Experiencing Self vs. Remembering Self

Alot of emotional things can come up during meditation, resulting in added physical stress while sitting still.  This is one very effective way to learn about what you feel and how your emotional and rational selves co-exist of course, is to meditate.  Freudian psychology referred to this also in terms of the conflicts arising through battles between the subconscious and the ego.  Conflict in the brain causes physical pain.  Harmonious co-existence of our two selves is the simple result of acceptance – sometimes profound, sometimes, through exhaustion of all other options!

This video I found via the great people over at Brain Pickings, stretched my skull a little (as Alan Watts used to say).  In it, psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the phenomenon of the two selves, and how our idea of happiness is very different between the two respective experiencing and remembering selves.

My question is how strong is your conviction in general, if you can’t sit by yourself in meditation without moving for an hour, and without generating stress and anxiety that cause physical pain?  What is your remembering self inflicting on your experiencing self, and why?

Negativity

Negativity will make you a grouch!Happiness is our natural state of mind.  After all, it is in our best interest to be happy.  If that is true, then why do so many of us seem so miserable most of the time?

It is because mental negativity is addictive and feeds on itself.

The Buddha taught that whenever any kind of negativity arises in the mind (anger, hate, jealousy, or sadness in particular), the solution is to observe the physical sensations associated with the emotions and face them.

Physical sensations associated with negative thoughts might be a faster heart beat, harder breathing, blushing, muscle tension, stomach pain or any number of biochemically driven, fight or flight responses.  Rather than immediately picking up the bottle, a doughnut, drug, or other mechanism for escape, recognize these signs, and be with them for a moment when they arise.  Feel the feeling and know it will pass.

As soon as you start to observe this state of mental impurity objectively, it begins to lose strength and slowly withers away.  At first this requires patience, but over time and with meditation practice it happens faster.

But how to observe it objectively?  The trick is not to focus on the object or cause of the negativity (be it a person or event).  Focusing on the object of the negativity will cause the negativity to multiply and build strength. Once you know what the cause is and have learned from it, dismiss the cause and focus on the sensations.  Realize it is in the past and you are in the present.  See how these thoughts are harming you and allow yourself to let go of them.

This allows the mind to break the biochemical cycle of anger, and disrupt the root cause of misery and be happy once again.

Just one of the many, many gems of wisdom I’ve taken away from S.N. Goenka’s  Dhamma Meditation training through his famous 10-day retreats which I attended two years ago this month.  One important fact about these meditation courses which I like is they are non-sectarian in nature.  While it stems from the teachings of Buddha and how he reached enlightenment 2500 years ago, it is not about selling Buddhism, or classes. They teach a universal meditation technique with the goal of greater mental focus, gratitude, and happiness in daily life.

Just as a rocky mountain is not moved by storms,
so sights, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts and ideas,
whether desirable or undesirable,
will never stir one of steady nature,
whose mind is firm and free,
who sees how all things pass.

– Anguttara Nikaya 6.55

Reacting and Meditation

“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head.”

“Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.”

the-grapes-of-wrath-18That was Ma Joad from Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I’ll never forget the ending of this great John Ford movie with the surviving family members driving off into the richly toned black and white sunrise in their old truck.  Beat up but still running because it had to, I would argue that truck symbolized their lives.

Goenkaji had great advice for we who live in our heads too. He said, in effect:

Whenever negativity arises in the mind, just observe it — recognize the physical sensations associated with the negative emotions, and face them. Accept them for what they are.

Do not focus on the object person or event associated with the negativity, or the negativity will multiply.  Observe the sensation, and let it go.

Mental impurities cause unhappiness. As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away. Once all unhappiness is eradicated, all that’s left is happiness.

Paraphrased from the Art of Living, by S.N. Goenka.

No, the problem is not guns.

No, the problem is not guns, though I’d still prefer not to have them in our society.

The problem is the inability of the average person to control their reactions to anger, sadness, jealousy and hatred. Our culture in America provides no effective way of dealing with these emotions. Instead we have guns, football, reality TV and other expressions of violence and primal feelings that allow us to release — and enhance and extend — these natural, yet unhealthy poisons in our blood.

Having guns freely available provides the average person an easy, illusory release from these emotions if they get too heavy, as an addict might use a drink, a pill or a needle. By using something external to solve an inherently internal problem, the problem becomes deeper – both for the culture as well for as the individual.

“Slay anger and you will be happy,
slay anger and you will not sorrow.
For the slaying of anger in all its forms with its poisoned root and sweet sting — that is the slaying the nobles praise; with anger slain one weeps no more.”

The technique of Vipassana meditation was proven 2,500 years ago to be the best solution to this troublesome problem plaguing the human condition. The Buddha saw the problem quite clearly and through the process of discovering it through meditation, solved it for himself through meditation. He also went on to teach thousands of people the technique to help them end their suffering too. The suffering caused by such discontentment with others and our situations can grow to become insurmountable, causing us to turn to harmful, “solutions” like a gun or a bottle. While the emotions are temporary the effects of a gun are often tragic and irreversible. Seeing our problems for what they really are, as opposed to how they feel to us is the key to prevent unwholesome reactions to unwholesome feelings about our problems.

Making Meditation Easier: Controlling Our Internal Chemistry

I have a little niece who recently had a 4th birthday.  Her little brother got a musical birthday card for his birthday earlier in the year, and she really wanted one too. It’s just a greeting card with a little electronic chip in it that plays and small audio sample repeatedly. My wife remembered this and weeks before her birthday found one.  It loops the whistling chorus of Lovin’ Spoonful’s song What A Day For A Daydream.  We decorated it with pictures and sent it off.  Her birthday came and she had a magnificent party and seemed to forget all about wanting this singing card.  My sister didn’t give it to her on her birthday for some reason.  Then just this week I got a call.  My niece was home sick from daycare and she and my sister found and opened the special musical birthday card.  My sister said my niece got so excited she actually blushed and said in a quiet but excited voice, “I got my own singing card!”  She finally got what she wanted, and the result was a noticeable biological change in her metabolism and skin tone caused by the excitement.

Most of us don't get what we want...except Ralphie.

Most of us don’t get what we want…

Most of us don’t get what we want — certainly not all the time.  When we do, we may enjoy it for a while, but then it’s off to find the next thing that we don’t yet have to give us pleasure, excitement, or just keep the blues and difficulties of life away for a little while longer while we continue to seek more permanent satisfaction.

Gaining true satisfaction with life is something not many of us can claim to have done, and one of the reasons I started meditating.  Learning to meditate properly was one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered in my 45 years on the planet.  Sitting still is easy for the first 10-20 minutes, but after that the body starts building tensions — thinking about all the things to do today..this week…and.next week!  The past, likewise becomes a burden:  All  the things I have said, someone else said, things I could have said, should have done differently, and again to the future…what I’ll do next time!  Worrying about all the time lost.  So much to do to make up for lost time!  Ahhh!  I need to get up and go NOW.

Yet, I am here to sit now…and for the next 43 some odd minutes I have left (I set a timer and never look at the clock so I’m never totally sure.  Are any of us ever sure how much time we have left?).

One great meditator once said the way to handle this paradox while sitting is to say to yourself, “Yes these things may all be very important to me, but right now I am meditating.”  I like that notion and have found it helpful in staying put.

The more time I spend meditating and studying the technique, the more I understand the teachings.  I practice Vipassana Meditation under the tutelage of S.N. Goenka. I would not recommend trying this technique without proper guidance as given in 10-day silent retreats offered by Vipassana Research Institute.  Why?  Because they have a training environment and structured schedule to launch a new meditator into working with the best chance at success for continuing, and gaining the benefits of it.  Most people, beginning meditators especially, get frustrated and stop doing the work without gaining anything after their first attempts at sitting for one hour.  The training costs nothing but your time (and a voluntary donation if you are so inclined after completing the course). No one bugs you afterward or tries to convert you to a religion, or sell you anything.

This is the technique, which in its instructions are simple:

  1. Sit with eyes closed for one hour in the morning and one in the evening.
  2. While sitting, methodically scan the body, head to toe, for physical sensations – heat, cold, tingling, prickling, itchiness, sweat, pressure, pulsation, pain, etc.
  3. Recognize with each sensation you experience that it is changing and impermanent.  It may increase or decrease but will eventually pass away in time, just as it arose if you accept it for what it is and relax.  This is the law of nature.
  4. Stay focused, keep the scanning going, and don’t let the mind wander.

And that’s it in a nutshell!  It’s really all there is to it, though it is far easier said than done, which is why proper training is required.  The benefits are many, including the ability to control stress, anger and anxiety along with minimizing or even curing their related physical maladies: Back pain, fatigue, stomach ulcers, migraines, grinding teeth, and sicknesses resulting from general immune deficiency.

What I’ve found is this:  Step 4 — Not letting the mind wander is not just helpful for meditation, it’s vital.  Thoughts will wander, of course, but it’s critical that we come back from the fantasy of the past and future (which is where the mind naturally goes when not focused on the present) as quickly as possible. Since we’re sitting still and can’t do anything about the past or the future, such mental meanderings while meditating actually punish us by causing added stress, making meditation harder, unpleasant, and keep us from progressing.

What I’ve also learned from listening to discourses by Goenkaji, and continue to understand on a deeper level is this form of insight meditation as taught and practiced by Buddha himself is all about monitoring and controlling our own biochemistry. It is how meditation and biology relate to biofeedback. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of physiological functions with the goal of being able to manipulate them at will.

Here’s how it works: Stress, anger, fear, lust and hatred all generate particular biochemicals.  When we think about the external objects associated with these dark emotions, it generates a little of the biochemical and releases it into our bloodstream. The body reacts to the chemical and generates sensation on the body which we then respond to subconsciously, generating a little more of the chemical.  When we stay fixated on outside objects tied to these emotions we become stuck in a feedback loop of craving and generating more and more of this poison chemical that ultimately makes us feel more and more miserable.  Basically we become addicted to these biochemicals which can, in time, destroy both the mind as well as the body.

So why would anyone persist in craving about something they hate?  This is what took me a long time to understand.  We do so not because we want to hate, but because we want resolution, self-serving justice, and to ultimately prevent or instantiate once and for all time the things we most want changed in our lives.  The same is true for things we like and want but can not have as well as those things we despise and want eradicated.  Simply put, we react strongly to things that we identify with strongly, and things we allow to affect us strongly, but can’t control.

Since control over the things we hate (or want) is not usually attainable, at least not permanently, we who are more obsessive and egotistical will fixate on and fantasize about situations we dislike in order to come up with ways to achieve our goals of either attaining or dismantling the objects of our attention. This is true during meditation and while driving down the road, doing dishes, shopping or going about various things in daily life.  It is also where the biochemicals come in to play. The idea of getting what we want, and the end to things we don’t want stimulates this chemical reaction in the body.These chemicals give us initial pleasure in that they are the result of us feeling as if we were attaining what is desired at very that moment.  This is the dark side of fantasy.

As we fantasize about getting what we want, we get a high feeling.  Then as the high fades, we realize we aren’t where we thought we were while fantasizing.  In response to that we feel a low feeling — lower than where we started.  We then seek more of the chemical that made us feel good, so we might fantasize again – easy to do when you can do nothing but sit with eyes closed:  Rewriting past experiences in our minds (to our satisfaction this time!) and getting excited about things we haven’t done yet.  As with most addictions, we require more and more of the chemical each time to reach the desired effect, to maintain the high longer, and put off the inevitable crash.  So we keep going back to the outside object with greater and greater focus and intensity in order to get a bigger payload of the biochemical each time.  Thus the endless cycle of misery continues.

But there is a way out.  Mental discipline prevents us from going there in meditation – with the goal of not going there in day-to-day life. When we monitor ourselves against mental wanderings while meditating we are, in effect, monitoring ourselves in order to prevent this particular kind of biochemical flow from starting.  It starts because of the things that seem important to us are immediately unattainable, so unless we focus on something else personal, like the sensations on our body, as is the prescribed technique, we begin to crave – thus starting the unwanted biochemical feedback cycle again.

Things that seem important are very often things that we don’t already have — no matter how much we may have already.  Rather than taint what we have because of misery for what we want but do not have, our interests are probably better served by staying focused on the present so we can work for what we want. Meditation is, after all, meant to help us to become content in the present so that we can do our best work and make for the best possible future outcomes for ourselves and others.  Otherwise, as the song goes, “you may be daydreaming for a thousand years”…and never get any closer to true happiness and contentment.

Developing Acceptance

Interesting quote attributed to the Buddha:

I have love for the footless,
for the bipeds too I have love;
I have love for those with four feet,
for the many-footed I have love.

 

It appears to me to mean we should carry on with love and compassion for all beings regardless of their predicaments, attributes, or handicaps.

Our neighbor’s dog recently began to grow up from a puppy into a dog.  As a result, he has begun barking more.  This affects me with mild annoyance, even though I like the dog, and my neighbor.  It’s an alerting bark, one of attentiveness or perhaps apprehensiveness for not getting enough attention, but not one of fear or hostility like some other dog’s barks.

Finding compassion and love for the beings that do things that affect us negatively and that we can’t always avoid is a challenge to be sure.  Especially when it affects my ability to meditate — the very weapon I have against giving in to my own intolerance.

Talking to the neighbor may help, but I instead resorted to invoking the power of technology in the form of an ultrasonic device that chirps a high-frequency pitch when the dog’s number of barks and volume threshold surpass the parameters I set.  I love this device.  It keeps noise to a minimum, but I wonder how much better a mediator or person I would be if I could simply learn to accept the annoyance and not let it affect me.  Have I missed out on achieving a new level of skill by using simple Pavlovian tricks to cure the symptom instead of my own problem of intolerance?

I’ll be interested in hearing your comments and opinions on this.


Gratitude Toward our Enemies

Nobody likes to feel they have enemies, and maybe you do not. If so, you probably haven’t made many mistakes in life, or, more likely, you haven’t been trying very hard at anything! For most of us, there are people we’ve offended in the past, intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe they were once even our friends.  A few of these people may even hate us or maybe we sometimes feel we hate them.

Haters are My Motivators

Obviously hate is destructive and counterproductive, so most of us tend to avoid it. Holding a grudge is proven to cause all sorts of damage to the body, mind and spirit.  While this often happens unintentionally, there are people who gravitate toward it as a means of getting the attention of others and gaining a sense of self-worth, however. “Haters are my motivators.” is a great phrase I’ve seen around the web of late. It’s a good reminder that there are indeed evil, sadistic, misdirected and self-centered people in this world with literally no conscience.  In some cases they intentionally cause harm for the fun of it. To cause and witness this suffering in others demonstrates their power over others, at least in their mind.  They exist, it’s a fact and we must be sufficiently motivated to overcome our resistance to that in order to accept the truth.

These kinds of pitiful people are clinically defined as sociopaths, which means they themselves literally can not feel empathy.  I don’t mean to say all people who wind up becoming our enemies are sociopathic, but a recent statistic says that 1 in 25 people are, in fact, without a conscience.  You can’t hurt them, because they don’t feel emotional pain, so they don’t know how other people feel it.  One warning sign of a sociopath is when they wrong us, yet can make us believe we were the ones doing harm to them. This paradox give us perspective into the wide array of moral interpretations such people can conjure up to their advantage, and how meaningless all such philosophies are. Being kind to others, or at least not harming them, is the only morality that exists. Even in self-defense, we can disarm and disable without harming in most cases, as the practice of aikido teaches us so deftly.

Mental Defilements Cause Pain

Seeing the unconscionable actions of others can bring about dark, angry feelings of injustice – causing us to want to do harm to others and drawing us closer to the selfish tendencies of our own minds, causing us pain and suffering while we plot to take revenge!  If we do manage to generate enough hatred to retaliate, the cycle perpetuates and we remain in perpetual misery. These are what Goinkaji calls ‘mental defilements’ in ourselves – those which poison our psyche and body if left unchecked. These mental defilement occur naturally and are what we strive to purify through meditation. By allowing such thoughts to come to the surface, fully recognizing and accepting the pain they cause, how they are affecting us physiologically as well as psychologically, and staying with them quietly while keeping the mind objective and focused, they eventually fade and disappear. Much like allowing a fire to burn itself out or with the help of a steady, constant, stream of water. If we instead try to work with the negative thoughts, justify them, compound them, and roll in them, it will stir them up worse – like trying to extinguish a fire by putting on more wood or, in some cases, gasoline!

Pain Helps Us to Be Aware

Yes, pain or discomfort teaches us – just as a child touching a hot stove learns what not to do.  However, experiencing pain during vipassana mediation works on a deeper and more sophisticated level. By staying with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle aches and pains in meditation and facing them objectively we learn to face not only our pain, but our fear of pain.  Through this we have the opportunity to conquer and ultimately be free from it.  Physical pain makes life difficult, but not unbearable, unless we make it so by giving in to it mentally.  Likewise, whatever pain we feel from verbal or emotional difficulties through our interactions with others does not require a knee-jerk, fight or flight response from us all the time.  Only our habitual behaviors make us feel that way, and following through with those primal feelings is simply running from the problem which will catch up to us again sooner or later.

Through the ally of meditation, our enemies allow us to experience things that cause us pain, over and over again if need be, until we learn both not to hurt others nor to feel arbitrarily hurt by them.  In so doing they can teach us vast amounts about ourselves if we choose to see it for what it is, rather than get angry about their actions and perpetuate the cycle.  For that they deserve our sincere compassion, thoughts of loving kindness and yes, our gratitude.

In metta.