Photo credit: Andy Spearing

What’s All This About Suffering?

Photo credit: Andy SpearingOK, so here I am, Mr. or Ms. Beginner Meditator, seeking some relief from my day-to-day stress, looking for a way to deal with grief, wanting to sleep better, etc. etc., and the next thing I know, I’m being told I have to look at my suffering. Feel my pain. Turn toward discomfort.

On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense. We’re used to a take-a-pill-and-feel-better model of healing. How is it that looking at discomfort produces comfort?

When we practice holding our attention on pain (physical, emotional), the natural response is, “I need my coping strategies!” (Food, entertainment, work, substances, mere movement). But at the very same time, we are committing to sit still, say for 10 minutes, deliberately depriving ourselves of those coping strategies. It can be quite unpleasant at first, because the body-mind doesn’t have another way to deal with the situation. So, for a while, we simply suffer—I like to define “suffering” as “resistance to the present moment”. We just sit there resisting the experience, being fidgety, irritable, bored, sleepy, scattered, confused, impatient. But it is in these specific conditions that the body-mind, having no other choice, begins to experiment.

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What Happened To Concentration?

In honor of an upcoming class series on concentration, some thoughts on the practice, why it’s important, and how to measure your ability at it. Concentration—our ability to follow a thread, stay focused, hold our attention—doesn’t get much airtime these days. Many practitioners are put off by the notion that concentration, which can be measured and quantified, should be a “goal” of the spiritual path.

Our culture is so productivity-oriented that meditation often provides a much-needed escape from agendas and to-do’s. However, without some focus on building concentration, it’s possible, even likely, that our mindfulness practice will not progress to the point where fundamental insight can arise (a point which is generally called “access concentration”).

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Contemplation and Insight

I’m a practical guy. I like techniques, instructions, things I can do and perceive. But I’m going to experiment with something more “felt” today. I wrote this during my sit this morning…

How do you unwind meaning? Let things have as much meaning as they need to have. How do you overcome resistance? Fully accept resistance. How do you stabilize insight? Let insight become as unstable as it needs to be. How do you let go? Allow yourself to hold on.

Does this leave you confused/annoyed? Maybe something clicked? Neither outcome is better. But in the hope that No Meditator is Left Behind, some thoughts about spiritual insight:

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When The Pain Is Great

wave-768522_640A beautiful take on equanimity, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh:

“When the pain is great, go with the pain. Let it take you. Open your palms and your body to the pain. It comes in waves, like a tide, and you must be open as a vessel lying on the beach—letting it fill you up, and then retreating leaving you empty and clear. And with a deep breath (it has to be as deep as the pain) one reaches a kind of inner freedom from the pain, as though the pain that you experience were not yours but the body’s. The spirit lays the body on the altar.”

Ending the Fight


Very often, this question comes up:

I know I’m supposed to let go of craving and aversion, but I have preferences and desires in my life that I don’t want to give up! How can I reconcile this?

The solution is to distinguish between objective circumstances and sensory events. With mindfulness, we’re taking about loosening the push/pull on sensory events. For example, not needing an unpleasant emotion to go away or a distracting thought to stop. Those internal experiences may still be unpleasant or distracting, but if we are not compelled immediately into reactivity, a space opens up.

In that space, we have the freedom to choose how best to work with the objective circumstances that might be causing them (for example, being overworked, being in a bad relationship, not having eaten lunch, and so on). When there’s something we can do, we do it. Our logic and patience remains in tact. We use kind language and navigate situations with more grace. But even when we can’t change objective circumstances, we suffer profoundly less, seeing deeply that the suffering is not in the unpleasant thoughts/feelings themselves, but rather, in our resistance to them.

So in short, we should do whatever we can to improve our objective circumstances (within the bounds of ethics). Mindfulness simply shows us how to end the fight with sensory events.