Meditation and thoughts
When I set off for my very first monastery, I was convinced that meditation was all about stopping thoughts. I’d heard about this “quiet empty mind,” which could supposedly be achieved through meditation, and I was desperate to taste it. Sure, I’d had a glimpse or two over the years, but I imagined it as something never-ending, a bubble in which there was nothing but space, and through which nothing unpleasant could enter. I imagined it as a place that was free from thoughts and feelings. I’m not sure how I ever imagined it was possible to live without thoughts or feelings, but this is how I approached meditation from the beginning. But trying to create this bubble, to achieve this state of mind which I’d assumed I needed to reach to be meditating “properly,” is probably one of the most common misconceptions about meditation.
I received some excellent instruction during this time, but the style in which it was delivered only served to reinforce many of the erroneous ideas I had about it. Each day I’d visit the teacher and explain how my meditation was going, and how there were all these thoughts racing through my mind that I couldn’t stop no matter what I tried. And each day he’d tell me to be more vigilant, to try harder to catch the thoughts the moment they arose in the mind. In no time I became a nervous wreck. I’d sit “on guard” hour after hour. It felt like the mental equivalent of the “whack-a-mole” game you find in a fairground, constantly waiting for the next thought to arrive so that I could jump on it and extinguish it.
With eighteen hours of meditation every day and just three hours or so for sleep, it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted myself completely. I’d sit there in the temple straining to achieve something. Anything. But with every extra ounce of effort I moved further away from that which I was seeking. The other monks from the local area looked perfectly relaxed. In fact, there were a few who seemed to regularly nod off. Now while that’s obviously not the purpose of meditation, when you’re forcing it as much as I was, the idea of sleep was positively dreamy.
After a little while my teacher realized that I was putting in too much effort and instructed me to try less. But by this stage I was putting too much effort into everything. Even into trying less. This struggle went on for some time until I was fortunate enough to meet a teacher who seemed to have a natural gift for story-telling, for explaining things in a way I could easily understand. What he said to me came as quite a shock, because his description of meditation was radically different to what I’d imagined.
He began by asking me to imagine I was sitting on the side of a very busy road, with a blindfold around my head. “Now,” he said, “maybe you can hear the background noise, the cars whizzing by, but you can’t see them because you have your eyes covered, right?” I imagined myself sitting on the grass verge of a motorway (the M4 as it happens) and nodded in agreement. “So,” he went on, “before you start to meditate it can feel a bit like this. Because of all the background noise in the mind, all the thoughts, it means that even when you sit down to relax or go to bed at night, it still feels as though this noise continues, yes?” It was hard to argue with this, because it did indeed feel as though there was always a certain amount of background noise or restlessness in my mind, even when I was not consciously aware of the individual thoughts.
“Now, imagine taking the blindfold off,” he continued. “For the first time you see the road, your mind, clearly. You see the cars racing by, the different colors, shapes and sizes. Maybe sometimes you are attracted by the sound of the cars, at other times more interested in their appearance. But this is what it’s like when you first take off the blindfold.” He started laughing to himself. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it’s at this point that people learning meditation say some very funny things. They start to blame their thoughts and feelings on the meditation. Can you believe it?” he asked mockingly. “They come and see me and say ‘I don’t know what’s happening, where all these thoughts are coming from. I never usually think this much, it must be the meditation making me think all the time,’ as if the meditation is somehow making their situation worse.” His laughter trailed off as he picked up the thread of his explanation.
“So, the first thing to get straight is that meditation does not make you think! All it does is shine a big bright light on your mind so that you can see it more clearly. This bright light is awareness. You may not like what you see when you switch the light on, but it’s a clear and accurate reflection of how your mind behaves on a daily basis.” I sat there and considered his words. He was definitely right about one thing—I’d been blaming meditation for the state of my mind ever since I started. I couldn’t believe that my mind was really like that all the time. Or at least I didn’t want to believe it was. I wondered if perhaps I was beyond help altogether, that no amount of meditation was going to help. It turns out that this is a surprisingly common feeling though, so be reassured if you feel this way too.
My teacher seemed to sense where I was going and interrupted my thoughts. “This is how the mind looks to begin with,” he said softly, “not just your mind, but everybody’s. That’s why training the mind is so important. When you see the mind in this confused state it’s very difficult to know what to do about it. For some people it’s difficult not to panic. Sometimes people try to stop the thoughts through force. At other times they try and ignore them, to think about something else instead. Or if the thoughts are very interesting, then they might try to encourage them and get involved in them. But all these tactics are just ways of trying to avoid the reality of what is. If you think back to the busy road, it’s no different from getting up from the side of the road, running among the cars and trying to control the traffic.” He paused for a moment. “This is quite a risky strategy,” he said, laughing again.
Sound familiar? Once again, he was right. That’s exactly what I’d been doing and not just in my meditation. It summed up my life in general. I’d been trying to control everything. Seeing the chaos of my mind when I sat to meditate had simply triggered the habitual tendency to jump in and take charge, to sort everything out. When that hadn’t worked, I’d just ramped up the effort. But then that’s what we’re taught when we’re young, isn’t it? “Must try harder.” So I’d just kept trying harder. But it turns out no amount of force will result in a feeling of calm.
My teacher continued by making a suggestion. “Here’s an idea—rather than running around in the traffic trying to control everything, why not try staying where you are for a moment? What happens then? What happens when you stay on the side of the road and just watch as the traffic goes past? Maybe it’s rush hour and the road’s full of cars, or maybe it’s the middle of the night and there are very few cars at all. It doesn’t really matter which it is. The point is to get used to ‘holding your seat’ on the side of the road and watching the traffic go by.” I found the idea of just watching the thoughts go by quite easy to imagine and for once I was actually in a hurry to get back to my meditation cushion.
“When you start to approach your meditation in this way you’ll notice that your perspective changes,” he said. “In stepping back from the thoughts and feelings, there will be a sense of increased space. It might feel as if you are simply an observer, watching the thoughts, the traffic, go by. Sometimes you might forget,” he said, smiling knowingly, “and before you know it you’ll find yourself running down the road after a fancy-looking car. This is what happens when you experience a pleasant thought. You see it, get caught up in it, and end up chasing after the thought.” He was now laughing loudly as he imagined me chasing the cars. “But then all of a sudden, you’ll realize what you’re doing and, in that moment, you’ll have the opportunity to return to your seat at the side of the road. At other times, you might see some traffic coming that you don’t like the look of. Maybe it’s an old rusty car, an unpleasant thought, and you’ll no doubt rush out into the traffic to try and stop it. You might try to resist this feeling or thought for quite some time before you realize that you’re back in the road again. But the moment you do, in that moment, you have the opportunity to take up your position on the side of the road again.” He continued, now speaking more deliberately. “Over time, this will get easier. You won’t want to run out into the road quite so often and you’ll find it easier and easier to just sit and watch the thoughts go by. This is the process of meditation.”
It’s worth taking some time to reflect on this analogy and as I sat there I considered what he’d said. It all made so much sense, at least theoretically. But there were a couple of points that didn’t feel right. If I was just sitting there as an observer to the thoughts, then who was doing the thinking? Surely I can’t be doing both at the same time? “Your thoughts are autonomous,” he explained. “Of course, if you want to think about something you can, you have that ability to reflect, to remember, or to project into the future and imagine how things might be. But what about the thoughts that just ‘pop’ into your mind when you sit to meditate, or when you’re walking down the street, or sitting at your desk trying to read a book? What about those thoughts? You didn’t bring those thoughts to mind, did you? They came to mind. One minute you’re reading a book and the next the thought of an old friend ‘pops’ into your mind. You haven’t thought of this friend for a long time and you made no conscious effort to bring him to mind and yet, all of a sudden, there he is!” This was definitely something I’d experienced a lot. I don’t know if it’s something that ever happens to you, but I’d often start reading a page of a book, only to reach the end and realize that not a word had gone in. Inevitably, somewhere along the way a thought had popped up and I’d become distracted, often without even being aware of it.
“So,” he continued, “these thoughts that we try so hard to suppress, to get away from or to stop altogether, are pretty much just popping up whenever they feel like it, right? We like to think we control our minds, control the flow of thought, but if it was possible to do that then you wouldn’t have traveled halfway around the world for my advice.” He pointed at me, playfully, laughing. “In fact, if it were possible to control your thoughts then you’d never have any reason to get stressed at all. You’d simply block out all the unpleasant thoughts and live peacefully with all your happy thoughts.” I couldn’t believe how obvious it sounded when he explained it like that. It was almost as if I already knew it at some level, but had somehow forgotten to apply the idea to my life. “But what about productive thoughts?” I asked. “What about creative thoughts, ones that are necessary to solve problems?”
“I’m not saying that all thinking is bad,” he said. “We need the ability to think in order to live. It’s the nature of mind to think. In the same way that the road was built for cars to journey on, so the mind exists to experience thoughts and feelings. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that all thoughts are bad. They’re not—we just need to know how to relate to them. What you need to ask yourself,” he continued, “is how much of your thinking is helpful, productive, and how much is unhelpful or unproductive. Only you know the answer to that. I’m assuming that because you’ve come all this way to see me, your thinking causes you problems at times, that maybe some of it is not so helpful?” There was no arguing with that. A great many of my thoughts fell into the “unhelpful and unproductive” category. “If you’re worried about losing these creative thoughts,” he gestured somewhat dismissively, “then where do you think they come from in the first place? Do those moments of inspiration come from cold, rational thinking, or do they arise from the stillness and the spaciousness of the mind? When the mind is always busy there’s no room for these thoughts to arise, so by training your mind you’ll actually make more space for these creative thoughts to arise. The point is, don’t be a slave to your mind. If you want to direct your mind and use it well, then good. But what use is the mind if it’s all over the place, with no sense of direction or stability?”
Having thanked my teacher for his time I returned to my room to mull over all we’d discussed. Every point seemed to be as important as the next. For me it was a radically different way of approaching meditation, and I suspect it may well be for you too. But in that one short meeting I’d learned that meditation, within a mindful context, was not about stopping thoughts and controlling the mind. It was a process of giving up control, of stepping back, learning how to focus the attention in a passive way, while simply resting the mind in its own natural awareness. My teacher had explained how it was a skill, an art, knowing how to step back and how not to get continually sucked into the realm of endless, unproductive and often stressful thinking. I’d learned how the thoughts were autonomous and how no amount of force could prevent them from arising.
Over the next few weeks I became increasingly enthusiastic about my meditation. This new way of approaching the same technique had been a revelation. It seemed to make a difference the very first time I tried it. Of course, sometimes I’d forget and slip back into my old habits, but slowly these new ideas started to take root. At times the mind continued to be very busy, just as my teacher had promised, but on other occasions it became very, very quiet. It was as if the volume of cars on the road had decreased to such an extent that I could now see the individual cars a lot more clearly. Not only that, but the space between these cars was now longer, wider, bigger. In fact, sometimes there appeared to be no cars at all. And it was then that I finally understood the confusion I’d experienced in learning meditation. Having heard about these moments of “no thought” or “empty space,” I’d always assumed that it was something I had to do. As it turns out, though, it is in not doing that those moments arise. It is stepping back and allowing the mind to unwind in its own time and its own way that you will find a genuine sense of headspace.
The blue sky
So, how do you “not do something,” while engaged in an exercise that is designed to “do something?” Despite the advice I’d received, this was an idea I still struggled with from time to time. Sure, sitting on the side of the road was fine for a little while, but before long I found myself impatiently waiting for more progress. It’s hard to believe that a sense of calm was not enough to satisfy me, but I wanted more, I wanted insight. Because although the thoughts had started to settle down, I was still left with a lot of the usual emotional stuff. Whether it was feeling frustrated, worried or doubtful, these emotions seemed to cloud my experience of meditation time and time again. I also found it hard to believe that such a passive approach was really going to lead to any long-lasting change. It was one thing to experience a sense of calm in the monastery, but quite another to imagine this working among the chaos of everyday life. A good few months passed before I had the opportunity to see the senior teacher in the monastery again, but when I did I asked him if he could help me out with what was becoming an increasingly big obstacle for me.
“Imagine a clear blue sky,” he began. “Feels nice, yes? It’s very hard to feel down when the sky’s blue like that.” He paused, as if to appreciate the space this image brought to the mind. “Now, imagine that your mind is like this blue sky. I’m not talking about all the thoughts, confusion and craziness,” he said chuckling. “I’m talking about the underlying essence of mind, the natural state.” I took a moment to think about it. Imagining a clear blue sky was one thing, but imagining that it somehow represented my own mind was quite another. There was nothing clear about my mind back then, it was just full of thoughts and confusing emotions. “It doesn’t matter whether this is your experience right now,” he said, “simply ‘imagine’ for a moment that this is how things are. In fact, think back to the last time you felt very happy and relaxed and it’s probably not so very difficult to imagine.” He was right, when I thought about a happy time in my life at the same moment, it was actually very easy to imagine. Try it for yourself right now.
“Okay,” he said, “now imagine a very cloudy day, no blue sky at all, just big, dark, heavy clouds.” He said each word very slowly, as if to emphasize the point. “How does that make you feel?” he asked, still smiling, “not so good, right? Now, imagine those clouds are the thoughts in your mind, how sometimes they’re fluffy and white and appear quite friendly, whereas at other times they appear dark and heavy. The color of the clouds simply reflects your feeling or mood at the time.” It was true—when I had lots of friendly thoughts racing around, the fluffy white clouds, I wasn’t that bothered about having a busy mind. Unless I was trying to meditate that is, and then I’d struggle with them sometimes. But when the thoughts were difficult, the heavy dark clouds, I started to feel really uncomfortable.
But it was the next bit of his story that really resonated and that I hope will stay with you too for a long time to come. “In order to get to this monastery you must have flown in a plane?” he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be. I agreed. “Was it cloudy when you left?” he asked. “It’s always cloudy in England,” I replied, smiling. “Well then,” he said, “you’ll know that if you get in a plane and fly up through the clouds, there’s nothing but blue sky on the other side. Even when it appears as though there’s nothing but big, dark, heavy clouds, there’s always blue sky there.” There was no denying it, I’d flown a lot over the years and he was right. “So,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “the sky is always blue.” He chuckled to himself as though everything I ever needed to know was in that one sentence, and in a way it was.
I returned to my room and thought about the significance of what I’d heard. As a concept I got it: the sky is always blue. The clouds are our thoughts and when the mind is very busy with all these thoughts the blue sky is temporarily obscured. In my own case, the mind had been so busy with thoughts, and for such a long time, that I’d almost forgotten what blue sky looked like. But it was more than that. It was this idea that the underlying essence of the mind, like the blue sky, is unchanging, no matter how we feel. When we’re in a bad mood or feeling rough for some reason, then the cloud is simply more obvious, more distracting. There might be just the one thought in the entire sky, but it seems to demand every last bit of our attention.
The reason this lesson was so important for me—and I hope will be for you—was that I’d always assumed I had to somehow create blue sky. I was under the impression that to experience headspace I needed to make something happen. The truth is, we don’t need to create anything. The blue sky is headspace, and it’s always there—or, rather, here. This changed everything for me. Meditation was no longer about trying to create an artificial state of mind, which I’d imagined headspace was. Neither was it about trying to keep all the clouds at bay. It was more a case of setting up a deckchair in the garden and watching as the clouds rolled by. Sometimes the blue sky would peek through the clouds, which felt nice. And, if I was able to sit there patiently and not get too engrossed in the clouds, then even more of the blue sky would start to appear. It was as if it happened on its own, with no help from me whatsoever. Watching the clouds in this way gave me perspective, a sense of space that I’d not known in my meditation before. More than that though, it gave me the confidence to sit and rest my mind in its natural state, not trying, not doing, just being.
Of course, it’s all very well me telling you this, but until you experience it for yourself it may not sound all that significant. But take a moment to imagine what it would be like to have that kind of freedom and space in your mind. Imagine what it would be like to be unconcerned with the volume or intensity of thoughts in your mind. Most of all, imagine what it would be like to have a place within your own mind which is always calm, always still and always clear; a place that you can always return to, a sense of being at ease or at peace with whatever is happening in your life.
Exercise 3: physical sensations
Put the book down for another couple of minutes and try this short exercise. We return here to the idea of being at peace with whatever is on your mind. Whereas last time you were focusing on sounds or visual objects, this time try focusing on a physical sensation. It can be the sensation of the body pressing down on the chair beneath you, the soles of the feet against the floor, or even the sensation of your hands resting on the book. The advantage of focusing on the physical sensation of touch like this is that it’s very tangible, but you may well find that the mind still wanders a lot. If you do experience a very busy mind or a strong emotion of some kind, remember the idea of the blue sky, the possibility that perhaps underneath all those thoughts and feelings there might exist a place that is still, spacious and clear. So each time you realize the mind has wandered off and you’ve become distracted, just effortlessly move the attention back to the physical sensation.
The wild horse
Sometime later I found myself living in a much busier monastery, which served the needs of the local community and received a lot of visitors. We were still given many hours a day to meditate in a formal way, but the emphasis at this monastery was more on the practice of awareness in everyday life—in other words, the practice of mindfulness. Having previously had the luxury of moving seamlessly from one meditation session to the next, I’d grown accustomed to my mind settling quite quickly when I sat down to meditate. But now the sessions were often sandwiched between other activities, such as gardening, cooking, cleaning and paperwork. Often this involved working with others, having conversations and discussions about all sorts of things. Some of these conversations were monastic in nature and others were, how shall I say, less monastic. What I discovered very quickly was that this type of interaction made for a very different type of meditation session afterward. Rather than sitting down and the mind immediately settling as it had before, it was now often very busy.
Falling back into my old habits of trying to control the mind (never underestimate the strength of this tendency), if my mind hadn’t settled within five minutes or so, I started to resist the thoughts. And in resisting them I created yet more thoughts. I’d then panic about the fact that I was creating more thoughts and in doing so create even more thoughts!
I was fortunate enough to have a very experienced teacher on-hand again, and so went to ask his advice. He was known for his warm and often humorous teaching style and rarely answered a question with a straightforward answer. In fact, he would often answer a question with another question! But when he did answer, it was almost always in the form of a story, of which just like the previous teacher, he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply. I explained my difficulties as he sat listening, slowly nodding his head.
“Have you ever seen a wild stallion broken in?” he asked. I shook my head. What had that got to do with anything? He seemed a little disappointed, but then I guess life on the Tibetan steppes as a child is somewhat different from growing up in a small English village. He continued to talk about these wild horses, which he said were very difficult to catch and even harder to tame. “Now, imagine you grab hold of one of these horses and try to keep it in one place,” he continued. I imagined standing next to the horse, holding on to it tightly with a rope. “Impossible!” he blurted out, “no man or woman can hold down a wild horse, it’s too strong. Even if you got together with all your friends you’d never be able to hold it down in one place. This is not the way to tame a wild horse. When you first catch one of these horses,” he continued, “you need to remember that they are used to running free. They’re not used to standing still for a long time, or being forced against their will to stay in one place.” I started to get a sense of where he might be going. “Your mind is like this wild horse when you sit to meditate,” he said, “you can’t expect it to stay still in one place all of a sudden just because you’re sitting there like a statue doing something called meditation! So when you sit down with this wild horse, this wild mind, you need to give it lots of room. Rather than trying to immediately focus on the object of meditation, give your mind time to settle, to relax a little. What’s the hurry?”
Again, he was right, I was rushing my meditation, thinking that somehow the next moment was more important than this one, still trying to get to a certain state of mind. Quite what point I was trying to reach was not entirely clear. “Instead,” he suggested, “approach your mind in the same way that these wild horses are broken in. Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a really big space, a large open field. Now the horse is on the end of a slack rope that you’re holding on to, but it has all the space it needs. It doesn’t feel as though it’s being trapped or pinned down in any way.” I imagined the horse running freely in the field, as I stood there keeping a watchful eye on it, holding on loosely to the end of the rope. “Now place one hand over the other and very gently shorten the length of the rope by bringing it in a bit. Not by much, but just a little bit.” He held his thumb and forefinger up, just half a centimeter between them, as if to emphasize the point. “If you do this gently enough with a wild horse, it won’t even notice the difference—it will still feel as though it has all the space in the world. Keep doing this, slowly bringing the horse closer, all the while keeping an eye on it, but giving it enough space to feel at ease and not too nervous.”
This made a lot of sense and simply imagining the process made me feel more relaxed. “So,” he said, “this is what you need to do with your mind when you sit down and find it’s very busy. Take it slowly, be gentle and give it all the space that it needs. Allow the horse to come to a natural place of rest, where it feels happy, confident and relaxed staying in one place. Sometimes it might struggle at first, but that’s fine, just loosen the rope again slightly, and gently repeat the process. If you meditate in this way then your mind will be very happy,” he said.
Remembering this simple story will make a huge difference to your meditation. In fact, why not check out the horse-taming animation on our website at www.getsomeheadspace.com/books/getsome
Meditation and Emotions
With all this good advice, it wasn’t long before my mind really started to settle down. There were still days when the mind was busy, but I was becoming increasingly comfortable with watching the thoughts as they passed by. The thoughts were somehow easier to deal with and I’d taken the analogies of the road and the blue sky to heart. However, when strong emotions arose in the mind or I started to feel physical discomfort, I had a hard time just sitting with it. I found it almost impossible to be unbiased in these situations. When I felt happy and blissed out I wanted to hold on to that feeling for as long as possible. But when unpleasant feelings arose I couldn’t help but resist them. I’d lost count of how many times I’d been told that resistance was futile, that it only made the situation worse, but I just couldn’t help myself.
This went on for some time. I saw it as a kind of heroic battle with the ego and, being quite stubborn, refused to back down. I didn’t yet have the awareness to see that the only battle I was waging was against myself. Eventually I had to concede that I was getting nowhere and so once again I arranged to see my teacher. As I explained the situation to him, he nodded away as if he’d heard the same thing a hundred times before. “It’s the same for everyone,” he began. “We’re attracted to the things we like and we become attached to these things. We don’t want to give them up for anything. The only problem is, the more we chase after them the further away they appear. And the more we try to hold on to these pleasant feelings, the more fearful we become of losing them.”
It was true. In fact, in my meditation practice it had even become a bit of an obstacle, because every time I had a session in which I experienced what I considered to be positive feelings it simply raised my expectations. This meant that when I came to the next session, far from sitting there in the moment, I was trying to recreate an experience from earlier on. “At the same time as trying to hold on to the good things,” he continued, “we’re also busy trying to get rid of all the unpleasant things. It doesn’t matter whether we’re trying to get rid of lots of thoughts, difficult emotions, or a painful feeling in the body, it’s all the same, it’s resistance. And as long as there’s resistance, there’s no room for acceptance. And as long as we don’t have acceptance, there’s no way of having a peaceful mind.” It sounds so obvious when it’s put like this, doesn’t it? “Happiness is just happiness,” he went on, “no big deal. It comes and it goes. Sadness is just sadness, no big deal. It comes and it goes. If you can give up your desire to always experience pleasant things, at the same time as giving up your fear of experiencing unpleasant things, then you’ll have a quiet mind.”
As I listened to his explanation, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something missing. Sure, “let go of attachment” and “let go of resistance,” but how? “Simple. By becoming more aware,” he said. This seemed to be the answer for everything, and although I could see that my perspective was changing as my awareness grew, it didn’t feel as though it was happening fast enough. I shared my thoughts with the teacher and he laughed, “Ah,” he said, “I think you’re talking about impatience.” I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. “I’d just like to know how to deal with these things until my awareness becomes a bit stronger,” I said. “Perhaps there’s another technique which could help?” I asked hopefully. He seemed to study me before answering. “I want you to continue to focus on the breath, just practicing how to rest in the natural awareness of your mind. However, there is one thing you could add to that exercise which might help in the meantime.” I raised my eyebrows in anticipation. He went on to explain, and you may well want to try this in your own meditation.
“When you experience pleasant sensations in your practice, I want you to imagine sharing those feelings with other people,” he began. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s the pleasant sensation of a quiet mind, of a relaxed body or a comforting emotion; simply imagine you are giving it away, sharing it with your friends and family, the people you care about.” He continued. “It doesn’t require lots of thought and I still want you to focus on the breath, just counting the breaths as they pass. But, if you find yourself sitting there and you feel very good, then maintain this attitude of wanting to share it with others.” I couldn’t really see how this was going to help, but it sounded harmless enough and the sentiment was well meaning. “This next bit might be a little more challenging,” he said, smiling broadly. “When you experience discomfort in your meditation, whether it’s the restlessness of a busy mind, physical tension in the body, or a challenging emotion, I want you to imagine it’s the discomfort of the people you care about. It’s as if in an act of extraordinary generosity, you are sitting with their discomfort so they don’t have to.”
It sounded bizarre. How could that help? Why would I want to give away the nice feelings and imagine sitting with the discomfort of others? “Relax,” he said, “it’s not actually happening. But if you think about it, it’s a very skilful way of working with the mind. When we try hard to hold on to pleasant states of mind that creates tension. By imagining you’re giving away those feelings, and sharing them, you lose that tension and become less judgmental.” Okay, that made sense, but what about the other part? “When it comes to unpleasant feelings we’re always trying to get rid of them, right? This also creates tension. This way we’re doing the opposite of what we normally do, which means there’s no resistance. And no resistance means no tension.” I thought about it, it made a certain amount of sense. In fact, it sounded like an elaborate version of reverse psychology. I guess the interesting thing was that it trained the mind to be more altruistic at the same time.
I went away and put the instructions into practice. I didn’t need to change the exercise in any way, it was more about the approach to the technique and remembering to maintain the attitude of being less judgmental about the experience of meditation. Despite my doubts, my teacher had been right. When I had the attitude of sharing pleasant sensations they seemed to last longer, and the meditation became more enjoyable. It’s hard to say what changed exactly, but I guess it became a little less self-serving. The other aspect was equally effective. I can’t say that unpleasant emotions or tension immediately disappeared when I applied this method, but the intention had been to find a way to sit with those feelings with a greater sense of confidence and acceptance. And it was true, by imagining that I was doing something beneficial for others, it seemed to make the whole thing easier. This approach to the practice made a considerable difference to my ability and willingness to understand all aspects of the mind. Before that time I’d only wanted to get to know the pleasant sensations and had always feared unpleasant ones. But this changed everything; it was like seeing and understanding a part of my mind that I’d never seen before—and of course I’d never seen it because I was always so busy running away from it.
Exercise 4: focusing on pleasant or unpleasant sensations
Try it right now to see how it feels. Put the book down for a couple of minutes again and use a physical sensation to focus on as you gently close the eyes. Rather than using a neutral sensation as you did last time, focus on either a pleasant or unpleasant feeling in the body. For example, maybe you feel a lightness in your hands or feet, or perhaps you feel some tension in your shoulders. Normally you’d probably try to resist the feeling of discomfort and hold on to the feeling of comfort, but what happens when you reverse it and apply the principle of sharing pleasant feelings with others and sitting with difficult feelings on behalf of others? Does it change the experience? Remember, if you are focusing on a pleasant sensation try gently to maintain the attitude of sharing it with others as you focus on it. Equally, if you’re resting your attention on an unpleasant feeling, then try to lightly maintain the attitude of experiencing it or looking after it for someone you care about.
What goes down, must come up
When I look back at my reasons for becoming a monk, I can’t pick out the exact moment when I started to feel unhappy, but there was a series of events that undoubtedly “tipped me over the edge.” By my late teens my mum had remarried and, along with a step-dad, my sister and I gained a step-sister and step-brother. Not long after, our step-sister, Joanne, was killed while out riding her bike, run over by a man in a van who was unable to stay awake at the wheel. The impact it had on the family is indescribable and yet I didn’t really stop for long enough to take it in. Unable and unwilling to look at the amount of sadness around me, I just kept going. In fact, I even went away physically, as though that might somehow remove me from the feeling. While the feeling didn’t go away as such, it did at least allow me to live in ignorance for a little longer.
Then, a few months later I heard that an ex-girlfriend of mine had died while having heart surgery. I remember receiving the news and almost brushing it off as if it didn’t matter. I thought that part of growing into a man was being able to deal with things in a detached kind of way. Unable to be with the feeling, I did the only thing I knew how and rammed it down inside.
They say these things come in threes, and sure enough soon afterward number three arrived. I went to a party with a group of friends on Christmas Eve. After midnight we left in varying states of inebriation. It was a happy time, and everyone stood around hugging goodbye and wishing each other a merry Christmas. As I wandered off with a couple of friends I heard the sound of a car coming over the top of the hill. I remember looking and wondering why it didn’t have its lights on. The car got faster and faster, speeding down the hill. Halfway down the man behind the wheel, who was later discovered to be more than four times over the limit, lost control of the car. Narrowly missing the three of us, the car veered on to the pavement and plowed straight into the middle of the group of friends. It was a scene of utter devastation. The whole thing seemed to slow down to a frame-by-frame series of events, as if a camera were taking one shot after the next. In one shot there was the point of impact, the bodies of friends flung into the air like rag dolls. In another shot a body, lying slumped against the wall. Several people died that night and many more were seriously injured. Never in my life have I felt more helpless.
Whether it was through sheer grit and will-power, or the fear of what might happen if I lifted the lid of the pressure cooker, I managed to keep down the feelings that came after these events for quite some time. But after a year or so they started to come out in other ways, coloring the world around me. When it comes to emotions it’s the case that whatever goes down, must come up. It might come to the surface as the emotion itself, or it might start to affect our behavior in some way. Sometimes it can even affect our physical health. Stress-related health symptoms are increasingly common and widely acknowledged to be a result of our inability to deal with challenging feelings presented by a stressful situation or environment.
By the time I got to the monastery these emotions were most definitely coming to the surface. Sometimes the feeling would be more obvious and the thoughts accompanying the feeling made it very clear what it was about, but more often it was just a feeling that arose. When I started to become aware of this sadness I felt a little hard done by. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I’d signed up for peace and tranquility in the mountains. For quite some time I continued to “do battle” with these feelings, trying to ignore or resist them. The irony that I was doing this at the same time as trying to let go of ignorance and resistance escaped me altogether. Not being able to control the feeling I became frustrated, thinking it must be a lack of progress in my meditation. I started to think that maybe I wasn’t cut out for meditation. I also became increasingly anxious whenever I sat down to meditate.
One day I decided I’d had enough and went to see the teacher. I explained what had been going on in my practice and he listened very patiently. Now I fully expected him to give me some secret technique developed especially to deal with difficult emotions, but instead he asked me a question.
“Do you like it when someone makes you laugh?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied smiling. “What about when someone makes you cry? Do you like that?” “No,” I said, shaking my head. “Okay,” he continued, “so let’s say that I could show you how to never experience sadness again, would you like that?” “Of course,” I nodded eagerly. “The only condition is that you would also lose the ability to laugh as well,” he said, suddenly looking very serious. He seemed to read my thoughts. “They are a package,” he said, “you can’t have one without the other. They are like two sides of the same coin.” I thought about it. “Stop thinking about it,” he said, now laughing. “It’s impossible, I couldn’t show you how to do it even if you wanted me to.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” I asked. “If I can’t get rid of this feeling of being sad all the time, how am I ever going to be happy?” His demeanor became more serious. “You’re looking for the wrong kind of happiness,” he said. “True happiness doesn’t distinguish between the kind of happiness you get from having fun and the sadness you feel when something goes wrong. Meditation is not about finding this kind of happiness. If you want to find this kind of happiness then go to a party. The kind of happiness that I’m talking about is the ability to feel comfortable no matter what emotion arises.” “But how can I feel comfortable with feeling unhappy?” I shot back.
“Try looking at it this way,” he went on, “these feelings are part of being human. Now maybe you know some people who seem a bit happier than you, and other people who are a bit more unhappy than you.” I nodded. “So sometimes we’re predisposed to feel a certain way,” he continued, “some people a bit happier and some people a bit unhappier. But it’s what’s underneath that matters. Because neither person can control their feelings. The happy person cannot ‘keep hold’ of his or her happiness and the unhappy person cannot ‘push away’ his or her unhappiness.” While this wasn’t the concise magic answer I’d gone to the teacher hoping for, it at least made sense.
He continued. “Tell me what emotion is causing you most trouble right now?” “Mostly it’s feeling sad,” I replied, “but that makes me feel worried about my meditation, and then I get angry because I can’t stop feeling sad or worried.” “Okay, forget about the worry and the anger for a moment,” he said, “we can deal with those later. Besides, these are just your reactions to the sadness. Let’s look at the original emotion, sadness. How does it make you feel?” I thought the answer was fairly obvious. “It makes me feel sad.” “No,” he shot back, “this is your idea of how it makes you feel, how you think it makes you feel, rather than how it actually feels.”
I dug my heels in a little further. “No, it actually feels sad,” I said. “Okay,” he replied, “so where is it?” “Where’s what?” I asked, now a little confused. “Where’s the sadness?” he replied. “Is it in your mind or is it in your body?” “It’s everywhere,” I said. “Are you sure?” he persisted. “Have you looked to try and find this feeling, to try and find where it lives?” I’d been so caught up thinking about it that the idea of studying it had never occurred to me. I shook my head a little sheepishly. “Okay,” he said, “so this is the first job. Go and find this feeling of sadness for me and then we can talk about it some more.” The meeting was clearly over.
Over the next few weeks I spent a lot of time trying to find this feeling of sadness. Although it seemed to color the thoughts in my mind, I couldn’t say that the sadness was the thoughts themselves. Besides, the thoughts were so intangible, I couldn’t even really get a sense of them living anywhere permanently anyway. It did seem to be the case that when I thought about certain things it seemed to intensify the feeling of sadness, but that’s not what he’d asked me to find. So I started to examine the body during my meditation (mentally that is), scanning up and down through the body and trying to find this thing called sadness. It was illusive, that’s for sure. But there was definitely a certain quality about the physical sensations that gave me enough confidence to go back and say that the emotion of sadness lived in the body.
“So,” my teacher said chuckling, as he invited me into his office. “Did you find what you were looking for?” “Well, yes and no,” I replied. “I couldn’t find sadness in my mind, in the thoughts, although the sadness did seem to color and influence my thinking.” He nodded. “But I felt that there were certain places in the body where I could feel it more strongly, where it felt like something a little more tangible.” Again, he nodded. “The problem,” I continued, “was that every time I thought I’d found it, it seemed to shift to a different part of the body.” He smiled and nodded in agreement. “Yes,” he said, “it’s hard to study something when it keeps changing like that. Where did you decide this sadness was?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “I guess I felt it mostly here,” I said, pointing to my chest. “Anywhere else?” he asked. “Well, maybe here a bit too,” I said, this time pointing to the area around my diaphragm. “What about your ears?” he asked laughing. “And what about your toes? Did you find any sadness there?” He was clearly having some fun, but he was right, I’d not found any sadness in my ears or my toes. In fact, I think I may have even neglected to look there. “So,” he continued, “you say this sadness lives around here,” he said, gesturing to my chest, “but where exactly? You need to be more specific. And if it does live there, what size is it, what shape is it? Study it some more and then we can talk about it.”
Once again I went away and tried to pin down the sadness. One thing that I’d noticed during this time of watching the feeling was that the intensity of it seemed to have decreased. I wasn’t sure if this was coincidental or not, but there was a definite change. Anyway, I went back to looking for sadness as instructed. It was tricky, because it didn’t really seem to have any obvious shape or size. Sometimes it felt quite spacious, whereas at other times it felt more constricted. Sometimes it seemed to have quite a heavy quality about it and at other times it seemed to feel a bit lighter. Even when I thought I’d located a very clear and definite feeling, it was very hard to locate a central point. And as soon as I found a central point and focused on that, I realized that there must be a central point to that too. It felt endless. The one thing I couldn’t ignore was that the intensity of emotion was continuing to diminish. There was now no question in my mind that by replacing the thoughts with simple awareness, something had happened, something had changed. I wondered if it was just a trick, if all along he’d known that I wasn’t going to find anything. I intended to ask him next time we met.
I’m not sure if I looked different, but he seemed to recognize I was feeling less sad as soon as I opened the door. I explained what had happened as he listened patiently. When I suggested that it might have been a trick to get me to stop thinking about it all the time he laughed loudly and rocked back and forward on his cushion. “Very funny trick,” he said. “No, it was no trick. When you came here I said that meditation would teach you to be more aware, I never said it would get rid of unpleasant emotions. It just so happens that when you’re more aware there is very little room for these unpleasant emotions to operate. When you’re thinking about them all the time, then of course you give them lots of room, you keep them active. But if you don’t think about them, then they tend to lose their momentum.”
“So, it was a trick,” I replied. “No trick!” he exclaimed. “Did you find the sadness you were looking for?” “Well, no, not really,” I replied. “Exactly,” he said, with a smile on his face, “I’m not saying that these feelings do or do not exist, but you’ve found for yourself that when you study the emotion very closely, it’s actually very hard to find. This is something to remember when you find yourself reacting strongly to an emotion. When you came you said that not only did you feel sad, but you also felt frustrated and worried about your meditation. But these emotions were nothing but your reaction to the original emotion, making the whole situation that much worse. What about now, did you experience anger or worry when you were simply watching the sadness with awareness?” I shook my head in reply. He was right, I’d not experienced any. I’d felt frustrated at times at not being able to find what I was supposedly looking for, but certainly not worried. In fact, I’d started to look forward to the meditation again and even found myself laughing a few times at the fact that I couldn’t seem to find this thing that was supposedly causing me so much trouble. “Exactly,” he said again, this time with an even bigger smile on his face, “why would you react very strongly when you can’t even find a feeling there to react to? In order to resist something you need to have an idea of what it is. Often our ‘idea’ of a feeling is just that, an idea. When we look a little more closely, we see that the idea is actually not what we thought it was. This makes it very difficult to resist. And with no resistance, there is simply acceptance of the emotion.”
I won’t pretend that this process was quick, or easy, and nor did it mark the end of me feeling unpleasant emotions. But the experience taught me some lessons. One of the most important was that the emotion itself is often not the problem. It’s the way we react to it that causes the problem. For example, I feel angry and respond to it with more anger, stoking the coals, keeping the fire of anger burning. Or I feel worried and I start to feel worried that I feel worried. By stepping back and getting a little bit of perspective (something I could never have done without meditation) I was able to see the original emotion for what it was. And by simply being aware of it, it was as if it had its moment in the sun and was more willing to move on. So often we shut down when unpleasant feelings arise, we don’t want to feel them or be around them. But by reacting in this way we only give the emotion a greater sense of importance.
By learning to let emotions come and go, and because there’s this underlying sense of awareness and perspective, then no matter how difficult the feeling, there is always the sense that everything is okay, even if the emotion is very strong. The other lesson I learned was that sometimes, the “idea” of something can be very different from reality. I thought I felt very sad, but when I tried to locate that sadness, all I could find were these ever-changing thoughts and physical sensations. I struggled to find any permanent emotion. I just found thoughts and physical sensations that were colored by the feeling.
Often we’re simply unaware of our feelings. Sure, we notice them when they’re raging out of control, at either end of the spectrum, but the rest of the time it’s as though they’re just there in the background coloring our view of life. But also the speed at which our emotions change, one feeling morphing into the next, can make them seem impossible to separate and define. Think back to the last time you felt happy, do you remember when it began? Take a minute or so to see if you can pinpoint the very moment the emotion of happiness came into being. And then when did it end? What about the last time you felt angry? You might remember the situation or context for the anger, but can you remember when the feeling of anger began and when it finished? And what caused these emotions to suddenly vanish? Was it that they ran out of steam? Did something else more important grab your attention? Or was it simply replaced by the next feeling?
For something that’s so central to our entire experience of life, we have remarkably little understanding of emotions. Neuroscientists can tell us with amazing accuracy what’s happening physiologically, and behavioral scientists can interpret that data to give us a rational explanation for why we feel the way we do. But although this is helpful and interesting, does it change the way you feel? More importantly, does it alter the way you respond or react to the way you feel? I may know that I shouldn’t get angry because it releases harmful chemicals into my body and causes my blood pressure to rise, but that knowledge does little to stop me getting angry. Likewise, I know that taking it easy and being a bit more carefree will make me feel less stressed, but that is of little use if I’m going out of my mind with worry. Sometimes this gap between what we understand intellectually, and our actual experience of emotions in everyday life, can appear as an enormous chasm.
Just as my teacher asked me to consider a life without emotions, good or bad, can you truly say you’d want to live without emotion? The way we feel is fundamental to our experience of life. Perhaps in those moments when we’re overcome by a difficult emotion we might wish that there was some way to get rid of all of them, but this is usually fleeting.
People often begin learning meditation either trying hard to get rid of emotions, or fearful that meditation might turn them into some kind of disinterested gray blob, with no sense of emotion whatsoever. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t the case at all.
The filter of emotions
Emotions affect our perception of people, of situations and the environment in which we live. As a direct consequence, they also affect our relationships with people, situations and the environment in which we live. Emotions are the filter between “us” and the “world.”
When we feel angry the world can look very threatening: we see situations as obstacles and other people as enemies. And yet when we feel happy, the world can appear as quite a friendly place. We view the same situations as opportunities and the same people as friends. The world around us has not changed that much, but our experience of that world is radically different.
When I think of this idea of a filter I’m reminded of my favorite place to go on holiday. It’s a rugged place, next to the sea, where the forces of nature are strong and the weather changes often. From the chair where I like to sit, I can see an enormous ridge of rock that towers above the village and the beach and stretches out into the ocean. On a clear sunny day these cliffs look spectacular. They appear deep red in color and have a sense of majesty about them. Even from a distance it’s possible to make out every small detail. On a day like this the rock is truly awe-inspiring. But when it’s a little more cloudy, the appearance of the rock changes frequently throughout the day. Sometimes it looks dull, almost a matt brown in color, as the shadow of the clouds linger. At other times it seems to take on a yellow, sulfurous tinge. If the clouds are quite dark it can even appear green. Sometimes, on a really stormy day, the cliffs take on a whole different quality altogether. They look almost black in color and the sharp angles along the top of the ridge seem to carve their way in the sky. On days like this the rock appears imposing, even menacing, in nature. Just as before, the “rock” has not changed in any way, it’s simply that the clouds that pass overhead create the illusion that the rock is somehow different. In the same way, the filter of emotion creates the illusion of how our world looks at any one time.
But there’s another aspect of emotion which differentiates a fleeting experience of happiness or sadness, for example, from a more ingrained, habitual feeling of happiness or sadness. In the context of meditation this is sometimes discussed in terms of “traits” and “states.”
Traits are those emotions that seem to define a character. It might be “cheerful Amy” or “moody Mark.” These traits can reflect our upbringing, social conditioning, and the experiences that have shaped us along the way. It’s as if they are part of our genetic code and they tend to feel very “set” in nature. Because of this, many people are not even that aware of their own traits.
Take a moment to think what your traits might be. You might consider what your view of life is like. Does it feel as though life is working with you or against you? Does life feel like a pleasure or a chore? For meditation to be effective, it doesn’t matter which it is—although you may well find the former a considerably more enjoyable way to live. And what about your friends, family and work colleagues? I’m sure you can think of people at either end of the “perspective scale.” At one end you’ll have the person who’s capable of putting a negative spin on just about anything—winning the Lottery, finding love, getting a promotion. They might get very angry sometimes, or simply moan and grumble their way through life. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who appear so overwhelmingly cheery that you find yourself asking “Is this person for real?” Of course, sometimes they’re not “for real,” but there are undoubtedly some people who seem naturally happy and content in life. So these emotions can be compared to character traits.
“States” however refer to those fleeting emotions that come and go in everyday life. Perhaps someone says something unpleasant to you, your child takes their first steps, or you get some bad news. These things are likely to be met with the appropriate emotion that will come and then go again, they are the “ups and downs” of life. You might experience a burst of anger at a driver on the road, but before you’ve had a chance to indulge the story, something on the radio has grabbed your attention and you find yourself laughing, the anger forgotten. Or it might be something more serious, perhaps a long period of depression after losing your job, which seems to hang around for some time before leaving. Either way, the fact that the feeling comes and goes in this way indicates that they are temporary “states,” as opposed to “traits.” Sometimes our emotional states can become so ingrained, they start to feel like traits. It’s as if the emotion is so overwhelming that we can’t see past it. And in these situations the emotion can even begin to define who we are. Depression is a good example of this. So while at times the two can feel inseparable, it’s useful to be aware of the difference.
Headspace and emotions
Having experimented with a number of different meditation techniques over the years, I still feel that the clearest, simplest and most widely accessible approach to emotions is the same approach that we discussed in relation to thought. After all, it’s very difficult to separate thought and feeling. Do your thoughts define the way you feel? Or does the way you feel define your thoughts? Mindfulness is the willingness to rest in that natural state of awareness, resisting the temptation to judge whatever emotion comes up, and therefore neither opposing or getting carried away with a feeling. Meditation is simply the exercise that is going to give you the best conditions to practice being mindful of these emotions. And headspace is the result of applying this approach. Headspace does not mean being free from emotions, but rather existing in a place where you are at ease with whatever emotion is present.
In the same way that we defined thoughts as neither “good” nor “bad,” we’re going to do the same with feelings. Now this idea is usually met with “What the…? How can you tell me that anger’s not bad? I just shouted at someone, surely that has to be bad? And it feels horrible. When I’m angry I feel like I want to explode! What’s ‘good’ about anger?” Well, of course the consequences of anger are a very different matter and it’s important to exercise restraint, but in the context of this exercise it helps to adopt an open mind, one that is curious and interested in the nature of the emotion itself, rather than simply labeling the emotion as good or bad through past experience. Otherwise we’re left with the same old attitude of chasing after “positive” emotions and trying to get rid of all the “negative” ones. Only you can say how well that approach has worked for you so far.
So we come back to the idea of gentle curiosity: watching, observing and noticing what happens in the body and mind as these emotions come and go. Remember, the objective here is headspace, a sense of ease with whatever emotion is present. It means to sit on the roadside, watching the emotions pass, neither getting drawn into them because they look inviting, nor running away from them because they look frightening. The technique is not about trying to stop emotions from arising, in the same way that it’s not about trying to stop thoughts from arising. Like thoughts, emotions spontaneously arise. It’s how we meet these emotions, how we respond to them that is important.
When approaching emotions through meditation, it’s not that we need to give the emotions more importance (they already receive quite enough attention); instead, we need to find a way to relate to them in a more skillful way. We need to find a way to be aware of our emotions, to experience, acknowledge and live with them, and yet not be at their mercy. Mindfulness and meditation show us how best to do this.
At an intellectual level, we can also appreciate the value of so-called negative emotions. I often hear people say that were it not for a particularly difficult period in their life, they would never have gone on and done the things they’ve done—and that even if they could go back and change it, they wouldn’t. With the passing of time and with increased perspective, the experience of emotion can look very different.
It’s the nature of life for stuff to happen. And when it happens it can be good to know that you’re as well equipped as you can be to deal with the situation. This doesn’t mean that you won’t experience the feeling, because undoubtedly you will. But what it does mean is that the way in which you relate to the feeling will enable you to let go of it more quickly and more easily.
Exercise 5: being aware of your feelings
We’re not always very good at recognizing how we are feeling. That’s usually because we’re distracted by what we’re doing or what we’re thinking. But when you start to meditate you inevitably start to become more aware of how you feel—the variety of feelings, the intensity of feelings, the stubborn nature of some emotions, and the fleeting nature of others. How do you feel right now, for example? Put the book down for a couple of minutes and close your eyes. It can be useful to notice how your body feels first, as that can give you a clue as to what the underlying emotion is. Does it feel heavy or does it feel light? Is there a sense of stillness or of restlessness in the body? And is there a sense of restriction or spaciousness? Rather than rush to decide, apply the idea of gentle curiosity and take a good twenty to thirty seconds to answer each question. And how does the breath feel in the body—does it feel fast or slow, deep or shallow? Without trying to change it, take just a few moments to notice how it feels. By the end of the exercise you’ll most probably have a much better sense of how you feel emotionally. But don’t worry if not, as that’s perfectly normal at first and it will become more obvious with practice.
When I first heard that meditation was simply a snapshot of my everyday mind I found it hard to believe. I’d never experienced my mind with quite so much awareness and so I’d never seen it that way before. On the one hand, there was a familiarity to it all, but on the other it was not what I was expecting at all. You may have already got a sense of this with your own mind, even from just those few short exercises I’ve outlined. When we meet something new or unexpected, we tend to react to it in a different way than those things that are familiar. Some react with excitement and wonder, others approach it with a sense of anxiety or trepidation. The same is true when it comes to watching the mind.
My own modus operandi when I started was one of bullishness. I was not really that interested in what happened along the way, I just wanted to experience the ultimate fruit of meditation—that of enlightenment. I guess you could call it an “enlightenment or bust” kind of attitude, where I was always focusing on a future goal rather than resting in the moment and enjoying all that life had to offer. It’s a common mistake to make in meditation, to search for some kind of experience or want to be rewarded with some sign of progress or fruition, but peace of mind or insight will always be illusive if we are trying too hard to find it.
When it comes to meditation, though, the goal and the journey are the same thing. So my approach to meditation was probably the equivalent of leaving home on a driving holiday, not stopping at any of the places on the way, driving through the night without a break and refusing to look out of the windows during the hours of daylight. It kind of defeats the purpose!
The qualities you bring to your own approach will always reflect your upbringing and your character. Some of these qualities you might like and find helpful, others may feel uncomfortable and decidedly unhelpful. But if you can bring a sense of genuine intrigue and curiosity to your meditation, then it doesn’t really matter what those qualities are. That’s because they become part of the meditation, part of that which is observed. One of my teachers always used to describe this quality as gentle curiosity. When this becomes part of your approach to meditation you’ll notice that the mind feels very open. For example, you may well think, much like myself at the time, that if you’ve seen one breath then you’ve seen them all. And if this is your attitude to following the breath, then you’ll undoubtedly lose interest very quickly. But if you take the time to look a little more closely, you’ll notice that each and every breath is actually quite unique. The same can be said of the thoughts that pass through the mind (even if sometimes it feels as though it’s the same one coming back time and again), and even physical sensations that arise in the body.
The idea of approaching meditation with a gentle curiosity seemed to me to imply a sense of soft, open and patient interest. It’s perhaps the way in which you might quietly crouch behind a tree while watching a wild animal. Because you’re so captivated and engaged, you’re 100 percent focused on what you’re watching. You are aware of the immediacy of the moment, free from impatience, not wanting the animal to do something, but content to watch it just as it is. Or perhaps it’s like watching an insect on the floor. At first you may look at it and think “Oh, it’s a bug.” But then you look a little closer and see all the legs. So you look a little closer again and see the features on the face. Each time you notice something new about this “bug.” If you can apply this sense of gentle curiosity, to your meditation and even everyday life, it will add something that is every bit as beneficial as it is unexpected.
The hot soup
By way of contrast, I’d like to leave you with one final story before we move on to the topic of the practice itself. It involves my lack of gentle curiosity, a very strict monastery and some very hot soup.
Like many monasteries in the West, this place frequently opened its doors to visitors so that they could take part in short meditation retreats. During these periods we were expected to look after them as guests of the monastery. As part of their daily schedule they had breakfast and lunch delivered to their room. Although room service in a monastery may sound a little luxurious, it was to give the retreat participants the opportunity to practice “eating meditation” (details of which you can find here). So, as monks and nuns we’d take it in turns to prepare the food, put it on plates, and deliver it to the rooms. Lunch was simply a small bowl of soup and a piece of bread. The soups were all freshly made, often with ingredients from the garden, and were rotated throughout the week. We’d done quite a lot of retreats and I was getting used to just going through the motions as I prepared the soup and, if I’m honest, not really giving it my full attention. In fact, I became a little slapdash about it all—a bit of this, a bit of that, chuck it in, see what happens. I liked to think of it as creative flair, but in reality I was just too lazy to weigh everything out and create more washing-up. Besides, I figured the quicker I finished, the more time I’d have to rest.
One day I went into the kitchen and saw that mulligatawny soup was on the menu. It’s a curry-based soup and one I’d made lots of times before. I set about cooking the vegetables, blending them together and making the broth. I’d made it so many times that I didn’t bother using the recipe card any longer. I reached the point where I had to add in the herbs and the curry powder. Like many big kitchens, all the herbs and spices were stored in identical clear jars. In fact, the appearance of the contents and a simple sticky label on the front of the jar was the only way of telling them apart. Opening the cupboard, I reached in and took out the one with “curry powder” labeled on the front. Noticing the reddish color of the powder, I paused momentarily and thought how strange it looked, but then quickly pushed the thought aside. I was in far too much of a hurry to apply any gentle curiosity, I just wanted to get it finished so I could enjoy a bit more of the lunch-break. The idea that I could make the soup and enjoy myself at the same time hadn’t even occurred to me.
Now when I was first taught to make the soup, I’d been instructed to taste it as I went along, to make sure it was okay. Not really paying close attention to the measurements and not bothering to taste it, I quickly spooned in the different ingredients. Thinking I’d spice it up a little to give it some more flavor, I chucked in a couple of heaped tablespoons. I continued to stir the ingredients, until it looked as though it was just about the right consistency and ready to serve.
I leaned over and smelled the soup. My nose bristled at the spice and my eyes immediately began to water. “That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t remember it being like that before.” I picked up the spoon and took a mouthful. It felt as if my head was about to explode. I mean, I like things hot, I’d spent a lot of time living in Asia eating spicy food, but this was another level. In fact, I’d never tasted anything so hot in my life. Coughing and spluttering, I tried to cool my mouth by putting anything in it that I thought might help. I looked at the clock and saw that I only had five minutes before the soup had to be served up and on its way. Unfortunately, my new-found sense of calm in my meditation practice had yet to find its way into the more stressful situations of everyday life. So rather than take it in my stride, I started to panic.
I hurriedly thought back to the curry houses I used to go to after a night on the town as a student. All I could remember was the idea of balancing out heat with something cool and sweet. I grabbed the milk and poured it in. Nothing. So I tried a bit more. Nothing. And now it was going really runny. I started talking to myself as I was doing it. “Yogurt? Why not, chuck it in.” Still nothing. “Apricot jam? Chuck it in.” Now that one did seem to work a little, although it gave the soup a very strange flavor. Working on the premise that sweet preserves of any kind were most definitely the way forward, in went the marmalade, honey and even the molasses. It was still burning hot, but at least it was now vaguely edible, albeit with a rather curious taste.
I quickly filled up the bowls and placed them outside each of the rooms, knocking just lightly to let them know that their lunch was ready. By now I’d started to calm down, but I knew what it was like to be in retreat, looking forward to your last meal of the day, only to be served something horrible. On the bright side, I realized it was only the second day of a week-long silent retreat, so I figured nobody could complain for another five days. “Who knows…” I thought, “maybe they’ll have forgotten by the end of the week.” But seriously, who was going to forget that? Having an upset stomach is no fun at the best of times, but having it in a silent retreat when you’re sharing one toilet between six other people is no fun at all.
It later transpired that in filling the jars of spices, somebody had accidentally mixed up the curry and chilli powder. So, rather than putting one level tablespoon of mild curry powder in the soup, I’d put two heaped tablespoons of chilli powder. Of course, in the big scheme of things no real harm had been done, but for me it epitomises the way we can sometimes plow through life, trying to get to the end of everything and not really paying attention to the journey. By taking the time to pause, and be curious, I could have so easily avoided the entire situation. Instead, I was so caught up in the pursuit of free time that I plowed on through. Ironically, any free time I did have was then spent worrying about what I’d done. Sound familiar?
So, as you apply the instructions to your own meditation try, whenever you can, to apply this idea of gentle curiosity to whatever you’re watching in the mind. It will make more of a difference than you could possibly imagine.
Exercise 6: mental body scan
A great way of cultivating this quality of gentle curiosity is to apply it to physical sensations within the body. Put the book down again and gently close your eyes as before. Starting at the top of the head, mentally scan through your body all the way down to the tips of your toes. The first time, do it quite quickly, taking about ten seconds to go from head to toe. The next time, take a bit longer, more like twenty seconds. And then do it one final time in a bit more detail, taking about thirty or forty seconds to do it. As you scan down through the body, notice which parts of it feel relaxed, comfortable and at ease, and which parts feel painful, uncomfortable or restricted in some way. Try to do it without any judgment or analysis, but more with a sense of just building up a picture of how the body feels right now. Don’t worry if thoughts distract you every now and then—each time you realize the mind has wandered off you can gently bring it back to wherever you left off.
What the research shows
1. Medical professionals give their backing to mindfulness
In a recent study by the UK Mental Health Foundation, 68 percent of GPs agreed that it would be helpful for their patients to learn mindfulness-based meditation techniques—even for those without any health problems. The only difficulty is that most of these doctors said they didn’t know where to find the appropriate mindfulness resources—enter Headspace.
2. Meditation activates parts of the brain related to happiness
If you’re the kind of person who is very resilient and optimistic, then there’s a good chance that the front left-hand side of your brain is very active. If, on the other hand, you tend to get quite anxious and caught up in lots of negative thinking, then it will be the front right-hand side of the brain which is more active. Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin found that after just eight weeks of mindfulness practice, participants experienced a significant change in the activity from right to left, which corresponded with increased feelings of happiness and well-being.
3. Mindfulness reduces the intensity of negative emotions
Neuroscientists from UCLA recently discovered that people who practice mindfulness techniques experience negative emotions less intensely than those who do not. They found that by “labeling” these emotions and thereby becoming more aware of them, the intensity was significantly reduced. So, the next time you find yourself writing a retaliatory e-mail or wanting to shout at your partner in a fit of rage, label your anger “anger” and you might just avoid having to make an embarrassing apology.
4. Meditation unwinds the harmful effects of stress
It’s a well known fact that stress has a significant impact on our health. In the past, doctors have found that the “stress response” can increase blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and even lead to strokes, hypertension and coronary heart disease. It also impacts the immune system and has been shown to reduce the chances of conception. In contrast, meditation has been shown to evoke the “relaxation response,” where blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen consumption all decrease, while the immune system is given a significant boost.
5. Mindfulness has been proven to reduce anxiety
A few years back the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigated the effects of mindfulness-based meditation on a group of people suffering with generalized anxiety disorder. An incredible 90 percent of the participants documented significant reductions in anxiety and depression, following just eight weeks of learning. Even more surprisingly, in a recent follow-up, three years after the initial experiment, the researchers found that these improvements had been maintained.
Copyright © 2011 by Andy Puddicombe