Bringing accountability to your practice

The Steppe Eagle is a bird of preyI’m just getting over a bad habit relating to meditation that’s plagued me for over thirty years.

It was reading a blog post on developing good writing habits that helped me. The idea came from Brett Cooper who, like me, found that he tended to write in fits and starts, with long periods of non-writing, followed by spurts of intense production.

Two ideas came to his rescue. The first was that he realized he needed to establish “a small, non-threatening daily writing habit,” and that a goal of 100 words a day was innocuous enough to be doable.

The second idea was the realization that he needed accountability. Left to our own devices, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off too easily. So he found a friend who agreed to be his “100 words accountability partner.” The partner doesn’t have to comment on the writing or even read it. She just has to give Brett a hard time if she doesn’t receive at least 100 words of writing each day.

As it happens I had my writers’ group meeting the day after reading Brett’s article, and so I proposed that I undertook the same two practices. So two of the people in my group agreed to be my accountability partner, and I theirs. Now each of us is emailing the other two at least 100 words a day.

It’s worked great. 100 words is such a non-intimidating target that I find it easy to sit down to write, and I inevitably end up writing well over 100 words. At this rate I’ll be adding a chapter to my novel every two weeks or so. And this is after several months of producing nothing. It’s a big turn-around.

Now, when it comes to meditation, I’ve been meditating daily for a long time. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last two years or so. But my sits have at times become very short — sometimes just five or ten sleepy minutes at the end of the day. And although it’s better to do five or ten sleepy minutes than to do nothing, that’s far from ideal. Five minutes was supposed to be an emergency provision for those days when I genuinely didn’t have time for a longer sit, but it threatened to become my default. It’s as if I hit 100 words and then stopped in mid-sentence.

The bit that was missing from my meditation practice was accountability. This is where my long-standing bad meditation habit comes in; I’ve always resisted accountability.

I’ve often resisted meditating with others, or following set schedules, or even using apps like the Insight Timer, which announces to other app users how much meditation you’ve done. I think the reason I’ve resisted these things is that I’ve wanted to be sure that my desire to meditate was coming from me, and not from a desire to fit in, or to gain acceptance from others, or to show off. And while it’s good to want to meditate because it’s what I really want to do, I think that habit has long outlived its usefulness. It’s led to what’s almost a kind of secretiveness about how much meditation I’m doing, and that’s not good. Bad habits flourish in the dark.

So I decided that as well as my commitment to daily meditation practice (with an emergency fall-back position of five minutes a day) I needed a commitment to sharing what I do, so that I hold myself accountable. So on Wildmind’s community on Google+, I’ve been sharing how long I’ve been sitting, and what I’ve been doing.

This has already made a difference. When I meditate in the evening, which is often the first opportunity I have to meditate, I’m sitting earlier rather than later, when I’m often tired. I’m sitting for longer. And I’m being more mindful of the effort I make in my practice.

And the great thing is that I still have the feeling that I’m doing all this for me, not to please other people, so that fear has gone. I’m glad to have left that old habit in the past, where it belongs.

Posted at 4pm on Apr 16, 2014 | no comments

A very ugly moment in American history

A very ugly moment in American history

Reshared post from +Susan Stone

Posted at 10am on Apr 2, 2014 | no comments

A herbal remedy for lifeache, from the brilliant Michael Leunig.

A herbal remedy for lifeache, from the brilliant Michael Leunig.

Reshared post from +Mark Tillotson

Posted at 10am on Apr 2, 2014 | 1 comment

Gratitude promotes patience

??I wasn’t surprised today to learn that a new study has found a connection between gratitude and patience. After all, if you value what you have, which is what gratitude accomplishes for us, then there’s less emotional need to go seeking something else.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School, looked specifically at financial impatience. Financial impatience is a well-known phenomenon where larger rewards in the future are considered less important than smaller rewards in the present.

Participants in the study chose between receiving a larger sum in the future, or a smaller sum now. The researchers used real money so that the participants would experience real motivation (and real impatience).

Before they made their choice, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel grateful, or happy, or neutral.

The neutral and happy groups showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, but those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, grateful people required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.

What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. The more grateful a participant felt after the writing exercise, the more likely they were to wait for the delayed reward.

Normally we think of the ability to delay gratification as a function of “willpower,” but in my view willpower is overrated. When I discovered how to get myself to meditate every day — something I’d struggled with for years — the solution had nothing to do with willpower. Instead, it was to do with how I saw myself. Similarly, this study had nothing to do with willpower.

To me it’s intuitively obvious that in a moment where we’re experiencing gratitude, and therefore value what we already have, we feel less need to have more, and so we’re prepared to wait for a benefit to arrive rather than grasp after it. Gratitude makes the present moment a rich experience, and so we have a reduced need to enrich ourselves right now.

The researchers point out that the implications of the study are profound, and that it could open the way to new therapeutic techniques to address human suffering.

Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration, said “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”

Therapeutic techniques that borrowed from Buddhist practices started by tapping into teachings on mindfulness. But over time, mindfulness was seen not to be enough and so teachings on lovingkindness (metta) were increasingly incorporated. The current hot thing is compassion. It’ll be interesting to watch the addition of gratitude and appreciation (which in Buddhism are closely associated with the practice of mudita, or joyful appreciation) to therapists’ tool kits.

Posted at 11am on Mar 31, 2014 | no comments

“Sit With Less Pain” by Jean Erlbaum

Sit-With-Less-PainJean Erlbaum’s Sit With Less Pain is subtitled “Gentle Yoga for Meditators and Everyone Else.”

As most meditators know, finding a comfortable way to sit in meditation for long periods of time can be challenging. We can end up futzing around with our equipment, trying out different chairs, benches, and cushions, and constantly adjusting the height and tilt of our seat, and still find that we end up with sore shoulders, or a sore neck, or an aching back. Often the problem is that we’re expecting a body that lacks flexibility to be still for long periods.

Sit With Less Pain addresses that problem, offering us exercises to bring more flexibility to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of various parts of the body. It’s the only book I know of that does this specifically with an eye to meditating. Unlike most other yoga manuals you’ll see, this one doesn’t consist of a series of (for me and many others) impossible asanas. Although there are some recognizable asanas, I’d describe this more as a book of yoga-inspired stretching exercises.

Title: Sit With Less Pain
Author: Jean Erlbaum
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 9780861716791
Available from: Wisdom, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The descriptions are clear, and the book is amply illustrated with shaded line drawings. I was pleased to see that the figures in the illustrations resemble normal people rather than the ultra-thin, young, hyper-flexible, and invariably beautiful “yoga babes” that you’ll come across in yoga magazines. The illustrations show people of various ages, both sexes, a variety of races, and with normal (i.e. unathletic) body types.

The book is rather hefty, at 180 or so pages. And the author points out that readers might want to record themselves reciting the instructions, given the difficulty of consulting a manual while twisting one’s body in various ways. But how many people are going to go to those lengths? [Edit: I'd missed that companion CDs are available at www.sitwithlesspain.com] I can’t help thinking that a more slender book focusing on a smaller number of exercises would be useful.

There’s a relatively short section at the start, showing various ways to sit in meditation. A trouble-shooting guide for various kinds of discomfort related to specific ways of sitting might have been an asset here. There are also some breathing exercises and relaxation exercises included, although since the book is aimed at people who need to deal with pain that’s arising in their existing meditation practice I’m not sure these sections are strictly necessary.

Still, Sit With Less Pain is a very useful book, which could potentially benefit many meditators who aren’t confident about attending formal yoga classes, yet who need help dealing with the inevitable aches and pains that arise during meditation, and its imperfections are largely those inherent in the attempt to describe physical exercises in book form.

Posted at 11am on Mar 28, 2014 | no comments

More leaves embedded in ice

Taken on the river behind my house. The sun warms the leaves, which melt holes in the ice. In the meantime we impatiently await the arrival of Spring.?
Posted at 10pm on Mar 27, 2014 | 5 comments

For some of us, the Affordable Care Act isn't affordable

I'm jealous of  Eric Wee's dog's health insurance as well. I've been looking at the mandated health insurance plans for New Hampshire, and they're anything but affordable. The cheapest plans will push me deeply into debt each month, and will have deductibles of $5000. So not only will I be bankrupting myself by signing up for one, I'll have to pay 100% of any health care that I need, until I've paid the $5,000 deductible.

I've been fortunate. I haven't had health insurance for five years, and in that time I haven't been seriously ill. In those five years I've been to the doctor twice, and had one prescription. The total cost of all that was $360, which is less (for five years) than I'll be paying in premiums for one month.

This is the Affordable Care Act. But it's certainly not affordable for some of us. What it's going to do is to take several thousand dollars of my already strained income, and compel me to give it to a health insurance company, who will almost certainly give me nothing in return. 

Of course it's possible that I might end up with some serious health problem. I'm 53. I could slip a disc, have a heart attack, have a stroke, break a limb in a fall or a car accident, or get cancer. In any of those cases I'd be glad that my losses were limited to a mere $5,000, rather than the many tens of thousands I'd otherwise have to pay. But that $5,000 dollars is not affordable under any definition of that word. I've no idea where it would come from, and I'd have no way to pay it back.

I'm not anti-ACA. I think it's a great idea in principle. For many people it cuts their insurance costs, and for many people healthcare becomes affordable for the first time — especially those with pre-existing conditions. But it does strike me as being deeply flawed in practice, and as soon as we can eject the insurance companies from the space between us and our healthcare providers, the better.?

Why I’m Jealous of My Dog’s Insurance
My Labrador goes to PetCare. Sometimes I want to go to PetCare.

Posted at 6pm on Mar 26, 2014 | 37 comments

The Buddha in proportion

13086233095_32e18f1e88_b

These rather gorgeous images are from an eighteenth-century book consisting of 36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and other figures. I stumbled across it today on a site called The Public Domain Review, which draws attention to non-copyright media of all sorts that are available for general use.

As the site points out, “The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.”

It’s worth checking out the other images in the collection.

Posted at 10am on Mar 26, 2014 | no comments

This is rather freaky

This is rather freaky

Reshared post from +Phillip Olsen

#illusion  ?

Posted at 12pm on Mar 25, 2014 | 8 comments

Sumer is icumen in (so they say)

Still waiting for spring to arrive. (And we have another snowstorm forecast for tomorrow.)?
Posted at 3pm on Mar 24, 2014 | 4 comments

Four tips for meditating in public

Girl meditating in the parkI love meditating in public places. I’ve meditated on park benches, and on trains and buses and airplanes. I’ve done walking meditation on country lanes and on busy city streets.

One benefit of meditating in public places is being able to squeeze a bit more meditation into your day. If you regard meditation as something you can only do in a special room, relatively free from audible distractions, then you’re limiting the amount of time that you can spend meditating. If you regard these other times I’ve mentioned as being fair game, then you have many more opportunities for practice.

There are just a few things I’d suggest you bear in mind if you’re going to meditate in public.

  1. If you have the expectation that you’re going to become very narrowly focused on internal sensations, like the breathing, as might happen in a quiet meditation room, then you’re probably going to be very frustrated. What we need to do is to practice a more open form of awareness where the sounds around us are part of the meditation practice. I’ll usually start by being aware of the space, and light, and sound around me. I accept the presence of whatever sounds are arising. It doesn’t matter if the sounds are ones you might conventionally think of as unpleasant, like the sounds of construction or of music that you don’t normally like — just accept that they’re present. Think of allowing them to pass, uninhibited, through the space of your mind. Sounds in fact cease to be distractions, and become what you are mindfully paying attention to. It may be that once you’ve acknowledged the sounds, you can become more narrowly focused, but it’s fine if you end up breathing while also being mindful of any sounds that are arising.
  2. You might be interrupted. Even if you’re sitting with your eyes closed it’s possible that someone might come up and talk to you. Again, if you have an expectation that meditation is a self-evident “do not disturb” activity, as it generally is when you’re meditating in a dedicated meditation room, then you might be jarred or even angered by someone coming up and talking to you. So you have to accept that people around you are not going to know what you’re doing, and are unlikely to regard it as being special, in the way they might if they saw you sitting on a zafu in front of a Buddhist altar. So accept any disturbances with as much grace as possible.
  3. You can do any form of meditation outdoors. I’ve mentioned that you can do walking meditation. You can do mindfulness of breathing, although as I’ve suggested it may not be as deeply focused as when you meditate in a quiet, still place. Lovingkindness practice is perfect; cultivating lovingkindness can feel much more grounded and less abstract when there are actual people around. You might find that you don’t do the usual stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) and go straight to the final stage of wishing all beings well.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest avoiding meditation postures where the hands are held in special “mudras” on the knees or, even worse, held out to the sides. If you want to give the impression that meditation is some weird hippy-trippy activity, then that’s a great way to do it. But it’s not a traditional posture for Buddhist meditation, where the hands most often rest in the lap, although you can rest them on the knees as well. Generally a regular seated posture (hands on the lap) is fine for meditating on a train, bus, or park. It works, and it’s unpretentious.

Save the mudras for the yoga studio!
Save the mudras for the yoga studio!
It’s worth considering that the Buddha probably did the majority of his meditating outdoors, in places that we might consider public. He probably didn’t meditate in city streets, except for when he was walking or begging mindfully, but he had a reputation of meditating much closer to towns than was considered normal in those days; most meditators would withdraw to very secluded places deep in the jungle or up in the mountains. And this makes me think that the Buddha meditating in that way, in those relatively accessible places, might have had the effect of “normalizing” the practice of meditation by making it visible. Perhaps we too can have the effect of normalizing meditation, making people curious about what it is that all those people sitting peacefully with closed eyes on the bus, or train, or plane, of park bench are doing. Perhaps meditating in public could be a bodhisattva activity, subtly transforming our culture.

Posted at 10am on Mar 24, 2014 | no comments

“Being in the moment”

chain_clock_blur_10(403).jpgOver and over again, you’ll hear Buddhist teachers talking about the need to “be in the present moment,” but interestingly this wasn’t something the Buddha emphasized much. There are one or two scattered references that are similar to the concept of being in the moment, like this one:

They don’t sorrow over the past,
don’t long for the future.
They survive on the present.
That’s why their faces
are bright and serene.

In many ways the language of “being in the moment” is useful, because so much of the time we’re unmindfully caught up in thinking about things from the past, or things that might happen in the future. But actually we only have this present moment. Even when you’re thinking about the future or past, you’re focusing on thoughts that are arising right now. You’re always in the present moment.

The problem implicit in what the Buddha says above isn’t actually to do with the past, present, or future, but with how we relate to memories and our thoughts about the future.

First, we tend to get obsessively caught up in thinking. It so happens that much of our obsessive thinking is concerned with things that took place in the past or with things that will or might take place in the future. But it’s also possible for us to obsessively think about the present, like “I wonder what she’s doing right now?” or “I wonder if he doesn’t like me?”

The Buddha tended to treat the past, present, and future in the same way. For example, in verse 421 of the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

He who clings to nothing of the past, present and future, who has no attachment and holds on to nothing — him do I call a holy man.

Certainly, we can think about, say, the future in an anxious way, but we can also think about the future in an objective or metta-ful way. For example the Buddha said things like:

While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So we’re actually meant to think about the future! Similarly, there are good reasons to think about the past, and the word we usually translate as “mindfulness” is sati, which primarily means “memory.” The Buddha made the connection between mindfulness and the past quite explicit: “…the monk is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago.”

Our mindfulness can include reflecting on past actions, as with this piece of advice:

Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So thinking about the future is unhelpful when longing or anxiety are involved, and thinking about the past is unhelpful when there’s sorrow involved, but it’s perfectly possible to think mindfully about the past or future. It all comes down to the quality of attention that you bring to anything you’re aware of. It’s whether craving, aversion, or delusion are present that’s important.

The problem with the language of being in the moment is that often people think there’s something wrong with thinking about the past or future. As we’ve seen, that’s far from being the case — as long as we’re paying attention to thoughts of the past, future (or present!) without attachment, aversion, or delusion. But the false impression given by the language of being in the moment also leads people to think that it’s wrong to have goals and aspirations. Since Buddhist practice doesn’t in fact teach us to “be in the moment” in a literal way, the “problem” of goals and aspirations isn’t in fact a problem at all. Of course we’re to have goals and aspirations. The Buddha was very keen on striving, and his last words were, “Strive diligently.” We’d never make progress if we don’t have goals and aspirations.

What’s important, again, is the quality of attention we bring to those goals and aspirations, particularly regarding whether there is craving, aversion, or delusion involved in them. If we grasp after attaining goals, or experience aversion because we haven’t met our goals, or have goals that are deluded, then that’s obviously unhelpful. But we can also have appropriate goals and work toward them without grasping or aversion.

Posted at 11am on Mar 21, 2014 | no comments

New Hampshire can live without the death penalty…?

New Hampshire can live without the death penalty…?

New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted at 6pm on Feb 26, 2014 | no comments

An incredible illustration of interconnectedness

Or how wolves can change an entire landscape.?
Posted at 10pm on Feb 19, 2014 | 2 comments

Wow! Check this out, and do make sure that you watch right to the end, so that you…

Wow! Check this out, and do make sure that you watch right to the end, so that you can get an impression of the scale of what you've been watching.

Reshared post from +Jim Weiler

Hot damn..  If you watch, you must hold out until the end (or at least skip ahead). The 75min time-lapse is just… wow..

via +Fernando Gonzalez ?

A Hunk Of Planet Dissolves Before Our Eyes
Bye-bye white. Hello bigger (and bigger) blue.

Posted at 9am on Feb 19, 2014 | 4 comments

A couple of gems found on Doonesbury.com this morning

"The Founding Fathers…put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn't you were just a citizen and got to vote…One of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you're a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community."
– Tea Party Nation president Judson Phillips

"The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes… But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars, you get a million votes."
– Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tom Perkins?

Posted at 8am on Feb 18, 2014 | 6 comments

What an amazing sunset tonight.?

What an amazing sunset tonight.?
Posted at 5pm on Feb 14, 2014 | 1 comment

Learning to love your suffering

Senior man suffering from severe headacheBuddhism talks a lot about suffering, but a lot of us think that we don’t suffer, or that we don’t really suffer. There’s a tendency for us to think of suffering in terms of physical pain or material deprivation: the person with terminal cancer or a broken leg, the refugee, the starving child. So we often think of suffering as being something that’s extreme or unusual. But actually, we all suffer, every day. You may be suffering right now.

  • When you’re worrying what people think about you, you’re suffering.
  • When you feel resentful, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re impatient, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re embarrassed, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re irritated, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re feeling sad, you’re suffering.
  • When you have regrets, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re jealous, you’re suffering.
  • When you’re bored, you’re suffering.

If you look closely at your mental states over the course of any given day, you’ll probably notice that you spend a lot of time dipping in and out of suffering of one sort of another.

And if you look at the people around you, it’s a fair bet that half of them are suffering at any given time. Just notice: how many of them are showing signs of being happy?

I think one reason we deny our own suffering is because we think of suffering as a sign of “failure.” After all, we’re meant to be happy all the time, or so certain messages we receive from society tell us. But if we don’t acknowledge suffering — even our minor experiences of suffering — then we can’t do anything about it, and will continue to go about life in a sub-optimal emotional state.

So I suggest that we notice experiences of suffering, and we accept the fact of our own suffering. There’s no point fretting about the fact that we suffer; it’s not a sign of failure. It’s just a part of the experience of being human, and a fact to be acknowledged. And once we’ve acknowledged and accepted our suffering, we can start to do something about it. In particular, I suggest wishing our suffering well. Drop lovingkindness phrases into your mind — “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.” Just notice your suffering, give it your compassion. Love your suffering, and see what happens. You might find that once you’ve given compassion to your own pain, it’s natural to notice the suffering around you, and to respond compassionately to others.

Posted at 1pm on Feb 10, 2014 | no comments

Today’s pictures from the Lamprey River

Today's pictures from the Lamprey River?
Posted at 3pm on Jan 31, 2014 | 4 comments

More photos from the Lamprey River

Taken today on a short break from work.?
Posted at 1pm on Jan 30, 2014 | no comments