Meditation When It Matters

Meditation When It Matters

Many of us have returned from our summer break by now and are back into the swing of our working lives. My partner and I just got home from attending our usual annual retreat in Lerab Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist centre near Montpellier in the South of France. We have a tiny cottage in the forest where we stay during our retreat time. It is our opportunity to enjoy some quiet time in nature, while receiving meditation instruction to nourish us throughout the year.

We drive there from Amsterdam and our arrival is always a sensitive time. We are tired from the preparations to leave and the long journey. We know we have a lot to do to set up the cottage for our stay and, as it is remote, we have no idea what we will find when we open the door.

Not how you want to begin a holiday

Not how you want to begin a holiday

This year was a shock. When we went to the room where we sleep we saw that the skylight had leaked through and damaged the area around the window. To make matters worse, this has been an on-going problem, which we thought it was all fixed and done with. When you are on retreat in another country in August and you need to arrange work to be done it can be a big hassle. My heart fell and I felt pretty fed up. Thoughts like, ‘I don’t need this’ and ‘Why can’t things just go smoothly for a change?’ chased each other through my mind. I felt pretty sorry for myself.

This is where meditation kicks in for me and I really see how much it matters in my life. Negative emotions can still come but they do not bite like they used to. They don’t get a hold on me and define my behaviour. Even while I am feeling miserable there is a part of me that knows that it won’t last, that I am not going to feel this way for ever. There is a fundamental part of me that accepts that life has its ups and downs and difficult things will certainly happen, so I am not as surprised as I used to be when things don’t go as I want.

We can think that as meditators we should be able to manage our emotions perfectly but that can just be another way of putting ourselves down. Of course, the more skilfully we can manage our emotions the better but meditation is not an instant cure-all and we can celebrate the steps we take as we go along. Developing a sense of perspective and learning—however slowly—not to take things too personally are two of these important steps. It helps build confidence in meditation to be able to see that although your mind can still get pretty intense, some things are a little easier.

The sky and the clouds

The sky and the clouds

One of the most helpful images I know of to help build confidence in meditation is the example of the sky and the clouds. The sky represents our natural state of openness, spaciousness and wellbeing—our natural mind if you like. The clouds are the thoughts and emotions that pass across our minds. Thoughts do not spoil the mind, or leave any lasting impression—they simply come and go, like clouds. As we become more familiar with meditation we can begin to experience that for ourselves and get a different take on how to handle things going wrong. It becomes more possible to accept things as they are, rather than wishing them to be different and even to develop a certain sense of humour about the craziness of it all.

We are talking about building mental resilience—the ability to overcome obstacles and recover from hard times. It means having a place of inner peace that is always available to us and that helps us to work with how we see things. It enables us to face change and difficulties as opportunities for growth, rather than simply to view them as threats. Not surprisingly, Richard Davidson places resilience as one of the four skills of wellbeing. We know from neuroplasticity that the brain can change according to experience. The experience of meditation will help to develop activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which in turn helps to calm the fight-or-flight response of the amygdala when facing stress.

Meditation when it matters

Meditation when it matters

Sure enough, as I struggled to connect with a sense of inner peace while surveying the damaged skylight, I could look through the rain-stained and murky window to see the clear blue sky beyond. The perspective was there for me to see—however challenging things are in the moment, that moment will pass.

 

If you would like to know more about meditation and resilience, watch this short video where Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn explore this further.

 

 

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How to start meditation in a way that will last

This online course is designed to help beginners make a sustainable start to their meditation practice. You can find out more and sign up here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Start Meditation in a Way that will Last

How to Start Meditation in a Way that Will Last An online course that helps you get going with meditation Are you interested in having a meditation practice that is stable, reliable and rock-solid?     Maybe you have tried to start with meditation already,...
Can a Pandemic Make it Easier to Forgive?

Can a Pandemic Make it Easier to Forgive?

As the Corona Virus story develops, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit of what it means to forgive. It’s something about the intensity of the current situation that’s made me question some of my basic assumptions around certain relationships.

What’s to forgive?

We’re several months into the Corona Crisis now and the atmosphere has changed since it all began. To begin with there was a sense that we are all in this together. Our shared vulnerability brought us together and made us feel close. Sadly, as events have unfolded this closeness has been exposed on many levels as being only skin-deep. 

Huge gaps have opened up between how countries choose to protect their citizens. The divide between rich and poor countries is echoed in the difference between how well-off families are coping and what it’s like for lower-income families. Frontline workers receive plenty or praise but, in many cases have not been given the protections they need to care for themselves as they fight the virus. Old people in care homes, along with their carers have been too often over-looked. Insidiously, the virus has proven to have an even more devastating effect on BAME citizens. The global economy is reeling.

We all have our views of how different sectors are dealing with the crisis. As a Brit living in the Netherlands, I am profoundly grateful for the no-nonsense, practical approach that I find here. With family and friends living in the UK, I am consumed with sorrow and worry. It’s all too easy to blame politicians for not taking enough care. Forgiveness seems in short supply.

Am I able to forgive?

There are politicians who inspire trust and confidence. When they get things wrong it’s much easier to understand that no-one is perfect and to want to forgive them. The whole process is helped along when people in the public eye are able to admit it when they get things wrong and focus on putting it right.

Part of the challenge is that we live in such polarised times. It troubles me that I only need to hear the name of certain public figures to feel upset, or even angry. How can I forgive someone that I do not trust?

Perhaps this is the very time to try to go deeper. Why would someone act in ways that are dishonest and self-seeking? Does it imply a person at ease with themselves and their world? Could there be a possibility for a compassionate approach here—to try to separate the person from their actions? When we feel threatened, or uncertain it’s all too easy to behave in ways that are not necessarily beneficial. It does not mean that there is not a person inside who wishes to manage better but is currently struggling.

My approach just now is to try and see the person behind the actions that I disagree with and to try to fathom their reasons for being the way they are. It’s not easy for sure but I want to try. My wish is to stand for what I belief in with fervour but minus the hostility. I want forgiveness to be my fall back position.

Buddhist teaching on Buddhanature

When I encountered Buddhism, I was attracted by the presentation of what is called Buddhanature. It’s the idea that each of us is fundamentally whole, fully aware, wise and compassionate by nature—in other words, perfect as we are. It’s kind of the opposite of original sin. The thing is that we do not recognise our nature for what it is. We get distracted and follow along with the products of that distraction—ego, neurosis, self-absorption and so on. That means that we can behave in all kind of unfortunate ways.

The Buddhist path is all about learning to access your Buddhanature more effectively. However, here’s the thing—everyone has Buddhanature, including those politicians who I can no longer trust. So, here is the source of my aspiration to separate the person from their actions and to cut down on judgment. If I can remember for a moment that a person’s nature is whole and full of potential, then I can feel regret when they are not living up to it. Just as I do with myself. That makes it easier to forgive.

Focusing on the personal

It’s a way to try and stay personal with someone. To remember that they are a human being, just like me. I call it ‘focusing on the personal’. It’s much easier to put into practice with people that you know.

I’ve had two recent examples of how being able to forgive brings about so much relief and ease. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with a feeling of hurt with a family member. Harsh words were exchanged, and other members of the family got drawn in. It was very uncomfortable. When lockdown began, I heard that this person was in isolation and all alone. Somehow this knowledge cut right through all my feelings of displeasure and judgment. I immediately picked up the phone and had the first real conversation that we had enjoyed for months. All the things that I had objected to seemed to be quite insignificant in the face of all that was going on with regard to the pandemic. It seemed that in fact, there really was nothing to forgive.

The second example is with a group of people that I work with. We’re a loosely connected bunch, who are being asked to work together more closely. As we’ve never really gelled in a creative way, there was a high level of apprehension. A member of the group suggested that we meet together and tell each other two or three things that we find inspiring about the way we work. The effect was powerful. In expressing what inspired us in each of the people in the group, a long history of mistrust seemed to be swept away. Again, it seemed that after all, there was nothing to forgive.

In my experience, the pressing background of the pandemic can act as a catalyst that makes it more possible to forgive but it takes attention and work.

This 60-page e-book is packed full of guidance on simple, practical steps to make meditation part of your everyday life. You can find more here

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

How to Make Your Commute Benefit Your Working Day

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How to Make Your Commute Benefit Your Working Day A free e-course delivered to your inbox each day for 5 days Whether we go by metro, car, or bus; whether we cycle, walk or take the tram most of us spend lots of time every day getting to and from work. Have you ever...
4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.

The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.

Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.

We confuse happiness with pleasure

In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.

Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.

The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness.  We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.

Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.

We imagine it will last forever

So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now. 

Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching,  I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.

On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.

We think money will make us happy

2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlighted is that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.

The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.

Adaptation

One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.

The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.

The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.

Comparison

Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.

We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.

We look for happiness outside of ourselves

We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.

Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.

So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.

Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.

A deeper meaning to happiness

Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?

There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness: 

Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not? 

Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.

It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

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