All posts by Eric Nelson

About Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson, M.A., is a mindfulness meditation trainer in the Kalamazoo area and provides drop-in classes, 9-week courses and day long retreats throughout the year. Eric has 30 years experience in the Mind-Body Medicine field and established Stress Management Solutions in 2012, to provide mindfulness training to help individuals improve attention, health, emotional balance and interpersonal relationships.

Take a Mindful Moment: 5-simple practices

Article  from Mindful Magazine, April 2016 issue.

Your day-to-day activities offer ample opportunities to call up mindfulness in any moment. These simple practices will breathe space into your daily routines.

How often have you rushed out the door and into your day without even thinking about how you’d like things to go? Before you know it, something or someone has rubbed you the wrong way, and you’ve reacted automatically with frustration, impatience, or rage—in other words, you’ve found yourself acting in a way you never intended.

You don’t have to be stuck in these patterns. Pausing to practice mindfulness for just a few minutes at different times during you day can help your days be better, more in line with how you’d like them to be.

Explore these five daily practices for bringing more mindfulness into your life:

Marta Locklear/Stocksy

1) Wakeup: Start with a Purpose

Intention refers to the underlying motivation for everything we think, say, or do. From the brain’s perspective, when we act in unintended ways, there’s a disconnect between the faster, unconscious impulses of the lower brain centers and the slower, conscious, wiser abilities of the higher centers like the pre-frontal cortex.

Given that the unconscious brain is in charge of most of our decision-making and behaviors, this practice can help you align your conscious thinking with a primal emotional drive that the lower centers care about. Beyond safety, these include motivations like reward, connection, purpose, self-identity and core values.

Setting an intention—keeping those primal motivations in mind—helps strengthen this connection between the lower and higher centers. Doing so can change your day, making it more likely that your words, actions and responses— especially during moments of difficulty—will be more mindful and compassionate.

This practice is best done first thing in the morning, before checking phones or email.

1. On waking, sit in your bed or a chair in a relaxed posture. Close your eyes and connect with the sensations of your seated body. Make sure your spine is straight, but not rigid.

2. Take three long, deep, nourishing breaths—breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then let your breath settle into its own rhythm, as you simply follow it in and out, noticing the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe.

3. Ask yourself: “What is my intention for today?” Use these prompts to help answer that question, as you think about the people and activities you will face. Ask yourself:

How might I show up today to have the best impact?

What quality of mind do I want to strengthen and develop?

What do I need to take better care of myself?

During difficult moments, how might I be more compassionate to others and myself?

How might I feel more connected and fulfilled?

4. Set your intention for the day. For example, “Today, I will be kind to myself; be patient with others; give generously; stay grounded; persevere; have fun; eat well,” or anything else you feel is important.

5. Throughout the day, check in with yourself. Pause, take a breath, and revisit your intention. Notice, as you become more and more conscious of your intentions for each day, how the quality of your communications, relationships, and mood shifts.

PlainPicture/Lubitz+Dorner

2) Eat: Enjoy Every Mouthful

It’s easy enough to reduce eating to a sensation of bite, chew, and swallow. Who hasn’t eaten a plateful of food without noticing what they’re doing? Yet eating is one of the most pleasurable experiences we engage in as human beings, and doing it mindfully can turn eating into a far richer experience, satisfying not just the need for nutrition, but more subtle senses and needs. When we bring our full attention to our bodies and what we are truly hungry for, we can nourish all our hungers. Try this:

1. Breathe before eating. We often move from one task right to the other without pausing or taking a breath.  By pausing, we slow down and allow for a more calm transition to our meals. Bring your attention inward by closing your eyes, and begin to breathe slowly in and out of your belly for eight to 10 deep breaths before you start your meal.

2. Listen to your body. After breathing, bring your awareness to the physical sensations in your belly. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being that you don’t feel any physical sensation of hunger and 10 being that you feel very hungry, ask yourself “How hungry am I?” What physical sensations tell you that you are hungry or not hungry (emptiness in stomach, shakiness, no desire to eat, stomach growling, etc.)? Try not to think about when you last ate or what time it is, and really listen to your body, not your thoughts.

3. Eat according to your hunger. Now that you are more in touch with how hungry you are, you can more mindfully choose what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. This simple practice can help you tune in to your real needs.

4. Practice peaceful eating. At your next meal, slow down and continue to breathe deeply as you eat. It’s not easy to digest or savor your food if you aren’t relaxed.

5. If you don’t love it, don’t eat it. Take your first three bites mindfully, experience the taste, flavors, textures, and how much enjoyment you are receiving from a certain food. Make a mindful choice about what to eat based on what you really enjoy.

PlainPicture/Mira

3) Pause: Rewire Your Brain

It’s estimated that 95% of our behavior runs on autopilot—something I call “fast brain.” That’s because neural networks underlie all of our habits, reducing our millions of sensory inputs per second into manageable shortcuts so we can function in this crazy world. These default brain signals are like signaling superhighways, so efficient that they often cause us to relapse into old behaviors before we remember what we meant to do instead.

Mindfulness is the exact opposite of these processes; it’s slow brain. It’s executive control rather than autopilot, and enables intentional actions, willpower, and decisions. But that takes some practice. The more we activate the slow brain, the stronger it gets. Every time we do something deliberate and new, we stimulate neuroplasticity, activating our grey matter, which is full of newly sprouted neurons that have not yet been groomed for the fast brain.

But here’s the problem. While my slow brain knows what is best for me, my fast brain is causing me to shortcut my way through life. So how can we trigger ourselves to be mindful when we need it most? This is where the notion of “behavior design” comes in. It’s a way to put your slow brain in the driver’s seat. There are two ways to do that—first, slowing down the fast brain by putting obstacles in its way, and second, removing obstacles in the path of the slow brain, so it can gain control.

Shifting the balance to give your slow brain more power takes some work, though. Here are some ways to get started.

1. Trip over what you want to do. If you intend to do some yoga or to meditate, put your yoga mat or your meditation cushion in the middle of your floor so you can’t miss it as you walk by.

2. Refresh your triggers regularly. Say you decide to use sticky notes to remind yourself of a new intention. That might work for about a week, but then your fast brain and old habits take over again. Try writing new notes to yourself; add variety or make them funny so they stick with you longer.

3. Create new patterns. You could try a series of “If this, then that” messages to create easy reminders to shift into slow brain. For instance, you might come up with, “If office door, then deep breath,” as a way to shift into mindfulness as you are about to start your workday. Or, “If phone rings, take a breath before answering.” Each intentional action to shift into mindfulness will strengthen your slow brain.

Jacob Lund/Stocksy

4) Workout: Activate Your Mind and Your Muscles

Riding a bike, lifting weights, sweating it out on a treadmill—what do such exercises have in common? For one thing, each can be a mindfulness practice. Whatever the physical activity—dancing the Tango, taking a swim—instead of simply working out to burn calories, master a skill, or improve condition, you can move and breathe in a way that not only gets your blood pumping and invigorates every cell in your body, but also shifts you from feeling busy and distracted to feeling strong and capable.

Ready? The following steps, good for any activity, will help you synchronize body, mind, and nervous system. As you do, you will strengthen your capacity to bring all of your energy to the task at hand.

1. Be clear about your aim. As you tie your laces or pull on your gardening gloves, bring purpose to your activity by consciously envisioning how you want your guide your session. As you climb on your bike you might say, “I am going to breathe deeply and notice the sensation of the breeze and the sun and the passing scenery.” As you enter the pool, you might say, “I’m going to pay attention to each stroke, and the sound and feel of the water surrounding me.”

2. Warm up (5 minutes). Try any simple moves— jumping jacks, stretching— and concentrate on matching the rhythm of your breath to your movement. By moving rhythmically, your brain activity, heart rate, and nervous system begin to align and stabilize.

3. Settle into a rhythm (10 to 15 minutes). Pick up the intensity, but continue to coordinate your breath and movement. If you have trouble doing this, then simply focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Eventually you’ll find your groove.

4. Challenge yourself (10 to 15 minutes). Try faster speed, more repetitions, or heavier weights, depending on what you are doing. Notice how alert and alive you feel when pushing yourself.

5. Cool down (5 minutes). Steadily slow down your pace until you come to a standstill. Notice the way your body feels. Drink in your surroundings.

6. Rest (5 minutes). Quietly recognize the symphony of sensations flowing in and around you. Practice naming what you feel and sense. Chances are you’ll feel awake and alive from head to toe.

Plainpicture/Johner/Peter Carlsson

5) Drive: Drive Yourself Calm, Not Crazy

There’s nothing like heavy traffic and impatient drivers to trigger the “fight or flight” response. That’s why road rage erupts and stress levels soar, while reason is overrun. The worse the traffic, the worse the stress. Los Angeles, where I live, has some of the worst traffic around, and some of the most unserene drivers. Emotions run high, tempers flare, tires squeal.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, the snarliest traffic jam can provide an excellent opportunity to build your mindfulness muscle, increase your sense of connection to others, and restore some balance and perspective.

Here are the steps to a simple behind-the-wheel practice I’ve been doing for a while. I’ve found it can work wonders.

1. First, take a deep breath. This simple, yet profound advice helps bring more oxygen into your body and widens the space between the stimulus of the traffic and your heightened stress reaction. In this space lies perspective and choice.

2. Ask yourself what you need. It may be in that moment that you need to feel safe, at ease or you just need some relief. Understanding what you need will bring balance.

3. Give yourself what you need. If ease is what you need, you can scan your body for any tension (not a bad thing to do while driving in any case) and soften any tension or adjust your body as needed. You can sprinkle in some phrases of self-compassion, such as, “May I be at ease, may I feel safe, may I be happy.”

4. Look around and recognize that all the other drivers are just like you. Everyone on the road wants the same thing you do—to feel safe, have a sense of ease, and to be happy. Chances are you’ll see a number of fellow drivers who look a bit agitated, but you might also catch that one who is singing or actually smiling, and this will dissipate some of your own stress immediately. You can apply to all of them what you just offered to yourself, saying, “May you be at ease, may you feel safe, may you be happy.”

5. Take another deep breath. In 15 seconds or less, you can turn around your mood by applying these simple tips. When you feel the frustration of traffic rising, choose whatever you need to work on, and offer that condition to others. If you need to feel safe, say, “May I be safe, may you be safe, may we all be safe.” Breathe in, breathe out, you’ve sowed a seed of happiness.

Poem: Important

By Helen M. Luke

We hurry through the so-called boring things
in order to attend to that which we deem
more important, interesting.
Perhaps the final freedom will be a recognition that
everything in every moment is “essential”
and that nothing at all is “important.

 

Meditation: Calming the Mind

By Bob Sharples

Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.

Meditation Practices IV: Tonglen

This tonglen practice is the core practice for seven-point mind training in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The practice focuses on cultivating compassion in our daily life. The article was originally published in Tricycle Magazine.

Cultivation Compassion: Tonglen Practice
Naropa University’s Judith Simmer-Brown on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen

Tonglen, literally “giving and taking,” is a Tibetan practice for cultivating compassion, the Mahayana path of the bodhisattva. The great master Atisha brought Tibetans this practice from India in the eleventh century. Tonglen reverses the pattern of self-cherishing that is the knot of our personal suffering. Using breathing as the basis, tonglen opens our hearts to those things we would rather avoid and encourages us to share what we would rather keep for ourselves. The practice shows that there are no real boundaries between living beings—we are all interdependent.

We begin tonglen by taking our seats in meditation with good posture, very simply and naturally. We ask, why would we want to do this practice? Fundamentally it is vast and choiceless. We recognize that the purpose of our human life is huge, to grow larger hearts and open minds, and we celebrate that we can do this in this moment. We are ready for transformation. Glimpsing this motivation begins the practice.

Then we become aware of our breathing, in and out, and establish the flow of the practice. On the in-breath, we breathe in thinking, “heavy, thick, hot,” and on the out-breath, we breathe out thinking, “light, bright, cool.” At first it seems only like words, but it is good to develop a literal sense of this. My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, suggested that we think of ourselves as air conditioners. We breathe in the stale, smoky, fetid air of the room around us, and we breathe out fresh, clean, cool air. We gradually purify the room. When we breathe, we are breathing with every pore of our bodies, in with “heavy, thick, hot,” and out with “light, bright, cool.” Do this for roughly one-third of the twenty-minute session, or until the texture is established.

Next, we breathe with a continuing sense of the texture we have established. But now we open our thoughts and emotions to all of our personal material. It is good to start with those who spontaneously arouse our compassion. Is there someone we know who is sick or in emotional turmoil? We begin with that person’s face before us and breathe in their heavy, thick, and hot suffering, sharing with them our own light, bright, and cool energy. Be quite tangible with the texture. Whatever suffering we see in them, we breathe it in; whatever sanity and kindness we see in ourselves, we breathe it out to them. When we are ready, extend beyond our loved ones to more difficult people. Are there people we see as threatening or as problematic in our lives? We allow their faces to come to us and then breathe in their suffering and extend to them our sanity and kindness. We are practicing embracing what we would normally avoid, and sharing what we would normally hoard. Do this part of the practice for seven to ten minutes.

We conclude the practice by extending it out beyond our familiar world. One way to do this is to move geographically. We begin in our immediate neighborhood, with the family next door with the two babies, to the college student on the other side who takes terrible care of her lawn, to the elderly woman across the street who recently lost her husband. We move to those people we encounter on our daily routines—our coworkers and our boss; the grocery checker and stock boy; the employees at the cleaners, the gas station, and the video store. Then we extend through our community, to the hospital, the shelter, the jail, the nursing home, including everyone suffering there. And we extend to our state, region, country, and world, our minds going to the painful situations there that are described in the newspaper—the wars, famines, epidemics. We also include the CEOs, the political leaders, and the people of privilege. We extend this practice until the twenty-minute session is over. Then we conclude with a simple session of meditation again.

Meditation Practices III: Insight Meditation

Insight Meditation is the most common mindfulness practice taught in North America and is a foundational practice that  supports other practices such as: loving-kindness, open monitoring and non-dual practice.

Insight Meditation: Wisdom Arising
Sri Lankan monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana on training the mind’s eye with Vipassana meditation

Vipassana, or Insight meditation, is a way of training the mind to see things in a very special way as they happen. Seeing without using eyes is a special way of seeing. We train the mind to use our innate wisdom without using words, concepts, logic, or interpretation. In this training, concentration and mindfulness are united. Then wisdom arises and disintegrates what appears to be integrated. Our wisdom eye registers the constant flux of events that is taking place in every moment in our lives. Although this unbroken flux of events is what life is, one cannot be fully aware of this truth without paying attention to what is happening to one’s mind and body every waking moment. With developed insight, our mind can be fully aware of the evolving, processing, and dissolving of everything that happens to us.

So we train the mind to see things as they happen, neither before nor after. And we don’t cling to the past, the future, or even to the present. We participate in what is happening and at the same time observe it without clinging to the events of the past, the future, or the present. We experience our ego or self arising, dissolving, and evaporating without leaving a trace of it. We see how our greed, anger, and ignorance vanish as we see the reality in life. Mindfully we watch the body, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and consciousness and experience their dynamic nature.

Watching impartially opens the mind to realize that there is no way that we can stop this flux even for a fraction of a second. We experience the freshness of life. Every moment is a new moment. Every breath is a fresh breath. Every tiny little thing is living and dying every fraction of a second. There is no way that we can see these momentary existences with our eyes. Only when the mind is sharp and clear, without the clouds of craving, hatred, and confusion can our mind be fully aware of this phenomenon. When we don’t try to cling to these experiences, we experience great joy, happiness, and peace. The moment we try to cling to any part of our experience—however pleasant or peaceful—joy, peace, and happiness disappear. The very purpose of Vipassana meditation is to liberate the mind from psychic irritation and enjoy the peace and happiness of liberation. Nevertheless, if we cling to peace or happiness, that instant that very peace and happiness vanish. This is a very delicate balance that we should maintain through the wisdom that arises from Vipassana meditation.

Awakening, Step by Step
Insight Meditation teacher Peter Doobinin introduces walking meditation.

Walking meditation is a practice through which we develop concentration and mindfulness. We learn to cultivate mindfulness of the body while the body is moving. We learn to be awake. Walking meditation is a particularly important practice in that it enables us to make the transition from sitting meditation to being awake in our daily lives, in our work, and in our relationships. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Walking meditation is a simple practice. You choose a straight path—indoors or outdoors—roughly fifteen or twenty steps long. You walk from one end of the path to the other, turn around, and walk back. You continue in this fashion, walking back and forth, focusing your attention on your feet. Your posture is upright, alert, and relaxed. You can hold your hands at your sides, or clasped in front or behind. Keep your eyes open, cast down, and slightly ahead. You can experiment with your pace, perhaps walking quite slowly or at a more regular speed, in an effort to find the pace at which you’re most present. As you walk, direct your attention to the sensations in the feet, to the bare experience of walking. Try to feel one step at time. Be fully, wholeheartedly aware of the physical sensations involved in taking each step. Feel your foot as it lifts, moves through the air, places down against the ground. In particular, pay attention to the touching down of the foot, the sensations of contact, and pressure. Remember that you’re feeling each step, you’re not thinking about the foot, or visualizing it.

You’ll find, of course, that it isn’t always easy to stay focused on the meditation object, the sensations in the feet. The mind wanders, drifts. Your job is to notice when you’ve strayed, when you’re lost in thought. Be aware that you’ve wandered. And return gently to the physical sensations, the lifting, moving, placing of the foot. Just keep bringing your attention back.

As you walk, cultivate a sense of ease. There’s no hurry to get anywhere, no destination to reach. You’re just walking. This is a good instruction: just walk.

As you walk, as you let go of the desire to get somewhere, you begin to sense the joy in simply walking, in being in the present moment. You begin to comprehend the preciousness of each step. It’s an extraordinarily precious experience to walk on this earth.

You can start by practicing walking meditation for ten minutes a day. Gradually, you can expand the amount of time you spend on this formal walking meditation.

In addition to this kind of formal practice, you’ll want to practice walking meditation in “real life” situations. You can practice “informally” just about anywhere, walking along a city sidewalk, down the aisle in the supermarket, or across the backyard. As always, the objective is to pay attention. Pay attention to your feet. Or pay attention to your whole body—the felt experience of your body as it’s moving. In this informal context, you’re aware, to some extent, of what’s going on around you, but your focus is on your walking. Practicing in this way, you begin to live more mindfully. This is when meditation practice takes hold and assumes a new relevancy. Being awake is no longer reserved for the times you spend in formal sitting meditation; it is the way you live.

Meditation Practices II: Loving-kindness Practice

Loving-kindness is an essential complimentary practice to mindfulness.  Try it, be patient and enjoy a mind that is happier and less judgement.  The article below originally appeared in Tricycle Magazine.

May We All Be Happy…
Metta meditation instruction from author and teacher Gil Fronsdal

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.
All living beings,
Whether weak or strong,
Tall, stout, average, or short,
Seen or unseen, near or distant,
Born or to be born,
May they all be happy.
—From the Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata I.8

Metta, or lovingkindness, is one of the most important Buddhist practices. Simply stated, metta is the heartfelt wish for the well-being of oneself and others. When describing metta, the Buddha used the analogy of the care a mother gives her only child. Lovingkindness is also understood as the innate friendliness of an open heart. Its close connection to friendship is reflected in its similarity to the Pali word for friend, mitta. However, metta is more than conventional friendship, for it includes being openhearted even toward one’s enemies, developed from insight into our shared humanity.

Metta practice is the cultivation of our capacity for lovingkindness. It does not involve either positive thinking or the imposition of an artificial positive attitude. There is no need to feel loving or kind during metta practice. Rather, we meditate on our good intentions, however weak or strong they may be, and water the seeds of these intentions. When we water wholesome intentions instead of expressing unwholesome ones, we develop those wholesome tendencies within us. If these seeds are never watered, they won’t grow. When watered by regular practice, they grow, sometimes in unexpected fashions. We may find that lovingkindness becomes the operating motivation in a situation that previously triggered anger or fear.

To practice lovingkindness meditation, sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner. Take two or three deep breaths with slow, long, and complete exhalations. Let go of any concerns or preoccupations. For a few minutes, feel or imagine the breath moving through the center of your chest in the area of your heart.

Metta is first practiced toward oneself, since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves. Sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the following or similar phrases: May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.

While you say these phrases, allow yourself to sink into the intentions they express. Lovingkindness meditation consists primarily of connecting to the intention of wishing ourselves or others happiness. However, if feelings of warmth, friendliness, or love arise in the body or mind, connect to them, allowing them to grow as you repeat the phrases. As an aid to the meditation, you might hold an image of yourself in your mind’s eye. This helps reinforce the intentions expressed in the phrases.

After a period of directing lovingkindness toward yourself, bring to mind a friend or someone in your life who has deeply cared for you. Then slowly repeat phrases of lovingkindness toward them: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.

As you say these phrases, again sink into their intention or heartfelt meaning. And again, if any feelings of lovingkindness arise, connect the feelings with the phrases so that the feelings may become stronger as you repeat the words.

As you continue the meditation, you can bring to mind other friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, animals, and finally people with whom you have difficulty. You can either use the same phrases, repeating them again and again, or make up phrases that better represent the lovingkindness you feel toward these beings.

Sometimes during lovingkindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these to be signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. You can either shift to mindfulness practice or you can—with whatever patience, acceptance, and kindness you can muster for such feelings—direct lovingkindness toward them. Above all, remember that there is no need to judge yourself for having these feelings.

As you become familiar with loving-kindness practice during meditation, you can also begin to use it in your daily life. While in your car, or at work, or in public, privately practice metta toward those around you. There can be a great delight in establishing a heartfelt connection to everyone we encounter, friends and strangers alike.

Meditation Practices I: Zen Just Sitting

The  practice of Zen Meditation is described below from an article in Tricycle Magazine. Enjoy.  More meditation methods will be posted soon. Eric

Leave yourself alone!
Zen teacher Barry Magid describes the practice of just sitting.

Imagine sitting down in front of a mirror. Your face automatically appears. There is no effort required; the mirror is doing all the work. You can’t do it right or wrong. The Zen Buddhist practice of “just sitting” is like that. When we sit, our mind automatically begins to display itself to us. Our practice is to observe and experience what appears moment after moment. Of course, just as when we look in a real mirror, things don’t stay that simple for long.

We notice how our faces or our bodies look in the mirror, and we immediately have an emotional reaction and form judgments about what we see. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that Paul Cezanne was capable of painting a self-portrait with utter objectivity, of looking at his own face with no more reaction than “a dog which sees itself in a mirror and thinks, ‘Here is another dog.’” For the rest of us, it’s not so easy to simply observe who we are. Looking in the mirror, we are tempted to use it as a makeup mirror to touch up the parts of our self-image we don’t like.

Our minds are never what we want them to be. That’s part of why we sit in the first place. We are uncomfortable with ourselves as we are. The greatest dualism we face is the split between who we are and who we think we ought to be. Sometimes that gap fuels our aspiration to follow Buddhist teachings, sometimes it simply fuels our self-hatred, and all too often we confuse these two notions of self entirely.

Just sitting means sitting still with all of the aspects of ourselves that we came to Buddhist practice in order to avoid or change—our restlessness, our anxiety, our fear, our anger, our wandering minds. Our practice is to just watch, to just feel. We watch our minds. Minds think. There’s no problem with that; minds just do what they do. Ordinarily we get caught up in the content of our thoughts, but when we just sit, we observe ourselves just thinking. Our body’s most basic activity is breathing: No matter what else is going on, we are breathing. We sit and breathe, and we feel the sensation of our breath in our bodies. Often there is tension or even pain somewhere in our bodies as well. We sit and feel that too and keep breathing. Whatever thoughts come, come. Whatever feelings come, come. We are not sitting there to fight off our thoughts or try to make ourselves stop thinking.

When we sit, we realize how unwilling we are to leave anything about ourselves alone. We turn our lives into one endless self-improvement project. All too often what we call meditation or spirituality is simply incorporated into our obsession with self-criticism and self-improvement. I’ve encountered many students who have attempted to use meditation to perform a spiritual lobotomy on themselves—trying to excise, once and for all, their anger, their fear, their sexuality. We have to sit with our resistance to feeling whole, to feeling all those painful and messy parts of ourselves.

Just sitting means just that. That “just” endlessly goes against the grain of our need to fix, transform, and improve ourselves. The paradox of our practice is that the most effective way of transformation is to leave ourselves alone. The more we let everything be just what it is, the more we relax into an open, attentive awareness of one moment after another. Just sitting leaves everything just as it is.

Are You Addicted to Being Judgy?

When we practice investigating judgments and diffusing them we can learn to choose how we look at things and react to them.

By and

Of all the wondrous array of thoughts that are possible, negative judgments about ourselves and others are one of the mind’s compulsive obsessions. It’s as if the human brain has a hyperactive gland that secretes judgments, just like the adrenal gland secretes adrenaline. Negative and reactive judgments can arise instantaneously and in regard to almost anything. Sometimes they focus almost exclusively on you, and sometimes almost exclusively on others.

Exercise: Investigating Judgments

If you allow critical judgments to remain unexamined, they can come to occupy many of your thoughts and emotions, and even your dreams. But if you examine them, you’ll find repetitive themes that are connected to earlier life events and discover that even your judgments regarding others are often rooted in self-judgment or events that happened earlier in your life—sometimes when you were very young. It’s a good practice to investigate all of your judgments, and this practice will help you do exactly that. Give yourself about thirty minutes for this inquiry.

  • Settle into the moment. Spend at least five minutes practicing mindful breathing.
  • Recall a judgment. Next, see if you can remember a strong judgment you’ve had about yourself or someone else in the last few days.
  • Take note of the sensations in the body. As you feel into the judgment, notice if there’s a physical component—something you feel in your body. Spend a few minutes investigating the way your body feels as you reflect on this judgment.
  • Explore the thoughts accompany the judgment. Was there anything automatic in the way this judgment came up? For example, was the judgment a reaction to something or someone? Spend at least five minutes investigating the thoughts that arise in relation to this judgment.
  • Explore the emotions that accompany the judgment. For example, some judgments may call forth anger, whereas others evoke shame and yet others evoke compassion. Spend some time investigating the emotions that arise in relation to this judgment.
  • Notice your observing mind. Notice that the part of you that is investigating this judgment is not itself judging anything; it’s simply observing bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions with balance and curiosity.
  • Recall whether this kind of judgment has come up before. Does it come up often? If so, do you have any sense of why you have this strong and automatic reaction? Does it isolate you from others or make you feel more connected? Can you sense where it comes from? Please spend a few minutes reflecting on the historical associations related to this judgment.
  • Write about some of the ideas that just came up. Take a little time to write about what came up for you as you investigated your judgments. What sorts of physical sensations and emotions were associated with different judgments? Did you discover any associations between judgments and earlier life events?

If you allow critical judgments to remain unexamined, they can come to occupy many of your thoughts and emotions, and even your dreams.

Try this exercise the next time you find you’re having a strong critical reaction toward someone. See if you can notice what happens in your body, how your body feels. Then imagine that you’re leaning toward the other person with your index finger pointing at the person and a tense, mean look on your face (sometimes you might even actually catch yourself in this posture). Appreciate that when you point at others, you have three other fingers pointed back at yourself. Follow them back to yourself and investigate how this judgment toward someone else has something to do with you. Many judgmental thoughts about others have their origins in painful events earlier in life. These kinds of judgments call for deep personal non-judgmental inquiry.

Defusing Judgments

Judgments are like bombs that can be triggered by life events. Imagine that you’re in the grocery store and see a mother angrily slap her daughter’s leg, and the child looks humiliated when she sees you watching. Or imagine that someone cuts in front of you near an intersection, so that you get stuck at the stoplight while he drives on. Picture a scenario in which your spouse criticizes your house cleaning. These types of events can trigger strong judgments and anger.

Negative judgments can explode in our minds at any moment and overwhelm us with immediate and emotionally overwhelming condemnations of others or ourselves. The body contracts, blood pressure rises, and the breath moves up into the chest and becomes shallow and rapid. The fight-or-flight response has been triggered, and an urge to say or do something floods you. In these moments, regrettable words can leap out of your mouth and injure others, and even yourself. Many of us have extremely short fuses when similar triggering events occur again and again, and our reactions can be like bombs that go off almost instantaneously.

Although we’re usually unaware of our projections, we can learn a great deal about them if we’re willing to investigate our reactive judgments with an intention to defuse them.

The bombs with the shortest fuses are often found in our relationships with other people. Politicians and strangers in traffic are a common source of small, frequent reactions that come and go like firecrackers. But our love relationships can set off huge explosive reactions that can create enormous suffering for years. Careless words can cut deeply and leave scars that never go away. Because love relationships are so intimate, they have the capacity to call forth emotional reactions that are tied to earlier traumatic interpersonal events. This is one reason why these relationships are so rife with projections. Projections are ego defense mechanisms that operate mostly unconsciously and impose on current relationships the emotional injuries from earlier close relationships, such as with your mother, your father, or your first love. Although we’re usually unaware of our projections, we can learn a great deal about them if we’re willing to investigate our reactive judgments with an intention to defuse them.

Exercise: Defusing Judgments

This practice will help you strengthen your ability to defuse judgments by bringing awareness and compassion to aversive feelings. An inextricable part of developing this skill is to deliberately make contact with difficult feelings. However, if at any point this mindful exploration becomes too disturbing, return to feeling your breath in your belly. This is a home base you can return to throughout the exercise until you feel grounded, and then you can be with the difficult feeling once again and try to stay with it. Also, please note that defusing a judgment doesn’t mean getting rid of it; it means neutralizing it or removing its sting.

  • Sit comfortably and begin by bringing your full attention to the breath coming and going in your belly. If you like, place your hand on your belly and feel it rising with the in breath and falling with the out breath. Stay with this practice as long as you like before proceeding.
  • Recall the judgment you explored in the previous exercise, or any other judgment that you’d like to explore and defuse. First note who or what you were judging. Notice the reactive thoughts and emotions connected to the judgment, including any stories, beliefs, or memories that emerge. What are you judging about this event and the people involved in it? Be open to and welcome the emotions that arise in this exploration, and respond to these feelings with kindness and self-compassion. Note that these feelings and memories are connected to the judgment yet separate from it.
  • Feel the bodily sensations connected to the memories and emotions that came up as you considered your judgment, and move back and forth between these sensations and the thoughts and emotions a few times. Notice the difference between the mental formations (thoughts, emotions, memories) and the sensory formations (experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste). In this way, you can use the body to anchor in the here and now and defuse di cult thoughts and emotions, removing some of their charge.
  • Notice your observing mind. Shift away from focusing on the judgment and the mental and physical phenomena associated with it and take a few minutes to reflect on the part of you that just explored these mental, emotional, and physical states—a part of your consciousness you can think of as the observing or witnessing awareness. Notice that the part of you that is aware of judging is curious but not itself judgmental. Awareness can notice the judging and the mental and physical phenomena associated with it without getting caught up in them. As you reflect on this awareness, notice if your heart softens in any way and you feel a little less critical.
  • From this perspective you can extend love and compassion to yourself for whatever comes up for you in this mindful reflection. You may also extend compassion and loving-kindness to whomever you may have been judging. What are the words and gestures you would like to offer to yourself for any pain or unhappiness that came up? What would you say to someone you love who was feeling this way?
  • Notice what happens in your body and mind as you offer these expressions of compassion and loving-kindness. Pay attention to what comes up for you physically, mentally, and emotionally, and look for connections between mental events and their emotional or physical counterparts. For example, self-compassion may create a feeling of release in the chest, or self-forgiveness may allow the belly to soften.
  • Return to conscious breathing, bringing your full attention to the breath coming and going in your belly for a few moments before concluding this exercise.
  • Take some time to write about the thoughts and feelings you experienced in this exercise. Write about your reflections on the questions above as specifically as possible. Bring particular attention to reactive judgments and any historical associations they may have in your life, as well as any sensations associated with the judgments you worked with. What words of self-compassion and loving-kindness came up for you in this exercise? How did the sensations associated with judgments change when you offered yourself words of loving-kindness and compassion?

Sometimes our thoughts and feelings create reactive judgments simply because we refuse to acknowledge or feel them.

Wisdom grows from the “one step removed” kind of awareness cultivated by this practice. Indeed, simply naming a thing (“judgment”) is a powerful first step toward defusing it. Sometimes our thoughts and feelings create reactive judgments simply because we refuse to acknowledge or feel them.

 

This article was adapted from Dr. Bob Stahl’s and Steve Flowers’ book, Living with Your Heart Wide Open.

Meditating with Noise

How To Meditate with Noise: A 3-Minute Practice for Anywhere
Meditation can’t always happen in blissful silence. By tuning in to the cacophony of everyday activity, we can find a space to rest and settle the mind.

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1. Begin this meditation by noticing the posture that you’re in. You may be standing or sitting or lying down.

2. Notice your body exactly as it is. See if you can tune in to any sensations that are present to you in your body in this moment. There might be heaviness or lightness, pressure, weight. There might be vibration, pulsating, movement, warmth, coolness, These sensations can be anywhere in your body, and all you have to do is notice them. Notice what’s happening with curiosity and interest.

3. Take a breath. As you breathe, relax. Not much to do except be fully present and aware.

4. Now let go of the body’s sensations, and turn your attention to the sounds inside or outside the room. There may be all sorts of sounds happening: loud sounds, quiet sounds. You can also notice the silence between the sounds. But the sounds are coming and going. Notice them coming and going.

5. Note the sounds instead of narrating them. One tendency of our mind is to want to think about the sounds, to start to make up a story about the sound, or we have a reaction to it: I like it, I don’t like it. See if instead, you can simply listen to the sound. Notice it with curiosity and interest. The sounds are coming and going.

6. Check in before you check out. Now once again, notice your body standing, present, or seated, or lying down. Notice any body sensations that are obvious to you. Take another breath, soften, and when you’re ready, you can open your eyes.