What Meditation & Mindfulness are Really About


As a long-time meditator and Buddhist, I am increasingly concerned about the level of appropriation of meditation practices.  I am especially frightened by people and professionals who claim to others that they are knowledgeable on the subject, to the point of calling themselves teachers, but who clearly promote a harmful and grossly misguided version of meditation.  What concerns me the most about this situation is the harm that these unqualified individuals can do to those who aspire to learn.  Not only can it result in the worsening of people’s internal difficulties, but it has the potential to turn them off to something that could otherwise be immensely beneficial.  Consequently, this article is going to be corrective and informative in nature, and it’s my attempt to counter the harmful information that too many are promoting.

Our Addiction to Happiness is the Problem

One of the biggest mistakes that people make coming in to meditation is that they believe that it’s all about feeling amazing…but it’s not.  Meditation is about developing certain mental capacities and this sets the stage for us to, possibly, experience greater satisfaction in our life.  I can’t say it enough, meditation is not about sitting and being happy…but we have the potential for feeling positive and uplifted during or after a meditation session.  Though, we might end up feeling scared, sad or even angry.  In the end, it doesn’t matter how we feel as a result of the meditation session because it’s like exercise.  Sometimes we don’t have a “good” workout or feel like exercising, but we know it’s good for us, right?!  Meditation is the same way.  Meditation is not about our addiction to happiness, it’s about learning how to fully utilize our human abilities and to enhance them.

When we have an addiction to happiness, we are constantly trying to experience higher and higher levels of it.  This is akin to an addict, and addicts have a very hard time experiencing or tolerating what they don’t want or like.  The stronger our addiction is to happiness, the greater our unhappiness will be and the more we’ll experience it.  As is taught in many traditions from the East that utilize meditation, this addiction is highly problematic and the source of the problem.  So when I see or hear of people promoting meditation and espousing that we should be addicted to happiness I feel disgusted.  My first thought is, “You’re poisoning them by telling them that the source of the problem is the solution!”  When I see and hear these messages, I cringe and wince with a deep disappointment and sadness, and I urge you to reject them or at the very least, question them thoroughly.

Contentment is the New Happiness

Happiness is typically thought of, at least within the dominant culture of the U.S., as a constant state of elation or joy.  We imagine people always smiling, engaging in life with energy and intensity, and they never experience any problems that shake their ever present good-mood or positive view.  We see this depicted in television and people often present themselves this way on Facebook.  Unfortunately, all of it’s a big fat fiction, and we would all do well to disregard it all.  However, we shouldn’t swing to the other end and become completely cynical or crotchety.  The middle ground is what we need…and this is where we find contentment.

Contentment is amazing.  It’s not only very possible to experience a state of contentment, but it’s better than elation and joy because it has immense staying power.  This is because contentment doesn’t require anything or any energy.  In fact, it can be quite rejuvenating.  Joy and elation are peak experiences in response to changing internal or external conditions.  Contentment, on the other hand, is based on nothing except for our consciousness and it requires no energy.  Yep, all you need to be is alive and have the capacity to be aware.  The reason that meditation can help you experience contentment is because it’s practices are deliberately aimed at doing things so that you can hang out in your most basic awareness.  The natural by-product of our basic awareness is contentment and a sense of feeling spacious, warm with a cool mist, light as a feather and even subtly fluffy.  But be aware that these sensations aren’t the goal and that meditation is not about contentment, but we may experience it as a side-benefit.

At this point you might be thinking, “but I can’t meditate all of the time, so what’s the point?”  Exactly, and great question.  There are many different meditation methods that are aimed at helping people improve the relationship that they have with their own mind, body and emotions.  Through meditation and various contemplations, we come to understand how the human mind works, how we get caught in our mind’s BS and how we can continue to hang out in our basic awareness while we go about our day.  This means that meditation takes some effort.  The better we are at focusing our awareness, learning and growing, and hanging out in contentment, the better able we are to birng our practice into our entire life.  So the ultimate point of meditation is to always meditate, regardless of what you’re doing.


It Takes a Little Work in the Beginning

All of this may have popped your bubble, but hopefully it doesn’t discourage you from going down the meditative road because it’s well worth it.  In the beginning, meditation can be tough and it’s important to be curious about your practice and your experiences (on and off the cushion).  As meditation becomes more familiar to you, it’ll be a place that you’ll want to go more frequently.  Initially, it can be uncomfortable and very confusing, but everyone gets the hang of it if they keep with it and maintain an open mind.  Just be careful not to assume that you know everything about meditation and yourself.  The finer points and deeper insights (even into simple things) can take some time to get down.  As a therapist and meditator, I’ve experienced many people who claim to know everything about meditation and their own mind…these are typically the people who are the most ignorant, poorly practiced, misguided and unaware.  So don’t fall into the trap of arrogance, but don’t go to the other extreme.  Lastly, remembered that it’s called practice and like exercise, you should always do at least a little every day to maintain your health.

Clarifying Mindfulness  |  It’s not Meditation

Mindfulness is only one aspect of consciousness and simply put, it’s our natural ability to be self-aware.  To use it to the fullest potential we need to max out our ability to concentrate and deliberately pay attention to a specific thing.  The most effective way to do this is to concentrate on something that is extremely simple, small, boring and constantly moving.  This is why the breath is the wisest choice.  Our breathing is extremely simple and it is ever flowing, which requires us to maintain our focus from moment-to-moment.  So when people say that they practice Mindfulness, I always ask about their specific practices because too many people use it as an avoidant technique.  In fact, people are taught to use it as a way to avoid…which I strongly discourage.  Yet the question remains, how can we recognize mindfulness or the lack of it in our own experience?

Imagine that you’re sitting and meditating.  You just started and your awareness is on your breathing and various thoughts are coming and going.  You continue to practice but then all of a sudden you realize that for the past few minutes you were off in some though, fantasy or even falling asleep.  Where did you go?  Where you went was the realm of the automaton (aka, automatic human being).  You were physically there…but you weren’t mentally there.  Then there was a flash of mindfulness where you were “fully” aware of what was happening.  In that instant, you recognized that your attention had drifted away.  At the same time, you recalled your meditation method (e.g., posture, breathing) and re-engaged it.  In this example we can see where mindfulness was and where it was not.  The trouble is noticing when you’re away during the day.  The hardest part is noticing when we’re acting on habit but our mind tricks us into thinking that everything is deliberate…that’s a tough one!  And so you know, nearly all humans are not completely mindful throughout the day and this is because we, like other animals, run on habit and automatic in order to conserve energy.  We often trick ourselves into thinking that we’re mindful but that’s usually because it’s psychologically scary to think that we don’t do a lot of things for very specific reasons and within our awareness.

Final Thoughts

So as you approach a possible meditation practice, equate it to an exercise regimen.  Ease in to it, learn as much as you can, and try to make it a lifestyle change rather than a temporary thing you do.  Keep in mind that sometimes it’ll be great and feel really good, but that there will be plenty of times where it might really suck.  The biggest difference between exercise and meditation is that your underlying psychological stuff can creep up and potentially freak you out when you meditate.  If you’ve experienced traumas in your life, tread lightly and get some good support before you venture into it.  This just ensures that you have a bit of a safety net before you decide to jump in, and it can’t hurt to have it.  Even if you haven’t experienced any traumas it can be extremely helpful to enlist the help of a seasoned and knowledgeable meditation practitioner.   And finally, remember that meditation is not about forcing happiness.  Rather, it’s a way to tap into your innate human potential and when you do this, you just might experience a greater amount of contentment and enjoyment that’s only based on living.

Spaciousness Within the Mundane

I hate doing laundry.  I realize this is somewhat ridiculous. It would be one thing if this chore was an all day affair that involved boiling a huge vat of water over a fire, scrubbing clothes on a metal washboard with hard soap, and hanging the clothes on a line to dry. But in our modern world of convenience, washing  and drying clothes in a machine is one of the more low impact chores.

And yet…I resent having to lug the clothes downstairs to my building’s lobby. I always marvel at how much longer it takes to sort the light and dark into their respective drums than I think it will. I am irritated by having to stop whatever I’ve started after half an hour to sort the wet clothes into those which will air dry and those that will be transferred to the drying machine. I loathe the clutter created by the drying rack in my living room. And then, before I know it, the timer sings its little reminder that it’s time to collect the remaining clothes from the dryer and fold them.

This morning, as I grudgingly hauled the laundry basket downstairs, I found myself getting utterly consumed by such disproportionate feelings of annoyance that they startled me. In that moment I knew that I should be laughing at myself, at the exaggerated grief that had emerged seemingly from nowhere…but I was already hooked. As I went through all the little motions, the starts and stops of completing my task, I watched my mind indulge in petty imaginings of injustice and hardship–if only everyone else in the building didn’t hog the machines during the afternoons and evenings so that early morning (my favorite time of the day) was the only reliable time to do it; if only my partner didn’t have so many dress shirts that couldn’t be dried, I wouldn’t be spending so much time hanging up wet clothes; if only the washing/drying cycles were at longer intervals so I could have some little pockets of peace within the chore…

Then, as I did my morning sitting, I watched these petty thoughts flare up and dissolve into feelings of anger, which I watched morph into a disappointed sadness of sorts. Interestingly, when taken out of the context of judging as good or bad (justified or unjustified), I experienced both a welling up of compassion for myself and a gentle understanding of what a misguided and confused set of ideas had taken hold: of course most people don’t want to get up early on a Sunday to do their laundry–they work hard all week, just like me, and would rather be sleeping or enjoying their mornings; so what if I spend a few extra minutes sorting out my partner’s clothes–it’s actually my pleasure to let him sleep while I do this tiny service that doesn’t even begin to repay all he does for me without a second thought; and sure, it would be nice if I could dictate the exact timings of any given chore such that it is exactly to my liking–but let’s be honest, having affordable, reliable access to a washer and dryer is already pretty damn convenient in the scheme of things.

Breathing in and breathing out, labeling thoughts as thoughts, letting myself feel the feelings without judgment…the hard, solid sensation of dissatisfaction lifted. And as usually happens at such moments, I thought to myself, how much easier this feels–I shouldn’t get caught up in such a narrow view. But then, as is happening with a bit more frequency these days, I smiled and conceded that I probably would get hooked again, perhaps in only a few minutes’ time, in fact. But if I do, when I do, there’s some peace in the sense that I can treat it just like any other experience in this life,  can let it be simply be what it is.

Stay With Me | Why Being Present Makes or Breaks Relationships

The other night I was streaming an episode of the show American Odyssey when an intimate scene between two characters struck me in such a lovely way.  For those of you who don’t know the show, it has a “network television series” feel to it and the main plot centers around a female soldier in the middle east who’s presumed dead but continues to survive.  She discovered some secrets about the U.S. government over in the middle east and various U.S. officials want her dead.  There are a lot of different characters in the movie who are directly involved with her and indirectly related to her situation back in the States.  Several journalists in the U.S. are working to investigate her situation and story.  One of the journalists becomes friendly with a woman and this leads to a romantic moment between the two of them.  When they become intimate for the first time, she starts to move very fast and peel off her clothes.  He stops her for a second and says, “Stay with me.”  It was this moment that really spoke to me, but not because it was something new.

As a psychotherapist, a Buddhist and just another human being, I pay attention to my experiences throughout the day and naturally look for reminders of what’s truly important.  One of the most important things, so I’ve found, is that staying with each other, when we’re with each other, truly adds a great deal of meaning to our lives.  So often we’re caught in the trap of our own mind and by the habitual storylines that it gives us.  We learn and are told how to “act” in certain situations and when a similar moment arises, the script in our mind starts to run.  What’s sad about us becoming the script is that we are, indeed, faking our presence in the moment and totally out of touch with how we can connect with the other person.  We’re not really connected with what’s going on in the moment because our mind is making so many assumptions about what’s happening, what things mean, who the person is in front of us, and all of this ruins the rawness and freshness of the moment.  This happens in any and all of our interactions throughout the day, not just in intimate situations.  The meat of life, the juicy parts that are so meaningful to us, can only be savored when we truly stay with each other.  To do this, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, open, raw, and true in how we are as things happen.  Of course, this is easier said than done for a lot of people.

So many of us don’t know what these words truly mean and how it feels to embody them.  I’m not here to tell you the “5 Steps to Perfect Vulnerability” because part of life is to figure this out as we venture into the world.  Yet, I would like to say that in my near 30 years of studying our human psychology and relationships, staying with each other and truly being with each other is vital to our individual and collective contentment, health and happiness.  Sure, people come and go so they may not stay, but we should try to stay with each other when we’re with each other.  Nearly all of us fantasize about this and deeply desire this type of connection.  However, many of us often get in the way of making it happen.  So many of our relationships and friendships start with this desire for deeper connection, but then they fade away as the scripts, insecurities and habits kick in.  I hope, for all of you, that you can come to understand and experience what it’s like to stay with you, to stay with me, and to stay with all of us whenever we’re together.  If you already know, very intimately, what I’m talking about then please continue to inspire others through genuine connections.  As always and with an honest and open heart, I wish each of you well.

Socializing With the Past

Yesterday a dear friend whom I know from graduate school visited from London. Even though I adore her and have been excited about this visit for months, there was part of me that was undeniably anxious as the time to meet up with her drew near. Some of the anxiety was purely logistics–finding her when she doesn’t have a working cell phone in the States, coordinating with the other people who came to town in order to see her, worrying over entertaining her.

But as I meditated first thing yesterday morning, the ticker tape looping through my brain was less to do with logistics and more to do with a discomfort in my own skin. It had been five years since I saw my friend last, seven since we were in school together, and when I look back on both of those periods of my life, it doesn’t take long to summon the visceral feelings of insecurities which occupied so much of my psyche–that I didn’t deserve my admission to our prestigious university  (seven years ago), that I had not kept up with my peers in life achievements (five years ago). A lot has changed for me since then: I’ve gained stability in my career and the love of an amazing partner; I’ve learned to laugh at how seriously I took myself in graduate school; I have compassion for the inferiority complex born of floundering with a liberal arts background in a struggling economy. And yet…it was almost as though I was afraid that I would somehow lose all the ground I’d  covered, be infected by the ghosts of my former selves once I was surrounded by these people with such strong associations for me.

However, an interesting thing happened as my meditation session came to a close: as the sun came up, filling the room with the first hints of daylight, my attention was overtaken by the new day seeping into my awareness. It was just a moment, a flicker of absorption in something outside my own mind, but it was enough to remind me of the ease that comes with opening myself up to whatever is happening here, now. It occurred to me that, rather than being threatened by my own reaction to these people from my past, I could be curious to see what would come up as we all mingled our past and present selves together. That this could be just an extension of my practice, watching my mind go to darker places but also bubble up with joy as we reminisce, treating both extremes as familiar cycles of thoughts that would be here one moment and would be gone the next.

And it turns out, the less caught up I am in my own mind, the more present I can be with myself as I am, with others as they are now. The more curious I am about another person’s experience, the more opportunity I have to take a fresh look at my own.  And maybe, just maybe, my former selves can be old friends, rather than heavy burdens.


Teaching and Being Taught Meditative Ways

Should we have a sincere wish to teach meditation to others, we must take a great deal of care on our path.  If we choose to strive toward teaching then our path must be two paths in one.  One path is the way of personal practice and the other is the way of teaching.
To go the route of teaching it is imperative that we are humble.  In fact, we need to be so humble that the conventional ways embedded in the dominant U.S. culture are likely to reject us.  This dominant culture current values fame, fortune, notoriety, and the collection of trophies.  Humbleness rejects each of these and at its core, does not care whether or not they occur.  Should they occur, then they occur.  Should they not occur, then they do not occur.  It does not matter either way and it does not change our course.
To become a teacher of meditation at any level, even that of basic physical posture, we must only teach from our experience.  Therefore, it is necessary for us to have a strong foundation of awareness and insight into our own practice and its limitations.  We must also retain a great deal of courage because we must be ready, in any given moment, to say to another, “I don’t know.”  To overstep this boundary is to introduce corrupt views into the traditions of meditation and the lineage of teachers.  This can result in harm to others and oneself.  The teacher’s heart and deepest intention needs to be singled-minded and solely focused upon being of service to others.  This is to be ever present, even at the expense of personal gain.

Should someone work with an instructor and encounter to the honored claim, “I don’t know,” they may reject the instructor.  The path of the instructor, regardless of their modest beginnings, is to completely accept, without hesitation, this rejection and without recoil.  The one who is worthy of instructing or guiding lives in the way, always.  And when she does not do this and recognizes the error, she is reminded of the ever present truth, that she will always remain a student.  Her practice is to return to the person and to own her error and ignorance.  This is her path, all of our paths.

When one who assumes the role of instructor embodies these truths, humbleness is ever present and manifests itself continuously.  If one has not realized this truth, beyond mere intellect and academic study, then they are not quite ready to teach.  More time is needed to practice and to reflect upon one’s motivations to instruct.  This is particularly important for those in helping professions to realize because their path is often based in intellect and academic study.

The path of Buddhism, especially Zen, has little bearing on intellect.  Reading books and retaining information is a part of the establishing the ground of practice but when we embody practice, the intellect is of little to no consequence.  Therefore, practice, realization through practice, and embodying practice (not the idea of practice) is absolutely necessary.  We can all teach but only to the level of embodiment but we must remain focused upon the two-fold path of the instructor.  This is the Mahayana path.  Personal practice is one aspect and the path of the instructor is the other aspect.  The worthy instructor is one who takes on both aspects without hesitation and with a sense of deep commitment.  And all instructors need an instructor.  This is the humbleness inherent in honoring the lineage of the Buddha, of the many Buddhas who have lived, and the many Bodhisattvas among us.

All of this is required.  All of this is vital to the way of the instructor.  There is no other way.

Suffering in Buddhism: It Might Not Be What You Think

For even the most serious practitioner, the notion of suffering in Buddhism might be misunderstood and I have a feeling that it comes down to how we relate to and understand the translations of the words.  In Buddhism, there is Samsara and Dukkha and they are very different.  To make it slightly more difficult, Dukkha can be translated in two different ways.  So let’s address samsara first.

Strictly speaking, Samsara = Cycle Existence or Endless Reincarnation.  My guess is that most people don’t think of it this way or if they do, they mix it with other types of suffering.  But this is it, the cycle of death and rebirth.  Now, I’m not going to discuss the plausibility of this because I don’t have any experiential or concrete evidence to argue one way or the other.  To argue for or against reincarnation is just as useful as arguing for or against the existence of some god…there’s just no way to come to a conclusion.

Now, Dukkha is generally translated as “dissatisfaction” or a type of unrest in one’s life.  However, it is also used to denote our physical suffering.  This latter definition is of less concern because our physical existence is based in pain.  To be alive is to constantly ward off death.  If we stop eating, breathing or drinking water, we die and our bodies change throughout our entire lives.  All of this creates discomfort in various ways.  The elderly can surely teach us what it’s like to get older and the pain of change.  Yet, duke as dissatisfaction is of more interest to Buddhists because there’s not much we can do about the pain of being physically alive.

So here, dukkha = dissatisfaction or malcontent.  A restlessness and frustration with how things are and how things are not psychologically and environmentally.  So when we, as Buddhists, speak of the core problem that Buddhism addresses and works to resolve, let us speak of dukkha.  For those who believe in reincarnation, then we can speak of samsara but let us be clear about which one we are speaking of.  Of course, when one reads the teachings at length it becomes clear that they are very much intertwined but because Buddhism is very new to the Americas, let us speak clearly to help educate one another.  This will prove helpful in the years to come.

Ordinary Magic – The Present Moment Challenge

People who are from the Shambhala tradition are probably familiar with this term, Ordinary Magic, and if you’re one of these people know that I have read very little of Chogyam Trungpa’s writings. However, I find this phrase particularly important in my life right now. It is that which I misunderstood during my last spiritual peak.

What’s I confidently but wonderfully odd about my spiritual path is that it was amazingly strong, present and so colorful for so long yet I knew nothing of Buddhism. Yet, as I learned of the Buddhist teachings I found myself grasping at the states, jhanas or meditative absorptions that had been experienced. The teachings told me that they were something but how I had experienced them was in a rather innocent and ordinary way. For some time now, I’ve grasped at them to return because I greatly desire them. But as it happens, grasping crushes what it’s grasping.

As I see it, my present moment challenge, and everyone’s place on the path is different so your’s will be, is to recognize this ordinary magic as common place. That it’s not anything special and that I am not at all anything special. The reason that grasping occurs is because ego is present and creeping in. The view that I hold, consciously and unconsciously, is that ordinary magic is a thing.  When mind makes it a thing it destroys it. It destroys it because there is no thing called ordinary magic. The reality of the experience is fleeting, elusive and perpetually transient. The task, therefore, is to be able to acknowledge the experience in the moment without engaging something mentally.  Without following mind to the point of solidifying an experience and giving it a name.

So how does one, how do I go about this?  I don’t know. This is what I need to learn about, experiment with and reflect upon. But now that I have more space in my life, which allows for more space in mind….whatever that is!…there’s room to play, practice, fail, learn, grow and hopefully hone this crazy monkey mind that resides in this skull that I ironically call mine.