Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2013

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Grieving

The Buddha taught that we live surrounded by "mountains that are moving in on us from all sides, crushing all in its path…" such are the inevitable experiences of aging, sickness, separation from the loved and death. He continues in the sutta by noting that "troops can hold no ground, nor wealth win out" against these forces. Yet, aware of our fragility amidst such unsparing outcomes, we seek false refuges, attempts to deny and avoid our disappointments, to live life without truly opening to the emotional cost of loss. Alas, there is no inoculation from pain, even in spiritual practice.

It should go without noting that life is not only loss: Sadness and delight, separation and connection, easeful and challenging states are intertwined and braided throughout our days. Just as we cannot outrun the darkness that arrives after a beautiful day, if we try to bypass disappointment and depression, we cannot truly relax and appreciate times of excitement and joy.

When the …

Why I'm a Buddhist

Over the years I've frequently encountered the perception that referring to oneself as a Buddhist, or advocating any variation of “ist” or “ism,” is somehow unskillful, just another form of attachment or clinging. This idea proposes that proclaiming oneself a practitioner of a single spiritual path results in getting stuck in opinions and practices, leading inevitably to a denigration of other spiritual paths. Those who advocate the “Don't be a Buddhist or Any Other Ist” explain that compassion and harmlessness are universal qualities that don't fall under the exclusive domain of any spiritual practice, and this is certainly true. Additionally, it's often claimed that we should be encouraged to “take the best” from a variety of sacred traditions, creating a personal philosophy “cafeteria style.”

Certainly I have sympathy for those who seek to remain free of those 2,500 year old rituals and perspectives that make little sense today, and I feel every entitlement to impo…

pay attention

What does it mean to really pay attention to another, as opposed to simply being in the same space at the same time? Does it merely involve waiting patiently for our turn to talk, ruminating over what to say, while another speaks? Does giving attention to another mean hearing just enough of their words that we understand the content?

There is a quality of loving presence that is far greater than the ability to simply repeat back what has been said to us. It's a form of being truly available to another. Senses are awake, the chattering mind quiets, and we hear far more than words and observe more than the obvious, easy to narrate events. Attending to another means being fully receptive, wherein the subtleties of another's emotional state are read: we are hearing their tone of voice, observing their facial expressions and body language, feeling empathetically—via the miracle of our mirror neurons—their inner experience and perhaps even reflecting it back through our own looks of…

once upon a time

We all like to believe that our memories are accurate, that the inner films and images of our past that bubble up into our awareness are true, and the stories we tell of ourselves are accurate. But what if our autobiographies are actually constructions, that each time we recite our life’s events—to someone else, or in our thoughts—we rewrite each remembrance, forever changing the contents? What if our memories have always been, in essence, fabrications built of the expectations and moods present in each retelling.

Just as it appears that the sun revolves around the earth, it generally seems to those uninformed that the sounds and images of memory are essentially neurally written into the memory centers of the brain after a significant event, and that our recollections are activations of the original cognitions. If a past event seems crisp and clear, in this belief, its because the original encodings have remained essentially unaltered.

Yet despite how real our past appears, significa…

ending the war with other people

There's an old saying that if we want to understand why its so difficult to change other people, we need only pause and reflect on how difficult it is to change our own habits and tendencies. Easier said than done: the mind tends to note cause and effect effortlessly when it applies to other people—why can't Sue stop hooking up with Sam? he's such bad news! etc—but we're slow to acknowledge karma—which actions lead to good or bad long term results—when it applies to our own thoughts and behaviors. So we wind up stuck in routines, confused and frustrated by friends and loved ones who dial pain or ignore our requests.

Learning to acknowledge and let go of our irritation with annoying behaviors of friends, work colleagues, family members, roommates et al is an essential part of our spiritual practice. Irritability and judgment turns us into the proverbial tree that cannot bend with the wind; we no longer let life—with all its inevitable first arrows of suffering, such as f…
Research by psychologist Benjamin Converse at the University of Virginia finds that human beings tend believe in a kind of karma, namely our western skew on the spiritual axiom that good deeds result being treated well by fate; we believe we can influence uncontrollable outcomes by performing good deeds, with the often underlying expectation that the universe will pay us back in kind. Confronted with bad news, we may think "If I can get through this, I'll be a better person from hereon."

Karma is thus a kind of reciprocity: I'll buy this round, you'll buy the next, however the deal is made with the universe itself, rather than specific individuals. It's an attempt to steer life towards expected and advantageous directions. We hope our acts of kindness to pave the way for journeys through life that are safe and not too challenging; we hope our kind words inoculate us from pain and discomfort; alas, life doesn't comply with these demands.

Yet, as the Buddha…

orange juice from the hardware store

A recent revelation of developmental neuroscience is the understanding that the brain was designed, by evolution, to be an organ shaped and programmed by the environment it is situated in. The brain is in essence a social organ, with a central role played by human interactions. While the development of language allows us to connect with each other via language, via the conscious operations of the left hemisphere, we first communicate to others in a non-symbolic manner, through body language, facial expressions, glances, tones of voices, under the control of the right hemisphere. In successful encounters our emotions are signals that sync us up, establishing security, emotion regulation and social communication. When we are attuned to another, or "emotionally locked in" with or "mirrored" by others, we can temper states of excitation and move slowly into vulnerable situations that might previously trigger dissociative episodes.

Skillful caretakers provide this mirr…

The Narrator & The Silent Observer

What creates the mind's inner chatter? For lack of a better term, "The Narrator" is created by the language loop of the brain's left hemisphere (a circuit of fibers that connect Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the frontal cortex to the temporal cortex). Developmental psychologists like Lev Vygotsky suggested that the formation of inner talk in childhood begins as a self-regulating tool, a way to internalize the instructive voices of our caretakers for occasions when we are alone in the world, or caught in circumstances we cannot interact verbally to seek guidance. The calmer and gentler were the voices of our parents and guardians, along with those we admire and mimic, the calmer and gentler The Narrator we will hear in the mind, and vice versa. At its most useful, the Narrator can offer a calming presence amidst the threatening chaos of life, when events seem stacked against us.

Without The Narrator we would quite feasibly be overwhelmed by random experienc…

self reflection

One of the most common explorations of spiritual practitioners is the search to uncover a 'true self,' hoping for an answer to the question "who am I?" It's the ongoing attempt to discover a lasting identity beneath all the behavioral masks we've worn in the crusade for social acceptance, adaptation and survival. An underlying personality that predates all the roles we've performed, the characteristics that developed over time. We may believe that if we can find what creates all the inner chatter, we can gain some control over ourselves.

Yet the Buddha taught that the pursuit for a true, unique self was a misguided and wasteful quest (for example, the Ananda Sutta, SN 44.1). Why? In attempting to define a "self," (as opposed to an "other") we inevitably wind up attaching to certain tendencies that provide a continuing sense of uniqueness, while excluding other traits that we may experience but don't deem personally ours. If I belie…

acceptance: put your head in the demon's jaw

Amongst the most relaxing moments in spiritual growth are the times during which, after so much struggle and resistance, we give up battling our difficult states—depression, grief, awkwardness, loneliness, frustration—and choose to surrender to what's present, opening to and accepting the experience. It's liberating, for there is nothing more futile and stress inducing than being at war with the emotional mind, wrestling with obsessions and moods.

The practice of acceptance is not resignation, agreeing that we will always feel encumbered; rather its a realization that resistance, as the Buddha taught in his second arrow teaching, lies at the core of unnecessary suffering. Nor does it mean we act out on every impulse, or wallow in despair, or give up the practices that bring about balance, such as meditation, exercise, medications if prescribed, support meetings and on. We continue to take positive actions. Rather, acceptance lies in acknowledging and welcoming what's presen…

the other side of ignorance

"What lies on the other side of ignorance of seeing things as good or bad? The ease of of experiencing life clearly, without delusions. And what lies beyond that? Awakening…The spiritual life finds its ultimate resting place in awakening, it ends in awakening, there is nothing beyond it."

So the buddha states (in the Culvadalla Sutta, MN 44) that awakening is not only achievable, but offers a sense of security, or 'foothold,' for one who lets go of interpreting life in terms of preferences and agendas. This could be seen as an effective response to the existential question of how to establish a purpose for life: the ending of following one's innate, default survival settings, along with all the ideas about What's Best for Me, while turning one's attention to deeper and more meaningful pursuits.

The challenge of the spiritual life is returning to the fundamental experience of the present moment in and of itself, "without regard to the world" (i…

Atammayata: The Gift of Spacious Awareness

Attention is like the lens of a camera. Often in spiritual practice we're asked to focus on very specific sensations, such as softening the muscles of the abdomen or reciting metta phrases ("May I be free of unnecessary stress, suffering and fear; may I find ease amidst life's challenges"). This practice can be very useful during anxiety attacks, when the inner voice of fear is so compelling and destructive that we're best served by centering the mind on an alternative object that interrupts the triggering, such deepening in breaths and lengthening out breaths.

Sometimes, however, allowing the focus of the mind to narrow is part of the problem, not the solution. We may be caught up in obsessive worries about the future or in very real setbacks in life, such as physical pain or separations from loved ones. As the mind fixates, it loses contact with the wide variety of sensations and impressions that can create a sense of spaciousness and mantain perspective. There&…

Finding Authentic Meaning for Life

From earliest infancy and continuing throughout life, humans seek secure relationships with others that will provide enough security to allow us to explore the world around us without feeling alone and vulnerable. Supported by others, we don’t fall back on fight-flight-or-freeze programming, nor allow basic survival concerns, such as finding the next meal, to dominate all our actions. Instead we can develop additional relationships with others, and accumulate skills to support us for whatever challenging circumstances arise in the future.

In addition to providing security, belonging to a community provides us with a sense of purpose greater than survival alone: We can develop higher values, such as empathy, care and concern for others, tolerance, self-acceptance, inner peace through meditative practice. It’s not surprising that research conclusively demonstrates that people are happiest when they feel securely connected with a group.

Yet, as we move through life, seeking meaningful i…

Reasons to Forgive

Like many other primates, such as chimpanzees and macaques, humans have a strong motivational tendencies to retaliate after being victimized. After any slight, insult, act of aggression or infraction, we seek retribution against those who transgress, committing additional wrongdoings in response. Alas, these reactions generally don't put an end to misdeeds and encroachments; revenge creates a cycle of vengeance, as most acts of retaliation are perceived—by the original transgressors who receive the retribution—as disproportionate, far more painful and harmful than the first offense (which was often caused by carelessness during times of stress, rather than planned.) Consequently a back and forth, tit-for-tat series of retaliations and counter-retaliations ensue (Baumeister, Exline, Sommer 1998).

Given the disastrous results that invariably ensue, all cultures have laws and processes that codify and enact punishment, taking the retaliatory response away from individuals. No cohere…

Mindful Alarm

Mindful Alarm
Its a common practice to rely on certain phrases as self-motivating, activating mantras; mottos to get us going, to hurry us along, put a move on it, pick up the pace, set stuff in motion and focus our attention. These inner incitements come in many forms, but they all have the same, underlying message: We're really screwed this time, unless we work ourselves up into a lather.

Let's listen in on these enlivening mantras: "I've got to get myself together… It's later than I thought… I've got to get going… There's not enough time… Time's running out… There's even less time now… Oh no, I must've forgotten something… I'm not gonna make it… Get out of my way… So many things to do, and I'm not getting it done… I have to do more… There's something I have to do, but I don't know what it is…"

Put all these panic phrases together, and the underlying message is that the world will end if we don't meet a deadline or g…

Self-Soothing Techniques

There are many ways to add tension to life, from relentless busyness of packed schedules, to setting unrealistic expectations and views of oneself of others; the slight insults and miscommunications of daily life; the drive to succeed, accomplish, achieve; there's no time to rest or fully relax. The resulting, relentless momentum can hijack the outlets in life that should calm the mind; for example our exercise routines can be co-opted by feelings of "not doing enough" and guilt. Even our spiritual practices, such as meditation, can fall into the same stressful rut of "I'm not getting far enough, my mind is still wandering" and "what's wrong with me, why don't I do it more?" Nothing is more detrimental to spiritual growth than turning it into a chore driven by "shoulds" and striving agendas.

If we are to reduce our agitation, short tempers, and low thresholds for difficult emotions, we'll need more than therapy or spiritual …

The Merit Book Reflection

In sri lanka there was a wonderful cultural practice that developed virtue and self-esteem: When children first started to attend school, their teachers would set a side a journal for each student, known as a 'merit book,' (punna-potthaka). So each morning the teacher could ask her or his student 'What good deed have you done?" After the student would answer—perhaps "I helped my grandmother carry the groceries home…etc"—the teacher could instruct the student to "Write it in the punna."

If the students kept up with the practice of writing regularly in their 'merit books', eventually, over the course of a lifetime, these journals would be filled up with good deeds. Naturally, the years passed and the time would arrive when the student became old and sick and, having reached their deathbeds, their family members and friends would gather around and read their merit books back to them, as a way to put their minds at ease as they faced death.


Broken Pickers — Understanding the need to compulsively choose unsuitable partners

Why do a human beings develop the tendency to fall again and again into unsatisfying relationships? Why do we repeat the past, even after developing awareness into the characteristics of unsuitable partners?

During our most vulnerable and formative years, each of us seeks reliable security, empathy, appreciation and encouragement from our caretakers, who serve as our developmental role models. We need to be presented with an array of aspirational skills, talents, behaviors and qualities worth developing over life, such as compassion, humor, creativity, resilience and so on; the human brain is a largely imitative organ, and we need observable targets if we are to evolve and progress throughout life.

While no parent or guardian can be anywhere near perfectly attuned or supportive, dependable caretakers understand how long their children can tolerate a break from visual contact and touch, or go without a supportive and caring structure, before restoring connection. Remember, infants can…

the glorification of busyness

One of the most uncomfortable experiences in contemporary life seems to be waiting: we'll do practically anything to avoid it. From the small screens of our smart phones and internet browsers we expect immediate connection to what's going on with our work, friends, blogs, social media pages, internet dating messages and on; a people hooked by the promise of being-in-the-loop, always available, tuned in, tied up. No wonder there's a coffee shop selling 20 ounce acetlycholine blast offs on every corner: Who has time to slow down?
We're constantly fine-tuning and upgrading life towards ever greater efficiency, whereas downtime means something's gone awry and free time is a sign of sheer, irresponsible self-indulgence. Behavior that a generation earlier was symptomatic of mania—a constant flow of shifting desires, overly ambitious plans, unlikely leaps from one conversational topic to another, inadequate attention spans, the compulsive need to be constantly on the mov…

Proof of Life on Earth

It's reported that some indigenous cultures believe that photographs steal a bit of our soul, that Aboriginals and other island cultures believe that each image takes something of our essence from us. And in a way they're absolutely right. Each instance in which we try to 'capture a moment' we lose understanding that its slipping past us, we'll never get it back, that we've failed to attend to it with the integrity of full sensory awareness.

Such an observation, of course, runs counter to our beliefs, for it seems that we have become as interested in the representation of life as the actual experience of it. From arriving at scenic vistas to the most mundane meal, from nights on the town to resting in our most private moments, the obligation is to whip out a smart phone, take a snapshot and publish the images soon after as a kind of documentation that it really happened, and we really exist, that our lives are so very full. And perhaps there's even an underl…