking and make meditation easier.

I hope this has been helpful.

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LINKS

Meditation the Journey

recent-007” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.

Cristopher Bennett

I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.

I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.

But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.

The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.

Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.

And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.

Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.

Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.

People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.

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For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.

The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.

Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.

So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.

And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.

And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’

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Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.
Stillness.

And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.

So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.

Stillness within the storm of being.

And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
That’s stillness.

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So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.

Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.

And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.

So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.

Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.

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Cleaning Up The World from the Inside

img_0350“….Pollution!  Look at this rubbish!” he said vehemently, “Bloody vandals! Chucking their garbage about!…”

I had been wandering along a path, savoring the clear afternoon stillness of a popular national park near Melbourne, when this man and his family steamed up behind and overtook me. He was a large man with a face so swollen and red that his head looked like it was going to burst.  As I stepped aside to allow room to pass, his wife gave me an apologetic look as she and her two embarrassed children filed by, and they all disappeared around the bend up ahead.

As his angry tones slowly receded into the distance, and the silence of the bush reasserted itself, I wondered which pollution was worse – the small scraps of paper by the path, or this man’s obnoxious rage in the delicate ambience of this beautiful place.  And then it occurred to me that the two were actually both parts of the one.  This man’s rage was interconnected with the very pollution he was railing against.

I find it interesting that, for most of us, though all through our life we have been conditioned to keep ourselves physically clean, dressed neatly, with our houses neat and tidy, we have never been taught to keep a clean and tidy mind.  We have never been taught ‘best practice’ habits with the way we use and apply our mental and emotional functions – our thoughts, emotions and intentions.  We have simply been encouraged to cram ourselves full of information, endure our emotional shifts as best we can, and forget the rest by distracting ourselves.

Slowly, as we age, because we are always thinking about things, remembering, reacting, daydreaming, worrying, the mind learns that, except for sleeping, it is not allowed to stop.  So the mind becomes like a hand that never stops moving – even in rest, it still twitches and moves in our lap.  This build-up of unresolved thought patterns becomes more intense, causing hormonal effects in the body that become more uncomfortable as life goes on.  We ache more, worry more, get more anxious over more insignificant things, get tired or depressed more, and feel less – our minds and bodies slowly tie themselves in knots as the buildup of unresolved mental stuff increases.  The ‘grey’ emotional states begin to cover us up – depression, apathy, anxiety and boredom.

On the radio this morning I heard that depression is now considered by the medical fraternity to be one of the most serious health problems in Australia, and no doubt, it has similar status in the rest of the world as well

Our common reaction to our mental malaise is to find more things to help us forget our internally generated discomfort.  And because we have been conditioned to find solace and comfort through consumption, we fill our attention with eating and drinking, more comforts, work, hobbies and distractions, and entertainment – anything to forget how we feel.

All of these things that we use to forget create excess physical waste of some kind in the world, or they consume some resource faster than can be sustained.

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Environmental pollution is, in the larger part, the physical overflow of our own rapacious and excessive needs. From candy wraps, pizza and hamburger boxes, to our excessive use of fossil fuels and energy, we consume constantly and voraciously, in part, because we need to. Because we are needful, depressed, worried, angry or anxious, or merely awash with the mental detritus of our incredibly cluttered lives, we have a tendency to over-consume, and to forget the repercussions of our consumption.

While on a visit to America a while ago, I watched a current affairs program on local television one night in which they did a hidden camera trick on people who dropped litter, then interviewed them to find out why.  I was interested to see that most didn’t even notice that they had dropped the litter. They had not been aware of what they had done and, when shown the replay of their action, they were genuinely embarrassed. Many of them made the excuse, “…well, I was thinking about something else…”

We are often ‘thinking about something else’ – in fact, ‘thinking about something else’ seems to have become a dominant characteristic of the Western mind. We drive while thinking about something else – we eat, drink, speak, work, even make love while thinking about something else.

And because we are often thinking about something else, we are not aware of, or we forget the causal effects of what we do. We forget that the plastic bags we throw away often end up strangling our waterways, or that the impatience, anger, and rudeness that some of us vent so freely on others around us has a profoundly disturbing effect on the world around us.  We forget because we are often preoccupied with something else.

And what is this ‘something else’ we are thinking about?

Usually the thinking is trivial – pointless reiterations of some compulsive preoccupation – thoughts growing like bacteria. If we are worrying, it is a kind of mental loop of thoughts, replaying itself, and taking our attention, making us unaware of what is happening in the moment.

But though we expend a lot of energy on this compulsive thinking, we never work anything out or take action – the thoughts just exist because the mind cannot let go or stop creating new thoughts. In effect, the ‘something else’ we are often thinking about is a form of  mental smoke from fires that we cannot put out – pollution – mental pollution.

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 When I work as a meditation trainer, one of the most difficult challenges of my work is encouraging people to give themselves permission to stop for a while each day – to let go of their life for while – to just sit still, and be happy to just be still.

From the moment of birth, most of us, particularly in the West, have been encouraged to spend their waking hours exclusively in physical and mental activity – to always be doing something – thinking, learning, achieving, creating.  As a result, when it comes to periodic rest, or meditation, most people feel anxiety when they are not doing something.  The only way they can give themselves permission to stop is to be either exhausted or sick – and, as I remind them, by then it’s too late.  They should have stopped long before then.  Rest is something we do to conserve ourselves, and enhance our enjoyment of living – it is not a last resort.

We have been taught to think with great sophistication and speed about a great range of things, but we have never been taught how to stop.  We have never been taught how to relax efficiently, and let go. We have never been taught the mental skills that are required to give the mind some peace and quiet in which to clear itself – to do its own ‘house cleaning’.

In sleep and rest, and especially in meditation, this fundamental process of mental ‘house cleaning’ takes place. It happens naturally whenever the mind is released from the incessant focusing and making of thoughts that we associate with wakefulness.

Consider all those times when the mind is disengaged, and relaxed, like when you have lain back on the couch and closed your eyes for a few minutes, or been mesmerized by the sound of the waves on a beach – all the thoughts, feelings, and memories all flit past the awareness, like so many newly released butterflies flitting through a ray of light.  This is the mind downloading excessive and unfinished concerns – clearing itself.

As the mind clears itself, so too does the body.  Released from new mental commands, the body uses the space to download excess hormones through the kidneys.  When you open your eyes, you feel just a little clearer, and energized. The body is more relaxed and free of stress.  The more we can allow the mind and body to do this kind of clearing, the less we need to forget, or distract ourselves, because we feel better within ourselves

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So, some suggestions for lessening mental pollution:

Once a day, sit back in your chair, and give yourself permission to take a short cat-nap – even ten minutes is of great benefit.  A client of mine, a very successful Information Technology consultant, used to keep a comfortable chair in her office.  Whenever she had an urgent problem she had to solve, rather than try to think it out, she used to curl up in her comfortable chair, and take a short nap of between 20 minutes to an hour.  She usually found that the solution would usually appear quite quickly after she had rested in this manner.

Try to move at a slower pace throughout your day – never allow events to push you into panic.  Take one thing after another, giving each your full attention.  The mind gets confused if we try to do two things at once.  As my teacher, an 85 year old Thai monk used to say, ‘Don’t rush.  Just move faster, with more care, and more awareness’.

Even if you don’t want to learn how to meditate, there is a simple relaxation technique you can do which will help to clear the mind and body – try it before you begin your day, and again before you sleep at night:  Sit in a comfortable chair, or lie on your back for about ten minutes, and purposefully keep directing your attention to the feelings in your body.

Bring your attention down into your body. Feel the sensations of being alive – let the body speak to you and tell you how it feels in its own language. And whenever you find yourself thinking, go back to the nearest sensation. Just be aware of how you feel. Contemplate in particular, the feelings in your face, neck, scalp, shoulders and around your eyes.

And where you feel tightness, see if you can let the tightness go – it’s a game – just contemplate the tight muscles in that area, no matter how small they are, and let them relax, loosen, let go.

And when you find yourself back in thinking, that’s okay, just find the nearest sensation, or feeling of tension, and encourage that part of your body to relax.

Try to get into the habit of periodically checking your body and your breathing throughout the day.  If you find tension anywhere, then let it loosen.

Allow yourself space throughout the day, in small sips, to look around you, and reconnect with how you feel – take a deep breath, stretch, let the rational streams of thinking go, relax your muscles,  feel the air and the wind on your face.

Ideally it is meditation, or one of the physical yoga’s that form the most effective modalities for creating real change in your internal ecology. They clear the buildup of excessive thinking and bring you back into touch with the needs of your body.

The more space you make in the mind, and the more you pay attention to how you feel, the more your life begins to breathe, and the less you need to make you happy. You become more patient, more able to feel empathy with others. Simple things begin to glow – a sunset, the smile on a child’s face. And if each of us clears  and takes care of our internal environment, I’m sure that our world will clear too.

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