Attention and Awareness

monkey-10The Monkey in Our Mind

The aspect of mind we’re working with in meditation is our meddlesome, hyperactive and mischievous attention – the part of the mind we were nagged about all through childhood, all those parents and teachers exhorting us to, ‘Pay attention!’

For most of us, given our modern culture and the lives we’ve lead, of doing many things at once and relaxing by using distractions and entertainment, our attention has become extremely jittery and reactive, which forms the main source of most of our suffering.

The Buddha called it ‘monkey mind’:
‘Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ [Samyutta Nikaya 12.61]

Like this monkey, our attention leaps from thought to thought, reaction to reaction and distraction to distraction, chattering and babbling all the time. So if we are to train the mind to let go and be still, it seems obvious that it’s this monkey attention we must train first. So let’s take a look at the attention and see what we’re dealing with.

It’s generally assumed that our attention is the same as awareness – that they perform the same function. But they don’t.Though they are certainly related aspects of the one mind, they each have very different characteristics and abilities. And it’s exactly this difference between them that’s so important to what we’re doing in meditation.

A simple demonstration of the distinction between attention and awareness is this:

Right now, you’re paying attention to reading these words. In this, your attention is the interactive part of your mind – the part you use to gather information and create thoughts. It flits from object to object like a laser beam, building concepts and reactions, and it does this very quickly – indeed, most of the conscious activity in your mind is created by your attention.

As you read, you are passively aware of everything around you – the room you’re in, whether it’s hot, or cold, and various sensations coming and going in your body. But this awareness is passive. It does not think, or remember, and it is always in the present moment.

So, as the busy monkey of your attention flits about collecting information and projecting your personality and what you think to the outer world, the awareness is passively cognizant of everything around you. It positions and connects you with the environment you’re in.

This distinction between attention and awareness is extremely important. In fact, it’s fundamental to everything we’re doing in meditation, so I’ll reiterate what I’ve just said.

Your attention is the interactive part of your mind

And your awareness is the surrounding theatre your attention moves about in – of everything you sense in each moment. Awareness doesn’t think. And it doesn’t remember. It simply  knows. And it is always in the present moment.

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So why is this distinction between attention and awareness so important to meditation?Well, lets look at meditation itself, and see what we’re trying to do.

Our primary objective is to create an ability to be able to disengage at will from the incessant thinking and reacting our attention is constantly creating, which keeps us revved up all the time … to be able to go still, without it making us anxious, so our mind and body can unwind and rebalance, as they naturally do when they’re given the space and leisure to do it.

So why can’t we stop and be still?

Well, that’s because the monkey of our attention doesn’t know how to stop. In the lives we live, and the culture we’re conditioned to, we’ve been trained from birth to be active, get things done, compete, win, and cling to what we’ve got.

We’re told, ‘don’t be lazy’ and ‘get off your bum and do something’. But when were we ever told to ‘stop and do nothing’.  Never.

For this reason, stopping and being still is very stressful for us. It creates feelings of anxiety, guilt and restlessness. Which is why, unlike every other creature on the planet, we have to learn how to be still.

And that’s where meditation comes in. It is the means by which we learn how to stop.

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So what do I mean by stop? Stop what?

Well, if we examine everything that disturbs us, we see it is our attention that creates it. Attention creates the thinking and reacting, which creates memories and emotions which, through the reactive cycle, stimulates more thinking and reacting … and so on.

Awareness does not create these effects. It’s momentary, simple, and unconditioned – there is no good, bad, right, wrong in awareness.There just ‘is’. In each moment sensations are there or not there, and they are always changing.

As such, awareness is acutely in sync with the changing environment we’re in, in a way that our attention, which is busy freezing moments so it can think about them, is not.

Because that’s what out attention does – when we switch our attention to something we’ve become aware of, it immediately converts what we were aware of into information, so it can freeze the event in our mind and evaluate it. Then it dredges up similar experiences from our memory, to decide if we like this thing, or not – then creates a spreading fog of thinking and reactions around it.

And, big or small, our attention is doing this constantly, and mindlessly, because the habit is so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing it. And it’s that mindlessness we’re seeking to change in meditation practice. With meditation, we’re learning how to disengage out attention when we don’t need it to be doing stuff. We’re learning how to stop.

The Party in Our Head.

A lot of people think it’s thoughts and thinking that disturbs us. But that’s not so.
If we didn’t pay attention to the thinking, it would rapidly evaporate, even as it arises in the mind.

It’s our attention that excites the thinking, ordering the thoughts into stories which makes us happy, sad, angry, excited, fearful, whatever. So we assume it’s thinking that’s the problem, but it’s not. The problem is that we cannot control our attention’s addiction to reacting to every thought that appears in our head.

I liken our attention to an overeager host at a very busy party. Every thought that rushes through the front door, our attention is there, asking questions, arguing, entertaining and reacting. And because it’s paying attention to every thought that rushes in, the room of our mind gets filled up with a cacophony of chatter.

With meditation, we’re teaching the attention to stop being such an eager host. As each thought rushes in through the door, we’re encouraging the attention to fold it’s arms and keep its mouth shut – to not speak to it.

In the beginning, because we’re new to this, the thoughts will keep talking, trying to get the attention to do what it’s always done – to participate. But if we keep on applying the meditation methods to help the attention to ignore the chattering thoughts, they will eventually slink off out the back door.

As we practice this letting go and ignoring, because the host is not engaging any more, the party slowly empties -the room of the mind goes quiet.

And though thoughts still rush in, because our attention is getting better at not engaging, they rush right out again. As our skill at doing this disengaging becomes more effortless, the rushing in and rushing out happens faster and faster, until ,eventually, though thoughts are still rushing in and out, the mind is effectively silent – still.

We’ve stopped.

The problem is, we cannot force the attention to do this.

Like the Monkey in our example, the more we try to tie the attention down and gag it, the more it will squeal and fight and try to escape. After all, everyone knows, when we’re told ‘stop thinking about it’, it only creates more thinking, making us more anxious and agitated.

So it’s pointless trying to force the attention to stop.

So the meditation methods are not there to stop anything. They’re simply strategies to gently tame the attention and coax it to relax until it eventually disengages and goes still – a process that must be tinged with compassion, patience and understanding.

In meditation, we apply the methods, understanding that in the beginning it will be difficult, and the attention will struggle.

We also understand that it’s not the attention’s fault that it’s become so meddlesome and noisy – it’s not trying to be difficult. It’s simply doing what we trained it to do. So we keep gently applying the meditation methods until our attention gets used to being quiet.

Eventually, our attention get used to being quiet, and that’s when we can drop the meditation method – at that point, the skill of stillness is innate.

And through all this process, the awareness is allowed to shine brightly – which it will. The more the attention calms, the more vivid and expansive the awareness will become.

At that point, we become aware of amazingly subtle sensations in the body, and quiet bursts of intuitive understandings in the mind, and we realise we never had to think so much at all – that the thinking was just a messenger for what we already knew.

And there’s much more you’ll discover which, in the fury of our old habits, you were previously unaware of .And that’s when life becomes interesting.

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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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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dealing With Emotions

IMG_0224Hi Roger, I have a question that I haven’t yet seen on your site. If other people might be interested, I’m wondering if you can kindly indulge me in the following.

During my meditation sessions (2x a day for 30 min), the main challenge I face is thinking and planning. No fiery emotions really arise. However, in my daily life, I find that I’m much more sensitive than ever. I’m more short tempered, testy, angry. Little things make chest pop, then burn.
I invite these feelings to arise during meditation so I can breathe through them but they don’t.

Is this a common problem? I thought meditation would help me be less reactive but I’m more reactive than ever. What am I doing wrong?

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Good to hear from you, and a good question about a very subtle matter.  It’s taken a while for me to formulate my response, but I hope it is worth the wait.

I too have noticed a similar occurrence, where I would experience uncomfortable emotion arising during the day which did not show itself as I was meditating – and I also have wondered why these emotions did not arise during meditation. Since then, I’ve decided that, for practical purposes, it’s best not to speculate on WHY, because ultimately, when and why emotions arise seems to be utterly unpredictable.

So I decided long ago that it’s best not to speculate – but to focus on dealing with them in the moment they become noticeable, and not expect them to behave in any orderly way. Because in the end, emotions are, essentially, disorderly phenomena.

It also must be remembered that meditation is not designed to be an emotional therapy – any therapeutic aspect is a secondary effect. Meditation is, first and foremost, a training ground for the mind to learn four habits that are useful in a life:

  1. To have a steadier, softer and more gently focused attention, resulting in a clearer, wider and more aware view in life – mindfulness.
  2. To learn that with the attention steadier and less twitchy, our ability to concentrate is enhanced.
  3. To learn to let go of streams of thinking that do not serve us well.
  4. To develop a mind that is more integrated with the body and what the body is telling you – resulting in a more relaxed body, better health and increased capacity for intuition.

I have noticed that with practice that a therapeutic aspect to meditation does eventually arise from these new habits. This is because the mind becomes more aware of various physical tensions being caused by repressed emotional reactions, and having become aware, the mind-body, being a naturally self adjusting mechanism, learns to let go of those tensions, sometimes temporarily re-experiencing the emotions in the process – tears arise, or the body jerks, or long sighs spontaneously occur. Each of these is a signal that the mind-body are processing the emotional energy efficiently.

But as I said, anything to do with emotions is unpredictable – they can happen anytime, whether we’re at work or meditating. And in this, the first part of any solution is to not bother questioning why an emotion is here.

It just IS.
This unpredictability of emotions is because most of our reactions and mental and process’s – about 80% – are unconscious. For sure we live our life through our conscious mind, but most of our reactive habits, which we’ve learnt over the course of our life, are unconscious to us – which is why they are so unpredictable, and essentially chaotic.

So questioning why an emotion is here is fruitless. In the end, ACCEPTANCE is essential.

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So how to deal with these feelings … well, first and foremost, if you are in a public situation, it is important that you allow the emotion to express itself WITHOUT enacting it. This is a trick of mindfulness. I’ll give you an example.

I was at a dinner party a few years ago, and one of my friends, a lawyer, was sitting across from me and he’d drunk too much wine. Now it should be said here, that I don’t talk about my meditation experiences or activities with most of my friends, simply because, most of them being non-meditators, they aren’t interested. So I keep it my business to myself, and socialize largely on their terms. Unless of course they ask me, when I keep my answers short. But this particular night, this man, being quite drunk, decided to have a go at me … he began goading me about meditation, calling it ‘crap’ and being quite abusive about Buddhist monks, calling them ‘parasites’ and ‘lazy bastards sitting on their arses all day’.

At first I tried to defend myself, because having been trained by so many wonderful monks, I was offended that he could be so dismissive of what they do, and the value they bring to their communities – so I tried to defend the monastic tradition.

Then I realised the man was utterly ignorant and there was no way I could educate him so I tried to stop the discussion by saying this. But being a lawyer, and drunk, he wouldn’t let it go. For some reason he wanted a confrontation. So he kept going, and I could feel myself becoming angry (which is what I think he wanted).

Now, I knew it would be socially deadening if I was to express my anger – and the effects that would arise out of it would create even more trouble. But at the same time, I felt so aggrieved that I knew it would be very hard to swallow how I felt or deny it and push it away. So I HAD to accept it, if I was to find some way of dealing with it.You cannot deal with something if you don’t first accept it.

So the trick was, how to deal with my adrenalised and very pissed off state  without anyone knowing, so it would not interfere with the social flow.

To this end, I used mindfulness. As I let the man talk, while nodding and acknowledging what he was saying without commenting, I turned my focus inwards, and in the theater of myself, I allow the anger I felt to express itself.

And as I felt the energy rise into that acceptance, and the adrenaline, I focused specifically on how my body was reacting. I noticed my shoulders had risen and my chest had gone tight, and my belly had gone rock hard, such that my breathing was extremely shallow. While continuing to nod along with this guy, I turned the anger into a purely physical exercise. I focused on FEELING the physical tensions in my body and the task of letting those tensions go, muscle by muscle.

It took a while – sometimes I’d let go of one part and move on, then come back to find that part had tensed up again. But eventually, I managed to let go of the physical tensions and my breathing naturally changed. And then I sighed, and it was a deep and long sigh, and I knew I was released.

By this time the man, because he was getting no resistance from me – just nodding and ‘yes, yes’, ran out of things to say. The confrontation naturally finished, and we turned to other things. No destructive action was taken and the event was forgotten.
But most importantly I was clean of the anger, WITHOUT bringing it into my life. I had resolved it by dealing with the truth of it – that it was a physical phenomenon, which only needed to be acknowledged, accepted and gently worked through on the same level it actually existed – the PHYSICAL level.

Because quite aside from the story we give our emotions when they arise, which is all bullshit anyway, emotions are primarily physical. That’s the ultimate truth of emotions. The story is the relative truth – endless, convoluted and usually wrong. But the physical presence of the emotion cannot be denied – it is either here or not and the body never lies. For whatever chaotic reason, it feels what it feels, whether that be anger, sadness, calm or happiness. So the only place we can deal with troublesome emotions effectively, is on the level they truly exist – the physical level.

This was a very important lesson to me, that emotion can be resolved without bothering with the story of why it’s here, or acting it out or trying to suppress it

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Now, you mention you ‘breathe through’ emotions when they arise in meditation. I’m not sure what you do when anger arises at work, but I’ll deal with that  later.

The thing is, what I’m getting from what this ‘breathing through’ is NOT acceptance – but an attempt to control. As such, it is ultimately fruitless.

Because remember I said?  ACCEPTANCE is key to resolving our reactions. To deal with anything in our life, we must accept it on its terms first.

So ask yourself – why are you ‘breathing through’ the emotion – to make it go away?
This is how it seems, and though perhaps it might work sometimes – it is not a good strategy, either in meditation or life.

Wherever you are, if anger arises, or rage, leave the breath alone. The breath should NEVER be interfered with or consciously changed.

Rather it should be released.

So instead of making an attempt to control the breath by consciously breathing deeply, or ‘breathing through’ as you say -instead, try as best you can to ignore the story of the anger and pay attention to it as a strictly physical set of tensions in the body.

And as you do this, look into all the ways you’ve begun to RESTRICT the breath, and let them go. So you’re not consciously changing the breath, so much as consciously allowing it to express itself as it needs to. In this way you guide the body to resolve this physical situation in its own way.

For example, you might find muscular tensions have appeared in the chest, belly or shoulders – so, work on letting them go. Feel the tension. Accept the tension. Allow the tension to be what it is. Relax around the tension and you will usually find the tension itself will also let go. Then move on, treating the anger as a primarily physical problem, while allowing the breath to change as it wants to.

And if you’re doing this in a public situation, no need to close the eyes or take any posture – simply move your attention inwards and do what you need to do. And if someone asks you what’s wrong, just say you don’t feel well at the moment, but you’re dealing with it …and if they ask you why, just say it might have been something you ate … or whatever, and go back to what you were doing.

It’s simply a switching of the attention from outer life, to inner life. And nobody needs to know you’re doing it.

As with everything, it will get easier with practice. So if, the first few times you do it, it’s difficult, persist. Remember, you’re changing habits, and that takes time.

See how you go. I hope this helps.

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Neuroplasticity and Meditation

Neuroplasticity is a subject very pertinent to meditation – particularly meditation as consistent practice. Because rest assured, for all the difficulties you might experience as you meditate, and no matter how hopeless you might feel sometimes, the very act of sitting and using the meditation methods to coax your mind toward stillness changes the brain just a little bit more – adapting it to become more able to be still, and intuitive and tranquil within the storm of life.

So I thought I’d put up a few videos to watch about the subject, and reassure you that you ARE making progress.

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Facing What Disturbs You

Oh the Pain

Following is another of the questions that came in, this one concerning an unusual condition that keeps repeating each time Jacques meditates

Hi Roger, I liked your online course and your book but I got a big problem meditating. I have given it many tries but every time I meditate I build up tension in the area between my eyes, top of my nose and bottom of my forehead. If you draw a circle from about 3 to 4 cm with middle point the top of my nose between my eyes that is the area I’m talking about.

This tension gets worse every day and after a few weeks of meditating it stays all day. I is so annoying that I stop meditating all together. I tried to include it, calling it tension, not ignoring it, dealing with it in a relaxed way but no result. I would so much like to start meditating again. Can you help?

All the best, Jacques

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Hi Jacques, I’m going to answer your question in a round about way.

My last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri, who taught at the Kanduboda Meditation Centre in Sri Lanka, said something to me that pertains to what you’ve described.

I was there for a silent retreat, practicing a method I’d been using for many years – following the breath and mentally noting whatever distracted my attention. But this particular retreat, things were not going well. I was experiencing a strange physical phenomenon that was making the long days of meditation very difficult.

About fifteen minutes into each session, my body would begin to clamp up. It was as if all the muscles were turning to stone – particularly around my shoulders and chest and I’d begin to panic because it felt like I couldn’t breathe. And nothing I did seemed to alleviate it. The solidification of my body would intensify until I opened my eyes and moved, when the rigidity would instantly disappear. But then on beginning again, the same thing would happen again.

At first I didn’t tell Pemasiri, thinking if I just kept noting this event it would pass away like other temporary effects of meditation. But after the second week it had not only persisted, but gotten more intense, such that I was waking up each day dreading the hours of pain I would have to go through.

So at the morning interview I told him.

Pemasiri listened, nodding his head, then prescribed a different method to the one I had been practising. He told me to switch to the ‘Multiple Point’ method (which is a part of the Practical Meditation Audio package you are using – strongly recommended for your kind of problem).

So I began using this method – beginning with my attention on the breath as usual, then switching to the multiple points method as the rigidity began to encroach – moving my attention from point to point around the body until the rigidity disappeared – at which point I’d return my attention to the breath. It worked wonderfully, and eventually the rigidity disappeared and I went back to my core method.

But what is pertinent here is Pemasiri’s reaction when I came in smiling the next interview and thanked him for ‘fixing up meditation.’ I was joking, but he didn’t smile with me.

‘So you are having a good time now?’ he said sourly.

‘Well, the pain has gone,’ I said, a little defensively.

‘And you think this is the way meditation should always be?’

‘Well, no, but at least I can meditate now. Before, all I could do was struggle.’

He sighed heavily.

‘What do you think you are here for?’ he said. ‘To sit with your head in the clouds, feeling blissful and wasting time? What you call ‘struggle’ is the meditation. Struggle is the work. You are training the mind, and the things that make you struggle are the tools you use to develop your mind and make you stronger, so you can find peace in your life. You’re not here to have peaceful meditation. You’re here to create peaceful life. So all the good times and pleasant feelings and sparkly things you think are ‘good’ meditation? They are not. They have no importance at all … they are just what happens in between, when you’re waiting for the real work to begin.’

And its strange because I already knew what he was saying. I’d been practising for over a decade and a half, and I realised I’d forgotten the most important lesson in meditation – that the meditation experience is the least important aspect of it. That the most important aspect of meditation lay in the use of adversity to train the mind – that the still, sitting body is the theatre we use to develop the mental skills we need in life – of detachment and awareness and intuitive wisdom.

Or, in one word: ‘mindfulness’.

So now I was confused – having realised I’d used the multiple point method to avoid an important lesson, did Pemasisi want me to go back to learning how deal with the suffering? I certainly hoped not. But I asked him.

‘No!’ he said curtly. ‘Just as we teach our self not to cling to pleasure, we should not seek out suffering. You must think middle way. Middle way is the key. Neither this, nor that, but in between. That is the lesson you’re teaching the mind.’

‘But isn’t the multiple point method simply a way of avoiding the lesson I have to learn?’ I said.

‘No … your problem was never the suffering. It was your reaction to it. The pain you felt was held in place by your reaction. You were afraid of it. You hated it. So when the suffering arose you paid too much attention to it. This reaction magnified the suffering as you tensed up around it trying to shut it out and make it go away. With this reaction you made suffering out of suffering. So I gave you the multiple point method to distract your mind from its reaction. Without the reaction, you saw the suffering passed away naturally – as it might have, had you treated it with detachment before. You see?’

I did. The lesson was clear – suffering in any form is not our enemy. It’s simply the natural friction of being alive.

Our true enemy is our own self and its reaction to this friction. As is the case with all the ways we human’s suffer:

Like when we get depressed – we get depressed about being depressed. We get sad and react to how we feel by being sad because we’re sad. We get angry about being angry, or anxious about being anxious. In the same way, with physical pain, we tense up trying to make physical pain go away, which only makes the pain worse … and so on.

One of the primary lessons of meditation practice and perhaps the hardest to adapt to, is to remember that meditation is first and foremost mental training – not a nice, comfy equivalent of sleep.

So, as in any life training, whether it be physical or mental, there is a component of suffering. It cannot be avoided – it naturally comes with the change of transformation. Just as any athlete must learn how to deal with pain to adapt their body to their chosen field of excellence, it’s the same in any area where we seek to improve ourselves – any gym-goer, mountaineer or running enthusiast knows they have to deal with the discomfort of adapting themselves mentally and physically.

It’s no different with meditation – suffering cannot and should not be avoided.

The still, sitting body is a boot-camp for our indulged, undisciplined minds, in which we use the stresses of being still with no distractions, as opportunities to teach our mind to let go of all the habits and little addictions it uses to avoid stillness. With these capacities, our mind becomes stronger and more resilient, and more efficient in the way it processes the vicissitudes of life. The stronger and efficient our mind becomes, the more calm and peace appear in our life.

So, Jacques, with regard to your particular problem, the tension in the area between your eyes, top of your nose and bottom of your forehead.

I suggest you use this event as a main object when it arises. .That is to say, switch your attention from the breath, to whatever is persistently distracting you – in this case, the sensations in the middle of your forehead.

And make this a rule.

Never try to meditate past a challenging event that has arisen in meditation. If something is disturbing you, then switch your attention to the sensations of that event. Try to relax the muscles around the event, and use the note, ‘thinking, thinking’ to cut away all the negative thoughts that are arising.

You might find in that instance that the sensations will temporarily intensify. Don’t worry about this – it’s what’s called an ‘extinction-burst’. Any condition, just before it fades away, intensifies into the lead up to its resolution. When it has faded, or become manageable, then you can switch back to the method you have been practising with.

If that doesn’t work, then use the Multiple Points method (Exercise No 12.) and see if the uncomfortable sensations fade away.

Some more points:

1. Try not to meditate in fear of suffering. Try to re-frame your view of each so-called problem that arises from ‘damn I hate this’ to ‘oh, how interesting’ – from ‘obstacle’ to ‘opportunity-to-learn’ .

2. When any problem arises in meditation, use any of the methods I have given you in the Audio Course to see if you can move through it.

3. Don’t cling to an expectation that meditation should be all bliss and sparkly stuff. For sure, there will be pleasure, but so too will there be pain – usually in equal measures. In time, the more you practice, the suffering will become less intense, as will the pleasure. It’s then that you will find a new quality appearing – not pain, not pleasure – but tranquility.

4. Treat everything that happens with the same interested detachment. And keep using the methods to let go and move forward. Always move forward. I hope this has been helpful.

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Feeling Before Thinking – Always

Hong Kong Sept 2012 162As much as I have covered this subject in numerous posts, I keep hearing meditators complain about thinking: ‘I cant stop thinking,’ seems to be the main complaint and obstacle in meditation.

And its understandable. After all, in a culture such as ours in which we’re constantly encouraged to think from waking to sleep, in a lifetime of thinking about things – indeed, where our very survival depends on us thinking, calculating, anticipating, worrying, wanting, chatting and so on … it would be a bit ridiculous to expect our mind to suddenly stop thinking just because we’ve sat down to meditate.

Because our thinking habits have become insanely over developed – such that even when we don’t need to think, our mind is still mindlessly labelling, classifying, judging and reacting – all on its own. As I say in my book, ‘Happy to Burn’: ‘Our mind is like a hyperactive hand that never stops moving – even in rest it still twitches and moves on its own.’

So it’s quite a logical response in meditation, to try to use meditation to ‘stop the thinking’,

So let’s, once more, look at what thinking actually is, and where it comes from and how to deal with it.

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Thinking is never the source of itself – it is always caused by something else – a sensation or feeling, an event, an inspiration or an emotion. Thinking always comes after these things – either as an identifier, or label. On their own these initial thoughts are benign and have no effect on the body – they’re simply the mind noticing things and labeling them then forgetting.

Which is why I say it’s okay for spontaneous thinking to arise in meditation. This kind of pure mental flow of thoughts arising then passing away has no influence on the body – it’s just a mind idling like a motor in neutral.

But if we react to these initial thoughts with more thinking, a body reaction is created. And that happens when the mental noticing of what has just occurred attracts other thoughts from the subconscious. That’s when we find ourselves actively involved in what’s just happened, judging it, remembering similar things, evaluating whether we like it or not. And the longer this goes on, the more momentum the thoughts get – and the more the body becomes affected by what we’re thinking.This is a reactive cycle – patterns of thinking creating feelings in the body (hormonal reactions), which create more thinking and so on.

Worrying is a classic example of this. And this process is largely automatic – a mind trying to find solutions to what it perceives as a sudden imbalance away from its preferred state of equilibrium.

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Trouble is we spend so much of our life thinking, we think it’s the primary cause of everything. Which is why we try to stop it when it’s annoying us in meditation.We forget that thinking always comes second to something else.

The initial thought follows a physical event. It’s triggered by something that’s happened in our awareness, whether it is a sensation, an intuitive ‘knowing’, an instinctive reaction or a surprise event. And as I said, if we let the thinking rise up in the mind then pass away without bothering to react to it, it disappears like a dream. But if we react to that thought a reactive cycle begins, where our body gets excited in one way or another, which provokes more thinking.

And right there, it’s the feeling in our body that becomes the cause of the thinking. Not the initial event that made the first thought, but our reaction to what we’re thinking about – and the emotion that comes with it, however subtle, of irritation, frustration, anger, sadness or whatever.

If there was no reaction, feeling or emotion, there would be no thinking.

As such, particularly in meditation, if thinking is a problem, we should go to what is now causing the thinking – the feelings or emotions, not the thoughts themselves.

We go to the feeling-reaction, as sensations. Focus our attention there, and the thoughts will slowly fade away.

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For example, let’s look at fear.

Let’s say we have to sit for an exam tomorrow, and we’re absolutely petrified of what’s going to happen.

On noticing that first thought ‘I’m petrified of this exam tomorrow,’ our attention becomes fixated and more thinking arises from the unconscious, and a reactive cycle begins. And the longer our attention remains fixed on that general theme, the more the compatible thoughts will be dredged up from the unconscious – associated experiences from the past: ‘that exam I failed in high school’, ‘the test I failed in primary school, failure, failure. failure … and so on’

Our body is now humming with a cocktail of hormones, of which adrenalin is the main component, which energises the worrying mind. With our mind now a swirling storm of thoughts along the theme of ‘failure’ we are creating a fictitious ‘tomorrow’ in our head and reacting to it continuously – all of which is energising the body reactions … which energises the mental reactions and so on.

This is a reactive cycle.

And because we mistakenly think everything begins and ends with what we think about it, we keep hopelessly battling the mind, trying to stop the thoughts. But as long as the body keeps reacting, our mind will obediently keep delving into the unconscious and free associating, trying to find a solution. And it will keep on doing this, for as long as our attention remains engaged with the thinking.

So trying to stop thinking in meditation, or any other time, is like trying to stop a fire by waving at the smoke – a total waste of time and energy. The only way to stop a fire is to ignore the smoke – go to the fire and pour water on it.

Divert your attention away from what you think, to what you feel.

Work with the bare sensations in your body – relax the tensions that have been created. Feel the anxiety as physical tightness and work with it. Pour all your attention into untangling this tightness and thr thoughts will lose power and fade all on their own

Working with how we feel does two things:

1.   It gives your attention something practical to do, and diverts it away from the thinking.

2.  It unwinds and soothes the physical reactions that are energising the thinking.

Because you are NOT paying attention to the thoughts, they lose momentum and coherence – which lessens their ability to cause body reactions.

With less body reactions, less hormones are released – so the feelings slowly subside.As the feeling of fear subsides, the mind naturally calms down and begins thinking other thoughts

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So there it is – whenever you have a problem with thinking, the trick is to look past it at whatever physical effects accompany it. Look into the body and find out to where the thoughts are being provoked and pay attention to that.

Use the meditation method of Mental Noting to note the sensations as you work with them – it helps to keep the mind focused.

And be prepared to find emotions you didn’t expect, provoking the thoughts.  For example, sometimes thoughts of boredom or frustration are actually coming from anger or sadness. So go with whatever emotion or set of tensions are there in the body, and keep tracking them with the mental notes as they change.

And be patient. Depending on how intense the body reaction is, it can take time for the organs to metabolise the hormones that are in play.

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