Meditation and mental health

Our guest author is an 18-year-old student living in Leicester, UK.

5.5 mins read.

Last year I very nearly ditched school.

I was torn between two worlds: my father in Wales — an intelligent and charismatic individual characterised by his grand, magical thinking, and my mother in Leicester, who had always been kind and patient. After years of not understanding the conflict between the two, I had to find out more about my dad’s world. I left for Wales in January 2017 planning not to return.

However, I was back in Leicester the following week, having experienced my dad’s coercive tirades and destructive behaviour first hand. This was enough for me to realise what it is actually like to live with mental health problems, and that I needed a reliable method to be able to control my own mind.

high-school-dropoutLots of people my age have to deal with disturbing relationships, identity and gender issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and the struggles of long-term mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Some go for counselling to manage these problems, and others have turned to their medical doctors for help. Whilst these are valid avenues, for me the solution has been meditation.

How do I meditate?

When meditating, I sit cross-legged, shut out the outside world, and focus on developing specific positive feelings, such as love or compassion. Sometimes the only thing I can focus on is the pain in my knees, but when all my distractions cease I can feel a profound sense of calm and peace.

‘So what?’ you might say — ‘I feel pretty relaxed after a couple of pints. This sounds like airy-fairy nonsense to me.’

I would have probably agreed with that a year or two ago. In fact, it’s true that for the first sessions you may not experience instant results. Hence, there is a lot of confusion about meditation. Some people think it is about losing yourself, whilst others think it is about finding yourself; some think meditation is about being mindless like a stone, or even listening to whale noises. For me, after enduring so much pain and confusion during my childhood, I was determined to find a method that, based on logical reasoning, was bound to produce lasting positive results.

Meditating-1After researching various traditions and schools of meditation, I came across the clarity of the Kadampa teachings and discovered that a key part of the meditative process is being able to identify the states of mind that produce negative feelings and then working to reduce them, and identifying positive states of mind and working to increase them. Therefore, meditation is a methodology for familiarising the mind with positivity.

How does meditation improve our mental health?

The principal driving force of meditation is concentration and mindfulness. By learning to concentrate solely on positive states of mind without distractions, we train in developing positive thought patterns. This is akin to a musician practising scales and chords, or training our muscles in the gym through repeated exercises. Eventually through training in meditation, positive mental sequences become ingrained and it becomes possible to tap into them effortlessly. Since good mental health comes from positive states of mind, we can thus understand how meditation, when practised correctly, has great power to improve our mental health.

The evidence

To find out more about how meditation has helped others, I made a case study of five people who use meditation: a doctor, a Buddhist practitioner, a researcher, and two of my friends at college.

A doctor:

doctor

Doctor Judith Casson, a GP at Hinckley surgery, has been practising mindfulness meditation for fifteen years. She has found it to be an invaluable tool for her own mental health and has witnessed the positive implementation of mindfulness practices in junior doctors and her patients. She thinks of meditation as like “planting a seed from which grows long-term compassion and patience”.

A researcher:

There is abundant scientific evidence for meditation improving mental health. Neurobiologist Sara Lazar, PhD, states in an interview with the Washington Post that after conducting studies, meditation was found to increase grey matter in different parts of the brain, including the left hippocampus which is associated with regulating emotions. This could prove a direct neurobiological link between emotional stability and meditation.

A Buddhist practitioner:

Derek is a Buddhist practitioner who started meditating nearly fifty years ago. As a child, he struggled with serious health problems and nearly died. “I had to learn to deal with a wealth of suffering and mental torment, which acted as a big incentive to try to work with my mind.” 45 years later, he is now able to maintain mental stability despite ongoing health challenges.

Two of my friends at college:

After just one month of practising a basic breathing meditation, my friend Ellie, who suffers from PTSD and anxiety, says, “Meditation has allowed me to find peace in the most difficult times – it has been an absolute lifeline.” Similarly, my friend Alex who suffers from cerebral palsy and depression has also turned to meditation. In his words, “It’s given me clarity when rationality goes out the window.”

Me:

After a year and a half of practising meditation, I myself am much better able to deal with daily challenges, my stress has reduced, I don’t fall into frustration so easily, and I rarely get depressed. Most of the time I’m not fazed when things don’t go the way I expect. My empathy and compassion have dramatically increased and I’m also better able to think clearly and organise my time. I’m not perfect, but I can clearly see an upward trajectory of peace and mental stability.

Where am I now?

It has been a year and a half since I’ve had to cut ties with my dad, and although I am still dealing with grieving and loss, meditation has helped me to move on and I can face my adversities with a happy mind. Through meditating on compassion, I have also learned to see things from my dad’s perspective, which has been an eye-opener in understanding his suffering due to his mental health disorder.

Despite the rocky territory I have passed through in the last year and a half, I finished my A Levels in June 2018 with great results. I have just started an art course at De Montfort University in Leicester, and, let me tell you, I am loving life! Through the special qualities of modern Kadampa Buddhism, I can now take my peaceful mind wherever I go and do all the normal student things at the same time.airplane

Just like becoming a pilot takes many years of training and knowledge, from my own experience I believe that through consistent practice we can fly our mind to profoundly better mental health through meditation.

Ed: This week (Oct 7-13) is Mental Health Awareness Week …. Please share this guest article to raise awareness of the benefits of meditation in helping with mental health issues.

To find a meditation class near you, click here.

For articles on getting started with breathing meditation, click here.

 

The Great Escape

4 mins read and a video

Did you hear about the rescue of the 12 Thai boys and their coach? Probably, unless you were stuck down a cave yourself, because it was headline news all over the world. A feel-good story of heroism and selflessness that was a rare light in the increasingly surreal 24/7 news cycle, an international effort to extricate children that was a welcome break from the head-spinning politics of fear, resentment, and retrenchment.

Thai boys rescue

This was something we all seemed to pretty much agree on for a change. Common ground. Something we could understand, that brought us closer. Something “real”. A story that felt good to identify with and celebrate, and that gave people everywhere an opportunity to appreciate and exercise the common values of compassion and love innate to all of us, regardless of their religion or politics. Where I was, in London, there mission accomplishedwas a genuine eruption of rejoicing and high fives as the last boy was brought out.

And for me this story is deeply motivating in another way too …

Imagine this. You were looking forward to exploring a cave with your friends after routine soccer practice, but when you try to leave you find your exit flooded by an unexpected downpour.

You are all totally trapped. It is pitch dark, with a tiny bit of light from the flashlights. You have only the clothes you came in and a ledge to perch on. There is nothing to eat, for you were only planning on being there an hour; and for water you have to lick dripping stalactites. You are running out of strength. You feel sick. There are no toilets, and nothing comfortable to sit or lie on. You take turns trying to dig yourself out, but soon realize it’s hopeless. Perhaps worst of all, you have no idea if anyone is coming for you and, even if they do come for you, how on earth they are going to get you out of there.

Plus you are still just a boy.

This is going on for days, nine days so far, an eternity … Would you feel anguished? Agitated? Scared? Lonely? If anyone has a right to feel that way, it would be children trapped almost 1km underground.

Yet the first reports coming out revealed a very different picture. As one of their mothers said:  

Thai coach“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” the mother of one of the boys told the AP, referring to a widely shared video of the moment the boys were found.

As it says in this article:

Instead of agitated and anguished, they were in a state of calm.

How could this be?!!

How Buddhist meditation kept the Thai boys calm in the cave

Later it transpired that the boys’ soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, had lived in a Buddhist monastery for a decade and taught the boys to meditate!

I don’t know what meditations he taught them – perhaps breathing meditation and mindfulness of their body, feelings, and thoughts, given that this is the Thai tradition (but Thai boys meditatingI stand to be corrected). However, whatever it was, through meditation they clearly discovered the peace and calm we all have within us. They found sanctuary. Which makes me think:

If meditation works when you’re trapped underground, it probably works everywhere …

As it says in the same article:

That meditation would be a useful practice in an extremely stressful situation like being trapped in a cave is really no surprise. Buddhist meditation has been around for 2,600 years, since the Buddha began teaching it as tool for achieving clarity and peace of mind, and ultimately, liberation from suffering.

So I find this story enormously revealing and inspiring in that it shows us our indestructible mental potential, our so-called Buddha nature, as well as the accessibility and power of meditation in enabling us to access that natural peace and let go of all our worries and anxiety. Even in a situation where all our usual props have fallen away, such as in an empty cave deep underground, we can still learn to enjoy the refuge of inner happiness and freedom.

coach with boysThis is the real great escape we all have to look forward to. With practice, this can become freedom from all uncertainty and suffering, despite the diminishing props of all our lives. After all, when it comes right down to it, no one can give us actual freedom – we have to claim it.

Check out this news clip of a live national interview with a Kadampa teacher in Toronto, answering questions such as:

  • How would meditation be helpful in a stressful situation like this?
  • Can people learn meditation that quickly?
  • What is the capacity of someone that young to understand what they are doing when they meditate?
  • Meditation helped them mentally and spiritually, how about physically?

Hope you have a chance to watch this. And then get cracking with your meditation 😄 If you haven’t gotten started yet, maybe check out one of these articles and/or find a class near you.

Interesting update:

Thai boy monksThe 11 boys and their coach have been ordained as Buddhist monks for nine days! (The coach for longer, I believe.) Check out this article.

The boys, whose ages range from 11 to 16, will live in a Buddhist temple for nine days, the same length of time they were trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai before they were discovered by a team of divers.

Postscript: The power of prayer

Someone left this comment and I think it is worth repeating here:

The other thing I took away from this is the power of prayer. The whole world wished for the boys and their coach to be brought out safely alive. Prayer can also be called a wish path so the whole world, no matter what faith each person practiced, even those who claim no faith, was praying for their safe recovery. The potential for death was huge yet they are all alive. What brought together all the people with the knowledge needed to perform the successful rescue? The wishes/prayers of the whole world.

That leads me to the question, what would happen if the whole world spent as many days wishing deep in their hearts for an end to war?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to banish stress?

I am on the road again, this time to Glasgow. The tube was delayed into Heathrow by some undisclosed incident on the tracks, and after 10 minutes a young boy started to stress 1whimper, “We’re going to miss our plane!” His patient mother explained several times why they still had plenty of time, and when that didn’t work she told him firmly, “You will have to learn how to cope with stress if you are going to survive life.” And then his dad added, “There is nothing we can do so we just have to accept this; stop worrying.” Advice to live by. Not that their son seemed too convinced at the time.

I have just overheard in this busy terminal, in short order, a man confiding into his phone, “Today has been a disaster so far and I’m on holiday so that makes it even more annoying.” And then a woman into her phone, “Everyone here is having a hard day as far as I can see.”

And it is not just here, of course, that everyone’s having a hard day. Today’s headlines out of Charlottesville, Virginia indicate the vicious and stupid racism that is still alive and well in America, for example. Plus, is anyone else around here wondering whether humankind is about to atomized, with all this adolescent tension between the US and North Korea? A friend said yesterday that we may as well not worry about the chaotic fumbling disaster that is Brexit because at this rate we won’t be around long enough for it to happen.

She kind of had a point. When we remember we will be dying before too long — let alone our countless past and future lives and all the big sufferings we have experienced and yet have to experience in samsara — it interestingly gets all our other problems into perspective. The individual details of samsara don’t have the power to crowd our mind, to overwhelm us, when we are focused on the big picture. We have the space and mental peaceful mind quotecontrol to develop renunciation (the determination to get permanently free) and bodhichitta (the determination to get everyone permanently free) instead.

But first things first. As indicated in this last article on how to overcome anxiety, we could all do with learning to relax as a matter of priority, which we can do using a breathing meditation that gives us the peace of mind to reboot and cope.

It is not selfish to take the time to do this, for how are we going to sort out this world if we cannot sort out ourselves? I thought I’d “guide” a simple but effective meditation here so you have something to do next time you’re trapped on a hot tube with anxious travelers or experiencing heart palpitations from headlines like, “North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and terrifying”.

We will all be Buddhas one day

Breathing meditation is all the rage these days. But have you ever wondered why a simple meditation on our breath has the power to make us feel so much better? After all, we are breathing all the time. I think it proves that our mind is naturally peaceful, and that to access this peaceful mind we simply need to stop churning it up with uncontrolled thoughts (which are like a speedboat churning up the deep water of a still Scottish loch). We don’t need to add peace to our minds, for we already have it going on inside.

IMG_1389.jpg

It is quite profound, really. When we do the following meditation, we get a glimpse of our Buddha nature, our infinite depth – our natural inner peace that is full of the seeds of universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, everlasting peace, and the ability to help everyone. It is like an indestructible gold nugget hiding out in the muck of our delusions.

If we want the incredible inspiration required to keep going day after day in our pursuit of freeing the world of suffering, we must always relate to this fundamental purity in both ourselves and others, looking past our delusions to see the future Buddhas within. The alternative is to go around feeling moreorless bad about ourselves and everyone else, too demoralized to do much about all these complications we see everywhere. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in the free Buddhist e-book How to Transform Your Life:

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure, essential nature of every living being … Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

And we can do this happily and without getting so exhausted. I think we have to clear the muck aside, at least for a moment, by doing some meditation every day, or we will inevitably forget about our own and others’ gold nuggets and simply remain part of the problem/muck. So, here goes.IMG_1391

15-minute peace meditation

First get into a good meditation posture with a straight but relaxed back, level shoulders, and head tilted a little forward. Your mouth and eyes are lightly closed or, if you prefer, your eyes can be slightly open. Take a moment to settle into this posture and forget about everything else.

Feel contented to be here doing this — accessing your potential for limitless peace and the ability to help others in this troubled world — and determined to concentrate as best you can.

Spend a couple of minutes doing some simple breathing meditation, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils. Tune into this, disregarding all static distractions.

As a result of your mind settling a little in this way, feel that you drop from your head into your heart – your spiritual heart or heart chakra right in the center of your chest. Feel already some space opening up, some peace. Feel as though your wave-like problems and distractions have dissolved away into the boundless ocean of clarity at your heart; just imagine.

Now, to become even more absorbed, think that everything outside your body disappears, melts into light in all directions. There is nothing out there to think about.

Now this light gathers into you, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until all that remains is your body suspended in empty space.

Also everything up until this moment melts into light and disappears. The past evaporates like last night’s dream, for it is no more substantial than that.

And everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. There is no future other than our thoughts about it, so let these go.

In this way, you are still and quiet, in your heart, in the present moment. There is only here and now. You are fully present, fully alive.

Now feel all the tension and weight fall away from your body. As it falls away, all your muscles relax and your body melts into light. Your body is hollow and translucent, as if you could pass your hand right through it without resistance. You think, “My body is as light as air, as if I am floating or flying.”

IMG_1368Then, “My body is like a rainbow body and my mind is like clear light.” Just imagine.

Now, still in your heart, imagine any problems you’re having — physical, emotional, mental, political, relationship, money problems etc. — appearing as heavy smoke or clouds. All unpleasant feelings and unhappy thoughts take form.

Think, “These are just thoughts and feelings, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t need to think them. I don’t need to identify with them. I can let them go.”

As you exhale through your nostrils, let them go. They disappear completely, never to arise again. You are breathing away your problems — with every breath your mind becoming purer and calmer. Concentrate on this for a couple of minutes and, if a distraction arises, breathe that out as well.

For the last few out-breaths, breathe out the last of the thick smoke.

Then, as you breathe in, imagine that your breath is in the aspect of blissful light. Ride this light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Feel happier and lighter with every breath. Do this for a few minutes.

Now focus on this peaceful clarity at your heart, like a clear sky, infinitely spacious.

You can think, “This peace, however relative or slight, is the natural peace of my own mind. This peace is always in my mind. It indicates my potential for deep lasting happiness. There is plenty more where it came from. It is my Buddha nature. It is who I really am.” And feel happy about all that.

This peace is also not separate from the peace of enlightenment. Knowing this, you receive blessings

Allow yourself to abide with this peace, to enjoy it, thinking, “This is me. I don’t have a care in the world.”

Then you can think, “How wonderful it would be if everyone felt this peaceful and free, or for that matter completely peaceful and free.” With compassion, you can spend some time getting ready for the day ahead. Who are you going IMG_1392to meet? How do you want to relate to them? I usually request some inner guidance at this point from Buddha in my heart, so I have the opportunities and skill to help people in the best possible way that day. It usually seems to work.

It is now safe to go out 😁

I hope this helps. You can find more advice on breathing meditation in these articles

Did you enjoy this meditation?! How did you get on?

(ps, pictures are of Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, where KMC Glasgow holds regular meditation retreats.)

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How to feel less busy all the time

This continues directly from this article.

busy 1Time off?!

Also, if you actually itemize what many frenetically “busy” people do every week, my bet would be that they (we, you) have far more leisure time than they think, it is just that instead of using the time to unwind and recharge they just fill it up with more stuff and distractions, eg, surfing the internet, driving places, organized leisure activities, computer games, Netflix. Having fun on the outside, perhaps, but feeling preoccupied on the inside. So leisure time feels busy too.

Flying recently, the moment we touched down almost every single person on that plane grabbed their phone. That withdrawal and addiction – it’s a bit like smoking, only smoking has been banned from public places whereas everyone can indulge their addiction for digital data. Scratching that itch – where is the happiness in that? We can’t live like that. Here’s an experiment: how long can you last without wanting to pick up your smartphone?! (I am talking to myself here.)

So technology, for all its uses, has not helped in this regard. The fleeting world is always-on — texts, tweets, emails, and status updates. (Also, on another subject, we are not really “connected” — we are isolated because we have no time to think deeply about each other or reality.) Now of course you can even get an Apple Watch that gives your wrist a little electric shock to announce all the wildly exciting alerts that cannot wait, even if you are actually trying to have an interesting conversation with someone. (It’s a bit like when servers interrupt deep, meaningful conversations at restaurants to ask if everything is ok?! Is it just me who gets bugged by that?!) That watch sounds like torture to me. Apparently the average video etc screen also changes every 7 to 11 seconds – now how does that not constitute over-stimulation?! There may be excitement in it, perhaps, but there is no real happiness if there is no real peace.busy 4

Froth and sparkles

Peace comes from concentration, being able to stay on one object. Single-tasking, not multi-tasking. If we are identifying entirely with the froth and sparkles on top of the ocean, oblivious to the vast stillness and peace beneath, there is not much peace in that.

I reckon we have plenty of time to meditate and get in touch with who we are, really, if we want to. Certainly enough time. Is there anyone who absolutely cannot find 20 minutes a day to meditate? Although we may complain at first that it is just another pressure on our to-do list, the reality is that it will open up the space and time we need for the rest of our day. The time to meditate is when you don’t have time for it.

In this way, we’ll have more freedom. Otherwise we are a bit like mindless automatons — the opposite of meditators. (What do you do first thing in the morning – reach for Facebook or absorb into your heart chakra?!) I read a study recently about what happened when people lost their iPhone – out of 100 people, 73 experienced panic, 8 experienced physical sickness, 7 felt nervous, and only 7 were cool with it.

“But I’m too busy to meditate!”

And, as mentioned, I would argue that we are not necessarily doing more, or getting more things done, not in the grand scheme of things — but just feeling busier. My teacher Geshe Kelsang, for example, has thousands of centers and students and a universal feeling of responsibility for others — if anyone has a right to feel under pressure, busy, or overextended it is him, but he is the most spacious, blissful, relaxed person you’ll ever meet.

Busy BusinessmanSo if we learn to increase our inner space and peace we can have a life full of things we want to do, but we don’t have to feel so busy, as if there’s never enough time, as if there’s always something else that needs doing, as if we’re running behind the bus. We don’t need that feeling. The feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do comes from uncontrolled thoughts, a bit like a dog with a bone, not able to stay in the moment and abide in space while still getting things done. We are not able to let go of distractions and enjoy a feeling of peace, the natural peace of our own settled mind. More than anything else, we need relief from the time pressure by setting aside time to meditate to access that peace. Not being too busy to take the medicine! The objection “But I am too busy to meditate!” is precisely why we need to meditate.

If you are new to meditation it is good to keep it short and sweet – 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Our mind is like an out of control elephant! (that’s what Buddha said). The mind is the most powerful force in the universe – for destruction or creativity. If we have no control over it, we have no control over our lives. When people start meditating they can often only manage about 3 minutes before they even forget they’re supposed to be meditating – so don’t worry if you feel like that, I wish I had a dollar for every time some says, “I am too distracted to meditate!” It gets better quickly, but you have to want to do it. For example, you manage to concentrate on your driving for considerably more than 3 minutes, presumably as you want to stay alive. You don’t text when you drive.

“You’re not that busy.”

Another tip for not feeling so overwhelmingly busy is to stop insisting to ourself that we’re overwhelmingly busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. We can say to ourselves instead, “You’re not that busy”, or even “I have lots of time”, and then calmly do one thing after another. Living in the moment gives us all the time we need.swimming in bathtub

Swimming in a bathtub

Someone the other day put a good analogy on Facebook (that fount of all knowledge!) of swimming in the bathtub — splashing around hurting our limbs, and not really getting anywhere. Whereas the same strokes in a vast ocean feel blissful and expansive. So we can do the same daily activities either in the bathtub or in the ocean of the clarity and stillness of our own peaceful mind.

In meditation, we can relax into the natural rhythm of the breath. We can experience a moment by moment presence of mind, or mindfulness. We can get in touch with the present moment by getting in touch with the clarity and peace of our own mind. So we can rest our mind in meditation, and then bring that peace with us into daily life. We don’t forget about it but keep tuning into it, and everything becomes lighter, easier, and less frantic.

Comments welcome! (If you have time.)

Be here now

photo 4 (2)Mindfulness is about the present moment, being in touch with it, not forgetting it. Presence of mind. All of Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, help us stay in touch with the present moment. For example, with love we focus on people who are here and now, wishing them to be happy, even if they are in another country, or even deceased (they are still somewhere). With patience we wholeheartedly accept what is happening in the here and now without thinking it should be otherwise. With wisdom we appreciate the moment by moment unfurling of mere appearance, which is arising, due to karma, like waves from our root mind.

Be here now, or we are quite capable of missing out on our entire life. As John Lennon put it:

Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans.

Where else can we be other than here? What time can we be other than now?

photo 3

I’m lucky enough to be living near the Denver Botanical Gardens, and right now they are exquisite with late summer blooming and the Chihuly exhibition.* The other day I was sitting on a bench contemplating — loving just being there absorbed in the scene. A power couple marched past fast, hand in hand, furrowed brows, looking straight ahead, in earnest conversation about some plans for the future. They did not seem present, they seemed to be missing all the beauty and stillness and space around them; and it made me think that I also am often not as present as I would like, even when supposedly relaxing and enjoying myself, let alone when busy at work.

Without mindfulness we are distracted, which basically means we are remembering something else other than what is happening right here and right now. Another way to understand distraction is all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking because our mind is out of control.

Breathing meditation, focusing single-pointedly on the breath, is the way to let go of distractions. Through this, we automatically become more centered, peaceful, present, focused, and clear, and then we can transform our mind from there. Otherwise, just trying to think good thoughts on top of the dubious thoughts we already have can be just adding one layer of conceptuality on top of another.

I explain here Geshe Kelsang’s very helpful basic meditation on the breath. I just wanted to add a few more observations. photo 4

Background noise

We remember that in the context of this meditation anything other than the breath is a distraction. Distractions and stray thoughts will continue to float around for a while, until we have constant mindfulness, which is quite a high level of concentration (the fourth of the nine stages leading to tranquil abiding – you can read more in Joyful Path.)  However, we don’t have to pay them attention, any more than we have to listen to the cacophony in a crowded room when we are focusing with interest on the person talking to us.

When we hit the sweet spot of concentration on the breath, and settle there, it’s a bit like tuning in the radio to our favorite song and dispensing with the static. We don’t want to spend ages tuning that radio knob, we want to get right to it; and nor would we want to spend ages settling into the breath if we know how enjoyable it’s going to be.

photo 2

No negotiation, just single-pointed focus

We don’t negotiate with our distractions – as soon as we engage them in any way, eg, “I’ll just think you through and then you’ll go away and leave me alone”, they’ve won. Some of these stray thoughts might feel like genius, “Hey, I’ve got to remember this, what an insight!”, but, as a teacher once told me, “It is a disaster to have a notepad by your meditation seat.” We are trying to control our minds through breathing meditation, and for that we have to stay on the breath. We need presence of mind. We can set up the will power to do this from the outset by remembering what we’re trying to accomplish with breathing meditation. Then there is great hope that when the witty riposte to that annoying co-worker suddenly comes to us, we don’t indulge it.

In the Summer Festival, Gen-la Dekyong said we don’t need any fancy tricks to overcome distractions, we just need the will power, just as when we are driving. I thought this was brilliant, so simple and obvious (once it’s pointed out!) While we are driving, we want to be mindful – so we don’t have to negotiate with ourselves moment by moment, “Shall I focus on the road or shall I text my friend?” When we know what’s at stake, we naturally concentrate on what we’re doing.

No rush

It’s best to feel like we have plenty of time when we meditate. Even if we only have ten minutes before work, we can feel that we have all the time in the world, and that there is no place else to be. Everything else can wait ten minutes. Don’t meditate in a rush.

photo 5 (2)We need meditation

If someone told you to focus on your arm for five minutes without thinking about anything else, you might think, “That’s easy, I can do that!” Well, just try it.

As a child, Einstein had a club. To join it, you had to sit in the corner for an hour and not think about a white bear. As he put it himself, “There is no one in this club, not even me.”

These kinds of examples show that we have far less control over our mind than we think! This is why we need to start meditating asap.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

*I only really mentioned the botanical gardens as an excuse to scatter my Chihuly photos throughout this article.

 

Don’t leave me alone in here! ~ a Buddhist’s thoughts on Smartphone addiction

smartphone addictionSociety today could do with some meditation!

Science journal recently published a sobering study that has not surprisingly created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. Get this:

“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”

6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.

It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?

The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:

smartphone in carExtract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”

He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.

Give yourself a real break

In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Think in the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:

“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”

happiness 2Life is full of loss for all of us. I once heard a Tibetan Lama say:

“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”

But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:

“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”

So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.

The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering jack in the box

Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:

“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”

Buddha said that the root cause of our mental pain is the two distorted ego-minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing. The article would also seem to suggest something along these lines:

“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”

As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:

“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song 🙂

And that’s not all …

The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us 3d rendering of a water splash with ripple shaped as a heart.of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.

Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Path for more on this (p. 319-320).

So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.

Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!

Meditating for Gold

Pagpa and the Great Britain Men’s Hockey Team

The earliest recorded Olympic competition occurred in 776 B.C. Buddha Shakyamuni taught in 500 B.C. The ancient Greeks valued physical excellence, and that admiration has continued in the Olympics up to this day. The ancient Buddhists valued mental excellence, and this admiration too has continued amongst meditators to this day.

While in Cape Town on a local tour to play against South Africa and train for the 2012 London Olympics, the Great Britain Men’s Hockey team asked Pagpa at the Kadampa Center in Cape Town to come and teach them how to meditate. Taking a leaf out of the 2500 year-old Buddhist tradition, they are including meditation as part of their regimen for success. As a side effect, they are also reporting increased happiness and well-being 🙂

A calm, balanced, peaceful mind is likened to stable, shining gold in the Kadampa Buddhist Tradition – avoiding the extremes of over-excitement, like glittery diamonds, or dullness, like lead. We will see in October whether the UK hockey team bring home the Olympic gold again, but it seems they’re already making strides toward inner gold. Read on to see what their coach has to say:

“In football there is an old debate about whether or not it is possible to practise in preparation for the infamous penalty shoot-out. The England football team have lost on penalties at late stages of many major competitions. In the ruminations of the incident, football pundits generally agree that you can’t replicate the pressures of the penalty shoot-out, so at best any attempt to practise for it will be limited. It is true that you can’t replicate those pressures, but you can improve the ability to not be distracted by the pressures, to maintain a balanced and calm approach.

We in the Great Britain Men’s Hockey team are using meditation to try and develop this ability, and whilst in South Africa during a training camp we were privileged to be introduced to the power of meditation by our teacher Pagpa from the Tushita Buddhist Centre.

Many of the players reported how inspired they were by Pagpa’s introduction to meditation, and were amazed at the positive potential meditation has for their sporting performance and their general happiness and well-being.

We now integrate meditation time into our day and since doing so there has been a palpable improvement in the mood of the players, despite the increasing pressures they are experiencing as we get closer to the biggest sporting event of their lives; the 2012 London Olympics.

Irrespective of our performance at the Olympics, I am confident that the help Pagpa has given us in using the power of meditation will help us play to our best, whilst keeping a calm and balanced perspective.”

Jason Lee
Great Britain & England Senior Men’s Head Coach

Kadampa Buddhism in South Africa

Pagpa is an old friend. Here is a very quick potted history: Pagpa met Kadampa Buddhism many years ago at Madhyamaka Centre, while I was living there — he peeked his dreadlocked head around the door to Tharpa Publications, where I was working, and introduced himself as the son of two of my parents’ closest friends. He was attending horticultural college in the area, and then he moved into Madhyamaka Centre and became the laid-back gardener, until Geshe Kelsang scooped him out and asked him to be Director of NKT mother ship Manjushri Centre. From there he went to Malaysia to teach Buddhism for several years, until he was requested to teach in South Africa.

Pagpa and other religious leaders opening the World Cup Stadium 2011

Since he has been there, as well as teaching in Cape Town he has managed to open the World Cup stadium and help his fellow teacher and monk Sangdak bring Buddha’s teachings to Zululand. He and Sangdak are having way too much fun out there. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Sangdak in Zululand