Buddhist Mantras

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A Buddhist guide to surviving the holidays: four practices

November 25, 2015 - 7:21am

Ethan Nichtern: Let’s face it, sometimes the holidays just…suck. Maybe that’s not the most Buddhist way of saying it, but it is how it feels. Even more than in past years, friends and students are reporting feeling stress and foreboding right now. To be honest, I’m feeling a sense of burden and anxiety, too, that strange feeling when there’s too much to do and not any clear sense of intention behind the doing of it. This holiday season has given me reason to pause and think about what really matters. And guess what, it’s neither black Friday nor cyber Monday.

Why are we so …

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Incorporating meditation, mindfulness into addiction treatment may enhance recovery

November 23, 2015 - 8:46am

PR Rocket: Mental health is an integral part of addiction recovery, and practicing meditation and mindfulness could help reduce risk of relapse, shares Chapters Capistrano.

There is no blanket solution to treating addiction. What works for one person may not work as well for another, making customized treatment programs even more essential. Focusing on both physical and mental wellbeing can help clients develop a more comprehensive recovery plan that addresses the numerous challenges they may face. Los Angeles-area rehab center Chapters Capistrano has released a statement to the press regarding the integration of mindfulness and meditation into recovery efforts and the benefits it can provide.

“Mental health plays a large part in the recovery process,” says Susie Shea, co-owner of Chapters Capistrano, a drug and alcohol rehab center. “Detox cleanses the body of any toxic substances, but it doesn’t change a person’s thought processes or address how their brain has been affected by substance use. That is where multiple therapy modalities and practices come into play, meditation being one of them.”

Meditation helps people to refocus and become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, notes Shea. They are able to identify negative thought patterns that can lead to triggers or temptation. According to the Huffington Post, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and training can benefit clients by affecting “areas of the brain associated with craving, negative effect, and relapse.”

By changing how people react to these situations, it can help them to push through addiction cravings and challenging issues without resorting to drug or alcohol use. Instead, they rely on healthier, more productive means of coping with these problems. “Changing your perspective and being more aware of your emotions can have a significant impact on your mental health and decision making,” says Shea.

Intervening negative thoughts and cravings before they have a chance to evolve into something more serious can keep clients in a more positive frame of mind, asserts Shea. They are able to step back and make more conscious decisions to support their continued sobriety, realizing that they don’t have to give in. They have choices. Meditation and mindfulness can be effective ways of helping to manage stress as well, especially over the holidays.

“In addiction recovery, it’s important to keep an open mind,” explains Shea. “Clients should be willing to try new things and open themselves up to experiences that could be beneficial to their progress. Even if they never pictured themselves as someone doing meditation, once they try it, they may find that it is a very rewarding experience. At Chapters Capistrano, we offer clients a wide range of options including meditation, massage, and hydrotherapy in addition to 12-step and non 12-step approaches so that they can figure out what works best for their recovery.”

“Meditation Freedom” podcast

November 19, 2015 - 4:31pm

The other week I was interviewed by Sicco Rood for the Meditation Freedom podcast. He’s interviewed a number of well-known teachers, including Lama Surya Das and Ven Pannavati, both of whom I was honored to meet at this year’s Western Dharma Teachers’ Conference. If I sound a little flat, it’s because just before the recording took place I’d heard that a beloved aunt had passed away.

Mindfulness meditation may improve memory for teens

November 18, 2015 - 12:35pm

Kathryn Doyle, Reuters: Adolescents assigned to a mindfulness meditation program appeared to have improvements in memory in a recent study.

“These results are consistent with a growing body of research in adults that has found mindfulness meditation to be a helpful tool for enhancing working memory capacity,” said Kristen E. Jastrowski Mano of the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati, who coauthored the new study.

The researchers randomly divided 198 public middle school students into three groups: mindfulness meditation, hatha yoga or a waitlist. Most students were female, ages 12 to 15, and from low-income households that qualified for reduced-cost lunch.

Before the study began and …

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Ignore the cliche: mindfulness isn’t about sitting cross-legged

November 16, 2015 - 12:38pm

Heckler, The Age: Don’t be put off by market-driven mantras, because mindfulness is for everyone, writes ?Jamie Watson.

Mindfulness is proven to do remarkable things for mental health. Unfortunately it has a rather annoying image problem.

Whenever an article appears about mindfulness it is invariably accompanied by a picture of a beautiful woman peacefully meditating. Sometimes she is on a mountain. Sometimes she is beside a gently flowing stream. Sometimes there is a lovely rainbow in the background. Typically she has a slim yoga body, amazing posture and the apparent ability to sit cross-legged on a rock without her mind focusing solely on the …

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Meditation reduces emotional pain by 44%

November 13, 2015 - 7:47am

Mandy Oaklander, Time: According to a new study, mindfulness meditation exhibited even stronger physical pain reductions than morphine, says the study’s lead investigator.

Open any magazine and you’ll find that mindfulness has gone mainstream. You’ll also notice there are studies that purport to show meditation’s benefits on just about everything, from kids’ math scores and migraine length to HIV management and bouncing back after a crisis. Now, an elaborate new forthcoming study looks at how the brains of meditators respond to pain, to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical …

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Lovingkindness meditation, using natural language

November 12, 2015 - 2:04pm

When I was first taught the metta bhavana (“development of lovingkindness”) practice, back in the early 1980s, I was encouraged to use these three phrases: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering” (altered to “may you…” or “may all beings…” in the other stages of the practice).

I was told that the exact words weren’t important, and that you could use your own phrases if you wanted. But none of the teachers who led the classes I went to ever offered any alternatives, which sent out a message saying that these were the “proper” and “authorized” ones.

But they worked! I remember the first time that I noticed the metta practice making a substantial difference to my emotional states. I was in a car, outside of Glasgow Veterinary School at the end of the day, waiting with two of my room-mates for one other person to show up so that we could go home. I guess I was probably tired after a full day of classes, and I was certainly grumpy.

The two girls, who were in the front seats, were chattering away about all kinds of things that I found rather trivial. They were just having fun and bonding, really, but I couldn’t appreciate that. I remember that at one point I was listening to them discuss what kinds of neckties their fathers wore, and I found myself in a really foul mood. Didn’t they have anything more meaningful to discuss!

Fortunately I remembered the metta bhavana practice, which I’d learned just a couple of weeks before. Didn’t that have something to do with overcoming ill will? So I began to repeat: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” I didn’t have any expectation that this would actually do anything, but I gave it my best shot.

After maybe just three or four minutes of this, I noticed a really weird thing. Somehow, while I’d been reciting those three phrases, over and over, I’d moved from being miserable to being happy! I hadn’t even noticed it happening. Holy incense sticks, Batman! This lovingkindness meditation thing works!

When I began to teach, I’d do what I’d been taught: tell people the phrases, let them know that they could change them if they wanted, and then use only those phrases, as if to suggest that this was the “real” way to do the practice.

Only a few years ago, as I taught compassion meditation more, I shook up the lovingkindness phrases a bit. Since compassion is about relieving suffering, I reckoned that “May I be free from suffering” was more of a compassion statement, and so I started to say (and teach!) “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be feel at ease.” Even more recently, I’ve sometimes said “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be kind to myself and others.” That change is because I think it’s important to encourage not just happiness and well-being, but kindness itself. After all, that’s what the practice is about!

More recently still, I’ve made a more radical change. I still use the standard phrases, but I offer rather different ways of communicating kindness. The “May I be..” format seems a bit stilted, and although it works, I think it’s rather a slow method, because the mind treats rote phrases as less meaningful than natural language, and learns to ignore it.

So now I’m encouraging people to use more natural forms of inner speech. I keep this fluid, because it’s a form of communication, and communication is more effective when there’s some spontaneity in it. So I’ll tend to use phrases like:

  • I love you, and I want you to be happy.
  • I just want you to know that your wellbeing is important to me; I hope you feel happy today!
  • I care about you, and I wish you well.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be happy when you give yourself a hard time. You deserve happiness.
  • I know life’s hard sometimes, but I’m here for you.
  • May your life be full of ease and joy!
  • I love you, and I’m here to give you support and encouragement.
  • It might be hard to believe this sometimes, but everything’s going to be OK.

In the other stages I’ll use similar phrases. Often I’ll tailor the message specifically for the person I’m thinking about. So for a friend, I’ll wish him freedom from the financial stress I know he’s under, or wish him well in dealing with a difficult family issue.

If you like my articles and want to support the work I do, please click here to check out my books, guided meditation CDs, and MP3s. Or you can make a donation.Using more natural language like this is a more effective way for me to communicate with myself, and to wish others well. Even when I find myself reusing these phrases, I have more of a feeling that I’m speaking from the heart, and what I’m saying seems more effective. A kind and compassionate part of me is communicating to other, perhaps more anxious unhappy, parts of me in a very natural way. It feels more alive and genuine.

Why not give this a try, see how it goes, and let me know in the comment below?

Schools in San Francisco implement meditation & students’ happiness and academic success soars

November 12, 2015 - 7:58am

Jennifer Chait, Inhabitots: We’ve seen yoga, standing desks and vegetarian lunches turn troubled schools around, but we’ve never seen meditation adopted successfully within the school system. Until now. According to reports, several San Francisco middle and high schools, as well as scattered schools around the Bay Area, have adopted what they call, “Quiet Time” – a stress-reduction meditation strategy that is doing wonders for students and teachers. The first school to adopt the Quiet Time practice in 2007, Visitacion Valley Middle School, has reaped huge rewards. Formally a school largely out of control, Visitacion Valley is smack in the middle of a neighborhood where shootings are …

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How meditation can reshape our brains

November 11, 2015 - 9:52am

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s amazing brain scans show meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.

Sara’s team at Harvard University uses neuroimaging techniques to study neurological, cognitive and emotional changes associated with the practice of meditation and yoga. They also incorporate measures of peripheral physiology (breathing, heart beat) in order to understand how meditation practice influences the brain-body interaction.

Mindfulness training helps patients with inflammatory bowel diseases

November 9, 2015 - 1:16pm

WK Health: Training in meditation and other mindfulness-based techniques brings lasting improvements in mental health and quality of life for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), according to a study in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, official journal of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

“Our study provides support for the feasibility, acceptability, and effectiveness of a tailored mindfulness-based group intervention for patients with IBD,” concludes the research report by Dr. David Castle, a psychiatrist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues. More research is needed to demonstrate the clinical benefits of mindfulness techniques–including whether they can help to reduce IBD symptoms and relapses.

Mindfulness Reduces Anxiety and Depression in IBD Patients

The researchers evaluated a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program tailored for patients with IBD. The study included 60 adults with IBD: Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. The patients’ average age was 36 years, and average duration of IBD 11 years. Twenty-four patients had active disease at the time of the study.

The MBSR intervention consisted of eight weekly group sessions plus a daylong intensive session, led by an experienced instructor. The program included guided meditations, exercises designed to enhance mindfulness in daily life, and group discussions of challenges and experiences. Participants were also encouraged to perform daily “mindfulness meditation” at home.

Thirty-three patients agreed to participate in the MBSR intervention, 27 of whom completed the program. Ratings of mental health, quality of life, and mindfulness were compared to those of the 27 patients who chose not to participate (mainly because of travel time).

The MBSR participants had greater reductions in anxiety and depression scores, as well as improvement in physical and psychological quality of life. They also had higher scores on a questionnaire measuring various aspects of mindfulness–for example, awareness of inner and outer experiences.

Six months later, MBSR participants still had significant reduction in depression and improvement in quality of life, with a trend toward reduced anxiety. The patients were highly satisfied with the mindfulness intervention.

Anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life are common in patients with IBD. Psychological distress may lead to increased IBD symptoms and play a role in triggering disease flare-ups. Previous studies have shown benefits of MBSR for patients with a wide range of physical illnesses, but there is limited evidence on mindfulness-based interventions for patients with IBD.

The new results show that the MBSR approach is feasible and well-accepted by patients with IBD. The study also suggests that training patients in mindfulness practices to follow in daily life can lead to significant and lasting benefits, including reduced psychological distress and improved quality of life. Dr. Castle comments, “This work reinforces the interaction between physical and mental aspects of functioning, and underscores the importance of addressing both aspects in all our patients.”

The researchers point out some important limitations of their study–including the fact that patients weren’t randomly assigned to MBSR and control groups. They also note that the study didn’t assess the impact on measures of disease activity, including IBD flares. Dr. Castle and colleagues conclude, “A larger adequately powered, randomised study with an active control arm is warranted to evaluate the effectiveness of a mindfulness group program for patients with IBD in a definitive manner.”

Standing in line meditation

November 9, 2015 - 6:39am

This nice little video from Sharon Salzberg arrived in my inbox this morning. It describes a simple practice of bringing mindfulness and kindness into the act of standing in line (or queueing, as we say in my native Britain).

This is something I do a lot. It transforms what can be a frustrating experience into one that’s grounding and joyful. Give it a try.

Step seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery

November 7, 2015 - 4:00am

Once you think you’ve got recovery, you’ve lost your recovery. Because what is recovery? It is a path that can take us to liberation and freedom. Recovery is always changing. What it looked like when you first had one week of abstinence, is very different to what it will look like after one year or after 30 years.

‘Once an addict always an addict’, is often a saying we hear. There is good sense in this phrase, because it reminds us not to delude ourselves, and think: ‘right i’ve not picked up my choice of distraction for six months I’m okay now’.

Let’s not delude ourselves because we can think the same after 20 years of recovery too. This saying does have its pitfalls because we can hold onto an old identity that does not serve us anymore.

In Eight Step Recovery: ‘We ask if you really want recovery are you prepared to go to any lengths to let go of your self view?’

This is the first of the mental bonds that bind us to human suffering. Thinking we are a fixed self, and that we are our body, feelings, perceptions, mental formation and sensory consciousness. The Buddha taught that all these five skandhas are empty of self. He taught that nothing among them is ‘I, or mine or me’.

If we want recovery we do have to let go of the identities that created the addicted self. We stay on the path of recovery when we realize that the only thing we own are our actions.

There is also a Buddhist teaching that says ‘guard the sense doors’. What this means is that we don’t deliberately put ourselves in vulnerable places. For example if you are a sex addict you don’t go to a sex show. If you’re an alcoholic you don’t put yourself in situations where alcohol is being rammed in your face. If you’re a coke addict you don’t stay in a room where people are white lining. We guard the sense doors by not putting ourselves in situations where we will be easily triggered.

There are enough triggers out there in the world that we will have to practise loving kindness and mindfulness to keep us sober and abstinent.

The good news is, it is possible to have disinterest in our distraction or substance or behaviour of choice. But we still need to be vigilant by preventing, and eradicating unhelpful states of mind.

In the rooms of 12 steps we are told to HALT. If you are aware of a subtle craving, ask if you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

We need to maintain helpful states of mind by cultivating and maintaining our abstinence and sobriety of mind. Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery is a lifetime practise, and one well worth living. The more effort we make, the easier it becomes, but there is not time of the path of recovery, if we want to liberate our self from suffering.

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: [email protected]

Five realities of becoming a hardcore meditator

November 5, 2015 - 8:33am

Brent R. Oliver, Tricycle: At the beginning of this year I made a vow. If you’ve read my other columns here you’ll no doubt be aware of the fact that I’ve had trouble picking—and then sticking with—a specific Buddhist modality. There’s so much available, especially with the advent of teaching via Internet, that my attention has always been divided among the glut of Buddhist approaches that have flooded the West. I’ve snatched up every shiny object out there and fiddled with it only to become entranced by another sparkly thing close by. The sentence that best sums up my journey is probably …

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“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

November 4, 2015 - 5:00am

One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:

As he observed his mind, he noticed:

Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.

It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.

The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”

But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.

If you like my articles and want to support the work I do, please click here to check out my books, guided meditation CDs, and MP3s. Or you can make a donation.

The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.

Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.

Medical matters: should doctors prescribe a course in mindfulness?

November 3, 2015 - 12:56pm

Muiris Houston, The Irish Times: Mindfulness has become quite a buzzword of late. An ancient Buddhist practice, it is seen as being especially relevant to our modern frenetic lives. Jon Kabat- Zinn, an author and mindfulness teacher, who has played a central role in broadening the appeal and use of mindfulness, describes it as “simply the art of conscious living”.

It is a “systematic process of self-observation, self-inquiry and mindful action . . . the overall tenor of mindfulness practice is gentle, appreciative and nurturing”, he writes.

With the “coming” of mindfulness there has been an explosion of interest in its potential uses. Inevitably, the corporate world …

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Radically changing ourselves through insight

November 2, 2015 - 9:48am

Letting Go Into Reality (Nov 9–Dec 20)

The entire point of Buddhist practice is to bring about freedom from suffering. We can free ourselves from much of our suffering by becoming more ethical, more mindful, and more compassionate, but becoming a more skillful, “better” person isn’t enough. In order to bring about the maximum degree of freedom from suffering we have to radically change the way we see ourselves, and our relation with the world. This change comes about by developing insight.

On the six weeks of this event you will learn to:

  • Look deeply at the nature of your experience
  • Observe and accept the fact that everything within your experience is in a constant state of change
  • Embrace the interconnectedness of your being
  • Examine the nature of your experience in order to see through the illusion of self
  • Find deep stillness and peace in the midst of a turbulent and ever-changing world

This event is suitable for people with an established meditation practice, including a familiarity with mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditations.

Register today!

Distractions as hypnotic bubbles

November 2, 2015 - 8:26am

As we meditate, thoughts bubble up. Many people are bothered when this happens, and tell themselves that there’s something wrong or that they’re no good at meditating. But having a lot of thoughts arise is OK. Our minds produce thoughts. It’s natural.

While bubbles in water contain gases, the thought bubbles that arise in the mind contain stories. Sometimes the stories inside these bubbles are emotionally compelling, and we can’t resist sticking our heads inside to see what’s going on. The bubble now surrounds our head like a 3D holographic display, complete with images, sounds, and tactile and other sensory information. And the story we’re witnessing is interactive! We now start playing the role of being ourselves, communicating with characters who love us, hate us, or ignore us, or we simply get lost in talking to ourselves about various aspects of our lives.

When we’re lost inside these thought bubbles it’s as if we’re dreaming or hypnotized. We lack self-awareness. We’re participating in our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing it. We can stay stuck inside these hypnotic bubbles for a long time, but at some point we realize that it’s not a very wholesome activity for us to be involved in, we remove ourselves from the bubble, and return to the world of sensory reality.

Although they are compelling, with practice we find that we can simply let the bubbles float by us. We’re still aware of the stories they contain, still aware of the emotional pull they exert upon us. But now we’re more in the role of “observer” and no longer a participant in their dramas. The pull is felt less strongly. The stories are seen as unhelpful.

In order to to develop the ability to remain outside of the hypnotic bubbles of your thought, you can practice being aware of the actual physical space around you, and the light and sound and smells that it contains. You can become aware of the entire physical body, and of the myriad sensations arising within it. You can be aware of feelings that arise in the body. You can be aware of the qualities of the mind: is it contacted or expansive; dull or bright; busy or quiet; discontented, happy, or neutral?

If you like my articles and want to support the work I do, please click here to check out my books, guided meditation CDs, and MP3s. Or you can make a donation.

Noticing all of this creates a “space” of awareness that’s expended, rather than contracted. The mind is contracted when it’s absorbed in a single thought. It’s expansive when it’s paying attention to the breadth of our experience. When the mind is spacious, there is a sense of there being a distance from our thoughts as they bubble up. With that sense of distance comes freedom—the freedom to observe rather than participate in our inner dramas, the freedom to accept our experience rather than judge and resist it. There may be just as much thinking going on as before, but it’s no big deal. The thinking co-exists with mindfulness.

With practice, we find that although we still get distracted—still get sucked into the hypnotic bubbles that arise within the mind—it becomes easier for us to let our thoughts arise and pass away without becoming hypnotized by them. We find that we naturally do more observing and less participating. We spontaneously find ourselves living in a more spacious realm of awareness. We find ourselves enjoying greater freedom.

Let your distractions be your teachers

October 31, 2015 - 4:00am

Once, many years ago, I was meditating—or at least I was supposed to be—and I found myself wondering what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” would be.

I had one of these electronic devices in front of me (if you’re not familiar with this ancient technology, think of it as being a very primitive iPod Touch) because I was leading a retreat and had been reading notes from it. I recognized that this train of thought was a hindrance, and as I wondered why it was happening it occurred to me that it was an expression of playfulness. Could it be, I inquired, that my meditation had been lacking in playfulness? Had it been a bit dry and willful? Looking back, I found that this was in fact the case. So for the rest of the sit I allowed myself to to feel playful, regarding the flow of the breathing as being like the movement of a swing on which I was sitting, or the surge of waves on a beach.

The hindrances—our distractions—have a lot to teach us. It’s understandable to think they are “bad” or are our enemies, but this attitude leads to inner tension and mental turbulence. The hindrances are not in fact “bad.” What they are is ineffective strategies for finding happiness. Each hindrance starts with some kind of dissatisfaction, and on some level we assume that the hindrances will help us deal with that dissatisfaction. If we pay attention to what’s driving the hindrances, we can often learn a lot about what our unmet needs are.

Each of the hindrances is trying to do something for us. Each is a strategy, attempting to fulfill a particular need. The principle problem with the hindrances is that they just don’t work. They don’t bring us happiness. Instead, they add to our suffering. The needs underlying our hindrances are perfectly valid and healthy.

Recognizing that each hindrance is trying to fulfill an unmet need can open up the way to finding a healthier and more effective way of fulfilling that need. To do this we need to relax with ourselves, become more aware of the need underlying the hindrance, and then let that need suggest a way of finding fulfillment. Here’s some guidance about how all that can work.

Sense desire…

Sense desire is often triggered by a lack of pleasure or happiness. In an attempt to fill this unmet need, we crave pleasant experiences, but such grasping doesn’t change our underlying sense of emptiness, and when our pleasures end we’re plunged once again into a state of dissatisfaction.

Other times sense desire is a response to fear: we have pleasure and fear losing it, and so we cling tightly to the experience in order to hold onto it. However it’s simply not possible to hold on to pleasure, since it’s in the nature of all experiences to arise and pass away. The hindrance of craving merely creates more suffering, even though its aim is to bring completion and happiness.

…and what you can learn from it

If sense desire is alerting you that your needs for pleasure and happiness are not being met, then in response to those unmet needs, rather than fantasizing, you may be able to relax into your present-moment experience and soften the body. Sense desire teaches us that we are out of touch with ourselves. You may be able to allow pleasure to arise through attending to the natural energy and rhythm of the breathing, and noticing the effect these have on various parts of the body. You may be able to relax your attitude, and allow yourself to be more light, playful, and appreciative.

Ill will…

Ill will is usually sparked off by the presence of an unpleasant feeling. If we’re imagining having an argument with someone, we probably assume that this will stop the other person from behaving in ways that we don’t like, or will make them stay away from us so that we won’t be bothered by them any more. Ill will promises to remove our difficulties from our lives, but of course it merely creates new conflicts.

…and what you can learn from it

Ill will teaches us that there is something painful in us that needs acceptance and reassurance. Ill will is usually defensive, and it may be telling us we have unmet needs for security, reassurance, or self-comfort. Can you find these through acceptance of the painful feelings underlying ill will, and by showing them compassion?


Worrying starts with an initial experience of anxiety. Worry is an attempt to “fix” the problem that has led to our anxiety. When we worry, we keep up a stream of thoughts that attempt to anticipate and rehash every detail about the situation that’s making us anxious. But this worry, as we know, merely perpetuates and intensifies our sense of insecurity.

…and what you can learn from it

Worry teaches us that we do not trust ourselves to deal with a difficult situation. I think of it as showing us our unmet needs for confidence and trust. When we’re worrying we don’t trust our fundamental ability to deal with life’s events. So, instead of worrying, can you find confidence from within, by trusting that whatever happens, difficult situations will arise and pass away? Perhaps we can trust that in the end our problems solve themselves. As Julian of Norwich heard in a vision, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Sloth and torpor…

Sloth, or laziness, is often a response to the presence of dread—that sinking feeling we have when faced with some experience we don’t think we can cope with. Sloth is like worry combined with aversion. It’s an avoidance strategy, where we turn away from difficulties because we fear them. We assume that if we just ignore the thing we dread, it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens!

…and what you can learn from it

Sloth may likewise show us that we have a need for courage, a need to recognize our own strength, a need for acceptance. We may have resistance to meditating, for example, and find that just by turning toward our resistance we’ll find confidence. If we reflect on how good we’ll feel once we have this unpleasant experience behind us, then we may inspire ourselves to act. As Marianne Williamson observed, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We’re always capable of far more than we think we are.

Tiredness, which is more of a physiological lack of energy, may teaching us that we need to take better care of ourselves. Perhaps we can begin doing this in the moment we become aware we’re tired, by practicing forgiveness, and by accepting our need to rest.


Dread or anxiety may also underlie the hindrance of doubt. If sloth is worry combined with aversion, doubt is worry combined with self-aversion.

Our doubts are thoughts that attempt to validate our desire to turn away from challenging experiences. We tell ourselves that this is something we’re not capable of confronting. We may reinforce a painful and limiting view about ourselves, such as “No one likes me,” because we hope that in being pitiful we’ll get sympathy from others. Doubt doesn’t really protect us from anything. Usually the pain it causes is far worse than the discomfort of facing a challenging situation.

…and what you can learn from it

Doubt may reveal to us that we have an unmet need for clarity. Even getting clear about that need is a start! In fact simply identifying that we’re experiencing doubt can bring enough clarity to help free us from it entirely.

Doubt may also, like sloth, reveal a need for confidence. Being able to step back from our doubt in order to name it can help connect us with our inner strength.

These are just suggestions, though. Our hindrances can point to many forms of unmet need. In order to divine these needs we have to accept the presence of the hindrance without fear or aversion, creating a “sacred pause.” Having created this space, the unexpressed need can come into consciousness directly, rather than appearing wearing the guise of a hindrance. We see the need itself, rather than its expression as a strategy. And then, having met the need face to face, as it were, we can allow it to suggest to us a more effective way that it can be fulfilled. Hindrances, observed mindfully, point us toward our needs.

Our hindrances, if we allow them, will tell us how to find happiness.

Taking the self out of self-compassion

October 29, 2015 - 10:39am

One of the most interesting studies I’ve ever seen was by James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor, and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, who is now associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

Poets are particularly prone to taking their own lives, and Pennebaker and Stirman were interested to see if the writings of poets who had killed themselves contained linguistic clues that could have predicted their fate. They matched together, by age, era, nationality, educational background, and sex, poets who had and had not killed themselves, and ran their works through a computer program that looked for patterns in the language they used.

What they found was that the poets who had killed themselves were far more self-referential than those who hadn’t. Right from the beginning, those who ended up committing suicide used the words “I,” “me,” and “my” in their writings far more often than those who died naturally or are still alive. Also, the suicidal poets became increasingly self-referential as time passed, using first person singular pronouns more and more often, right up until they took their own lives.

Poets who didn’t kill themselves, on the other hand, used those words more rarely, and instead referred more often to “we,” “us,” and “ours”—words that embed a sense of connection. And those words were used more and more often over the course of their lives.

Part of our conditioning tells us that if we want to be happy we need to focus on “number one.” And yet, as the Harry Nilsson song says, “One is the loneliest number.” Connecting with others, and thus reducing our focus on ourselves, is an important form of emotional buffering, helping us to deal with life’s ups and downs, and also providing the rich and nourishing experience of loving and being loved. Those who disconnect and withdraw into themselves experience greater suffering, to the extent that life can become unbearable.If you like my articles and want to support the work I do, please click here to check out my books, guided meditation CDs, and MP3s. Or you can make a donation.

So what does this tell us about self-compassion? After all, isn’t the word “self” right there in the name? Does this mean that focusing on ourselves might actually make us less happy?
In self-compassion, one part of us sends compassion to a suffering part of ourselves, not because the suffering part of us is a part of us, but simply because compassion is the appropriate response to pain. It doesn’t actually matter whether the suffering is inside us or outside us, part of us or not part of us—the compassionate part of us has compassion for suffering because that’s what suffering needs. 

In a way there’s no such thing as “self-compassion.” There’s just “compassion.” There’s just the desire to care for anything that’s suffering, and to remove the suffering if possible, with no regard to whether it’s “our” suffering or not. By cultivating compassion for suffering within ourselves, we automatically become more compassionate toward others, and thus become more connected to them, and thus become happier. With self-compassion we don’t see ourselves as different from others because of our suffering, but see ourselves as connected to others because we all suffer.

Dalai Lama’s American doctor wants more compassion in medicine

October 29, 2015 - 6:34am

PBS Newshour: Before he was a personal physician to the Dalai Lama, Dr. Barry Kerzin never imagined that a professional trip to Tibet would lead him down a decades-long path studying Buddhism and meditation. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro talks to Kerzin in India about his feeling that compassion and empathy are essential to medical training.

Sixty-eight-year-old California native Barry Kerzin began his career as a professor of family medicine at the University of Washington. He never dreamed it would lead to a pro bono house calls thousands of miles away in Tibet.

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