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.

…………………………………………………………….

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.

………………………………………………………………….
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’.

……………………………………………………

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

…………………………………………………………..

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.

……………………………………………………………..

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.

…………………………………………………

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.

…………………………………………………………..

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.

………………………………………………………………

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.

……………………………………………………

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.

………………………………………………

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.’

…………………………………………………………………………..

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.

…………………………………………………

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.

………………………………………………….

 

Fail Gladly to Succeed

Just found this wonderful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the writing process, in which he says: “I always consider the entire process about failure …”

Like with any skill, I also believe this to be true about meditation.

The process of apparently failing is also, paradoxically, the process of succeeding. For this reason, accept the difficulties as the path you walk in meditation, and they cease to be difficulties. We fail and we keep on failing, right to the point when we succeed, which always comes as a surprise. And then we fail again.

In this way failing disappears, and there is only the path to success.

Meditation is Gym for the Mind

 

Lakshmi commented:portraits and stuff 005

“I am new to meditation and I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes. On the contrary, I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong. But as I read you, I am thinking perhaps not.

I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen?

I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

…………………………………………………………

Hi Lakshmi,

Your comment covered many areas worth writing about, so ​my reply is rather long. Sorry about that. But thank you for asking such an interesting, if complex question

​Before I begin, I was glad to read that you’re NOT going down the path of taking medication. Though pills and chemicals can seem like instant fixes, the long term destruction they cause is just not worth it. When I was a counselor, the most irretrievably damaged people I came across were those who had become addicted to the various pills that their doctors had prescribed for them – from blood pressure medications to statins, to anti-depressants. Drugs taken regularly usually end up being as debilitating as the condition they were prescribed to cure.

Also, I don’t think your problem lies in​ the act of meditation itself.

I might be wrong, but ​I ​sense a part of your problem ​with meditation ​is derived from ​the ​plethora of misinformation about meditation that’s​ floating around, most of it commercially oriented. ​Much of this information, spruiking courses and books, focuses on the ‘meditation experience’ rather than the long term benefits of meditation, painting an excessively rosy picture of how you should feel as you meditate. These expectations of a calm, peaceful experience then confuse the meditator when they don’t happen, creating doubt and confusion.

For this reason I strongly recommend you read my second book on meditation, ‘Love & Meditation’, available as a PDF download from HERE. In that book, I emphasize the long term benefits of meditation, and explain the process, so you know what it happening as it happens.

So anyway, lets look into what concerns you.

………………………………………………….

PART I

“I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes.”

This is a common expectation among novice meditators, largely created by all the new-age blather that surrounds the subject of ‘meditation’. Ignorant people talk about enlightenment as if it’s some supernatural state, bringing bizarre super powers like a Marvell comic character. Also there are all the misinterpretations of Buddhist lore, in which enlightenment is portrayed in a very religious way, as it’s some kind of transition into a god and only those ‘chosen’ in some way can become enlightened.

All very misleading.

Actually enlightenment is very simple, and like any skill or art, it can only become a reality if one practices the skills that lead to it with complete dedication and persistence over a long period of time.

So what is ​this ​enlightenment?

​Like ​any skill or ability, enlightenment (or Nibbana) is ​a set of mental and physical habits​..

Put simply, it is ​a ​mind that has, through years of meditation, deconstructed all the conditioned reactions and habits that most of us are unconsciously enslaved by – social, cultural and genetic – and become pure again​, with a mind that perceives everything as it actually is, rather than as it has been colored by their conditioned reactions.

With this purity of view, desire and fear disappear because they are no longer internally triggered by internal reactions to things. There is none of the hormonal push and pull of desire and fear distorting their view, so their perceptions are always clear of the psychological coloring of emotional reactions.

As such, though their body is certainly subject to the limitations of physicality, the enlightened person is finally free. Free of rage, sadness, elation, greed, jealousy and so on. They are in perfect balance.

Of course, in popular media, we’re bombarded with the ridiculous cliché of the enlightened person being in some kind of elevated, mysterious and very esoteric state – bald men in robes speaking in riddles with super powers.

Not so. Enlightened people are completely unconcerned with whether they are enlightened or not, and have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.

In my decades of training in temples in South East Asia, I have known two monks who were known as enlightened men – one Thai monk, Acharn Thawee​,​ and the other a Sinhalese monk, the Venerable Pemasiri.

To meet these men, you would not have known they were enlightened. They did not talk about it or try to act enlightened. Both were very kind, and felt the cold and heat just like the rest of us. The only difference between them and me was they were totally unconcerned about anything except what needed to be done in each moment. As such, each action they made, and everything they said, was utterly appropriate and uncolored by ego or emotions. They lived to give and create unconditional kindness, not because it made them feel good, but simply because when all conditioned desire and fear is removed from a mind, all that is left is kindness.

To his death my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, both stern and kind, strove to teach the clearest view of meditation that he could. One could say he had so much to live for – but when he died, he shrugged off his life with these words:

“Who is dying? No one is dying. People say, ‘Oh, it’s Acharn Thawee. He is a good man!’ But I know there is no Acharn Thawee​.​”

To have known this extraordinary man is perhaps the most wonderful experience I have ever had, in part because it showed me how mundane and practical enlightenment actually is. And how attainable it is, if we choose to work towards it.

……………………………………………………………..

PART II

Now​,​ the next part of your comment

“… I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong.”

No, you are not doing anything wrong.

Everybody, when they first begin meditation, experiences discomfort in different degrees, depending on many things – how flexible their body is, what their life experience has been, and what kind of teacher has been guiding them.

Remember – your mind and body are simply bundles of habits – everything about you, from your posture and physical demeanor to your desires and fears, are sets of habits that you have learnt.​ ​And each of these habit-patterns create different noticeable effects.

The anxiety habit creates various muscle tensions that we recognize as anxiety​ -​ as does hunger, desire, elation, fear and so on.And on recognizing each habit, we then have another secondary reaction to it – mental habits driving hormonal shifts in our body that drive us to act in one way or the other.

Most of what we feel is essential invisible to us. ​I​n ​the hustle and bustle of life, we ​do not notice most of our reactions ​because we are ​too preoccupied our busy lives​​ to feel what is happening to us. Our focus is on outer concerns – work, entertainment, ​children, ​sex, ​food, money​ and so on.​ ​​We only notice ​what we feel​ ​if it is very powerful​ – when it​ poke​s ​into the flow of our everyday life​ and we find ourself angry, or depressed or sad or whatever.​

​Not only that, but many of us​ don’t like to feel what is happening inside us, particularly if we’ve built up a lot of unresolved tension and anxiety. ​​This is why so many people use drugs or anti depressants. Others use ​busyness, or ​​ceaseless activity​ or sport as a way of​ not​ feeling how ​they​ actually are.It’s also why some people cannot stand silence, or are constantly fidgeting or working or seeking fun. Essentially they are running from what they feel – running from themselves.

I had a man come to learn meditation once​,​ who in his life was a very successful advertising executive. He told me his entire life had been spent scrambling up the greasy pole of success​ ​until at the age of forty and now he was feeling a little dispirited and tired, so he decided to learn how to meditate.

He seemed quite relaxed as we spoke. But as I led him through the first session, about fifteen minutes in, he asked me if we could stop. I opened my eyes to see he had gone an odd color of ​pale ​green.

”What’s wrong?” I said.

“I feel horrible,” he muttered, then stood and rushe​d​ into the toilet where he vomited profusely.

Over the following weeks, he had terrible difficulty with meditation – nausea, aches, pains, twitching and a lot of emotion, particularly anger and grief. But he kept on going​,​ and gradually all these things passed away, as I had told him they would. Eventually meditation became a more pleasant experience and he was able to sustain a practice which, over the longer term, changed his life.

Acharn Thawee called this phenomenon ‘shedding the layers of the onion’. In this, he likened our self to being like an onion, made of many layers of karma (conditioning).

​​He said, “Just as we call the layers of the onion ‘an onion’, so too we give a name to the many layers of karma that make up ‘our self’. And we think all those layers of conditioning are ‘I’, quite forgetting that all the habits that define us, have been learnt – accumulated in layers, from our descendants, and from our own life experience.

So then we decide to meditate.For the first time in our life we sit down and stop. So the mind, with nothing to do, naturally turns its attention to itself – because what else is there to do?

​​​And being naturally a self organizing, self balancing thing​, like all other forces of nature​,​ the mind​ uses the stillness and relatively empty space that’s created during meditation to begin throwing off all the layers of reactive habits that cause it discomfort.

And what does it find?

It discovers the first surface layer of mind/body – the most coarse. Painful memories we have tried to avoid, aches and tensions we have not had time to pay attention to, and anxiety we have forgotten was there. ​L​​ike an onion, the​se​ outer laye​rs​ are the most coarse and most painful.

​It is these top layers the mind throws off first – the most coarse. And as the mind throws these things off, we briefly re-experience them. Physical tension, anxiety, pain, aches, and emotions are felt once more as they disappear.

Trouble is,  if we have been ​unfortunate enough to be ​stuck with a meditation teacher who has ​created​ false expectations, that we should be experiencing calm and peace​ in meditation​, we can mistakenly interpret this first stage of ‘shedding the layers’ as  something ​wrong. We can mistakenly assume we’re not meditating properly, simply because our meditation experience is not matching​ the teacher’s expectations of calm and peace. We think we’re failing – that we can;t meditate.

But we’re not failing. We’re actually succeeding.

All the discomfort, thought storms and emotions we’re experiencing are​ simply the first coarse​ layers of historic mental and physical tension evaporating – and once gone, we are free of just a little more ‘dark mass’ in our life.

Each time we meditate through a layer of this muck, we create a little more calm and peace in our life – where we want it to be. All we have to do is sit still and keep practicing the meditation method, which, if it is a good method, has been specifically designed to create and assist this cleansing phenomenon.

So here’s the thing- you’re not meditating to have pleasant meditations. You’re meditating to have a pleasant life. All you have to do is keep going. ​The layers will become more and more subtle as you keep practicing. ​

Try to remember, the beginning of meditation practice is the hardest part. It’s hard because:

1. Your mind and body are not used to being still.

2. You are experiencing the most coarse and immediately uncomfortable beginning of the cleansing process that meditation naturally elicits.

3. Being new to meditation, you are filled with doubts as to whether you are practising properly – which tends to create confusion, which in turn creates anxiety – thus adding to your discomfort.

To help you get through this stage I strongly recommend you obtain my Meditation Audio Course. It will help you understand the process of meditation, and help you through it.

……………………………………………………

PART III

“I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen? I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

Lakshmi, just because I don’t talk about the benefits of meditation, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s just that I don’t want to create expectations in people​’s minds​ – because I know how destructive expectations can be to meditation.

When you meditate,​ I want​ your mind ​to​ be utterly open to whatever is happening​ NOW​ whether it’s painful or pleasant – and let it go.

I do not want you imagining calm, or waiting for happiness, or wishing for peace, because this will get you nowhere – its the veritable dog chasing its tail.

Good meditation is where you are totally focused on the business of each ​moment ​as​ it’s happening – and the methods are designed to help you do that. So long as you do that, meditation and stillness will take care of themselves over time.

As the famous Zen master said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” By ‘beginners mind’ he means a mind that is absolutely without expectations about what is going to happen.

For this reason, I talk a lot about what meditation isn’t​​. And I try not to talk about what might happen, because I prefer people to discover that for themselves.

In meditation experience is the best way to learn. So the less you think about it, or expect from it the better.

​So​ yes,​ ​Lakshmi​, you must stick it out​.​​ ​You must go through the coarse layers of the onion. You must put up with the discomfort and use the methods to help you sit still and focus, even when your body is screaming.

​Because sometimes ​willpower is​ the only way. As Marlon Brando once said, ‘​Sometimes ​you just got to duke (fight) it out.​’

I take this to mean that sometimes in a life there is no trick or subtle strategy that will help us. Sometimes we just have to ‘duke it out’ – press the foot to the floor and assert our will until we’re in the clear and can relax.

And this does indeed apply to meditation​ when we first begin – and I think it applies to the beginning of ANY skill if you want to be proficient at it. Starting anything and seeing it through always creates discomfort, simply because the mind and body take time to adjust.

​Remember, you’re building a new set of habits with meditation. You’re building a skill. As such, meditation is ​similar to​ any form of exercise, being it running, tennis, going to the gym or learning to swim.The only difference is, meditation ​trains​ your mind, the most important aspect of your life. So in the same way as going to a gym makes the body stronger and more efficient, so too does meditation make the mind stronger and more efficient.

And the benefits?  Well, as I said, it’s better you experience them yourself than for me to tell you.

But one thing I will sa​y is this​. ​

Thirty years ago, b​efore I began practicing Vipassana​ meditation​, ​​I​ was in a very bad way. After years as a touring musician and dedicated hedonist, I ​had the attention span of a sparrow, ​my body was ruined, my creativity was disappearing and I was so chronically depressed I wished for death most days, and needed alcohol to feel normal.

I used Vipassana meditation to rebuild myself – or rather, to give my mind and body time to rebuild themselves. And in the thirty years since, ​I have written four good books​, ​I am healthy and living ​a​ full life​ doing what I love to do. And though some things might create anger, frustration or I might get depressed about something that’s not going well​, it doesn’t last long​ – there seems now to be a foundation of strength, optimism and calm deep within me now, which the poetry of my life dances upon​ – and it seems impossible now, for down times to overcome me.

So I don’t expect meditation to be pleasant. For me it is just ​a​ training ground – ​a​ place I train my mind to ​stay​ strong and resilient enough to be able to​ live​ my life.

​And if pain, or emotion or anxiety arise as I meditate​, ​I ​greet these things as interesting visitors, ​who I’m happy to see, ​because I know it’s better they are dealt with during meditation, than in ​the larger theater of ​my life.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.

…………………………………….