Finding Time To Meditate

Finding Time To Meditate

When life gets hectic, meditation tends to be the first thing to go. Sitting and doing nothing might seem like a counter intuitive strategy for dealing with a busy schedule. However, meditation practice is actually a great way to get your mind in shape to tackle those tasks on your to do list.

“It seems we all agree that training the body through exercise, diet, and relaxation is a good idea,” says meditation teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, “but why don’t we think about training our mind?” Exercising your mind through meditation cuts down on the time you waste worrying and mulling over your tasks and prepares your mind to actually accomplish them.

There is also increasing scientific evidence that meditation helps us focus.  A 2011 study at the University of Wisconsin, found that participants who meditated 5 -15 minutes a day had activation patterns in their left brain associated with rational thinking and positive emotional states.

A 2012 study of University of Washington office workers found that mindfulness practice improves employees’ ability to work steadily without switching tasks, and maintain focus without stressing out. Its not surprising that mindfulness helps focus and fosters a positive, engaged mindset.

Mindfulness Meditation focuses your attention on the present moment, training the mind to dismiss distractions, which actually helps us get things done more efficiently and with less stress.

Finding Motivation

It might be difficult to prioritize meditation if you’re unclear on why you’re practicing. Finding your personal motivation for meditation helps build a strong practice routine.

When we feel that there’s no time for practice, we’re often not connecting to our motivation for practice, which makes it easy to forget or toss aside as soon as things get busy.

Before practicing, take a moment to reflect on why you want to practice. Perhaps you want to lower stress, create some space in your reactions, touch into what is really going on, attain enlightenment, or simply become more relaxed.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes, “After we sit down and before we begin practicing the technique, we should slow down and reflect on our presence in the world. We need to think for a few minutes about what we like and what we don’t like, what we’re worried about, and where in our lives we feel a sense of relief.”

Contemplation connects meditation practice to our life off the cushion, and makes the discipline of practice feel natural instead of imposed or harsh. It gives us a bridge between our speedy life and mindfulness practice. Eventually this bridge will dissipate, and meditation will become a natural part of life.

When you can’t meditate

There are times when it’s just impossible to get away. Sometimes we skip brushing our teeth, or a morning run. Our teeth might feel kind of grimy and our body tired, but it happens.

There are ways to touch into mindfulness in your everyday life. The RAIN method is one technique that can help ground us if we feel like the day is running off with our mind. This simple practice has four steps:

  • Recognize what’s going on
  • Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
  • Investigate with kindness
  • Natural awareness, which comes from not identifying with the experience.

This simple mindfulness practice of self care, helps us stay grounded when we don’t have time to meditate.

There are also times when we are too overwhelmed to meditate. Sometimes stress and anxiety can make it simply too difficult to find our object of meditation. In these moments we are completely taken in by a storyline, which colors our whole perception.

In this situation, says Mipham Rinpoche, “we’re too close to the action. Its too soon to investigate the scene of the accident.”  In these situations, getting some distance  from your thoughts can be helpful. Going on a walk or bike ride, a shower, calling a friend or doing a quick stretch routine, can be more calming than sitting. “Knowing when we can meditate is honest meditation,” says Mipham Rinpoche.

Surfing the Wild Waves Part One: The RAIN Technique for Working with Emotions

This dharma essay covers how to work wisely with emotions through mindfulness practice.

Probably more than anything else, emotions are the place of deepest attachment. We define our personalities largely through them – “I am a happy person, a sad person, an eager person” – and we tend to lose meditative awareness anytime emotional states occur. I will focus particularly on difficult emotions, as they tend to be where we get most easily hooked into suffering. The techniques below apply also to easier emotions – such as joy or love – and it is skillful to be aware of them, as this lessens our attachment to them.

Because troublesome states are such big obstacles in our lives, leaning to work with them skillfully offers profound relief from suffering. The essence of this skill is learning to welcome emotions without getting overwhelmed by them, walking a middle path between repression and indulgence. Mindfulness allows one to experience difficult states fully, learn from them, and then watch them disappear all by themselves. In the process, one learns self-compassion, patience, and connection with all humanity, since we are all plagued by emotional turmoil. Over time, one’s relationship with difficulty changes; mindfulness takes what one considers to be emotional “crap” and turns it into manure, fertilizing one’s heart to grow into more openness, tenderness, and joy.

This all leads to the confidence that one’s mind is workable and a newfound sense of freedom that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition likes to call the “lion’s roar.” May it be so for you!

The RAIN Approach

What are emotions? Mindfulness practice shows us that an emotion has three components: thoughts, body sensations, and mood or energy. Thoughts are always involved, body sensations are present frequently, and mood is sometimes part of the experience. How do we work with such energies in our meditation? Vipassana teachers at Insight Meditation Society teach a simple and effective approach encapsulated in the acronym RAIN, which stands for recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identify.

This is a big deal. If everyone recognized what they felt, thereby providing the choice to act the emotion out or not, the world would be a completely different place. Imagine if you saw you were angry every time it happened, and could use the pause to decide whether it was skillful to lash out at someone or not? “Being mindful is easy,” says my teacher Joseph Goldstein, “Remembering to be mindful is the hard part.” This is especially true with emotions; it is very hard to remember to be mindful during the intensity of an emotion.

In meditation, when you do recognize an emotion, you can label it with a simple word such as “fear” or “envy.” Brain research shows that “naming is taming,” that labeling an emotion gives one a sense of healthy distance from the experience, allowing it to be more easily observable. Don’t worry too much about getting the label exactly right. The function of the label is just to connect the mind to the present and make the emotion more workable. If you go into too much thinking around which exact emotion you are experiencing, just note, “emotion” or, “feeling.”

You can’t judge and understand at the same time. If you are judging you are caught in reaction, and you cannot be aware of something if you are reacting to it. In meditation, we stay with our experience, being willing to feel an emotion exactly as it is, without adding layers of interpretation and judgment. This is acceptance. Can we accept so deeply that we can actually be friends with everything that arises? Can we say to anger, or fear, or happiness, “I am your friend, no one can know how you feel but me.” Can we accept so deeply that if we do react, we can notice even that without judgment (which is just more reaction), and come back to the body sensation of the emotion?

We can accept our emotions best by staying grounded in the body sensations associated with them. The body tends to be the place of least charge in the midst of an emotional upheaval. In the midst of fear, it is much easier to stay attentive to the tingling in the belly than it is to stay aware of the fear thoughts. The belly does not say, “Oh my gosh, it’s 6 weeks before the holidays and I have not even begun shopping, and where is all the money going to come from for my 27 cousins and nieces and nephews, not to mention all my siblings.” It just says, “tingle, tingle, tingle.” Which is the easier aspect of anxiety to be with?

We never know our thoughts to be true. Of course, they are sometimes quite relevant and need to be acted upon, but much of the time our thoughts are just so much confused, unclear, anxious and hypothetical background noise. In this acceptance step, we need to accept the storyline of our emotion without judging it, while adopting some ironic distance to the truth of the story. “We’ll see” is my favorite response to a panicked storyline. It encapsulates kindness and wisdom. There is no condemnation of the story, but there’s a lack of reaction to it. This acceptance of the thoughts without believing them is the key to beginning a wise relationship with emotions.

Adopting an attitude of kindness is an especially important part of this acceptance step. As we start to become more mindful, we may begin to notice emotions that conflict with our self-image or that seem inconvenient in certain situations. Because mindfulness gives us such a mirror-like and unflinching take on how we are doing, it forces us to be kind to ourselves.

We must learn to accept our foibles and shortcomings and can be secure in the knowledge that any compassion we give ourselves will be planted in our hearts as a gift that we can then give someone else. As the Dalia Lama says, “My religion is kindness,” and being kind to our rowdy emotional lives is a huge step towards having a full and healthy heart. The phrase “of course” best encapsulates the attitude of kindness one can take towards their emotions. When an emotions arises, no matter what it is, see if you can give it your best grandmotherly (or fatherly) smile, pat in on the head, and say, “Of course.”

Something really shifts in our psyche when we start to take interest in what it is like to feel an emotion, rather than being swept away by it. This interest leads us to an experiential, not intellectual, investigation. To investigate emotions, ground your attention in the body, noticing any thoughts that may arise. We don’t ignore the thoughts, but since they can pull us out of the present so easily, we stay with our body sensations, noticing the thoughts in the periphery. It’s as if we were staring at the full moon (our body), and noticing stars in the background (thoughts).

We investigate the emotion in the body. Where is it in the body? Find its boundaries, its center. What is the texture of the sensation? Tingly? Buzzy? Is it hot or cold? Is there pressure? Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? What happens to it? (Three things can happen to any phenomenon – it can stay the same, increase, or decrease). Answer these questions experientially, by feeling the answer, not by thinking it.

Impermanence. The first lesson of investigation: emotions are impermanent. Meditation shows us that emotions change all the time. They might keep coming back because of a recurring thought. But they dissipate soon after the thoughts dissipate. Impermanence is the great liberator, your true friend. You don’t have to do anything to get rid of an unpleasant emotion but be aware of it.

Impermanence takes care of the rest. Of course, this does not work if you have the agenda to get rid of the emotion by being mindful of it. This is based on aversion, and aversion will be the underground spring that keeps feeding the emotion. However, if we are truly interested in finding out what an emotion feels like, its impermanent nature will reveal itself.
Important advice: rather than “letting go” of your emotions, welcome them. Fully allow them and be mindful of them. If you do truly do this, they will express their energy and eventually go away all by themselves. You don’t have to “let go” of an emotion, you only have to “let it go” on its merry way.

Impersonal.  The second lesson: emotions are impersonal. When we check in with our bodies we see emotions are just sensation. It’s the story that makes them so personal. For example, an occurrence of anxiety might trigger the thought, “There I go again, I’m such an anxious person. When will I ever heal? Therapy’s no good. I’ve spent all this money on it, and I’m still anxious a lot.” Without this painful thought pattern, the experience of anxiety is little more than an unpleasant butterfly feeling in the belly.

On a retreat, a meditation teacher told me that the feeling of fear is no more personal than the sound of a passing car. “Yeah, right!” I thought. Later during this meditation retreat, I realized exactly what she meant. I was doing walking meditation in a hallway and felt fear.

Mindfulness was fairly strong, so the story behind the fear disappeared fairly quickly and I was just noticing the tingling in the belly. With a jolt, I realized that the sensory texture of this buzzy feeling in the belly was exactly the same as the sound of the buzz of a fluorescent light in the hallway. While the experience was the same, since I attached the notion of “I” to the belly sensation, it felt a lot more problematic. When I dispensed with this notion, I could just feel the buzz, and feel no more concerned about it than I would be about the sound of a fluorescent light.


Notice that if you are aware of an emotion you are not it. You are bigger than it. In this last step, we see that we can experience an emotion like fear, or calm, or joy, but we can’t experience the “I” to whom the emotion is supposed to be happening. We see that “I” is always created by a thought or internal image. Thus, our language of emotions needs to shift from “I am happy” to “Happiness is happening.” We can be aware of happiness, but not the “I” that happiness is “happening” to. This is non-identification.

We also have the illusion that “I” is making an emotion happen. In fact, emotions just arise from conditions in the mind. One mind moment conditions another. Once on retreat, there was this twang-like click from a thermostat in the meditation hall, almost like a bass, and instantaneously I heard the bass in a John Coltrane tune called “Africa.” And I went into bliss and thought, “Ah, infant bliss.” And then came the thought, “Infant, oh no!” because I was remembering the time I was babysitting my infant godson when he was sitting in a car seat in the house.

I got this craving for a chocolate chip cookie. I put him a little bit hastily on a laundry basket full of clothes and the thing toppled. And he fell on the carpet and hit his head and started bawling. Eventually he calmed down and began to feel better. But I felt so bad inside because I had the thought, “That happened because of my greed for wanting a cookie.” Then I started feeling all the other times I was thoughtless of others: the times I’ve rushed through a door and didn’t hold it for somebody, or cut people off in traffic, or offended people with an offhand joke. I sat there in that unworthiness for quite a while.

Where did that unworthiness come from? From a click in the meditation hall. I never saw the “I.” Instead, there was just the witnessing of a cascade of mental events spilling out of itself until it all got really stuck in the difficult emotion of unworthiness. The arising of unworthiness was so impersonal!

A huge healing happens when we begin to see our emotions as impersonal and ephemeral. We can really start to allow our emotions, seeing how workable they all are. Not only are they fickle and changing all the time, but they are not happening to us, and “we” don’t make them happen. It’s as if airplanes are constantly passing an airport and never landing. We don’t have to fuss with planes that never land. They just pass on by.

The essence of working with emotions in meditation is summed up by dharma teacher Anna Douglass: “What we are practicing is non-interference. When you get out of the way, everything self-liberates.”

Peter WilliamsPeter Williams has practiced meditation for 22 years in the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including many months of silent retreat, and has taught meditation since 2003. Peter is trained as a Community Dharma Leader by Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He teaches retreats in the Rocky Mountain West. Peter also practices as a transpersonal psychotherapist in Boulder. For more information about Peter click here.


Only Ever Here and Now: The Benefits of Buddhist Meditation

In this writing you will learn vipassana, also called insight or mindfulness meditation, a commonsense technique that helps you live a happier and fuller life by paying attention to the present moment. The technique, although based in Buddhist teachings, does not require you to become a Buddhist to practice it. In fact, Buddhism is ultimately compatible with any faith you may already have. Buddhism does not require you to adopt a new set of beliefs. It just asks you to check out the teachings and see if they work in your life.

What is Buddhism?

At its core, Buddhism is a teaching on realizing the deepest possible happiness. We all want to be happy, it is our birthright. But, says Buddhism, we look in the wrong places; we look for it in experiences and events and relationships that are all subject to change.

All these things can provide us with much happiness, but a happiness dependent on conditions is ultimately unreliable because all conditions change. What is most amazing to me about the discoveries of the Buddha is that he discovered a happiness that is free of conditions, that does not depend on anything. The Buddha called his discovery nibbana, a happiness so profound that it transcends, while still including, all the ordinary ups and downs in our lives.

Just as amazing as the Buddha’s discovery of nibbana is the fact that he boiled down the realization of it to a very simple technique: mindfulness, the simple act of knowing what is happening in the present moment. While the ultimate expression of nibbana is not fully felt until one becomes enlightened, a deep freedom and happiness is available to us right now by applying mindfulness to our lives. A moment of mindfulness is a “mini-nibbana,” a moment of freedom. This is because whatever you are mindful of is not a problem, because in that moment you are bigger than it.

A key point is that vipassana practice is not about learning to fly away to some enlightened cloud where we forever abide, untouched by the joys and sorrows of life. Rather, as Pema Chödrön says, it is about “starting where we are.” Vipassana is about learning to be at peace with the chaos in our minds, to find freedom in the very midst of our jealousies, quarrels, heartbreaks, joys, and triumphs. In this class, we will start by being aware of our breath, but eventually we will learn to become aware of all experiences, and bring our practice to bear on the real thing: our work, our relationships, our play, our joy, our sorrow.

Craving and Suffering

The Buddha said, I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.

He was not interested in philosophizing or speculating on the origins of the universe; he was interested only in solving the human predicament, in how we cause ourselves to suffer. How do we do this?

By craving. The Buddha used this word in a very specific sense: as the reactions of desire, aversion or ignorance, respectively, to the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral qualities that color every experience. This craving is the cause of suffering because it is a struggle against what is true. Eckhart Tolle, in “Practicing the Power of Now,” says that all suffering is reaction.

Wanting things to be different than they are is a subtle but constant restlessness in the mind and this is a form of suffering. I think suffering can be too heavy a word; maybe “unsatisfactoriness” is better. In any case, even in the midst of happy experiences there is a lack of satisfaction, because we are afraid of the experience ending. Mick Jagger was right, we can’t get no satisfaction. Of course, our dissatisfaction goes way beyond not having enough cigarettes, booze and sex. We can’t get no satisfaction, in the deepest sense, if we are seeking it in experiences that do not last.

DSC_0052Mindfulness is the opposite of craving. Our reactions to pleasant and unpleasant experiences rob us of awareness. But if we are aware of experiences as they arise, we let go of reacting and just accept things as they are. Mindfulness can be with an object of desire just as easily as an object of revulsion. Mindfulness is the antidote to reactivity, and it allows us to join fully with experience. If you are stuck in a stall with a kicking horse, the safest place to be is on the horse. You can’t get kicked there.

Mindfulness is the act of getting in the saddle, of cutting through our separation from experience and becoming it. As our practice develops, we begin to see that this lack of separation is the satisfaction we so deeply want. We begin to love paying attention! As this inward satisfaction grows, all sorts of positive qualities begin to shine forth – peace, calmness, patience, generosity, morality, love, and wisdom. Sorry, Mick, but we can get satisfaction if we just let go and accept the present moment. This kind of satisfaction is truly reliable because it is always available. Mindfulness can be with anything.

Wake Up! It’s Only Your Life
All this might sound a bit too far away from the practicalities of your life. You might be wondering how meditation can benefit you more immediately. It does so in many ways.

Relaxing In Our Bodies
The most immediate benefit of meditation, which you may have already noticed in the first class, is that it helps you relax. A busy mind tends to cause tension. Slowing down and paying attention to a simple object like the breath can really helps us relax and regain calmness. The simple in and out of the breath, like the rising and falling of the tide, can help us feel centered, whole, and somehow deeply satisfied.

The breath does not tell us scary stories about the future or cause us to feel remorse about the past. The blessed neutrality of breathing helps your mind find itself, like a flag unfurling in a gentle breeze.

We all tend to have a lot of stress in our lives – in our jobs, our relationships, our responsibilities at home. Although stress is often caused by external circumstances, stress does not happen outside of us, but in our minds. We compound our difficulties by obsessing about problems, mulling them over again and again. Much anxiety and depression is caused by such obsessive thinking. Meditation helps cut such thinking by training you to return again and again to the present moment. It teaches you to trust the potency of the moment, the fact that as you focus more and more on the present, the past and future have a miraculous way of taking care of themselves. Sure, at times we need to problem-solve and imagine creative solutions to the challenges we face, but to be stuck in endless worry about our lives is not in any way helpful.

A common phenomenon on silent meditation retreats illustrates how much our stress and tension is caused by excessive thinking. For participants of such retreats, as the mind becomes more and more concentrated, the body needs less and less sleep. On retreats longer than a few weeks, highly advanced practitioners might reduce their sleep to three, two and even one hour a night. This is because the chief cause of fatigue is not physical activity but compulsive thinking.

A second more immediate effect of meditation is that we become much more in touch with our bodies. Vipassana teaches us to become mindful of body sensations as we go through our days, of our feet contacting the ground, of our hands touching things, of our limbs moving through space. We are usually so lost in our thoughts that we forget to pay attention to our bodies. For me, this can manifest in overeating. If I am paying attention to my body, I sense when I am full and stop. However, in social situations it is very hard for me to keep this awareness going, and I often find myself eating too much at dinner parties. If I could just pay attention my body would tell me loud and clear when it was time to stop.

This mundane example shows how out of touch we can be. As we get in touch we may start to be very surprised by the mind-body relationship. We may start to learn that our minds dramatically affect our bodies. The reduction of sleep for meditation retreatants shows this. A more extreme example is that of Tibetan Buddhist monastics who practice tum-mo, a technique that allows them to raise their body temperature solely through meditative means. In what amounts to monastic Olympics, monks in Tibet are known to hold competitions in the winter to see who is most adept at tum-mo. Participants strip down and wrap themselves in wet sheets and sit outside on ice cold nights to see how many sheets they can dry with the body heat they generate. These mind-body feats have been documented by Herbert Benson, MD, from Harvard Medical School, and published in Mind Science: An East-West Dialogue.

Shredding the Gnarl: The Wild Ride of Emotions
An extremely important benefit of meditation for our lives is that it puts us in touch with our emotions. As the course advances, we will learn to be mindful of the emotions, those large waves that crash without warning in our hearts. Normally, we deal with our emotions in two ways – by repressing them or by acting them out.

Repressing an emotion is an obvious form of avoidance. But unconsciously acting out an emotion, say anger, is also avoidance because we want to effect change in the world in order to alleviate the anger, to get it out of the body. The meditative trick is to fully allow the anger, which avoids repression, but to also be still and just feel it in the body, which avoids acting it out.

We allow the emotion not by indulging the story line of the anger – “I can’t believe they did that to me!” – but by feeling the raw energy and heat of anger in the chest. We take an interest in what it is like to be angry. Where else do we feel it in the body? What happens to it if I just pay attention to it? Does it change? The trick is to keep noticing the thoughts without feeding them, and keep grounding the attention in the less charged body sensations. If we pay attention long enough, eventually the anger will disappear all by itself.

Strong emotions tend to be colored by black-and-white thinking. Once the heat of the emotion has passed, we can begin to assess our situation more clearly and with more nuance. From calmness and clarity, we can then decide what kind of action needs to be taken. As we become better at being mindful of emotions, we begin to allow them much more fully. We begin to feel our emotions are beautiful expressions of our wild and free heart.

Loving Better
As our emotional lives become more workable, our relationships become easier as well. The main difficulty we have with others is how they make us feel. As we learn that we can not only accept and tolerate, but even celebrate our difficult emotions, we become much friendlier and open with people. This is because we are less afraid of how someone might make us feel.

I have an old friend from New England who is very sweet and considerate, but who also can go on at great length about trivial matters like the stress of selecting a good camping spot on a road trip. It’s hard for me to admit (because I care about this person a lot), but they can bore me, and this makes me sometimes want to avoid them.

Applying meditation can help a lot because rather than trying to change my friend, I can just become interested in what it is like to feel bored. Where do I feel it in my body? What are the thoughts associated with it? How long does it last? If I make my job just being aware, whatever my friend does is fine. I’ll just be with my reaction.

This is especially helpful in intimate relationships, where we can get provoked most deeply. My sweetie Lisa has given me permission to share a story with you. She was very angry with me once last year as we were driving between Marble and Redstone. Because of my own conditioning in a family of taciturn males, I can get very claustrophobic and afraid in the face of strong displays of emotion. I immediately began arguing, trying to point out how she was wrong.

At one point, I felt so uncomfortable I had to stick my head out the car window. Eventually, this feeling passed and I was able to be more open and less defensive and we worked through it. The benefits of meditation were driven home a year later, in almost the exact same spot on the highway, when Lisa was angry at me again. We had spent the day hiking near Marble, and spent much of our time being quiet and meditative. Because meditation was going strong,

I remained calm and open in the midst of Lisa’s accusations, with no reaction at all. Rather than coming to my own defense, I simply listened to the pain I had caused her. It seemed so easy. I had the startling realization that most of my interactions with her and others were attempts by me to control them in an effort to manage my own emotions! I don’t want Lisa to be angry because it makes me feel guilty, so I try to talk her out of it. How crazy is that? This time, I was able to just let Lisa be Lisa and be interested and curious in her process because I could handle whatever came up in mine. I could feel compassion for her pain and apologize for my insensitivity. Once I had gotten out of the way, I could love Lisa so much more clearly. This is a huge benefit of meditation – it helps us love so much better.

Meditation also helps our relationships because it teaches us to be more compassionate. Maybe the most scary thing for people to do is to sit still and face their own minds. I think some of us would rather be dragon slayers, or at least bungee jumpers or bus-jumping motorcyclists, than face our own minds. I think this is because we are filled with so much negativity.

At times, the only way to be with ourselves is to face the pain in our psyches. Compassion is the emotion that makes this possible. Compassion is a caring, a tenderness, and an openness in the face of pain. Compassion allows us to accept difficult mind states and stop blaming ourselves for them. In our culture, we are taught that if one is in pain, then something must be wrong. Buddhism teaches that pain is inevitable – one cannot avoid sickness, aging, disappointment, heartbreak, etc. Rather than thinking something is wrong if we are in pain and trying to fix it, which is a way of avoiding it, meditation teaches us that we can solve our pain by accepting it and giving ourselves the care we need in the face of it.

Any compassion we feel for ourselves is automatically available to others. Compassion for the pain of others is such a strong way to connect with them.
We can actually start to rejoice in the midst of compassion because it can help us feel so connected to people. We are not rejoicing in someone else’s pain, but in the fact that we share something so basic and personal with every other human being on the planet.

Payday: A Better Work Life
Because work is made up primarily of relationships, meditation can help us a lot in our work issues. As we learn to be more comfortable with our emotional lives, we can face our problems at work more clearly. Work can trigger a host of negative mind states – fear, stress, uncertainty, exhaustion, and a lot of more positive ones – excitement, interest, joy, etc. Meditation helps us accept the wild ride we can have in a work day, and can also provide a vehicle for calming the mind in the midst of that ride.

If one could add even just five minutes of quiet attention to breathing twice a day at work, it could help one ease stress, gain some peace, and also help put things into perspective. We can save ourselves a lot of stress by not sweating the small stuff, but we are often too speedy to stop and see the difference. Perfectionism is a huge problem for many people at work. If one can stop and feel the pain and pressure that this causes in one’s body, little by little one can begin to let go of perfection, and let good enough be good enough.

As you learn to live more in the present, you also learn what you can and cannot control. My work motto is “Do your best, let go of the rest.” We are so results-oriented that we often take responsibility for things that are out of our control. When I used to teach wildlife biology at the University of Vermont, I could get quite stressed about whether my classes were well received or not. But that was out of my control. I could control that I could do my best to assess my students, prepare material accordingly, and deliver it in what I felt to be an engaging manner. But I could not control the interest level of my students, or whether they were hungover from the night before, or were apathetic from too much passive entertainment like TV, movies, and internet.

In this culture, we invest so much in our work identities. The first question when we meet someone is often “What do you do?” Meditation, over the long haul, can help us stop being so identified with our work role, because we can become more satisfied and fulfilled from the inside. As we get clearer inwardly, we start to see the real importance of work – that it helps other people.

As noted above, I could get quite focused on my performance as a professor. Something really shifted for me when I heard The Dalai Lama being interviewed and he was asked if he ever got nervous at his many public speaking engagements. He said he usually did not, but if he ever did, he stopped and remembered his motivation – he was speaking to help people. As soon as he remembered this, his tension would ease. This helped me so much as a teacher. If I kept focusing on the fact that I was teaching to help people learn and not to be impressive, my concern for others would tend to erase any self-consciousness.

The End of the Yellow Brick Road – The Wizard of Is
I hope this outlines many of the benefits of meditation. All of these occur on the path of meditation, and I hope you see how good this path can be. But where does this path lead?

What is enlightenment?

Theravada Buddhism defines it as the complete absence of the three root negative mind states – greed, hatred, and delusion – and all their derivative emotions – lust, envy, irritation, fear, anxiety, boredom, guilt, etc. An enlightened being, in the classical definition, does not even have the potential for such mind states to arise. However, because an enlightened being is human, they still suffer the unavoidable pains of life – sickness, aging, etc. – but they do not compound them with suffering, with reactions that wish it were not so. What mind states remain if the negative ones disappear? Compassion, sympathetic joy, loving kindness, patience, generosity, wisdom, diligence, wishing others well, and so on. I find this possibility incredibly inspiring. It is inconceivably wondrous to me that such a state exists.

Does it sound too good to be true? Not to me. An experience from my practice can illustrate. I have learned, bit by bit, to become more comfortable sitting with physical pain during meditation periods. Pain in the knees or back will certainly arise if one sits still long enough, usually after an hour or so for me. The exhortation in the Thai monastery I practiced in last spring was to just be still and sit with the pain and be aware of it. I learned over repeated trials that as long as I could apply mindfulness to the pain, it was not so problematic.

All my reactions to the pain were what made it unbearable. The pain itself was just unpleasant sensation. I could watch it change over time and also notice that it was only in one part of my body. I could sometimes see that I was only in pain because the mind chose to exclude being aware of the other parts of my body that were fine.

Occasionally, mindfulness would grow so strong that I could be perfectly calm in the face of strong pain. My mind was unaffected because I was no longer in reaction to the pain. I can imagine that if I got better and better at mindfulness, I could have a mind that would be unaffected by physical pain or emotional distress. If an Olympic athlete, such as Yelena Slesarenko, the 2004 gold-medalist in the women’s high jump, could heave her body over a bar 6’9″ high after a lifetime of training, it is conceivable to me that a lifetime of training in mindfulness could lead to enlightenment.

What would an enlightened being be like? I met a few masters, on my trip to Asia earlier this year, who had progressed to some stage of enlightenment. They still had personalities and ordinary looking bodies subject to pain and difficulty and could even be a bit quirky at times. But they also beamed calmness, kindness, alertness, and great spontaneity. They would speak in ways that were surprisingly fresh, direct, and unfiltered by fear or confusion. Some were rumored to be able to read their students’ minds so that they could address their questions most accurately.

Contrary to stereotypes of enlightenment, these beings were not disconnected from life, but deeply connected to it, totally aware of what was happening in the present moment. In truth, our normal distractedness is detachment because we are out of the present moment and caught in the fantasy life of thinking, in the home movies that our mind continually churns out.

Well, here we are at the beginning of our meditative careers. If enlightened beings are Olympic athletes, we might feel like kindergarteners on the see-saw. If all this talk about enlightenment seems impossibly far away, forget about it. A path that leads to the end of human suffering is so wonderful that any step along that path is also magnificent. The only way we can step down that path, is to let go of the goal and just pay attention to this moment. Are you on an in-breath or an out-breath? Do you notice any sounds? What colors do you see? This is the path of practice. This is the path of liberation.


Peter WilliamsPeter Williams has practiced meditation for 22 years in the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including many months of silent retreat, and has taught meditation since 2003. Peter is trained as a Community Dharma Leader by Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He teaches retreats in the Rocky Mountain West. Peter also practices as a transpersonal psychotherapist in Boulder. For more information about Peter click here.

How Do I Start Meditating

How do I start Meditating?

Even though meditation is relaxing and good for us, it can be difficult to actually start practicing. We can get so addicted to the speed of everyday life that the thought of slowing down and doing nothing can be downright scary. However, once we put in a little effort to get on the cushion, we’ll start to see the benefits of practice which will bring us back for more.

Here are some steps to help you get started.

Ground Yourself

3_22Before starting your practice it is important to understand that meditation is not about changing ourselves into some extra-special spiritual being. “The main thing the Buddha discovered was that he could be himself–one hundred percent, completely.” says, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. “We are not saying that our immediate situation is unworthy. What we’re saying is that the present situation is completely available and unbiased, and that we can see it that way through the practice of mindfulness.” The point is not to reach some higher level of mind by manipulating how we are feeling. Meditation is simply tuning in a little to our experience and discovering how we actually think and feel. Having an aggressive or tough approach to our practice won’t help us relax, and will only make sitting more difficult.

Choose an Approach

There so many resources available online to help us choose an approach that it can be overwhelming. However, while they differ in their methods, all traditions share basic principles about developing mindfulness awareness. The most important thing is to find out what technique works for you. If you try to use a technique that feels uncomfortable you will not practice often. We can trust in the fact that mindfulness practice techniques have been around for thousands of years. People have woken up using these simple techniques.

Here are some places to start:

(Link to videos we will post soon)  

Schedule your practice times

Its important to plan out a meditation schedule and stick to it. Even if you only schedule   5 minutes in the morning, briefly tuning in can change your outlook for the day. Most teachers will tell you that consistency is more important than how long you practice. Committing to practice for a set amount of time is important because otherwise you will get up when you start to feel bored or uncomfortable. Staying on the cushion when you don’t feel like it is important for developing the discipline of meditation practice.

Its too easy to skip sessions, but the more you practice the more it will start to become a habit and you will feel like something is off when you miss a session. The less you practice, the more getting to the cushion will feel like a big event you have to psych yourself up to do.

Choose a Book as a practice guide

It can be a good idea to have a book to study alongside your meditation practice. Reading a few passages before or after a practice session deepens your relationship to meditation. Sometimes meditation can become routine that we forget why we began practicing in the first place. Reading can renew our inspiration. Depending on what tradition draws your interest, there are many books for beginners that can help guide you through practice: Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, The Miracle of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Suzuki Roshi, Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

Find a Community

Meditation is not always easy and having the support of fellow practitioners can help strengthen our commitment to practice. Buddhists call a community of practitioners a sangha. A sangha can be group a group friends who get together to practice or a bigger community that meets at a Buddhist center. Meditation centers often host talks by senior teachers,  discussion groups and classes. Some centers will also help you find a meditation instructor who can guide you one on one in meditation practice and answer questions as they come up. “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are three precious jewels in Buddhism, and the most important of these is Sangha.” Says Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Sangha contains the Buddha and the Dharma. A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success.” Practicing and studying with others is a great way to support our practice and develop deep spiritual friendships.

Benefits of Meditation

The benefits of meditation are vast, and in many ways unmeasurable or quantifiable. Here are just a few to get your inspiration going.   

Reduces Stress

In the past decade, meditation as  a tool for stress reduction has become increasingly popular. There is so much in the in the news about mindfulness, it could be easy to dismiss as a passing fad or cure all. But Scientists and psychologists are increasingly finding that meditation does help people better manage stress. And why wouldn’t it? Stress is all about our reactions to life circumstances. How we respond to the world is a reflection of how we think and feel. While a certain amount of stress is beneficial by alerting us to dangerous situations, a huge amount of stress is added on by our own minds. By creating more space between our thoughts and reactions, it is possible to reduce the unnecessary amount of stress we put ourselves under.

Increases self-awareness

Mindfulness practice develops self-awareness, the capability to observe our own behavior without judgement. Several tests are used by scientists to measure self-awareness among meditators. The “Five facet mindfulness questionnaire” was developed by researchers to determine the effectiveness of mindfulness training describes self awareness as an “enhanced capacity for acting with present-centered awareness rather than on ‘automatic pilot’–lost in the past or future.” Several studies have found that practitioners self-report self-awareness using this method. The ability to slow down and reflect on life is an under-utilized skill in today’s action oriented have self reported . Being able pause and reflect on one’s actions and how they are affecting others, can change your life. Increased self-awareness fosters better relationships with those we live and work with.

Increases self-acceptance

“All suffering, stress, and addiction comes from not realizing you already are what you are looking for,” says John Kabat-zinn, researcher and director of the Center for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Stress and anxiety can be a clever way resist who who we are, out of fear of not being who we wish we were. Meditation lets us find our who we truly are, behind the storylines and thought-chatter. In her book, When things Fall apart, Pema Chodron explains,  “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” Meditation is a radical form of self acceptance that develops integrity and genuineness and reduces anxiety and depression.

Regulates Emotions

Recent studies have shown that mindfulness training can help regulate emotions in the brain. At the University of Toronto, researchers found that after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice, the brains of meditators and a non-meditator appeared quite different. When shown distressing images, Non-medtator’s brains showed significant activations in the left side of their brain, areas that are “self-referencing.” Shown the same pictures, meditators scans displayed a more even spread of activations on both left and right sides of their brain. The study demonstrated that meditators have calmer reactions to troubling stimuli, by not over activating their left brains. The epidemic of PTSD in veterans, a disorder characterized by the inability to regulate emotions, have initatied more research in this area. Distancing our identification with anger, lessens its destructive power.  

Develops Contentment

Although it’s common to find articles claiming meditation makes you happy, from the the perspective of mindfulness based meditation, contentment might be a more accurate term. Meditation develops a basic contentment with things as they are. Happiness usually means chasing something outside of us. Practicing meditation and being in the present moment leads to a sense of contentment towards yourself and others. A basic contentment, stops us from treating others as obstacles or competition to our happiness. Happiness is usually thought of as something it’s possible to have, contentment is more a way of being.

Improves Physical Health

Science is increasingly finding that the mind and body are more connected than previously realized. Research has linked anxiety and depression to heart disease, chronic respiratory problems and other ailments. Our emotions and thoughts affect our physical body in more ways than we realize. A recent study published in Psychosomatic Medicine,  found that participants who practiced a mindfulness regiment developed more anti-bodies to influenza than a non-meditating control group by the end of the study.

Some of the first research conducted around mindfulness training explored how mindfulness training can alleviate chronic pain. John Kabat-Zinn’s research on this subject has led to the development mindfulness pain reduction techniques that are currently being a used in used in clinical settings.

Meditation & Neuroscience – 10 reasons to have a daily meditation practice

In the past decade breakthroughs in Neuroscience have revolutionized how we view the brain. Rather than hard-wired and static, scientists now see brain as having flexibility of response and the ability to adapt and heal itself. When you meditate you are actively making new neural connections. The process of sitting accelerates that process by creating space for fresh responses outside of our habitual patterns.

10. Your learning and memory will improve

In order to learn and better remember what we take in, it’s important that we train our minds to stay open to new information. When our minds are filled with what we think we know, there is little space for anything more. Meditation allows us to remain open to new information without blinding ourselves with our habitual emotional responses to new information. In a study published in Psychiatry Research, scientists found that participants who completed an 8-week Mindful based stress reduction program had increases in grey matter concentration in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory processes.

  1. Your focus will improve

flower stemThe prevalence of attention deficit disorders in our society has exploded in the past 20 years. These days, laptops and smart phones keep us glued to distracting images and videos at an almost constant rate. Sitting and slowing down, even for 10 minutes a day, can open up new neural pathways that promote calmness and focus. An Emory University study found that the process of continually bringing ones attention back to an object of focus, as one does in mindfulness practice, strengthens the neural pathways for keeping attention.

  1. 8. Daily Practice Reduces stress anxiety and depression

Recent studies have demonstrated that Stress can tax our system enough to actually change the structure of our brains. The area of the brain called the Hippocampus is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol release can lead us into a downward spiral of anxiety and depression, turning stress into more serious chronic disorders. In a study of meditators who practiced thirty minutes a day, brain images showed increased grey matter in the Hippocampus, rebuilding this area previously damaged by stress.

  1. Decreases Pain

The practice of gently observing sensory information in our environment and body can change our relationship to physical discomfort. Often times we experience pain with a mixture of judgment that magnifies the intensity of our discomfort. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated that after four days of mindfulness meditation training in the presence of painful stimulation, participants reported significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to the control group.

  1. Increases Positive Feelings

Meditation practice doesn’t just mitigate negative feelings; it can also give us a more positive outlook on our lives. Significant research has been done on “loving-kindness” meditation, a practice that incorporates visualizations, mantras and reflection. Resting the mind in compassionate space can disrupt what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” the propensity of humans remains at a stable level of happiness despite positive changes in their lives.

  1. Increases feelings of connection and empathy

Our society is becoming increasingly inter-connected by large impersonal social networks. As a result, our daily interactions with friends and coworkers are often mediated by a computer screen or smartphone. This can lead us to feel alienated from ourselves and disconnected from others. In 2008, a Stanford University study explored the effect of loving-kindness meditation on feelings of connection. After participants completed a brief guided loving kindness meditation, they were told to direct their feelings of love and compassion towards a photograph of a stranger. Participants reported significantly increased feelings of empathy and connection after the exercise.

  1. Improves creativity

Anyone who has sat a meditation retreat will tell you they experienced an increase in natural creativity after a prolonged sit. However you don’t need to sit long to experience the fresh sense of wonder that meditation practice produces. UC Santa Barbara’s Brain Research center has explored how mindfulness correlates with better insight-problem solving, our ability to creatively find solutions outside of logical reasoning.

  1. Improves our ability to Self Reflect

When we’re rushing around constantly, its difficult to tune into how we are feeling. Sitting still allows us to connect with our lives and act in our life with purpose and meaning. When we make decisions based on our habitual patterns we cannot make fresh changes in our life. Scientists have found that meditators have a greater ability to connect with their emotions, synchronizing their mind and body to help them act from the heart.

  1. Helps us establish a feeling of worthiness

Above all, meditation helps us feel worthy of being human, which may not be measurable through brain chemistry. Sitting lets us tap into that original state of being and original intelligence that we always have access to. When we feel worthy of being human, it affects our lives in more ways than we can imagine.


The Essential Travel Checklist for Meditators

One day, over twenty years ago, I woke up in a hotel room in Mexico City. The room was unadorned and low-budget, a few blocks from Chapultepec Park. Dream memories gradually dissolved into the polyester sheets and morning sunlight entered the room as I had an epiphany that has stayed with me ever since.

I realized each day is a complete lifetime. I especially feel this way when traveling — that each day is new, unique, never seen before.

I began my day in that Mexico City hotel room with meditation, just as I do most days, just as I do whenever I travel. Maybe I’ve learned a few things about how to integrate meditation practice into life with a suitcase. In any case, I’ll explore and share a few thoughts on the basis of meditative discipline, or any discipline.

The Foundation of Buddhist Practice (Shila, Samadhi and Prajna)

The traditional terms for the foundation of Buddhist practice, with includes both meditation and study, are (the Sanskrit terms) shila, samadhi and prajna, or discipline, absorption and intellect.

Shila, as discipline, means something innate. Conventionally we view discipline as something external, an obligation that might feel onerous, even odious. But in this case, shila means drawing on something inside of us – and when we do so we discover joy, another meaning of shila.

This relationship with discipline, or the process of becoming simple and focused, and joy is something anyone involved in the creative arts discovers, that through discipline we come to meet – rather than avoid – the blank page, the blank canvas, the open dance floor. That meeting brings joy.

Samadhi means, in the traditional translation of the term, absorption. Essentially samadhi means meditation. As my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, samadhi means “entering a particular world, which is a full world, a big world, a complete world.”

DSC_0737The natural relationship between discipline and meditation is to make a daily relationship with meditation, to sit for as long as one practically can. During a meditation retreat, shila might mean to sit for ten hours a day, whereas in a life of a fulltime job it might mean to sit twenty minutes in the morning (or evening). The key word, the magic word, when it comes to shila or discipline is priority.

To make something a priority means to actualize what we value the most, to walk the talk. When we do, someone or something will meet us there.

Again, to cite the creative arts, if we make a regular date with our writing – i.e., if we show up every morning to write, if we make writing our priority – eventually creative inspiration will also show up. Traditionally this arrival is that of the muse, the animating spirit of creative life.

Chögyam Trungpa called these muses the dralas. If we make a date in our mind, the muses, the dralas, the lineage can “read our mind.” If we break that date, we disappoint the larger sphere of our being, and so we suffer. If we do show up, and meditate for the time that is reasonable to our day, we always, always, always find it is worthwhile (though any rule is made to sometimes be broken; there are times when it is not indicated to practice).

When the brush meets the blank canvas, the result is a painting. When shila meets samadhi, the result is prajna or intellect. When we think of intellect we usually think of its contents, but intellect here simply mean clearheadedness.

The meditation discipline of sitting practice brings a diminishment and release of discursive thought. Often when we sit we feel we are having more discursive thought, but this is only because we are keeping still and thus noticing them – this noticing is also prajna.

When we finish sitting it is often then that the clearheadedness arrives, is noticed.

Clearheadedness is the basis of all the other virtues of life; if we are not clear, how can we discern virtue?

Travel as an Opportunity

Travel is an opportune time to be clearheaded. Since travel means venturing beyond our familiar home, not only do we need to have our wits about us but the unknown is very wakeful. So if we are already woken up through meditation, the wakefulness of the world penetrates us all the more.

In essence, travel is not so much a destination as a state of mind. Our commute to work is as much travel as a vacation in Rome. As Allen Ginsberg put it in the poem, We Rise on Sunbeans and Fall in the Night:

Dawn’s orb orange-raw shining over palisades
bare crowded branches bush up from marshes –
New Jersey with my father riding automobile
highway to Newark Airport – Empire State’s
spire, horned buildingtops, Manhattan
rising as in W.C. Williams’ eyes between wire trestles –
trucks sixwheeled steady rolling overpass
beside New York – I am here
tiny under sun rising in vast white sky,
staring thru skeleton new buildings,
with pen in hand awake…

Packing Checklist

For me, in the practice of being an awake traveler, it is good to put a few things in my suitcase that the ordinary traveler might not carry:

1. Inflatable Zafu. The Zafu weighs next to nothing, looks like the real thing, and works better Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 5.48.39 PM
than rolling up the blanket of the bed or sitting on a couple of pillows (Google to find one).

2. Small Gong. I also like to carry a small gong. This may be an optional item, but it makes a difference to ring it, to feel the bell’s melody penetrate the room, to feel it invite the lineage Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 9.14.58 PMand the dralas.

3. Adornments for my Shrine: I always carry a picture of my teacher, a small silk cloth and (usually) a candle. With these three objects I can make a shrine in my hotel or guest house room.

This is the first thing I do as I unpack my suitcase, and it is part of taming the heretofore anonymous space, making it my own, suitable for both sleep and the practice of waking up from sleep, meditation.

4. Alarm Clock: The final accoutrement to carry is an alarm clock (my iPhone). To manifest my priority I like to get up early, with or before the sun. For me, it is better to loose a bit of sleep than to miss the opportune time of the day to meditate, which is early. Dawn is fresh is and so is mediation when done this time of day.

After breakfast, I come back to my room and write. Sometimes I’ll write all morning and not begin the way of the wanderer until the afternoon.

Next I take a long, long and somewhat aimless walk. I’ve been fortunate to be able to take many of these walks in Rome, Istanbul, Phnom Penh.

The meditative traveler is always on a pilgrimage, whether wandering on commute, as Allen Ginsberg did, or through northern Japan, as Basho famously did in his Journey to the Interior.

Each day really is a lifetime.

Bill Istanbul2Bill Scheffel in a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.