Here is a collection of tips, ideas, and practices to help you live a more peaceful, vibrant, and generous life. Please feel free to share them. And please remember the practices offered here are not quick fixes. Like all types of practice from piano scales, to basketball drills, to ballroom dance class, psychological/spiritual practice requires discipline, which can feel laborious and tedious. But if you stick with practices like meditation and therapy and other methodologies for calming down and waking up, you will benefit greatly. It’s like any kind of art form: after you have practiced enough, you become more skilled at the art, itself. Think of meditation or prayer or therapy as tools for becoming skilled at the art of living.
WHY TO MEDITATE
The brain does not generate consciousness.
The brain brings infinite consciousness down to manageable form.
Before I get into the “how-to” of meditation, I want to write about the “why-to.” It is said that when a student asked the Buddha why he should meditate, the Buddha answered, “Come and see.” That’s the best advice, because meditation is an experience. But if you are like me, you want to know why before learning how.
Researchers at the National Science Foundation report that the human brain processes 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day and that a large percentage of those thoughts are negative and repetitive. We obsess about mistakes we made in the past and worry about future worst-case scenarios. We run those thoughts through grooves in our brains all day long, and then again the next day, until they’re so well worn that we live in a negative story about the past or an anxious version of the future.
The brain studies into repetitive thinking are being done by psychoneuro-immunologists, medical researchers looking to help people strengthen their immune systems. They are finding that if you can interrupt the stream of repetitious thoughts in your head, you are less likely to contract illness—from a cold to cancer—and more likely to increase levels of concentration, calmness, and happiness. This is why they are spending millions of research dollars looking into the very common and very boring content of our brains.
This one of the “whys” of meditation: to interrupt the stream of obsessive thoughts and to bring calm to the landscape of the mind so that health and happiness can take root. This is one of the reasons I cherish the practice of meditation. But there’s another reason to meditate, and it’s not as easy to describe. Besides bringing peace to the mind and health to the body, meditation also opens a window to a whole other reality, one that our busy minds obscure. William James—the father of American psychology—believed that the brain does not generate consciousness. Rather, he said, the brain functions as a filter. (Later, Aldous Huxley would call the brain a “reducing valve.”) “The brain brings infinite consciousness down to manageable form,” James wrote. Echoing James, the British physicist and astronomer David Darling says, “The major organs of the body are regulators. The lungs don’t manufacture the air our bodies need; the stomach and intestines are not food producers. So, if we manufacture neither the air we breathe nor the food we eat, why assume that we make rather than regulate what we think?”
In the stillness of meditation, we touch the realm of unregulated, infinite consciousness. And what a realm it is! Vast and free. By quieting the brain’s repetitive and habitual patterns, we can stop believing and reacting to everything we think, which is really a reduced, compressed, and tense form of something way more enjoyable to experience: infinite consciousness. In meditation, we begin to experience life beyond the reducing valve; life on its own terms. We become an open-minded witness, as opposed to a scared and limited judge.
But I need to add a caveat here—like a warning label on prescription medicines. There’s a side effect to meditation: when the constriction of the “reducing valve” falls away, so does a sense of control. And humans crave control! Even though we know nothing stays the same and anything can happen, still, we crave control and security. The Buddhist meditation teacher Pema Chodron says, “Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy.” She describes meditation as a way of stopping the scrambling, of getting unstuck from the need for security. “The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery,” she says, “because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily every after.”
But of course, we don’t live happily after, because just as one problem resolves, another evolves, and there we are again, seeking resolution, thinking we deserve resolution. “We don’t deserve resolution,” Pema Chodron says. “We deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright—an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” So, this is the other “why” of meditation: to relax into the paradoxical, ambiguous, wide-open, unregulated, infinite consciousness that some call God and others do not name at all.
Like all worthwhile pursuits, meditation takes practice. In the beginning, mindfulness practice can feel supremely boring, puzzling, uncomfortable, even scary. But over time, you begin to relax into the openness, not only during meditation, but also with other people and all sorts of situations—from most complex and the more mundane aspects of your life. You can rely on meditation to consistently stimulate a vaster outlook that brings you freedom and joy.
HOW TO MEDITATE
I began my meditation practice when I was nineteen—that’s when I sat for the first time. I don’t mean sitting in the everyday sense, in a dining room chair or on a school bus. I mean, when I first sat cross-legged on the floor, on a hard, round pillow called a zafu, in an austere temple room called a Zendo. I closed my eyes, and listened to the instructions from the Zen master, a small Japanese man dressed in black robes: “Here is your spiritual practice,” he said. “Follow your breathing. Follow one breath in through your nostrils and all the way down to the bottom of your belly. Let that one breath settle there, ever so lightly, and then let it leave the way it came in. And then do that again. Put all your attention on the breath: coming in…settling …rising…leaving. When thoughts arise, return to breath: coming in…settling…rising…leaving. And then do that again. And again.”
I waited for the rest of the teaching—the philosophy, the morals, the promises; there had to be more to meditation than just perching on a pillow and breathing in and out. But nothing more came. Instead, I heard the rustle of the monk’s robes as he took his own seat and then the clack of a wooden paddle against the bowl of a bell. And a ringing sound so clear I could almost see the vibrations radiating out, filling the colorless Zendo with delicate, dancing music.
And then silence. A quietude so profound it seemed to have form, as if a huge, living presence was abiding in the space. Now what? I looked around the bare room where twenty or so people were sitting on identical black pillows, facing the wall, backs straight, eyes closed. No one seemed concerned that the teacher had uttered only a few sentences and then lapsed into a black hole of silence. So, for 45 minutes we were just going to sit there, shouldering the heavy emptiness of nothing? No thinking, no talking, no moving, no reading, no music or food or TV? What could be the point of that? As the minutes dragged on and on, I began to panic. How would I ever get through the session?
Thus began my adventures in the science, art, and practice of mindfulness. Over the years I have studied a variety of meditation forms, from cultures all over the world. This diversity has led me deeper and deeper into the most essential core of all traditions: mindfulness—a non-denominational form of meditation that trades repetitive, recycled thinking for fresh, unregulated consciousness. It’s a vacation from the hypercritical mind, a way to fall in love with life, just as it is, which allows us to get up off the meditation cushion and fall in love with ourselves, just as we are, and with each other, and with the world—in all of its beauty and all of its terror. We make peace with the paradox of life as a human being, here on planet earth.
The how-to of meditation is more straightforward than the why-to. Books, audio programs, and classes abound. While books and tapes are good introductions to mindfulness meditation, I believe they are not as powerful as learning from a teacher, in a group (sangha, or community of seekers, as it is called in Eastern traditions.) If meditation is something that appeals to you, I suggest finding a class in your local area or visiting a retreat center. Many hospitals, YMCAs, churches, or yoga centers have weekly meditation groups. The following instructions (adapted from my book, Broken Open) are meant to help you begin meditating, or to revive a stalled routine.
Ten-Step Meditation Practice
1. PLACE AND TIME: Find a private and quiet place where you will not be disturbed by people, children, calls, texts, emails, etc. Choose an amount of time you are going to meditate. Set a timer (don’t use your phone!) Begin with just one minute, and work your way up over a few week or months to a longer routine—a half-hour perhaps.
2. SEAT AND POSTURE: Assume a comfortable posture sitting cross-legged on a pillow on the floor or on a straight-backed chair. Keep the spine straight and let your shoulders soften and drop. Do a brief scan of the body, relaxing parts that are tight. Relax your jaw, your neck, your belly. Rest your hands lightly on your thighs.
3. BEGINNING: Close your eyes (or keep your open eyes focused gently on a spot on the floor.) Take a deep breath in and let it out with a sigh. Do this three times. As you sigh, release anything you are holding onto. Remind yourself that for these few minutes you are doing nothing but sitting still. You can afford to drop everything else for the time being. The pressing details of your life will be waiting for you at the end of the session.
4. BREATH: Bring your attention to your breathing, becoming aware of the natural flow of breath in and out of the body. Observe your chest and belly as they rise and expand on the in-breath, and fall and recede on the out-breath. Witness each in-breath as it enters your body and fills it with energy. Witness each out-breath, as it leaves your body and dissipates into space. Then start again, bringing your attention back each time to the next breath. Let your breath be like a soft broom, gently sweeping its way through your body and mind.
5.THOUGHTS: When a thought takes you away from witnessing the act of breathing, take note of the thought without judging it, and then gently bring your attention back to your chest or your belly and the feeling of the breath coming in and out. Meditation has been described as the practice of “unconditional friendliness.” Observe your thoughts with friendliness and then let the breath sweep them gently away. Pema Chodron says that in meditation, “what we usually call good or bad, we simply acknowledge as thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong. We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.”
6.FEELINGS: When feelings arise, do not resist them. Allow them to be. Observe them. Taste them. Experience them but do not identify with them. Let them run their natural course and then return to observing your breath. If sadness rises, allow it to do so. If you cry, cry. If anger appears, do not fight it. Let it come, and then let it go. If you find yourself stuck in a feeling state, shift a little on your seat, and straighten your posture. Get back in the saddle and gently pick up the reigns of the breath.
7. PAIN: If you feel pain in the body—your knees for example, or your back—bring your awareness to the pain. Surround the area in pain with breath. Witness yourself in pain, as opposed to fearing the pain, or immediately responding to the pain. If the pain is persistent, move gently to release tension, and return to your posture and breath. You may need to lean against a wall or the back of your chair, or you may want to straighten your legs for a while. Avoid excess movement, but do not allow pain to dominate your experience.
8.RESTLESSNESS AND SLEEPINESS: If you are agitated by thoughts or feelings, or if you are sure you just cannot sit still, or if you are bored to distraction, come back to your breath and your posture again and again. Treat yourself gently and patiently—even with a sense of humor—as if you were training a puppy. Do not give up. Likewise, if a wave of sleepiness overtakes you and you feel yourself slipping into sleep, see if you can rouse yourself by breathing a little more deeply, keeping your eyes open, and sitting up tall. Sleep and meditation are not the same things. See if you can be as relaxed as you are during sleep, yet at the same time, awake and aware. Sometimes, the body is telling you that you need more sleep; but most of the time in meditation, sleep is yet one more distraction—a ploy of the mind to keep you from experiencing unregulated consciousness.
9.COUNTING BREATHS: A good way to deal with all of the above impediments to concentration is to count your breaths. On the in-breath, count “one,” and on the out-breath, count “two.” Continue up to “ten.” Then begin again. If you lose count at any point, return to an in-breath, and start over at “one.” As thoughts and feelings, pain and discomfort, restlessness and sleepiness arise, allow your counting to gently override their distracting chatter.
10. DISCIPLINE: For one week, practice meditation each day, for one minute, whether you are in the mood or not. The next week, add another minute, and continue until you have committed to a regular practice of ten minutes. See how you feel. See if your habitual patterns of thinking begin to loosen, and if you experience moments of freedom and peace. See if those moments bleed over into your life, your relationships, your work. If you notice a difference (or even if you don’t) consider lengthening the time of your meditation sessions, or joining a meditation group or taking a retreat and receiving more in-depth instruction and support in your practice.
HOW TO WOO THE SOUL
Meditation is a way of relaxing into the mystery of existence, without looking for answers, without clinging to security. But a funny thing happens to me as I relax into the mystery. In the vast expanse of infinite consciousness, unbiased by my worried and judgmental mind, I sometimes touch on answers. I taste something better than security. Every now and then, in my moments of stillness, when my heart is blessedly open, I stumble upon the soul, my distinct ray of infinite consciousness. The truth of who I really am—the part I want to guide me, the part that is always with me, wherever I go, here and forever—makes an appearance.
The molecular biologist and meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, wrote a book called Wherever You Go, There You Are. For years I thought the title meant one thing, and now I think it means something else. When I first read the book, I was at the tail end of a long chapter of my life in which I basically felt bad at the core of who I was. The final blow was when I got divorced—this was proof that wherever I went, there I was…in all my badness.
“Wherever you go, there you are”…the phrase was a nagging reminder that wherever I went, I would haul my problems with me, as if I was dragging a sack filled with personality flaws and behavioral scars into every new situation: a new relationship, a new place, a new job. So, I better clean up my act if I wanted to have a different kind of everyday life. Of course, there is truth in that worldview: looking honestly at the ways in which you create your own problems, and taking responsibility for the mistakes of the past, are good things to do. But I think Dr. Kabat-Zinn meant something more encompassing when he called his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.
I think Dr. Kabat-Zinn is saying that wherever you go, you also bring your truest self—your core goodness, the original self untainted by the coping mechanisms born in childhood and honed in the stresses of adulthood. Wherever you go, you also bring your eternal self, your authentic presence, your soul. You haul that around too. And it’s always there for you, always ready to give you wise counsel. Whenever you feel out of your element and exposed, insecure or jittery, just a few breaths away is your clear and sweet inner self—like sap running in the maple tree; like honey in the hive. Wherever you go, you can come home to your soul in the center of yourself. You can ask it for guidance, strength, and vision. Wherever you go, there you are.
When I was trying to help my sister Maggie woo her own soul—especially when she was hopeless and heartbroken in the midst of cancer treatment—I would liken the soul to the sap in the center of the maple tree, because Maggie was a connoisseur of maple syrup. She loved everything about it—the syrup itself, the process of making it, and the maple tree in all seasons. I would tell Maggie to imagine herself as a maple tree, and that in the center of her tough, scarred, defended exterior was a vein of sweet sap, a powerful well of authenticity. Each one of us—every single human—arrives with that potent goodness. It’s is our birthright, the truth of who we are. I would tell Maggie to trust her basic goodness, to tap it, to use it. I think this is the purpose of life—to tap our sweet sap, to boil it in the heat of daily life, and to turn it into a gift. I think we can do that, even when we’re scared or sick, even when we are dying.
What fuel would you rather put in your tank as you travel through life? Sweet syrup? Or some bitter brew that spews toxic cynicism and despair? You have that choice every day. Every day I try to choose the bright sweetness at the center of myself, no matter what is going on in my life. It’s not always an easy choice. The hounds of despair bark at me, and they, like all miserable forces, want company. Misery and despair are persuasive fellows. They tell compelling tales about the fruitless nature of life. They make fun of the Pollyannas who believe in the sweet sap at the core. They want everyone to go down with the ship of gloom. Choosing sweetness can feel like a unreasonable act in the presence of cynics. But don’t cave to the cynics. There’s truth in its sweetness, there’s power in its seeming naiveté, there’s courage in its golden light. If you make the choice into a habit, you can woo the soul back into your life, and the hounds of darkness will slink back into the woods.
A Practice to Woo the Soul
Here is a practice I taught to Maggie, sitting in the window seat of her home. Its seeming simplicity is disarming, which makes it effective, especially for those of us who over-think and over-do. Every time you feel yourself slipping into despair or bitterness, shame or meanness toward yourself or others, take your hand and bring it gently to the top of your head. Stroke your hair (or bald spot) as if you were patting the little head of a baby, or your dog or cat. Pat your head, and whisper (or say silently to yourself), “good girl”, “good boy” or whatever endearment you would say to your most precious child or beloved pet. Do this for just a minute or less—don’t make it into a big deal. But do it often; every time you feel yourself sinking into self-recrimination or cynicism, pat your head (or if that seems too childish, place your hand on your heart and feel the warmth spreading into your chest, and bathing you with acceptance and love.) You can do this practice anywhere. If you are at work you can pretend you're fixing your hair or scratching an itch. After a while just a touch creates a Pavlovian response of gentle self-forgiveness, inner harmony, even joy. The soul comes out of hiding when you forgive yourself for being a regular old human being with a case of mistaken identity.
I am baffled by the belief that we should be able to solve the deeper questions by ourselves. I grew up with parents who doled out the following advice for all of life’s sticky problems: “Take a brisk walk and get over it!” But taking a walk or talking to a friend will not unravel some of our problems. Sometimes it’s just plain smart to seek professional help when the going gets tough. People don't think twice about having someone help them figure out their taxes, or fix their computer or car, or they don't question going to the doctor when they are ill, or to the gym when they want a trainer to help them get strong or lose weight. But when it comes to psychological or spiritual help with things like relationships, purpose, parenting, anger, anxiety, depression, etc., there's judgment or shame or squeamishness. As if it’s a sign of weakness or self-indulgence. In fact, I think it's a brave and a wise choice to seek help from therapists, healers, coaches, counselors, or spiritual guides. It’s good for you and its good for the people who live and work with you. Of course, it's important to find someone who is skillful, someone who comes highly recommended, and someone who recognizes when you have learned what you came to learn and helps you move on.
So how to find a good therapist? Just as you ask around before hiring a plumber for your pipes or an accountant for your taxes or a tutor for your kid, you should do some research before choosing a therapist or a coach. First, try to get clear what it is you are grappling with. Life in general? Your relationships? Addiction? Anxiety? Depression? Read some books about the therapeutic process and different kinds of therapy; talk to friends about their experiences; ask people you respect about specific therapists in your area. Determine if it’s important to you that your therapist share specific core values (spiritual values, social values, etc.) But more than anything, check out a few therapists in person and see what your gut tells you—if you feel comfortable, safe, respected. Here’s a good site with in-depth information about choosing a therapist.
HOW TO HAVE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS
You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
A few years ago I organized a conference to explore the subject of women, power, and peace. I wanted to explore if women leaders were doing things differently—at home, at work, in the world. Were they being less divisive, and more inclusive? Less combative, and more communicative? I invited a variety of speakers, including most of the women Nobel Peace Prize laureates who traveled to the conference from hot-spots around the world.
I also invited a group of leaders from both sides of the abortion debate. These were twelve women from Boston who were heads of major pro-life and pro-choice organizations. They had started meeting secretly after an abortion clinic was bombed and several people were murdered. They knew that something was terribly wrong; neither group believed violence was the way to solve anything. They felt part of the problem, and they wanted to be part of a solution where well-meaning people stopped demonizing each other. And so they decided to meet informally—not so that anyone’s mind would be changed on the subject of reproductive rights, but so that they could find a way to respect and even love each other. So that they could be part of the cessation of violence—in their own hearts, in their city, and in the world.
While the Nobel Peace Prize laureates represented the big, global issues of women, and power, and peace, the women from Boston brought the subject home and broke it down into something we all could do. The conference began with speeches from the Nobel laureates. They told thrilling stories about their work for peace in the world. Then the women from Boston sat on the stage and talked about how they had become friends. How although they all were still passionately involved in their causes, over the years they had developed deep and abiding love for each other, had helped each other through personal losses, had celebrated their children’s graduations and weddings. They said they had put aside their differences as an alternative to the violence that had wracked their city. They had done this through the simple act of patiently listening, working through their complex and conflicted feelings, and over time, humanizing each other.
Many women in the audience were moved by this conversation; others were not. Some could not understand how friendships between a few people could amount to real change. And others were angered by the tacit legitimacy given to a world-view that deeply offended them. I was genuinely surprised by those who rejected the premise of conversation as a way not to change minds, but to link hearts.
It seems obvious to me that differences of opinions will be with us forever—that the diversity of ideas is part of life, as normal and enriching as the diversity of race or religion or gender or age. Therefore, we must learn to live within a melting pot not only of people, but also of ideas. And to do this, we have to broaden our exposure to each other. We have talk to each other, validate each other’s right to an opinion, listen to and learn from each other. Ultimately, this is the antidote to what I call “otherising”—turning another person into someone not deserving of your curiosity and respect.
The women from Boston inspired me to work on my own propensity to otherise. I became aware of my knee-jerk reaction not only to groups of people with different political views or social values, but also with family members, colleagues, and friends. I decided to do what the women from Boston did on a smaller scale. I sought out people with whom I disagreed on a variety of subjects and I invited them to lunch. I began calling my experiment, “Take the Other to Lunch.” I started with a person at work with whom I often disagreed, and I moved up the “other” ladder slowly: a neighbor who had signs posted in his yard for candidates I would never vote for; a relative who didn’t believe in global climate change; a church leader who refused to marry gay people. My final challenge was lunch with a woman running for state office on the Tea Party ticket. These people were my “others.” I was theirs. What brought us together was a willingness to meet in the field beyond unconscious reactivity.
Based on these experiences, I came up with guidelines for taking the other to lunch. I did a TED talk about using these guidelines. You can use these guidelines to help you approach any difficult conversation—at home, or work, or in the bigger world.
Take The Other To Lunch
To better understand someone in your life with whom you disagree; to soften your stance toward a person with whom you are in conflict; or to get to know a person from a group you don’t understand or have negatively stereotyped.
WHO TO INVITE:
Anyone you find yourself judging, rejecting, and speaking against because of beliefs that differ from yours, even if you barely know the person—especially if you barely know the person.
WHO NOT TO INVITE:
Don’t choose extreme bigots, fundamentalists, or those espousing violence, and don’t waste your time with someone who shows no interest in being even a little open minded. If you have to drag someone into the field with you, you probably shouldn’t.
HOW TO BEGIN:
Explain that you’d like to get to know and understand the person better. Ask if they would like to do the same with you. Tell them that this is not an opportunity to argue, dominate, or prevail. Then, invite your “other” to lunch (and if he or she likes a Big Mac as opposed to an arugula salad, choose an other-friendly restaurant.) Before you begin your conversation, agree on the following ground rules and guidelines.
- Don’t persuade, defend, or interrupt.
- Don’t leap to conclusions, use blanket statements, or rely on unfounded information.
- Be curious; be conversational; be real.
- Listen, listen, listen.
- Name a few issues that deeply concern you.
- Tell me something of your life experiences so that I might better understand your views.
- Ask me a question you have always wanted to ask someone from the “other side.”
MEASURING YOUR SUCCESS:
What might happen at your lunch? Will the heavens open and “We Are the World” play over the restaurant’s sound system? Probably not. Differences between people do not magically melt over lunch. Reaching across long-held beliefs is a slow and difficult process that takes time. A lunch is a first step. See if after a few lunches you can stop engaging in polarizing, "otherising", and uninformed talk that spreads divisiveness. Measure success by the increase in your ability to relate, compromise, and ultimately work with all sorts of people, near and far, to bring peace and justice to your corner of the world.