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Mindfulness is a way of life

Unless you live on a digital desert island, you already know mindfulness meditation is good for you. You’ve read the articles proclaiming its well-researched benefits, from stress-reduction to pain management to relief from depression and enhanced overall well-being. The latest studies even suggest that it’s good for your sex life and boosts your immune system. You can’t open a magazine, read a newspaper, or log on to a social media site these days without hearing about some new study that discovers yet another great reason to pause and practice meditation.

Most of the research is based on subjects who have meditated daily for eight weeks as part of a mindfulness based stress reduction course. And yes, just eight weeks of regular meditation practice can transform your life. But the key to reaping the ongoing benefits of mindfulness is to make it not just something you do for twenty or thirty minutes a day, but an integral part of your life. After all, paying careful, nonjudgmental attention to your experience from moment to moment, which is essentially what mindfulness is, has its own inherent value, aside from the tangible results it can confer. Bring this quality of mindful presence to your intimate relationships, for example, and you’ll notice how much more you enjoy them—and how much more love and fulfillment they provide. Take mindfulness with you when you walk the dog or go for a run, and you’ll find that perceptions are sharper, colors are more vivid, and the natural world, even just the trees and birds in the city, touches you in new and unanticipated ways.

Scientific research can’t measure these qualitative changes—but they’re often the most noticeable, and the most immediately satisfying. So if you’re considering practicing mindfulness meditation for the benefits, remember that it’s about more than growing more gray matter or reducing your stress—it’s about improving the overall quality of your life at every level. And in my experience as a meditation teacher, I’ve found that the people close to you will notice the differences long before you do. They’ll remark that you’re not as defensive or irritable as you used to be. Or you’re just more fun to be with, and they’re not sure exactly why.

If you’re thinking about learning mindfulness, then, be prepared to make it more than just a once-a-day thing. Get ready to live it from moment to moment. Because that’s the point of meditation—to act as a training ground for honing a skill that you can then apply in every situation. Mindfulness, in other words, can become a way of life.

After the election: Back to ground zero

For some of us, the recent election here in the US was a shock to the values we hold dear. While we cherish and practice love, kindness, and compassion and aspire to live from the realization that we are all essentially inseparable, the country as a whole elected a man who has vilified Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, Jews, the disabled, and just about every other vulnerable minority and has a history of sexually abusive behavior toward women. How could this possibly have happened? And how can we relate to this turn of events without falling into the trap of becoming judgmental and closed-hearted ourselves?

All our spiritual practice and realization have prepared us for moments like this. First, we can let go of our preconceptions and return to ground zero, silence, beginner’s mind, unconditional presence. As we allow our sense of separation to dissolve and we merge back into our source, how does this drama appear to us now? Without the story the mind keeps telling us about how things should be and how they may turn out, where’s the suffering or struggle? Without a story, in fact, are there any problems in this moment right now?

At the same time, we can face the prospects realistically and make room for the feelings that have inevitably been aroused: the disappointment, the anger, the fear, the grief. Yes, this may set climate change back generations, our brothers and sisters may be harassed and deported, women may lose their right to choose–these are deeply disturbing possibilities, and as circumstances unfold we can act in whatever way we’re moved to do to prevent them. But right now, in this moment, is any of this happening yet? And what purpose do we serve, for ourselves or others, by fueling these painful feelings with doomsday scenarios? Now too, as always, we have the opportunity to meet each moment fresh, without preconceptions or expectations, and remain open and available for what happens next.

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True self/ false self/ no self

Perhaps the most common core belief or story I’ve encountered over the years as a therapist and teacher is some version of “There’s something terribly wrong with me,” “Deep down I’m flawed, bad, evil, incorrigible, or unlovable.” Often this belief is accompanied by an underlying feeling of shame and a fear of being found out, exposed, revealed to be the awful person we believe ourselves to be. Generally this sense of inadequacy is based on being shamed as a child, on being made to feel stupid or bad or unwanted by parents or other caregivers, whether through careless words, neglect or disregard, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

However this shame is instilled, the growing child will often do everything in her power to disprove or counteract the negative self-image by working especially hard to be good, smart, lovable, or successful. In the process, she develops and maintains a very positive self-image to present to the world, a false self, while still believing deep inside that the shameful self-image is the true self that will eventually be found out, much to her horror and humiliation. Eventually this split can become excruciatingly painful and lead to a persistent feeling of being inauthentic, fake, or phony.

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Politics of wisdom and compassion

Many spiritual people these days eschew politics because they believe it’s too messy and adversarial and inherently at odds with an awakened, nondual perspective. Others, surprisingly, seem to forget the deeper realization they profess to have experienced and take a strong ideological position that brooks no disagreement and allows no middle ground. “My candidate’s way is the only way, and no other point of view is worth considering or supporting.”

But embodying our awakening in everyday life calls on us to relate with other people and the broader society without either withdrawing to an inner mountaintop of detachment and disengagement or getting lost in a passionately held belief system, which is just a collective form of ego. Rather, we’re invited to respond to what life presents from the unconditional love and presence we know ourselves to be, not as a set of beliefs or values but as a lived reality.

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The deeper problem with pornography

I wrote this piece several years ago, but I’m posting it now because it appears that the mainstream media are finally addressing this issue. A recent issue of TIME featured an excellent cover story on the psychological and physiological effects of porn. Apparently, it’s rendering young men who have grown up on it impotent in actual sexual relationships, which is forcing them to pay attention and seek help. My sense is that the widespread availability of pornography has the potential to undermine lasting romantic relationship because it short-circuits the natural movement of sexual desire toward loving and mutually fulfilling connection. Here’s the post:

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I was a kid, pornography was sequestered away in seedy movie theaters and dimly lit “adult entertainment” emporiums. If you were curious to watch it, you had to work hard to find it, and the fear of being seen, coupled with strong social stigma, successfully kept most folks away.

Nowadays porn is everywhere, and you can indulge in it whenever you feel the impulse, merely by calling it up on your browser. Whereas once you had to make an effort to locate it, now you have to fend off unbidden emails and ads trying to seduce you into purchasing it. And late-night talk show hosts make knowing jokes about it, as if it’s an inside secret that everyone shares. If you’re drawn to it, the temptation is ever-present, the gratification is instantaneous, and the cultural attitude is blasé, if not approving. No wonder so many people, men in particular, become addicted to watching it.

As a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher, I’m not surprised when even experienced meditators and spiritual seekers report struggling with a fascination with porn. After all, sexual pleasure has such a powerful pull—without it, we wouldn’t survive as a species. My first suggestion, when I’m counseling someone, is that we set aside the question of whether the fascination is right or wrong and explore it, as we would any other issue, from the perspective of awareness.

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