Save for the lack of furniture, “A-901: Breathing Room” appears as an ordinary conference room. It sits squarely within the rest of the office, which buzzes with the steady meetings and conversations that characterize most corporate buildings. Soft mats, for sitting, are piled to one side of the room. Digital devices are not allowed.
A few times a week, dozens of employees gather in the …
Until not long ago, scientists studying the nervous system believed that the adult brain was incapable of growing new cells. That’s now known to be false. In fact new cells are being born in the brain all the time. If they’re needed (that is, if the part of the brain that they’re in is being used intensively) then those cells become wired in to the existing networks of nerves, and that part of the brain grows. On the other hand, if they’re not used, they’ll be reabsorbed.
Even without growing new cells, the brain is constantly developing and pruning connections, though. Every new memory you create, every thing you forget, every new piece of learning, changes the physical structure of your brain in a measurable way.
This ability of the brain to remodel itself is called “plasticity,” or “neuroplasticity.” That the brain physically grows in response to learning was first shown in the late 1700’s, but unfortunately that discovery was forgotten. Then, in the late 1990’s, it was found that London taxi drivers, who spend years memorizing the layout of the city’s streets, have enlargement of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain involved in spatial navigation. Taxi drivers, it turned out, do not start out with an enlarged hippocampus, but develop this as a result of practicing their navigation skills.
In 2011, Sarah Lazar of Harvard found that after just eight weeks of meditation, there were observable increases in density in brain structures involved in learning and memory, emotional regulation, self-referential processing, empathy and compassion, and putting experiences into perspective. A later study by Lazar additionally showed shrinkage of the amygdala, which is involved in the fight or flight reflex. The change in the amygdala was correlated to a measurable reduction in stress levels.
It’s well-established that the brain’s cortex—the outer layer of the brain, which plays a key role in memory, attention, thought, language, and consciousness—shrinks as we get older, causing problems with slowed thinking and poorer memories. Lazar has found that regular meditators have a thicker cortex. In her studies she found 50-year-old meditators with the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
These findings are enormously encouraging, especially since they can be shown after an average of less than half an hour of meditation a day for just eight weeks. They have universal applicability: as far as I’m aware not a single participant in a neuroscience study has been found to have a brain that can’t change! Such a person, if they did exist, would be of enormous interest to scientists!
If we practice, the brain will change, and we will get better at regulating our emotions, become happier and calmer, and find ourselves less prone to anxiety and other unpleasant states. Isn’t that encouraging?
The brain, in its ability to grow, is like a muscle, and the practice of mindfulness—including, of course, meditation—is akin to physical exercise. Meditation practice helps the brain to be healthier and to work more effectively. It helps us to regulate our emotions and to avoid stress. And it slows the aging of the brain.
It’s wrong to think, though, that meditation only changes the brain. By changing the way that the brain functions, it promotes better physical health through reducing inflammation and by reducing the level of stress hormones circulating in the body. It reduces the perception of pain. It makes us feel calmer, more relaxed, and more in control of our lives. It also changes our emotional expression, bringing more emotional balance and greater optimism and positivity. All of these changes directly affect our lives, so that we’re more likely to experience support from others, rather than conflict. Meditation, in effect, changes our entire lives for the better, in a kind of positivity cascade.
In a course I’m leading, starting, March 1, we’ll learn about specific findings from science about the many ways in which we can benefit from meditation. We’ll also practically explore meditation, with at least 12 guided meditations I’ve recorded specially. This course, Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation, is suitable for those who are new to meditation as well as to experienced meditators who want to expand their repertoire of skills and to give themselves a better understanding what’s happening in the brain and body when they sit.
Do you always live to – or beyond – your limits? Would you get less done if you took regular breaks?
Many people live in a ‘boom and bust’ way, otherwise known as the overactivity–underactivity cycle. To varying degrees, many of us swing between high energy and low energy.
We do less when we are feeling tired and unmotivated; then, when we feel more energetic, we hectically try to catch up on all the things that we’ve got behind with and end up overdoing it and getting stressed out. This tips us straight back into feeling exhausted and strained again, and so things on the list don’t get done as we are so tired, until there is another blitz on a good day. And so the cycle goes on. And on. And on.
Clearly it’s not such a great way to live and you could try something radical and take breaks before you need them. And we’re not talking about going to bed for the afternoon here or booking a two-week holiday in the sun; it’s a case of simply practising simple mindfulness exercises regularly or standing up to stretch from time to time when working at your desk.
The mindfulness exercise below is an easy way to take a break during your day and practice mindfulness at the same time. Pausing and paying attention to the simple act of boiling the kettle, will help you to break the boom-and-bust cycle that is making you feel so exhausted and strained. Instead of rushing and then going on to the next thing, or having a whirring mind as you make your tea – let your kettle boiling activity be an opportunity to experience your body and your senses and to have some moments of peace and calm. Try and do this meditation each time you stop for tea or coffee.
Boiling a kettle of water is one of those things that we all do several times a day without a moment’s thought. So try paying full mindful attention to filling and boiling a kettle of water.
As you lift the kettle to fill it, how heavy does it feel? Do you fill it via the spout or do you open the lid? Is the lid stiff? Pay full attention as the water swills out of the tap and into the kettle.
Does it hiss and bubble? Does it smell? We are so accustomed to the smell of water that we no longer notice it. Try to imagine how strong the smell of moisture would be if you had just spent a week in a desert. Spend a few moments thinking about how the water reached you. The rain falling on the distant mountains, trickling through rock and soil, until it eventually reaches a stream. Imagine the reservoir, the water-treatment works, the pipelines. Now, imagine all of the engineers and maintenance workers who designed, built and maintained the water network.
Think of the people involved in producing and distributing the electricity; the people growing and distributing the tea, coffee or cocoa that you will use to make your drink. We are all interconnected on myriad levels. And this is just for a cup of tea.
As you return the kettle to the work surface or cooker, pay close attention to your own movements. Were you aware of those movements or did they ‘just happen’? Likewise, did you consciously flick the electric switch to ‘On’ or light the cooker – or did your autopilot take care of things?
Now, listen as the kettle begins to heat. What can you hear? Close your eyes and drink in the sounds. Check in with yourself.
What mode of mind are you operating in? After a few moments, see if you can notice the first stirrings of impatience. Where in the body are they to be found? What do they feel like? Do they feel like a force trying to break out and exert control? Does your breath become constricted in some way? Habits of impatience can be compelling.
When the kettle has almost boiled, what do you do? Do you wait until the thermostat clicks off – or do you rush in and pour the water before it is boiled? See if you can be patient and wait for the thermostat to click off before mindfully lifting the kettle, being aware of your breath as you pour the water.
Spend a moment considering if there are other aspects of daily life that could also be used to cultivate mindfulness. Such ‘everyday mindfulness’ can be at least as important as the formal meditations.
Now take your cup of tea, coffee or cocoa and relax. You’ve earned it.
Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts March 1. Click here for details.
Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women, starts March 1. Click here for details.
Breathing properly is immediately helpful because the first thing most of us do when experiencing stress and pain – be it mental, emotional or physical – is inhibit our breathing. Try this short exercise:
Make a fist with one hand. Notice what’s happened to your breathing. You’ll probably notice you’re holding it. Now imagine breathing into the fist. What does it want to do? You’ll probably find it wants to release a little.
The fist in this exercise is a metaphor for any kind of discomfort or stress. When we are not aware, we automatically tense against the stresses of life with associated breath holding. Then follows a vicious cycle of more tension, more breath holding, more discomfort, more tension etc, perhaps physical symptoms such as headaches and tension in the neck, back and shoulders or gut problems. Many of these can be eased by simply becoming aware of your breathing patterns and consciously directing the breath into the cycle of contraction. Gradually the tension will gradually soften and the stress will ease.
Breath holding manifests in a range of ways and shallow breathing, breath-holding or over-breathing are the most common dysfunctions. At the keyboard, for example, we tend to breathe as if permanently in fight/flight/freeze mode, causing all the hormonal imbalances that come with this. You could think of it as ‘screen apnoea’. Like sleep apnoea, a condition characterised by pauses in breathing while asleep, it alters our breathing; in this case causing shallow breathing from the upper chest or infrequent breathing. Unsurprisingly, this has negative consequences for health.
You may live with a lot of perceived pressure, perhaps in the workplace, or you may just have poor posture and ergonomics; sitting for hour after hour with your shoulders hunched. Or you may just be desperate for a break! Whatever the cause, breathing-pattern disorders can result.
Breathing is the number-one physiological function that humans do, affecting your heart rate, your gut, your blood pressure, your digestion and your musculoskeletal system. Therefore, changing your breath consciously, using mindfulness and awareness, is one of the most powerful things you can do to assist your body’s physiology. It can have a massive impact on your health; reducing headaches and shoulder pain and strengthening your core.
How is your breathing at this moment? Commonly, when we are stressed, we fail to exhale completely. So, try it now:
- Breathe out fully, and feel the little pause at the end of the exhale.
- Spend a few moments with the breath, allowing it to flow naturally all the way in and all the way out of the body. Notice what it feels like.
To help you remember to do this throughout the day, stick a green dot somewhere around the house where you’ll see it regularly. Or if you work at a computer you could stick the green dot to the side of the screen. Every time you see the dot, breathe out. Relax your jaw. Breathe in through your nose and then out of your nose. Pause. Allow the next in-breath to gather naturally, like a wave gathering in the sea before it flows up the beach. Breathe in and then breathe out fully. Repeat a few times.
Although Buddhist meditation was originally practiced mostly by celibate monks and nuns, who were not only forbidden from having sex but even from having physical contact with the opposite sex, mindfulness practice can significantly enhance your love life. And by “love life” I don’t mean just sex, but your entire life with someone you’re emotionally and physically intimate with. But sex too!Mindfulness Helps You Be Present for Your Partner
First, being mindful helps us to be present for our partner. So much of the time when we’re with another person, we’re not really there. Nowadays it’s common to see couples sitting together in a cafe, but focused on their phones. A modern prayer for couples might be along the lines of, “Lord, let my partner look at me with the same intensity they look at their phone.”
Simply being present and available for each other is essential for any kind of true intimacy to take place.Mindfulness Helps You to Really Listen
And then there’s actually listening to each other. You know how you spend a lot of time in a conversation not paying attention to the other person because you’re busy thinking about what you’re going to say? Mindfulness can help us to recognize that we’re getting distracted and to come back to the present moment. When we do this, we’re able to communicate from a place of greater depth and authenticity.Mindfulness Helps You to Avoid Judging
It’s very easy for us to put labels on our partner. We slip into the habit of labelling them “stubborn,” or “over-sensitive,” or “selfish.” These labels become mental traps for us, becoming triggers for our own reactions and preventing us from really connecting. Mindfulness helps us to see that our labels are unhelpful stories, and so rather than reacting to our own labelling (“There he/she goes again!”) we can stay in the moment and connect more authentically.Mindfulness Puts You in Touch With Your Feelings
Mindfulness helps us to stay in touch with our bodies, and since our feelings are physical sensations taking place in the body, being mindful means that we’re more in touch with how we feel. One study showed that meditators were more in touch with physical sensations in the body than professional dancers.
One thing in particular is helpful here; many of the most important feelings associated with love are carried by the vagus nerve, which runs right past the heart. That’s why you experience heartache when your sweetie is away, and why you experience warm feelings of tenderness in the heart when you’re gazing into their eyes. Our ability to notice these feelings increases through practicing mindfulness. Also, the vagus nerve becomes more active (develops more “vagal tone”) when we practice lovingkindness or compassion meditation, and so the strength of those feelings actually increases.Mindfulness Puts You More In Touch With Your Partner’s Feelings
Being mindful and paying attention to your partner, rather than to what you’re thinking about, helps you be more attentive. You are then better able to notice tiny “micro-expressions” that flit across the face in a fraction of a second. These micro-expressions are involuntary, and so they show what we’re really feeling, as opposed to what we want others to think we’re feeling.
In the context of a loving relationship the ability to pick up on underlying emotions allows you to be more empathetic. Say you’re planning a trip and your partner says, “Sure, that would be lovely.” But you notice a flash of doubts or hesitation. When you pick up on those, you can ask “Are you sure you’re OK with this? You look like you might have reservations.” This gives your partner the opportunity to express their feelings more fully, and the empathy you’re expressing can help bring you together.Mindfulness Makes You More Loving
Lovingkindness, or as I prefer to call it, simply “kindness,” sees that other people, just like us, want to be happy and don’t want to suffer. When we’re kind, we recognize that others’ feelings are as real and important to them as ours are to us. This means that we are more likely to to act in ways that respect their feelings.
Sadly, we often forget to be kind in our intimate relationships, and engage in unkind and disrespectful behaviors such as belittling, sarcasm, and criticism. Lovingkindness practice helps us to see such ways of acting as inappropriate and harmful, and helps us to relate instead in ways that help our partner to feel loved, supported, and appreciated.Mindfulness Makes Sex Hotter If you like my articles, please click here to check out my guided meditation CDs and MP3s.Lastly, the sum total of everything I’ve said so far, including our being more in the moment, more attentive, more aware of the body, more in touch with our own and our partner’s feelings, and kinder and more empathetic, helps us to have much better sex.
One study showed that women who were taught mindfulness became significantly more aware of their own physiological sexual responses and experienced them as more arousing than women in a control group.
It’s a long way off, but if you’ve found this interesting you might want to register for our October online course, The Path of Mindful Relationships: Exploring Romantic Love as a Spiritual Practice.
In short, if you want to have a better relationship, meditate!
Vidyamala’s course, “Mindfulness for Women,” starts March 1, 2017
The Mindfulness for Women online course, starting March 1 on Wildmind, is based on the book I co-wrote with Journalist Claire Irvin. Claire hadn’t meditated before we worked on this project so she gamely kept a diary of her efforts which are accessible, often hilarious, and moving. Here’s her diary of her first attempt to meditate:
Claire’s Diary Week One: Body Scan
It’s 9.30 on a dark early-spring evening. My husband Stuart is away and I’ve finally got Amelie, six, to go to bed (she will take any opportunity to delay bedtime, and an absent parent is as good an excuse as any). On a normal weekday I’d be starting to think about bed myself (early bedtimes are the only way I cope with the hectic pace of my life), but tonight I’m a bit wired, and also secretly relishing the quiet in the house. I think guiltily of my promise to Vidyamala to start my mindfulness journey, but quickly push the thought away. I sit down in front of the TV and am suddenly filled with resolve (plus, I won’t lie, there’s nothing on telly and the idea of lying down is very appealing). I decamp upstairs to my bed and press play on my meditation recording, and Vidyamala’s calm, gently lilting voice fills the room.
I immediately feel myself relax. This isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be . . . I listen for a few more seconds and then get distracted by a noise in the garden. It’s a cat, by the sounds of it, climbing up the side of the shed. I resist the urge to get up and look. But it makes me wonder if I’ve locked up properly outside, and it’s a couple of moments before I can pull myself back to the meditation.
I cringe a bit at the mention of my belly. I hate this word and, like many women, hate focusing on my tummy at all. But as I feel my breath echo in my pelvic floor and my lower back, I begin to feel like a star pupil. I can do this! To say I’m pleased with myself is an understatement. I hear another noise outside, in the front this time, and I tense up again and wonder what it is.
Vidyamala is now asking me to relax my face. Oops! My face is very tense. Like, really tense. I relax it: my jaw, my teeth, the set of my mouth. As soon as I relax one part of it, another tenses up again. I get distracted thinking about the irony of having to work harder at being relaxed. I make myself laugh, then realise I’ve missed the next few moments of the meditation. Must do better next time.
Afterwards, I decide I should go to bed. I notice how much more relaxed I am. Despite Stuart being away, which normally makes me edgy, I sleep like a baby.
A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.
Mindfulness is becoming ever more popular and is in danger of being seen as a panacea for all the problems that trouble the human mind. Even when the practice is divorced from the other elements that form part of a spiritual path, it can be a useful tool for self management and helping to create greater contentment for our lives.
Practicing mindfulness can help us to work out …
One common concern about self-compassion is that it’ll make us lazy and self-indulgent — that if we become more self-compassionate we’ll lack motivation. Self-indulgence means avoiding difficulties, which may benefit us in the short term, but which is detrimental in the long term. Self-indulgence is when we cop out. So we might imagine that when faced with doing something difficult, we’ll let ourselves off the hook in order to be “kind” to ourselves. But that’s the opposite of what actually happens.
Self-compassion means giving yourself support, understanding, and encouragement when you face difficult experiences. It helps you to face your difficulties.
Self-compassion recognizes that your long-term happiness is served not by avoiding challenges, but in offering yourself support as you go through them. Self-compassion gives us courage.
Let’s say you’ve had to give a presentation, and it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. A typical non-compassionate response might be, “What an idiot I am! I’m always messing up. I made a complete fool of myself. I was stupid even to try!” The next time you’re asked to do a presentation you’ll probably be even more nervous, which will make it even harder for you to do well. Or perhaps you’ll find a way to avoid doing the next presentation altogether. That avoidance is self-indulgence. It’s a protective response to stop you from having to face the discomfort involved in doing something challenging.
What would be a self-compassionate response to the same situation? Perhaps you’d take a breath, acknowledge your pain, and say something like, “I know this hurts, but I’m here for you.”
Perhaps you’d remind yourself that you’re not perfect and that since giving presentations is something you’re still learning, it’s natural that you’re not going to do it perfectly. Maybe you’d reflect on the ways you could have been better prepared, to improve your performance the next time.
Or maybe you would ask a colleague what they thought of your presentation, since sometimes our “failures” are largely or even entirely in our own minds. You could ask for feedback about specific things you could have done differently in order to make your presentations more effective.
It’s almost impossible to do those very helpful things when we lack self-compassion. When we’re hard on ourselves we don’t want even to think about our failures, because to do so just gives us one more opportunity to beat ourselves up. We certainly don’t want to reflect on our failures in order to learn. All we want to do is to forget they ever happened.
At the same time, when we lack self-compassion we often can’t forget our failures! Our mind keeps reminding us of the thing we did imperfectly, and so we get recurring, and very painful eruptions of shame and humiliation.
Self-compassion gives us the emotional resilience to be able to bounce back from failure. It helps us to have the courage to pick ourselves up and try again. Self-compassion is what allows us to turn toward the painful feelings of fear, frustration, and shame that arise when we face challenges, and it’s what allows us to keep going through difficulties. Self-compassion is not indulgent. Self-compassion and self-indulgence are, in fact, opposites.
During times of direct uncertainty caused by a change of political power everyone is impacted. And no matter what side we are on, everyone experiences suffering of some kind. Suffering is the first noble truth and no one can escape that. Buddhist Teachers are often asked how do we practise during turbulent times, when civil liberties and freedoms are being taken away?
As Buddhists we have to remember that while some of us may think our civil liberties and freedoms are being taken away, there are other people who think they are gaining freedoms and civil liberties. That some of these people were perhaps angry when the government of their choice was not in power.
While we may have strong views about what is happening in the world, it does not make our view right, and many people may think our view is wrong and their view right. In the dharma we talk about having no view.
As Buddhists we are interested in how we react to uncertain times, because we know that the rate of addiction, self harm and suicide can spike during a change of the status quo. Humans seem to have an inbuilt tendency to turn away from discomfort, and things we don’t like happening, with blame, denial, self pity and distraction.
All of these coping mechanism just fuels more agitation and discontent in our heart/minds. I have no definitive answer of how to practise, but I do know that using uncertainty as an excuse to pick up our substance of distraction or choice will not make things better in the long term. While it may provide a temporary escape from the ills of the world, at some point we have to face our reality, no matter how painful we perceive it to be.
Uncertain times, is an opportunity for us to cultivate self compassion. When we truly touch compassion in ourselves, we will touch the compassion of everybody else in the world. And when we step of our cushions into the world, whatever protest or march we choose to go on, we will be motivated from a place of loving kindness and compassion.
Be aware of facilitative thoughts like: “I deserve a drink right now with all that is happening in the world today”, or “I may as well pick up my drug of choice, at least that’s something nobody can take away from me,” or “If they’re not going to let me back home into my country I may as well go on a bender,” or “nobody understands what it’s like to have a relative or friend killed in a terrorist attack, at least I can console myself with my choice of drug.”
As Buddhist cultivating self loving kindness and compassion is fundamental because it helps to purify the mind/heart, and free us from unwholesome thoughts about the people who are in political power and making decisions. The Dhamapada (verses of the dhamma) emphatically states: “hatred does not still hatred”.
It’s during times like this we must remember step six: Placing Positive Values at the centre of our lives. A year ago on this blog, this stanza came to me while reflecting on the 6th step of the 8 step recovery program.
Watch your thoughts; they become stories
Watch your stories; they become excuses
Watch your excuses; they become relapses
Watch your relapses; they become dis-eases
Watch your dis-eases they become vicious cycles
Watch your vicious cycles they become your wheel of life
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]
I am proud to come from New Zealand, which in 1893 became the first country in the world in which women gained the right to vote. More recently, New Zealand was also the first democracy to have all key Government roles fulfilled by women, e.g. Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Governor General. I also come from a long tradition of strong women and I feel I owe it to my courageous and heroic forebears to do all that I can to stand tall and true in my own life.
I want to let other women know about how mindfulness has transformed my life over the past thirty years, and how it can transform their lives as well, which is why I decided to write ‘Mindfulness for Women‘.
As I worked on the book I realised that for me personally, many of the themes stemmed from pride in my NZ heritage as a woman. I also came to see it as a tribute to all the wonderful and gutsy women who have populated my life, from my grandmother, my numerous leggy and confident aunts, my mother and my three amazing sisters; to the key friendships formed in my all-girls high school and the women’s Buddhist communities that I have been involved with for decades. Many of these friendships are still going strong today.
I have met women who have achieved incredible things. I am not just talking about careers or outward achievements, but women who in very difficult circumstances – whether illness, pain or other life situations – have managed to create a satisfying and joyful life for themselves through practising mindfulness and the associated qualities of kindness and compassion. This is why I am deeply passionate about women being able to use mindfulness to fulfil their potential.
At school in New Zealand in the seventies, girls were encouraged to dream big and to understand that obstacles were there to be overcome. At that time I was super-fit. I adored the mountains and wilderness and my dream was to be a wildlife ranger. But there was a hitch. The New Zealand Wildlife Service didn’t employ women but I wasn’t going to be deterred. At 15 years old I went to see a Director at their head office and asked what I would have to do to convince him to employ me. He told me to get a very good qualification, which was when I decided to become a veterinary surgeon in the knowledge that this would be the ideal skill to have when working with the magnificent creatures I would be living amongst in the mountains and the sea.Check out Vidyamala’s online course, “Mindfulness for Women,” starting March 1, 2017I was happy to co-write Mindfulness for Women with a journalist, Claire Irvin, a dynamic magazine editor with her finger on the pulse of many of the issues facing modern women. Claire’s experience will also resonate with many readers: like many younger women she juggles a full-on career with bringing up her two small children. She has to balance countless demands and organise her life with military precision.
To Claire, mindfulness and meditation were initially just more things to add to the never-ending ‘to-do’ list. But, as we worked together, Claire became increasingly curious about mindfulness and decided to keep a practice diary. This has become an integral part of the book and I am sure many women will relate to Claire’s experience of initial resistance followed by genuine excitement as she began to reap the fruits of taking time each day to stop and get to know her own mind and heart. Also essential to this book are our moving and gritty case studies of women who have found mindfulness, sometimes in the most harrowing of circumstances.
My wish is for women from all walks of life to read the book and discover that inner peace is only a breath away. To find self-belief and to stand tall as they go about their lives. Most of all, my wish is that we recognise how we are continually shaping the world with our thoughts and actions and that, with the help of mindfulness, we can become positive agents of change and transformation in the world. This is what IWD is all about: women believing in themselves and other women and campaigning to make the world a better place for women living today as well as future generations.
You have two big decisions to make in life.
- The first is, Where do you want to go?
This is your life’s “why” — your purpose.
- The second decision is, What are you going to do to get there?
This is your life’s “how.” How are you going to live? What choices are you going to make that are in line with your purpose and that take you in the right direction? How are you going to navigate life’s dilemmas? How do you make choices? To what are you going to say “yes” and to what are you going to say “no”? Who are you going to travel life’s journey with?
Get the why and the how in the wrong order and you’re in trouble. And most of us make that error. If our how is not informed by our why, then our lives are unlikely to be meaningful, purposeful, and satisfying, and will instead have a haunting sense of meaninglessness, of going up blind alleys, and of a persistent, nagging sense that something, at a very fundamental level, isn’t right.
The trouble is that most of us do indeed plunge into the how without thinking much about the why. In fact, my guess is that most of us devote little or no time to clarifying what our values are, and so we stumble blindly through life, often guided by other people’s values and expectations, or living in a disjointed way, guided by different purposes in different circumstances.
The purpose of Find and Live Your Purpose is to help you both to clarify what are your values and purpose (your why) and also the how — how to live a life that’s congruent with and organized around your core principles.
Our purpose is not something we create. It’s something that is already within us. It’s something that is to be divined. The aim is to help you clarify your core values, and to live them, so that you become more authentically you.
This is work that’s dear to my heart. Back in the early 1990’s, when I was running a retreat center in the Highlands of Scotland and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the task I was charged with, I happened upon a book by the late Stephen Covey — “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.”
This book had been recommended to me years before, but I’d avoided it because I assumed that Covey’s “success” was defined in material terms — gaining power, making lots of money, living in a big house, and so on. But I came to learn that Covey’s idea of a successful person was one who lived with awareness — an awareness that in every moment we face choices, and that those choices matter.
On deeper exploration, I found that the first three of Covey’s Seven Habits corresponded closely — even exactly — with the first three fetters that the Buddha said had to be broken in order for insight to arise. The breaking of these three fetters doesn’t represent full awakening, but the first stage of wakening, and it’s a highly significant event in our spiritual life.
I found the synergy between these two systems to be powerfully transformative. The clarity I gained at that time set up my life’s direction from that point right up to the present moment (and, I presume, beyond).
The aim of Find and Live Your Purpose aims to help you have a deep sense of faith that you’re doing the right thing, heading in the right direction, and to be whole, complete, and happy.
But this course ultimately has as its aim helping you to move closer to Awakening.
As we explore our life’s purpose we’ll draw on Buddhist teachings leading to insight, as well as on some of the overlapping principles that Covey outlines in his book (which are the same principles, but in different language).
You don’t have to have read Covey’s book (although it may help) and you don’t have to be that familiar with Buddhist teachings (although that, of course, wouldn’t do any harm). The guided meditations, the daily readings, and the reflections you’ll be doing in your own time will, i hope, together help you to make progress on the path to waking up to reality.
If you’re interested in joining this online course, which will included guided meditations as well as daily teachings by email, you can click here to learn more.
They’re trying to live in the moment — taking time to pay attention to, and be grateful for, the everyday things that can enhance our lives if we let them.
One of my perpetual, unofficial New Year’s resolutions is to practice mindfulness in my consumption of entertainment.
I strive to benefit from the little things others might not notice — and, in the process, squeeze every bit of pleasure possible from a performance or event.
I thought of this concept recently at the end …
If you struggle with dysregulated (addictive/impulsive) behavior, you might have heard that mindfulness can help you overcome the behavior.
In fact, you have likely seen numerous articles on how mindfulness can help you with pretty much every problem you have ever had (Dysregulated behavior! Anxiety! Relationship issues! Work stress! Ingrown toenails!). You may even have been pressured to practice mindfulness by friends or colleagues.
And you may be feeling a little irritated—or just plain angry…
Boxes awaiting decorations surround you and every time you put on your trousers you regret that fourth tin of Quality Streets you ate. So here’s what you do: go for a walk in nature. The simple act of walking in a green space has been found to improve mental health, according to new American research…
Perhaps knowing all of these benefits, you tried meditation. Yet, for whatever the reason, the practice of meditation—sitting still, quietly, focusing on a single object, just isn’t working for you. Maybe you even judge yourself for your inability to meditate.
If you are struggling with making …
Every breath can be the beginning of a new year. One breath at a time can seem a long time for people in recovery. Many people are afraid to connect to the subtle sensations in the nostrils and on the upper lip, that we label as the breath. Connecting to the subtle sensations of breathing means we have to slow down and become aware of our body, thoughts and feelings.
Those of us with addictions are often trying to flee the body, feelings and thoughts. Instead of coming back to the body, we are trying to have out-of-body experiences, get high, have altered states, and not be in touch with everyday reality.
The Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness. The contemplation of the body, feelings, thoughts and mind objects (like hindrances, six senses, the five skandhas and the seven factors of enlightenment).
This is what the Buddha taught. He taught the practise of anapanasati to help us contemplate these four foundations. He taught us how to breathe again. This is the essence, the pulse of this practice. Inhaling and exhaling, aware of the length, and sensation of each breathing moment. Allowing breathing to soothe the body, to soothe mental formation, to liberate the heart, and relinquish all habits.
A whole lifetime passes in each breathing moment. What we do in each moment impacts the next. With every inhale there is an exhale until the last breathing moment.
The past connects to the present, and the present connects to the future. Just like the inhale and exhale. By having awareness of every breathing moment we can impact this flow of reality.
How many of us are aware of breathing? Have you ever tried to be attached to breathing? Attachment only arises when we have the difficulty of breathing. When we don’t inhale enough oxygen it causes us to choke, have asthma attacks, or struggling for another inhale and exhale.
When we experience excitement or upset, our bodies can contract, we interrupt the flow of breathing. Rarely do we experience the full capacity of inhaling and exhaling. We need to be aware that lack of oxygen to the brain and heart befuddles our mental states and at worse brain damage. On an emotional level when our brain and hearts do not receive enough oxygen, we strangle our hearts and mind, and cause damage to our whole body. Anger, hatred, ill will, and even obsessive love is the cause of emotional brain and or heart damage.
The Buddha teaches us to become aware of breathing, because this is the antidote to the poisons of the heart like, greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha rediscovered the way through breathing.
You could ask yourself, “When did I stop breathing?”
Take some minutes to reflect on this question, perhaps repeating it to yourself several times. I stopped breathing the day my biological mother left me somewhere and never came back. As a 6 week old baby, I most probably learned to scream, kick, and cry, blocking the flow of air, hoping this would soothe my pain.
So let’s relearn breathing.
Inhaling, I know I am breathing in. Exhaling I know I am breathing out. Give it a go, ten minutes and see what happens.
Happy New Breath.New Updated Edition of Detox Your Heart – Meditations on Emotional Trauma 2017
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]
Did you find 2016 challenging? Meditating can help 2017 be less stressful!
Registration is now open for all of Wildmind’s online meditation events for 2017.
We’re calling this program our Year of Conscious Living, and we’re bringing you a larger range of events than ever before.
Our course schedule includes events for all levels of practice, whether you’re a beginner interested in learning basic techniques or a more experienced meditator interested in cultivating deep meditative states and insight. You’re free to pick and choose which events you participate in.
Since our courses are online, they’re incredibly convenient! No need to travel; you can learn to meditate in your own home, or wherever you happen to be!
We start the year on January 1, with two courses.
- Change Your Mind is an introduction to meditation, which will guide you, step-by-step, through two fundamental meditation practices, to help you let go of stress and to find more joy and appreciation in your life. It’s ideal for complete beginners to meditation, or if you haven’t meditated in a while and need to go over the basics again.
- Get Your Sit Together is aimed at people who already know how to meditate, but who have trouble meditating regularly. If you resist meditating, or if life just keeps getting in the way of your good intentions, then this is the course for you!
At this time of year you may well be making a New Year’s resolution to meditate every day.
I used to make resolutions too! Usually these attempts were rather feeble, and sometimes I wouldn’t even be half-way through January before I’d realize I’d already missed a couple of days of meditation. In fact days might have gone by and I hadn’t even thought of meditating.
This kind of thing sets up a sense of failure, which undermines our self-confidence and makes us more likely to fail at other things as well.
The main problem I had was that these resolutions weren’t resolutions at all. That is, they weren’t things I was resolved on; they weren’t courses of action I had “firmly decided” to do. I’d just had the idea that I wanted to do these things, but I hadn’t created a plan and I wasn’t doing the things that were necessary for my resolutions to turn into reality.
So we need to do the right things and set up the right conditions if we’re going to change.
A resolution is fine as it goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go very far! Here’s the kind of thing you’ll need to do if you want to go all the way.
- Pick a goal, and make it a reasonable one. Start small. If you’re going to meditate daily, it’s better to aim for five minute a day and succeed, rather than go for 40 minutes and fail. You can always increase the time once you have your new habit established.
- Be specific. Think about where, when, and how you’re going to meditate. Are you going to meditate at home? In the morning or at night? With or without a guided meditation? Plan it.
- Think of what might have to change. You may have time in the morning to meditate, but you spend that time on social media. So maybe you need to turn your phone off at night so that you’re less likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning. Or maybe you need to set a firm time for stopping your TV watching at night and sit before bed — or meditate before you start watching TV in the first place.
- What are you going to do if something crops up and thwarts your plan? What if you sleep in? When will you meditate then? Planning for contingencies doubles your chance of success.
- How are you going to remind yourself of your goal? A resolution you don’t remember isn’t going to have any effect on your life, except to make you feel guilty once you do (eventually) remember it. Notes and alarms can help. So will having a regular place to meditate, where you keep your meditation cushion, and perhaps candles and incense as well.
- Track your progress. Something as simple as a calendar that you put X’s in on days you’ve meditated can be a great visual support.
- Don’t be a perfectionist. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Giving up because you’ve missed a day or meditation is a waste of all the successful effort you’ve put in to your habit. If you fall of the horse, get straight back on! Meditating daily isn’t about trying to impress anyone. It’s about developing a habit that’ll help you be happier and healthier.
- Work with others. You can have a meditation buddy, or join a meditation challenge and become part of a whole community of people working at setting up the habit of daily meditation. Our Change Your Mind course is great if you’re new to meditation and our Get Your Sit Together course will be helpful if you already know how to meditate but are having trouble doing it regularly.
- Celebrate! We tend to focus more on our perceived failures (“I only meditated for five minutes today”) than on our successes (“I meditated today! Good for me!”) I strongly suggest that people allow themselves to feel celebratory before, during, and after every meditation. Become your own cheerleader!
There’s a lot more to establishing a positive habit than just saying you’re going to do it. What you need is to spend some time (and it needn’t take long) making a plan, and setting up supportive conditions.
If you’d like help with setting up a regular meditation practice, we’re here for you! As well as our introduction to meditation course (Change Your Mind) and our course on setting up a rock-solid daily habit (Get Your Sit Together), we have a year-round program of meditation events that will help you sustain and deepen your practice. Do feel free to join us on January 1 for the first of our Year of Conscious Living events!
If you’d like early access to Bodhipaksa’s latest guided meditations for developing inner peace, please check out our Indiegogo campaign. If you’re not familiar with Indiegogo, it’s a crowdfunding platform that allows people to support projects in return for “perks.”
At the time of writing we’re 98 percent funded, and just need a little push to take us all the way. Your support would be much appreciated.
We’re giving the opportunity for you to be the first to get our next CD, “Guided Meditations for Inner Peace,” or to download the MP3s. Your support will help us to cover the upfront costs of this project, and to be more financially secure as we go into 2017.
We offer other perks as well. For example, for a donation of $150, we’ll give 25 copies of our CD to a local project that helps teens from low income families prepare for college. These young people face extraordinary stresses in their lives, often living in unstable homes, attending under-resourced schools, and often having to work long hours to help support their families. I taught meditation to students on this project for 11 years, and know how much they benefit from it. So this is one way you can help support what we’re doing and also help out a lot of other people!
Thanks for supporting us!
Our Indiegogo crowdfunding project is almost fully funded, just one third of the way into our 30 day campaign!
At the time of writing 91 people have contributed to help us bring our forthcoming CD (and MP3) album, “Guided Meditations for Inner Peace,” to publication. We’re over 90% of the way there!
This is the first in a series of meditation albums, based on highly effective techniques for calming the mind.
Here are things that meditation students have said about these meditations, which I’ve been teaching and refining in classes for years now:
Kate, in Maine
That was astonishing. As a high-anxiety person, I stumbled on this while seeking help in focusing on tasks. Wow. I feel so peaceful and yet ready to tackle the tasks awaiting my attention. Thank you!
This is a favorite. Bodhipaksa’s voice is very calming. I can definitely feel a positive difference in my body when I open up my awareness as suggested in this meditation.
Wow. This way of becoming present was new to me. It helped lift the weight from my heart. Thanks!
Excellent. I’ve had trouble calming my thoughts while attempting meditation. When it was mentioned during this session I was surprised that my mind was already calm.
Very calming and effective in such a short amount of time.
Our campaign has gone so well that we’re now aiming to hit 200% of our target: $5,000!
Raising that amount of money would be hugely helpful for us. As a small publisher and teaching organization, Wildmind is operates very much hand-to-mouth, and cash-flow is always a challenge. So your contributions are very much appreciated! If you’d like to show your support, click here!