Say “Yes” to “No”

I can’t begin to tell you how many times when I am meditating something arises that feels like “No,” or that says “No” or that creates a feeling of friction, rasping, constriction, or denial that feels like “No.”  When I first began meditating I would become flustered and then frustrated when this would happen. I didn’t know how to work with this kind of phenomena. 

Without intending to, at first, I would notice and then push a “No” thought or sensation away by immediately returning my attention to the breath. This didn’t work.  I was forgetting to acknowledge the presence of “No.” 

Once aware of this forgetting, I would notice and acknowledge. I would say inwardly, “thought” or “sensation” or “inner voice” depending on how the “No” was manifesting and return my attention to the breath. This seemed to help for a few moments. Then the same phenomenon would revisit me and sometimes it was even stronger than before. 

This is when I would sense frustration rising. Sometimes, I would open my eyes or shift my seat hoping for a reset, but the frustration only felt more present. I would try again. The trying didn’t help either. The trying was just striving. I have a lot of compassion for my striving mind. Somehow it learned that striving is helpful. It was helpful in getting me out of childhood situations and trajectories that didn’t feel right to me. Striving led me to new places and people who understood my need for wholeness. In this instance, though, striving was anything but helpful. Striving just increased my suffering. 

After some time, it came to me to ask these “No” phenomena what each was wanting.  This helped. I didn’t try to answer the question. No trying (striving)! I just let the question drop into space. And, something interesting happened. What was being wanted was for me to pay attention and to say “Yes,” not by merely gliding over their presence with a perfunctory acknowledgment, but by really pausing and allowing their fulness and saying inwardly with my full awareness, “Yes, this, too, is here.” Spending time and giving space was what was needed. 

What a difference this made. I realized that oh, so subtly, I had been saying “No.” It seemed that either in an undercover sort of conscious way or unconsciously I had been pushing these “Nos” away. Even as I would acknowledge and name the particular sensation or thought, underneath I was not wanting it there. I had been saying “No” to the “No.”

It was when my mind could be curious and interested but not attached (not striving) that it could pause fully, acknowledge fully, and enquire without judging or expecting any answer at all. This was my “Yes” to the “No.”  My mind’s perspective had changed. By slowing down, allowing, and being with the “No” completely and fully, the energy of “no” had a chance to unwind. 

This is how powerful the mind can be. And this is how plastic it is, too. We can train our minds. We can say, “Yes” to “No.”

Our Daily Dissatisfaction

As experiences happen in us, around us, and between us and our environment the mind quickly judges. This is pleasant; hold on to it. This is unpleasant push it away. This is good. Stay here. That is bad. Go away. This doesn’t touch me. Ignore it. This process of judging and reacting can be so subtle, it goes undetected. And, yet, its affects are present. Feelings of sadness, inadequacy, emptiness, self-criticism, loneliness and fear may arise.  

Culturally in the West, we are are conditioned to accumulate as many pleasant feelings as we can. We value sensory experiences that are equivalent to a child in a candy store roaming the aisles and piling up sweets and delicacies that smell, taste, look, feel, and sound wonderful. The smell of chocolate, the taste of sweetness, the look of perfectly iced cakes, the velvety feel of ice cream, the sound of popping corn. 

Conversely, we shun unpleasant feelings. We turn away from bitter tastes just as we indulge the sweet. We rush past a homeless person sleeping in a doorway so not to see. We hold our nose to the smell of ripening perspiration on a hot day.  We cringe at the sound of alarms, sirens and screams. So afraid of feeling pain, we pop opioid pain killers to get ahead of the pain before it starts.

We go about our days in this constant state of reacting and sorting. This is pleasant; keep this. That is unpleasant; throw it away. Interestingly, the pleasant feelings we accumulate quickly dissipate while the unpleasant ones linger.  

And, something more happens. The more pleasant experiences we accumulate, the more we want. We become gluttonous, attaching ourselves physically or virtually to anything and everything that adds to our sense of pleasure. We are delirious with our possessions, our selfies, our games, and our gadgets. And, yet, the more we accumulate, the more unsatisfactory life feels.

Ah, we are suffering with pervasive dissatisfaction.

There is another way.  Rather than allow this pushing, pulling or ignoring of experience, we can pause and experience what we are experiencing by bringing our attention to it in a neutral and friendly way. When we attend to our feelings in this way we can bring interest and curiosity to their exploration.

You might be asking but how can I, or anyone, do this? 

First, we pay attention to the body by focusing our awareness. We are continuously breathing, so by bringing our intention to pay attention and then our attention to our breathing—the in breath, out breath and pause—and where we sense it—as it enters the body through the nose, as it descends the throat, as it fills the chest and settles in belly— we get used to being with the continuous flow of the reality of our breath and the edges between our inner and outer environments. As we stay with the breath, we become intimate with it a neutral, yet friendly, kind of way. We experience how it changes sometimes softer; then stronger. Sometimes superficial; then deeper. Faster; then slower. We drop our opinions and judgements about how it should be. It is as it is. We watch it with interest and curiosity. 

We can be wth our senses in much the same way. As we broaden our focus to our five sense doors, the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and body we can bring our attention to the continuous flow of sensory perception flowing within and between our inner and outer environments without judging. What we do is to develop our awareness of the flow of experience as we perceive it through the senses. This is why sitting is so important. When we sit we create the conditions in which we can train the mind to pay attention to the flow of sensory experience without grasping or pushing anything. We use our mind in a different way. Instead of judging each perception; we allow it to be present and then pass away. 

As we practice this we build our mindfulness. Mindfulness is not something we do; it is rather a condition we develop through practice leading us to it. Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist teacher, describes it as a state of receptive attentiveness not requiring self-conscious effort*. The more we practice by focusing attention on the breath and our sensory perceptions the less effort we need to apply until we reach the point that it is just the way we are. 

* https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/2017/01/buddhas-teachings-on-mindfulness/

 

Start Where You Are

Beginners to meditation often lament that just the thought of sitting still is too much for them. “I can’t sit still!” I have often heard new meditators say. “Meditation is not for me.”

When someone says, “I can’t sit still,” it may be that in that moment they can’t and that’s OK. One of the beautiful things about meditation is that you start where you are. 

If when you sit down to meditate, you feel jittery, antsy, nervous, scratchy, or fidgety, then that’s the place to start. Often, bringing your awareness to your breath brings a sense of calm with it and the jitters dissipate. But, sometimes the fidgeting lingers or even gets stronger. 

Trying to push a nervous jittery feeling away won’t work. What meditation teaches us is that the way to relieve suffering is by going into it and through it.  You might say, “Oh, but it is just the jitters. I am not suffering.” Then also notice if you also feel spacious, calm, and open. If you don’t then the jitters is holding tension. Be willing to hold the disquiet. Something is not right. There is suffering under the surface. It may not be ready to show itself fully. But, it is inviting you to notice. 

Notice it and acknowledge it. “Fidgeting is here,” you might say to yourself. Don’t judge it or make excuses for it. Be friendly and neutral. Feel what you are feeling (to quote Mark Epstein). Allow it to be there without pushing it away. Just let it be. 

Notice where in your body you feel it. Perhaps in the shoulders, arms, or hands. Maybe in the torso or legs. Perhaps in the mind. When you invite yourself to notice where you feel it, gently acknowledge that too, bringing your full attention to it and its bodily place. “Fidgeting is here in the shoulders.” 

Sometimes, just by bringing our full attention to it and holding it in this neutral and friendly way, it softens and dissipates. If it does, then return your full attention to the breath. If it doesn’t, then be curious. 

Yes, open your curiosity. Be interested in it. Invite it to let you know something about it. You might say to yourself, “What is this fidgeting?” Or “I’m inviting this fidgeting to let me know how it is for it.” And, then just wait. Don’t try to find an answer. Just drop your invitation into your inner space and wait. Something may come or unfold. Whatever comes is OK. If something comes, stay with it in the same neutral and friendly way. If nothing comes, then return your attention to the breath.

When I first began meditating, a sharp pain in my back between my ribs would arise. I remember trying to hold my back straighter and stretching the space between my ribs. I also remember trying to do this in the background like some kind of clandestine operation while settling my attention on the breath. The more I would try to outmaneuver the pain between my ribs, the stronger it would become. I noticed how it made me feel anxious and angry. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do. 

The teacher had kindly invited us to sit with our backs straight, to sit like a mountain, upright and relaxed. She had instructed us how to bring our awareness to our breath and how to return our attention to the breath when thoughts would arise. I tried over and over again to bring my attention to my breath, but after a breath or two the pain intruded. 

I was too shy to ask her for advice, so I struggled with it for a quite a while, for several months actually. Then it came to me. I am at battle with this pain. It is going no where until I acknowledge it without judging it and hold it fully in a neutral way. 

This was a big aha and opened up a whole path of enquiry for me. I was so afraid of doing the meditation wrong, of not getting it right, of being inadequate. Memories of childhood incidents sprung to the surface as did their accompanying feelings. I learned to sit with what came in this new neutral way. To allow them their life. And though it seems strange, even as I write this, by allowing them to be with me fully without my interceding in any way, their energy released opening me more and more. 

This is important. Allow what is here for you right now to be here. Be with it fully. Start where you are.

The Pause That Refreshes and Balances

Neuroscientists and psychologists have been making progress in catching up with what the ancients knew long ago–that meditation is good for us. It helps us to maintain balance. It helps us to regulate the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). When we regulate the ANS we balance the two opposing, yet complimentary, parts of the ANS: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two systems are both necessary, but cannot both control at the same time, and when out of balance in either direction cause us to be un-well.

The sympathetic nervous system engages when we face external threats, activating the Fight-Flight system–our stress response. This happens when, for example, a driver cuts us off on the highway or our boss doesn’t recognize our contribution in a group meeting. On the highway, it saves us from getting into an accident by activating mechanisms that get us quickly and safely out of the way of the vehicle that has just swerved in front of us. In the office, it triggers healthy anger which is the motivating energy we need to get out of there and go and find another, more fulfilling job. Of course, if the ANS is really out of whack, it can also lead to inappropriate behavior such as slamming into the back of the vehicle that has just cut us off or punching the boss in the face.

At the moment that the stress response engages our bodies prepare for action. The liver dumps sugar and fat into the blood stream, the cardiovascular system heightens blood pressure; the respiratory system speeds up breathing; the senses and thinking sharpen to focus solely on this moment (not the future), and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) shuts off to keep us from slowing down, from doing nothing while we think about options, organize, or plan. If the PFC weren’t inhibited at this moment we might crash into the guy who has just cut us off because we are pondering, “Do I swerve or brake? Which would potentially produce less wear and tear on my car in long term?”

The opposing and complimentary system, the parasympathetic system slows breathing and heart rate and keeps us calm; it is the state in which we heal and rejuvenate, and turns on the Pause and Response System which relies on the ability of PFC to resist the immediate temptation staring us in the face. We may think, “Boy, I’d really like to punch the boss in face,” but when the PFC weighs in and we see ourselves being shunned for our violence by our co-workers, we plan another course of action. In general terms, in this instance, it allows us to resist temptation: The “I won’t.” It also allows us to engage in the “I will.” After the initial burst of healthy anger motivating us to look for a new job—or get out of there–the flight response, the Pause and Response system kicks in turning on the organizing and planning we’ll need for our new job search. It also engages the “I want,” which, in effect, remembers our motivation over time: “I want to get a new job,” even when, right now, we’d rather be playing a game or socializing. The “I want,” “I will,” and “I won’t” are functions of the Pause and Response System and all reside in the PFC.

So what does this have to do with meditation? Everything. If our Fight-Flight system is continually being turned on over and over again, all day long, there is no time for recovery and activation of the Pause and Response system. Unfortunately, the modern, civilized lives we lead turn on our Fight-Flight system so many times a day, that we end up in chronic stress mode. With no opportunity for the parasympathetic nervous system and the Pause and Response system to activate, our ANS is out-of-balance and that’s when we run into trouble. That’s when disease, regret, and unhappiness come on line. Meditation helps us to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems so that when we need to swerve out of the way of a car we can but then recover so that the lunch we just ate gets digested properly or the immune system keeping us from catching a cold can do its job, or we can engage in the organizing, planning, and doing necessary to get that new job.

Let’s see how by examining what happens in meditation focusing on the breath. We begin with an intention. “I will focus on my breath.” As we sit concentrating on each breath cycle, a thought enters our head; our mind wanders. Suddenly we’re thinking about the boss who snubbed us in the group meeting and we’re feeling agitated. Then we recognize that we’re distracted and that we have an intention, “Oops, I’m distracted. The boss is not the breath.” Then, without making any judgement about our wanderings, we return our concentration to the breath. This act of having a plan: “I will focus on my breath,” recognizing when we experience distractions (and we will): “How dare the boss snub me. Who does he think he is?” and returning our concentration to what we originally planned, to focus on the breath, without making judgements, without shame or feeling guilty, is building more and denser gray matter in the PFC. Amazingly, it’s the distraction, the recognition of the distraction, and the returning to concentration that builds the gray matter, the neurons and their connections. These, in turn build and strengthen the Pause and Response system.

In meditation, we’re slowing down, we’re calming ourselves, we’re emptying out.  We’re bringing online the Parasympathetic Nervous System to provide overall balance to our ANS. We feel happy, our health improves, our well-being increases, our stress decreases, our actions are more even, and our self-reflection and self-control gets stronger; we’re refreshed.

The Creative Brain

Where do our creative ideas come from? Even if we think we’re not creative, all of our brains have what it takes.  To be creative, the whole brain needs to be in the best mind state for the job.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to approach creativity in the same way. What each of us does when we are doing something creative can be very different. Some of us wake up from a dream saying, “I’ve got it!” Others work  in a certain place or at a certain time of day. And, then, there are those of us who just take a walk.  Which way we choose to work creatively doesn’t seem to matter.

What does matter is what goes on in our brains. Back in the 70s, creativity was thought to be solely a right brain activity. Today we know that it is a whole brain activity: Left-right, top-bottom, as creativity requires the brain to access a large web of connections. Neuroscientists now tell us tell us that about 300 milliseconds before an “aha moment,” when the creative answer comes to us, our brains go into very high gamma activity (neural oscillation with a frequency between 25 to 100 Hz) allowing the binding together of neurons as far flung brain cells connect in a new neural network creating a new association. This heightened activity takes place in the temporal lobe centered on the side of the right neocortex. This is the part of the brain that understands metaphor, gets jokes, comprehends the language of the unconscious, as well as that of poetry, art, and myth.  At this same moment the right brain uses its longer connections to other parts of the brain to collect more information and put it together in a novel way.

And before that 300 milliseconds? That’s just as critical, too. First, we have to concentrate intently on the problem or goal. But, if we just think and think about it, or try to force an insight, we stymie creativity. That’s why the next stage is critical, too. Just let go. In this state the brain enters a high alpha rhythm (neural oscillations in the frequency of 8-12 Hz), signaling mental relaxation, that state of openness when we are more receptive to new ideas. Being in this alpha state sets the stage for the gamma spike when new neural connections make novel associations and the new creative idea enters our consciousness.

You’re probably asking now, “But how do I get my brain to do this?” Each of us has to discover what’s the best way to concentrate with high focus on the problem. We may sit down at our desk with paper and pen or take a walk to clear our heads of everything but the problem at hand. You get the idea. Then once we’ve accomplished that deep focus, we don’t think about the problem any more. We just let go and relax. Meditation evokes this relaxed and open state and focusing on the breath is an excellent approach, especially for beginners. In meditation, the brain relaxes into alpha rhythm. Once in alpha, all is ready for the brain’s leap into high gamma activity leading to the aha moment, a feeling of joy, and the coming into consciousness of the novel idea or solution. Practice makes perfect. Habitually doing the stages of intense concentration followed by completely letting go make the difference.

There’s one more thing. Novel ideas are fragile so it is best to surround ourselves and our creative ideas with a supportive environment and with those who are willing to help the fledging flourish.

Feeling Happy When We Don’t Get What We Want

In this Ted Talk, psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about feeling happy even when things don’t go as planned and teaches us how we do it by using our  “psychological immune system,” or our ability to make happiness.

In explaining how we synthesize happiness, he shows us how “impact bias” makes us believe different outcomes are more different than they are.  Ponder this. One year out, Paraplegics and lottery winners have the same amount of happiness.

Curious?  This video runs about twenty minutes. Dive in. You’ll laugh and you’ll learn how we are built for happiness even when we are stuck. On a mobile device? Watch Dan’s Ted Talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

The Empty Boat

Floating across the river in your boat, you are carefully avoiding hidden obstacles, other boats, and too shallow water when, BAM! another boat rams you. Your anger flashes; your heart pumps faster.  You jump up and yell, “You stupid blankity-blank so-and-so!” You shake your fist and stamp your foot. You call out for the other boatman to show himself so you can tell him a thing or two. But, no one emerges. There is no other boatman; the boat is empty. It has slipped its mooring and floats without control. There is no one to be angry with; no one to curse. Realizing this, your fist unclenches and drops to your side. Still muttering under your breath, though, because you believe it would have been so much better if there had been someone there to be angry with, you go on your way.

This is my reading of the Empty Boat story from the Taoist tradition. If it peaks your interest you can read it and others in the book, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions books, 1997) compiled by Thomas Merton in the 20th century. Most likely written around 250 B.C., it is a powerful and timeless teaching that we can apply to our own experience.

“Well, what’s the point of the story?” You ask. John Welwood in his book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Realtionships (Trumpeter Books, 2006), has a helpful explanation that resonates for us. He says, ” The point of the story is that the parents who didn’t see [us], the kids who teased [us] as a child, the driver who aggressively tailgated [us] yesterday–are in fact all empty, rudderless boats. They were compulsively driven to act as they did by their own unexamined wounds; therefore they did not know what they were doing and had little control over it.” [page 89, Kindle edition]

You may think, “So what. What’s that got to do with me?”

These parents, siblings, friends, bosses, and strangers, among others, these empty boats ramming into us with their unkindnesses, their neglect, and their hurtful actions are driven not out of need to hurt us but out of their own unconscious pain–all the hurt, the woundings, they, themselves, have received along the way. When we react with anger, or jealousy, vindictiveness, or defensive stonewalling we do so because of our own grievances, our own pasts, our own experience with people who have hurt and neglected us.

You may say, “Well, of course. I can’t let someone hurt me. I have to stand up for myself. I have to protect myself. I have to survive.”

In answer, Wellwood responds that until we realize that these are just empty boats we remain tied to our own grievance and pain and suffering and this binding keeps us “from opening up to the more powerful currents of life and love that are always flowing through the present moment.”

So what can we do?

We can not take it personally. After all, the hurt, the unkindness was not meant for us even though it has rammed into us. Not taking it personally is compassionate: we have recognized suffering (the suffering of the person who has rammed into us), we have felt for a moment the pain of that suffering (that we too suffer, but have not let that acknowledgement cause us to suffer more), and we have acted to relieve the suffering (in the other person and in ourselves by not retaliating or reacting angrily, or jealously or whatever.)

We have given everyone space. We can relax and breathe fully. Psychologically, this relief quiets our minds. Physiologically, we can protect ourselves from the incessant turning on of the stress-response in our bodies that over times wrecks havoc with our health leading us to suffer all sorts of maladies and disease.

The next time, someone, anyone, hurts us, neglects us, lashes out at us, or acts unkindly, we can say, “Ah,  just an empty boat” as we take a few slow deep breaths letting the exhale last longer than the inhale so our parasympathetic nervous systems have time to turn on a sense of calm within us.