Ending Suffering

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All sentient beings–human beings, and all beings large and small in the animal kingdom, seek to avoid suffering. It is the natural way. Libido, according to Freud, is the life force, the very energy which makes us gulp air even when trying to hold our breath. We associate libido with sexual intention and it does guarantee procreation for the perpetuation of life, but it is far more general than that. Libido drives creativity and interconnectedness, and many in the religious life find that in denying the sexual, they transcend the baser urges into altruism and selfless love. Thanatos, or the death force, is far less known and runs deep underground in most beings. It can be activated when suffering becomes too great.

All sentient beings–human beings, and all beings from the largest to the infinitessimally small in the animal kingdom, seek to avoid suffering. It is the natural way, or so it seems.  Instead, many humans seek suffering through self-harming behaviors and often have difficulty giving them up, so powerful is the addiction to certain very painful experiences. Humans often perpetuate suffering for themselves, and many more who would avoid their own suffering at all costs willfully inflict suffering on their fellow humans, and even more routinely on the animal kingdom. Ironically, by routinely condemning to misery and painful death the 100 or so animals each meat eater consumes yearly, the human hand contributing to this misery by virtue of paying for it, even at a distance, pulls in secondary traumatic experience and, as some believe, bad karma. This is guaranteeing ongoing human suffering. Psychology Today recently published an article on the phenomenon of loving dogs, cats and horses but consigning other animals such as cows, chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and their newborn offspring, to unimaginable terror and suffering without a second thought. Please read it for some interesting political revelations.

Without Prejudice

The Meat Paradox: Loving but Exploiting Animals

Unpacking stereotypes, bias, and discrimination
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And today this is my practice.
Namaste
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Overcoming Obstacles to Meditation

Image courtesy of Kelledia's Garden

Image courtesy of Kelledia’s Garden

Meditation is so important to me. I often share my commitment to meditation with friends, family and sometimes psychotherapy patients and guidance clients. It is my hope to spark sufficient interest in the practice that others might try meditation for themselves and find the many blessings from the practice that I have received. Some tell me they already have a practice, and this nourishes my happiness. Others express a willingness to meditate and I suggest how they can begin. Others still give me reasons why meditation is no good for them, tell me how they tried and they could not do it, or give a critical take on the practice from afar. I decided to address these obstacles to embracing the practice of meditation. Perhaps you have heard these reasons from others or said them yourself. Let’s see what we can do with them here.

FAQs

Meditation is too passive for me. I’m a action person. Why should I  sit there doing nothing?

Meditation actually is very active. We sit and in doing so we engage various muscles throughout the body to help ourselves remain upright. Some of us even find that our bodies sway as we sit deep in our practice. There are many postures adopted by people who meditate: Lotus position, Half-Lotus position, Burmese posture, sitting or kneeling with a seiza (meditation bench), sitting on a zabuton (meditation mat) with or without a zafu (round cushion), chair sitting, and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Chrysanthemum Pose (any position that is comfortable for you). I urge anyone who is curious about these poses and the words that describe them to research them. Images and descriptions abound online.

We sit and we breathe in and out, perhaps with a mantra, and let our thoughts drift. Our goal is to notice our thoughts but not engage them. Naturally we find ourselves distracted by our thoughts and engaging them without realizing we are doing so. When we become aware we are doing this, we return to our breath or our mantra. When we manage to begin to sit for 15 or 20 minutes, and especially if we sit longer, when we get back to our feet our muscles will tell us that we have been engaged in an activity.

There’s nowhere in my place where I can have peace and quiet. I can hear the TV and people talking, and I find myself listening to the words and not meditating. How do I meditate with noise around me?

It is a myth that in order to meditate we need complete silence. If we are distractible, and many of us are, we can mask the distracting sounds with white noise or other sounds that can enhance meditation. I often use music such as Zen flute songs, chanting, New Age sounds, and Tibetan singing bowls from an iTunes meditation playlist I’ve developed over time. I also use nature sounds such as surf, waterfall, wind chimes, or crackling fire as white noise, or a combination of two of these. I recommend the Tune In Radio and Calm Radio apps for this purpose, although some selections involve intermittent interruptions inviting paid subscriptions, which can be worth it if it helps you. I find these work well to create an island of serene sound in which to meditate.

My thoughts race and next thing I know I’m all worried about something, no matter how hard I try to focus on my breathing or mantra. I’m no good at meditation. I just can’t do it. Why should I try again?

You are meditating even when you become distracted. Meditation is not about reaching a state of mindless bliss where nothing happens in your head. Meditation is about being mindful of your thoughts and staying above the fray where you don’t engage them. However, since we all do it in meditation, the key is not to react with shame or a sense of hopelessness, but to respond with awareness of having strayed from the focal point of breath or mantra and return to it. We will do this many times in our meditation sessions. The key is to come back to the process of meditating. Just keep doing it and know you are doing it.

You don’t understand. I sit down, set the intention to meditate for 5 minutes, maybe even set a timer. Next thing I know I’m in the kitchen making a cup of tea. If I hear the bell of the timer, I am clueless. I have totally forgotten I was trying to meditate. I feel that I’m a failure at meditation. What’s wrong with me?

When this happens, you may be dissociating. It’s possible that sitting in this way triggers a sense of vulnerability and then anxiety, and for some people that’s all it takes to switch their attention from the “meditation channel” to something else. If that happens to you, I suggest putting a Post-It note somewhere you’re sure to notice it near where you intend to sit to meditate. On the note you can write something like, “At 2:10 p.m. I am sitting to meditate for 10 minutes.” When you “come to” with no clue, this can reorient you back into the intention. You can re-enter your meditation if you wish, or you can leave it for a later time. People with chronic dissociative symptoms often have difficulty with meditation until they reach some consensus within that this activity is both safe and desirable. Many people who suffer from extreme dissociation find that addressing this in therapy is helpful. Until you feel more at ease meditating, I consider every attempt, however brief and after however long a hiatus, to be a goal reached successfully. Celebrate it!

Meditation isn’t for me. It’s for monks and New-Agey, hippie, punk people, not for me. I don’t care about enlightenment. I just want to reduce my stress. The trouble is, I don’t want to take drugs to do that. I wish there were something natural I could do to reduce my stress. What can I do?

Good news! While some meditation is overtly spiritual in nature and many enjoy it as such, there is a secular form of meditation that can be very effective in reducing disturbing feelings such as stress and certain health issues related to stress. In fact, this technique is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Watch the video and see what you think:

Want to know more? Check out this MBSR Workbook. Or search online for more information. A friend began meditating after learning MBSR at a clinic where she was being treated for health issues  exacerbated by stress. She found MBSR very helpful. She has since begun Buddhist meditation, saying she felt she needed a more spiritual form of meditation.

How can I motivate myself to meditate? I want to make meditation a regular part of my life, but I get so discouraged when days go by and I am either too busy, too lazy or too unwilling to take the time to sit and do it.

 Graphic by DannaRay on Etsy


Graphic by Danna Ray on Etsy

Most of us need some encouragement to start a habit. By the way, it only takes from 14 to 21 days of doing something for consecutive days to establish a habit. Why not try to establish the habit of meditating? Then you will be more inclined to make the effort. But about getting motivated,  here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Ask a friend who meditates to encourage you, and then perhaps arrange to call, text or email him or her that you are going to sit, and then call or send another message after you’ve done it. Some call this “book-ending” and it can really help us do things we seem to have an aversion to doing, even when we have a desire to do it.
  2. Start a journal, on paper, on your computer or mobile device, or online. I have used the Insight Timer app with its great journal function for years. It’s a wonderful tool and at the end of every session you complete using its timer, it offers you the option of writing in its journal, which remains private on your device. There is also a robust online community on the app with many fellow meditators around the world joining you when you sit. Periodically you will receive notifications that you’ve meditated for so many days, weeks, months or years, and get colored stars. That can be a great motivator for some people.
  3. Read a good book about meditation. I recommend Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice, by Thich Nhat Hanh. There are concise, simple directions on how to start meditating. Depending on your goals, there are a number of ways suggested in the book, and any of them can help you get going.
Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh

However you begin to meditate, I hope you will try it for yourself. I have found great peace of mind every day from my personal practice. I hope you will too. Just face those obstacles head-on and have a seat!

Namaste

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Mountain Mindfulness and Metta

Snowy Woods

My practice today:

Sitting before my window to meditate today, my eyes rest on the changing winter scene outside. My heart is full with gratitude for returning health after illness, calm after concern, ease after stress. I begin with mindful breathing.

Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.

Breathing in I see the blue sky, breathing out I see the trees.

Breathing in I feel the sun, breathing out I see the shadows.

Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.

Breathing in I see the clouds, breathing out I hear the wind.

Breathing in I see the branches, breathing out I see old leaves.

Breathing in I see green fir boughs, breathing out I see white snow.

Breathing in I see the rocks, breathing out I see the bark.

Breathing in I feel the sun, breathing out I feel solid.

Breathing in I feel peace, breathing out I smile.

Breathing in I feel soft paws on my back, breathing out I greet my cat.

Breathing in we see the trees, breathing out we watch the leaves.

Breathing in I have love, breathing out I am at peace.

After continuing in this manner for many minutes, I began my customary Metta (loving kindness) practice, aspiring first for myself. Then I aspired for specific loved ones in need, for all loved ones, for family and extended family, for friends, for neighbors, and for clients. Next I aspired for those with whom I have or have had conflict. Lastly I aspired for all beings near and far, in this universe and all other universes, to the north and the south, to the east and the west, above me and below me,  in the earth, in the air, in the seas and in the rivers and lakes, living and not yet living,  human and non-human, male and female, young and old, known to me and unknown to me, and those who know me and those who do not.

And today this is my practice.

Koi_Zen_Garden,_Tokyo

Namaste

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Compassionate Listening

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Compassionate listening is an important tool in my toolbox, one that needs to be kept sharpened and ready at all times. When it’s allowed to get dull, I can’t be very effective.

In my work as a psychologist, one of the topics that come up most often is that of communication problems in our relationships. Sometimes it is a wife complaining that her husband misconstrues what she says. Or it’s a daughter feeling manipulated when her mother tells her, or doesn’t tell her, family news. At other times it is a woman in the hospital for a serious health problem complaining that her attempts to make herself understood and to ask for what she needs is seen as her being a difficult patient.

We can fail to get our point across, we can be misunderstood, and our motives for what we say can be criticized by those with whom we attempt to communicate. Naturally these ruptures in a true meeting of minds can be painful and frustrating, and sometimes they can trigger anger responses. Similarly, our loved ones, friends and others with whom we interact experience the same frustrations with us at times. It’s just the way it is. Interpersonal communications are often difficult and stressful, partly because we don’t always speak the same language, metaphorically. We “hear” different things than the other person is trying to say.

If we practice meditation, and if we focus on loving kindness, or Metta, towards and for ourselves as well as for others, we become better able to sit and hear what our loved one is saying to us. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested that we say something to a loved one such as, “My darling, I am here for you.”  You may wish to say it another way, but the point is to be able to invite communication from our loved one and listen as he or she speaks to us. We may be very tempted to reply to something that is said, to defend ourselves, to correct the other person, to fight back against a statement that feels harsh with harsh words of our own. But with compassionate listening, we simply hear, listen and stay aware of what we are hearing.

Later on, we may wish to correct something we heard, but during the practice of compassionate listening, we are fully present to listen and listen only. We may be quite surprised, and often pleasantly so, by what we hear. And even when the thing we hear is not so pleasant, it may be that we need to hear it, let it percolate into our being so that we might reflect upon it, and if it is true, to use the opportunity for growth and healing within ourselves.

To work on our compassionate listening skills, this sourcebook by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Cynthia Monroe and Leah Green offers many useful exercises to help us do it.

Compassionate Listening Sourcebook

The following from Thich Nhat Hanh offers rich food for thought on this topic as well for those who wish to delve deeper:

Deep Listening and Loving Speech, Thich Nhat Hanh

UPDATE: In the two years since I first published this post, I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communicatin to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do.

The second impediment is the more frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with getter frequency. They may pause as they search for a certain word or familiar phrase, creating a gap in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this is can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy. Another word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t? Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves as we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, we will naturally feel compassion as we listen.

 

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Namaste

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