How to Clear Your Mind: A Novel Approach

The traditional Buddhist spiritual path is divided into three trainings:

  1. The training in concentration
  2. The training in insight
  3. The training in ethics

However, in many secular mindfulness circles, the ethical training (the cultivation of virtuous qualities like kindness, forgiveness, and compassion) is stripped out in the name of simplifying the system or removing religious overtones. Furthermore, for many seekers who get lured into deep practice by altered state experiences (usually from high concentration) or promises of sudden awakening (which can come from deep insight), the idea of engaging in a training in ethics just doesn't seem flashy enough.

Many people carry a belief that the ethics piece will "just work itself out once they are enlightened." (Not always so). And for many, it's easier to sit through painful silent retreats than to think kind thoughts about another person, or themselves. But we are clearly seeing that ethics doesn't train itself. Frankly, for me, it is a central aspect of the path and a prerequisite to meaningful, digestible insight.

George Haas, a teacher and friend who I often mention, likes to say that the spiritual path starts with a commitment to be a good person. This is not only for moral reasons. Buddhist ethics is the answer to the question what kind of mind becomes liberated?

The meditative path requires substantial inner stillness. But we can only drop in so deeply if our minds are filled with regret about unskillful actions, fear of retaliation against our cruelty, or incessant resentful or self-critical thinking. And we can only drop in so deeply if we know we haven't been honest, spoken our truth, or pursued our goals. It's simply too painful and too dissonant.

The ethical training teaches us to move through the world continually complete, so we aren't rehashing things we should have done but didn't, or things we did but shouldn't have done. Only through this continual completeness can we stay in the present moment, setting the stage for progress on the path.

And this is the reason why attachment repair is integral. If your nervous system is trained to balance itself out using incessant angry, sad or fearful thinking, it's not reasonable to expect a quiet mind. If the fear of abandonment is too great to permit you to speak authentically, those inauthenticities are going to be rolling around up there. The more deeply we look at ourselves, the more clearly we will see the distortions and missteps, and the more inhibiting they will become.

So what kind of mind becomes liberated?

  • An honest mind.
  • A sincere mind.
  • A compassionate mind.
  • A happy mind.
  • A confident mind.
  • A secure mind.

It may seem trite, but the expression is true, we need to learn to love ourselves and each other. Not as a result of deep insight, but as a pre-requisite for deep insight. Otherwise, as the old saying goes, our spiritual path is like trying to row a boat that's still tied to the dock.

Mindfulness & Attachment Theory

You probably came to meditation because, in one way or another, life wasn’t working. Like me, you may have had the expectation that the internal work of meditation would handle all your external problems. Gee, wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, meditation will never replace the need for meaningful relationships and meaningful pursuits. It may not even provide the right tools to support you in those aspects of life! It all depends on which techniques you choose for your formal meditation time, and how well you apply mindfulness to your day-to-day experience.

To me, the best way to stay on track is to bridge classical mindfulness with a psychological model that helps to explain the way we function in the world. By far, the most relevant, robust, and well researched model is Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory refers to a set of foundational views of self and world. For example, an “insecurely attached” individual may see themselves as unworthy of happiness and meaningful connection, or the world as a place where these things cannot be found. Different “attachment styles” have different views, but these views tend to lie so deep in the structure of one’s mind/personality that they aren’t even recognized as views. They are simply the way things are, in much the same way that a colorblind person may not know that they are misperceiving certain aspects of the visual world until this is pointed out.

If these foundational views aren’t acknowledged, a person might find deep peace in their personal meditation practice, while relationships and life circumstances continue to be draining, unsatisfying, or even frightening.

But using mindfulness in specific ways, we can become aware of our hidden attachment conditioning and, if it’s not working, begin to change it. This results in a meditation practice that is truly comprehensive: not just an escape, but an empowering force to enrich life and propel us happily through it.

If this view of meditation resonates with you, you may want to sign up for my free 7-Day Meditation Challenge. In seven 10-15 minute guided mediations, you’ll learn the basic tools in the toolkit, and begin to explore how to apply them to your life. You can sign up on the right side of this page, or using this link.

Want to read more about attachment theory? The New York Times recently did a nice long piece about it. Additionally, The WikiPedia article is great.

For a longer-term investment, psychologist Stan Tatkin has created two easy-to-digest books on the subject (Wired for Love and Wired for Dating). If you’re a clinician and you want to leverage this model in your work with clients, I strongly recommend Attachment In Psychotherapy.


Guillaume-Nery_11Even when were scattered. Even when we’re doubting. Even when there’s resistance. For every ounce of attention, for every sidelong glance at the way things are, some hidden stone is being turned, somewhere in the depths, and the change that takes place is a change we cannot hope to witness directly. We can only see it’s reflection–in our thinking, in our actions, in our relationships.

The Enlightenment Trap

statue of lady with birds

One of my teachers, Shinzen Young, shared a comment that his Zen teachers used to repeat. “Today’s enlightenment is tomorrow’s mistake.”

He calls it the “enlightenment trap.” You have an insight, and walk away with expectations about the way things are/will be. The idea here is: don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t expect things to be how they’ve been. Forever newly curious. Continually letting go.