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“Can We End The Meditation Madness”

This article was the most emailed article on NYTimes.com over the weekend.

On one level, I agree with Adam Grant. Mindfulness is not a panacea. And although it provides many well-tested benefits (here’s a meta-analysis of 209 studies involving over 12,000 participants), it certainly isn’t the only “effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems.” It is one of many, and ought to be coupled with others (like psychotherapy, regular exercise, nourishing relationships, a healthy diet, etc.).

That said, there is a deeper benefit of mindfulness which is rare, hard to measure, and often overlooked. When practiced as an integrated path—including practice in life, incorporating impeccable ethics, integrating even the most onerous parts of ourselves—it can offer what is traditionally promised: complete freedom from suffering. Mindfulness can open the door to a love which is more profound than any we could find in a relationship, and a sense of well-being which is utterly independent of the conditions of our lives. No matter how many times I notice that a rubber band can be used as an eraser, I will never find that sort of freedom.

So in a sense, it all comes down to this: What are you seeking? Do you want stress reduction? Do you want a better night’s sleep? Is a boost in your happiness enough, or are you looking for something deeper?

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Five Ways To Come Back Into Balance

We all get stressed. We all get thrown off. When we need to come back into balance, each one of us has a different set of tools with which to do that. Generally, some of them are skillful, and some of them are not. Some of them keep us in the present moment, and some of them don’t. Here are five helpful strategies that you can add to your toolkit:

  1. Use your thoughts – Most of us use thinking to regulate our emotions already! It’s just that a lot of the thoughts we think in moments of stress are not kind or soothing (much more on that issue here). The good news is, we can use mantra-based practices (phrase repetition) to generate positive content in our minds, and positive emotion in our bodies. This is a simple, powerful way to rebalance. Click here for instructions.
  2. Use your friends – Vastly under-acknowledged in meditation circles is the importance of co-regulation (the balancing and synchronizing that happens automatically when humans come into empathetic contact with one another). We are herd animals. We can’t go it alone! That said, you may not reliably feel good when you connect with others. It’s possible that they don’t know how to connect well. You might not either! We use the social tools that we learn from our families as children, so if you have trouble connecting, you haven’t done anything wrong. That said, you can learn new social tools through meditation. Read here for more on this point.
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Rilke and No-Self

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You are the future, the immense morning sky
turning red over the prairies of eternity.
You are the rooster-crow after the night of time,
the dew, the early devotions, and the Daughter,
the Guest, the Ancient Mother, and Death.

You are the shape that changes its own shape,
that climbs out of fate, towering,
that which is never shouted for, and never mourned for,
and no more explored than a savage wood.

You are the meaning deepest inside things,
that never reveals the secret of its owner.
And how you look depends on where we are:
from a boat you are shore, from the shore a boat.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

I was deeply moved by this poem. My understanding is that it was written as a love letter. I haven’t read up on Rilke’s spiritual experience, but what the poem seems to be pointing to is something much deeper than romantic love. It is an expression of the Buddhist insight of no-self, or anatta.
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Rumination – Part 2

Last week, we started a discussion on rumination—what it is, why we do it, and how it can be harmful. It’s clear to see the damage that rumination can cause in day-to-day life. We can live almost continuously in an inner world of fear, resentments, and unpleasantness, while external experience passes us by. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

So what can we do?!
Essentially, rumination is thinking to regulate the emotional experience of the present moment. So as long as we’re using thinking to balance ourselves out, it can be any thinking! We can think pleasant thoughts, and that will serve the same purpose that unpleasant thoughts have been serving! In other words, it isn’t actually about the content of the thoughts, but rather, their function.*

But we don’t want to think pleasant thoughts in just any old way. As meditators, the classic practice is called lovingkindness. This link provides detailed instructions. If you’ve used this technique before, you may notice I’ve set it up differently than most teachers. Neuroscience research has found that the technique is most effective if it is grounded in a present-moment experience (like a feeling or a state of mind) rather than a sentimental reflection. I choose a state of mind because it gets us out of the body, which is often in pain in the moments when we need the technique most!

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Lovingkindness & Noting Feeling States

If relational mindfulness is your focus, one way to practice is to use Lovingkindness and Noting Feeling States techniques as two complementary strategies. I like to think of them as: "backing off" and "being with." Otherwise known as "turning away" and "turning toward."

In Lovingkindness meditation, we practice generating a positive state of mind, so it's available to us when we need to re-balance and de-stress. This is a way of skillfully "backing off" or "turning away" from uncomfortable or difficult feelings, without needing to exit the present moment (by comparison, "exiting the present moment" might mean going to watch TV, hopping on the internet, etc.).

On the other hand, in Noting Feeling States, we learn to "be with," gently and skillfully turning our attention toward the emotional experience we are having in each moment, without needing it to be different. We cultivate comfort and clarity around our feelings (more on that here), and this too leads to better balance in daily life.

We could spend the rest of our lives navigating the continuum between being with and backing off. Knowing what sort of strategy to implement, and when, is an art. But we can take comfort in knowing that in any moment, there is something to be gained from either approach, and both approaches help to keep us present.

Wanna try it out?

Enter your email address in the box on the right, and you'll be sent one guided meditation a day, starting tomorrow morning. During the week, you'll learn Lovingkindness and Noting Feeling States. I'd love to hear how it goes!