The spiritual power of a smile

Mara's army attacks the BuddhaStudies have found that smiling makes people happier. Normally of course we think of things working the other way around: being happy puts a smile on our face. But the reverse is true as well. Feelings of happiness are triggered even when we don’t realize we’re smiling—for example when we’re clenching a pencil with the teeth, which causes the face to use the same muscles that are used when we smile. So the emotional impact of smiling is obviously not just the power of association, and it seems that it’s the activation of our “smiling muscles” that triggers the happiness response. But maybe it doesn’t matter why it works, as long as it does.

So as you meditate, smile, and help joy to arise. You don’t have to have a grin on your face. A gentle, almost imperceptible smile can have a transformative effect on how you feel. Smiling is a short-cut to unleashing your repressed joy.

One of the things that smiling does is to give us a sense of reassurance. When we smile, we send ourselves a signal saying “It’s OK. We got this. We can handle this.” When we smile, even in the face of difficulties, we remind ourselves that there’s a grown-up present. There’s a part of us that can function as parent, as mentor, as wise friend. We become our own spiritual guide.

Radical Self-Acceptance
Radical Self-Acceptance is available on our online store.
Smiling shouldn’t however become a way of avoiding our experience. We don’t smile in attempt to drive away or replace difficult experiences but in order to be a friendly presence for them. Smiling, and the confidence it can bring, should make it easier for us to be with our experience, and less likely to turn from it.

A simple smile can help us to feel more playful. Playfulness—letting our effort be light, allowing our heart to be open, not taking things personally, and appreciating the positive—allows joy to arise. On the other hand, taking things too seriously is a sure-fire way to kill joy. When we try to force or control our experience—trying to do everything “right”—our experience becomes cold, tight, and joyless. Smiling helps us to lighten up.

When we smile, we’re more confident, and we can let go of our fear-driven need to police and control our experience. We’re less likely to judge, and can be more accepting. So we might, for example, notice that many thoughts are passing through the mind, and yet find ourselves at ease. We might notice an old habit kicking in once again, and rather than blame ourselves for messing up, feel a sense of kindly benevolence.

Guided Meditations for Self-Healing, by Jack Kornfield
Guided Meditations for Self-Healing, by Jack Kornfield
One potent illustration of the power of a smile is the image of the Buddha being assaulted by the hordes of Mara, the personification of spiritual doubt and defeat. In this allegory, which has been depicted many times, Mara’s armies, which consist of hideous demons that symbolize craving, discontent, laziness, and fear, surround the Buddha. At the center of a tempest of demonic fury, the enlightened one sits, smiling serenely. A radiant aura extends around him, and when the weapons of his foes touch it, they fall harmlessly as flowers.

In a sense the Buddha’s aura is the radiance of his smile—the protective effect of his determined yet playful confidence. Every time we smile in meditation, we create the conditions for joy and peace to arise. Every time we smile in meditation, we connect ourselves to the Buddha’s own awakening.

Posted at 12pm on Dec 16, 2014 | no comments

The bells!

quasimodoHere’s a funny story for you.

One of the things we do to fund our activities at Wildmind is selling meditation supplies, which means that our office is also a mini-warehouse, stocked with incense, Buddha statues, meditation cushions — and mindfulness timers.

One day my work kept getting interrupted by a bell that would go off from time to time. The first couple of times it was no big deal. I thought that someone had perhaps jostled a wind chime, which will happen when stock’s being moved around. But as the sounds continued to happen, it became an annoying interruption.

The puzzling thing was that no one seemed to be doing anything that could be making this noise. I asked around to see if anyone, for example, had some app running that was creating a chiming noise, because I was trying to write an article and the interruption was really bothering me. It turned out that everyone else was also being disturbed and had been wondering what the noise was. In fact they’d all assumed it was the result of something I was doing!

Eventually we realized that one of the mindfulness timers we stock had somehow been switched on, and it seemed that the offending item was one that was boxed. The trouble was, which one? There was a pile of perhaps two dozen boxed meditation timers, and the bell would only ring once every few minutes. And by the time someone had dashed over to the place the timers were stored, the sound had already stopped.

It became my mission to find out which timer was ringing. This involved splitting them up in a process of eliminating non-offending timers. To cut a long story short, I finally tracked down and deactivated the timer that had been interrupting us, and we were all able to work undistractedly. The whole episode was very disruptive, not just because the bell had been interrupting our work, but because it had taken so much effort to switch the timer off.

The ironic thing, of course, is that the random bell was supposed to be an invitation to practice mindfulness — to stop what you’re doing and to spend a few moments tuning into the breath, to relax, and to let go! None of us had remembered to be mindful when we heard the bell ringing! In fact we’d all rather unmindfully been irritated by something that was supposed to me a mindfulness tool!

One trivial thing to learn from this is that something like a mindfulness bell only works when I have the expectation that it will. Unless, when I hear the bell, I have an assumption “this bell is intended to help me be mindful” it’s not going to function as a prompt for mindfulness.

But something I wonder is, why don’t I regard every annoyance as a mindfulness bell! Ironically, as I was writing this article I kept being interrupted by a co-worker who needed my advice on a number of questions. It dawned on me that I could use these interruptions to my routine to mindfully check in with myself. And the other week, when I found myself irritated by some software that didn’t function as expected, someone pointed out to me that I could be grateful to the company concerned because they were giving me an opportunity to become mindful of my impatience. I think that’s a brilliant idea, and something I need to work on.

Basically, I’d like to train myself to see the experience of annoyance as a mindfulness bell — letting it jolt me into a deeper awareness of myself. When I find I’m irritated by something, instead of going on a rant I can drop down to the level of feelings, recognize that the feeling of frustration I’m experiencing is a form of pain, and then send compassionate thoughts to that pain.

PS. Yes, I know that Quasimodo never said “The bells!” but I couldn’t resist the temptation to use a photograph of that character.

Posted at 8am on Dec 14, 2014 | no comments

Perspectives on Satipatthana

analayo_19mm_finalAn interview with Bhikkhu An?layo, author of Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization.Bhikkhu An?layo’s latest book, Perspectives on Satipa??h?na, uses a comparison of three different versions of the Satipatthana Sutta to reveal what the original core teachings are likely to have been.

Hannah Atkinson: Perspectives on Satipa??h?na is a companion volume to your earlier publication, Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization. How are the two books distinct and how do they work together?

Bhikkhu An?layo: My first book, Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization, came out of a PhD I did in Sri Lanka. It was the product of my academic study of the Satipa??h?na Sutta, the practical experience I had gained in meditation, and what I had read about the experience of other meditators and teachers – I tried to bring all that together to come to a better understanding of the text itself.

At that time I was working on the Pali sources of the Satipa??h?na Sutta because the Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally from India to Sri Lanka and then eventually written down in Pali, which is fairly similar to the original language or languages that the Buddha would have spoken. However, the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings also went in other directions, and we have versions of the Satipa??h?na Sutta in Chinese and Tibetan. So after completing my PhD I learnt Chinese and Tibetan so that I could engage in a comparative study of parallel textual lineages, and this is the focus of my new book, Perspectives on Satipa??h?na.

Although this was, at the outset, mainly an academic enterprise, what I discovered really changed the focus of my practice. When I took out the exercises that were not common to all three versions of the Satipa??h?na Sutta, I was left with a vision of mindfulness meditation that was very different to anything I would have expected. Contemplation of the body, which is the first of the four satipa??h?nas, for example, is usually practised in the form of the mindfulness of breathing and being mindful of bodily postures, but these exercises are not found in all versions. What I found in all three versions were the exercises that most of us do not like to do: seeing the body as made out of anatomical parts and thus as something that it is not beautiful, as something that is made up of elements and thus does not belong to me, and the cemetery contemplations – looking at a corpse that is decaying.

So then I understood: body contemplation is not so much about using the body to be mindful. It is rather predominantly about using mindfulness to understand the nature of the body. As a result of these practices one will become more mindful of the body, but the main thrust is much more challenging. The focus is on insight – understanding the body in a completely different way from how it is normally perceived.

Normally we look at the body and see it as ‘me’, but these texts are asking us to take that apart and see that actually we are made up of earth, water, fire and wind, of hardness, fluidity and wetness, temperature and motion. They are asking us to directly confront our own mortality – to contemplate the most threatening thing for us: death.

Bhikkhu An?layo is a Buddhist monk (bhikkhu), scholar and meditation teacher. He was born in Germany in 1962, and ‘went forth’ in 1995 in Sri Lanka. He is best known for his comparative studies of early Buddhist texts as preserved by the various early Buddhist traditions.
Bhikkhu An?layo is a Buddhist monk (bhikkhu), scholar and meditation teacher. He was born in Germany in 1962, and ‘went forth’ in 1995 in Sri Lanka. He is best known for his comparative studies of early Buddhist texts as preserved by the various early Buddhist traditions.

I found a similar pattern when I looked at the last satipa??h?na, which is contemplation of dharmas. The practices that were common to all three versions were those that focused on overcoming the hindrances and cultivating the awakening factors. The emphasis is not so much on reflecting on the teachings, the Dharma, but really on putting them into practice, really going for awakening. As a result of this discovery I have developed a new approach to the practice of satipa??h?na which I have found to be very powerful, and this would never have happened if I had not done the academic groundwork first.

HA: Your books are a combined outcome of scholarly study and practical experience of meditating. Do you find that these two approaches are generally compatible with each other, or do they ever come into conflict?

BA: It is not easy to be a scholar and a practitioner at the same time. If you look throughout Buddhist history, it is more usual to find Buddhists who are either practitioners or scholars than Buddhists who are both. However, for a while I have been trying to achieve a balance between these two sides of me, and I have found a point of concurrence: the main task of meditation is to achieve ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ and actually this is the main task of academics as well. We use a different methodology, but the aim of both is to understand things as they really happen. If I take that as my converging point, then I am able to be both a scholar and a meditating monk, and this has been a very fruitful combination for me.

Both of my books are aimed at people who, like me, are interested in academic study and meditation. They are academic books where the final aim is to help people develop their meditation practice. They are not books for beginners, and the second book builds on the first book, so one would need a basic familiarity with what I covered in Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization in order to fully engage with Perspectives on Satipa??h?na.

HA: Both of your books mention the idea of satipa??h?na as a form of balance, and the title of your new book suggests that there are many different perspectives on satipa??h?na that could be taken into account. Is the very essence of satipa??h?na practice a balance of perspectives or is there one particular perspective on satipa??h?na that has been most useful in the context of your practice?

BA: I think that balance is an absolutely central aspect of mindfulness practice. If you look at the Awakening Factors, the first one is mindfulness and the last one is usually translated as ‘equanimity’, but in my opinion it would be better to understand it as balance or equipoise. To be balanced means to be mindful and open to the present moment, to be free from desire and aversion, and this is what the Satipa??h?na Sutta continually comes back to.

I believe that balance is also an essential element of academic study. If, through my mindfulness practice, I am cultivating openness and reception then how can I say that one approach to a topic is totally right and another one is completely wrong? If I do that, I have to exclude all of the other approaches from my vision. Often, when we get into very strong opinions, we have tunnel vision – we see only one part of reality, one side of it, but that is not how things really are. So, in my academic work, if I find one approach that seems more reasonable to me, I keep it in the foreground, but I have to keep the other approaches in the background, I cannot just cut them out.

HA: Satipa??h?na: The Direct Path to Realization and Perspectives on Satipa??h?na both mention the importance of combining self-development with concern for others. Does satipa??h?na practice lead naturally to a person becoming more compassionate or is it necessary to engage in other practices to achieve this? Is satipa??h?na practice a solitary activity or is it important that it is undertaken in the context of a Sangha?

Buy Perspectives on Satipa??h?na for Kindle or iBooks.
Buy Perspectives on Satipa??h?na for Kindle or iBooks.

BA: I think that compassion is a natural outcome of Satipa??h?na practice, but it is also good to encourage it in other ways as well. There is a simile from the Satipa??h?na Samyutta of two acrobats performing together on a pole – we need to establish our own balance in order to be in balance with other people and the outside world, but other people and the outside world are also the point at which we find out about our own balance. I can be practising alone, sitting in my room, feeling that I am so incredibly balanced and equanimous, but let me get out into the world and have some contact with people, come into some problems, and see how balanced I am then! Of course, time in seclusion and intensive meditation is essential, but there must always be a wider context to our practice.

Republished with permission from Windhorse Publications.

Posted at 8am on Dec 13, 2014 | no comments

(#EthicalChristmas) What kind of society are you creating?

every_time_you_spend_your_moneyRecently I wanted to buy some herbal tea in bulk. I did my research on Amazon, found the brand I wanted, and then promptly headed over to the manufacturer’s website to make my purchase. This cost me a little more, but I was happy to pay the extra expense. Why, you may wonder?

Whether we consider it or not, every penny we spend has some effect on the direction our society takes. We can choose to spend our money at businesses that are exploitative and socially harmful, or at businesses that make a more positive contribution to our world. We collectively create the world we live in.

I’ve stopped shopping at Amazon. In some ways the company is wonderful. It’s an amazing example of entrepreneurialism. It offers a huge range of goods, often at significantly lower prices than can be found elsewhere. I have to admit I’ve shopped there a lot in the past. And there’s a benefit to that. I’ve definitely saved some money (and time — let’s not overlook the convenience of shopping from home). In theory the money I’ve saved is of benefit to me.

But there’s a bigger picture too. Amazon thrives in part by employing people at rock bottom wages. In the US, workers are forced to toil in huge warehouses where temperatures can be over 38°C (100°F) in the summer. Many have collapsed with heat exhaustion. The work is brutal, involving constant movement, bending, stooping, lifting, and fast-paced walking for miles on hard concrete floors. Even young and fit employees find themselves in constant pain. Workers are electronically monitored in a way reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and even bathroom breaks are strictly timed. Staff have to queue up for long periods of time in order to pass through security checkpoints when leaving at the end of their shifts, and Amazon refuses to pay them for that time, on the basis that it’s not an “integral” part of their work. Is this the kind of world we want to build for ourselves?

There’s also the financial pressure that the company puts on suppliers, including the tactics they used in their recent dispute with the publisher Hachette, such as increasing the shipping times of Hachette’s titles, refusing to take pre-orders, or simply removing the “buy” button. This was all in an effort to force the publisher to drive down its prices.

And then there’s Amazon’s highly effective (although legal) tax avoidance strategies. They’re a company that benefits from the infrastructure and services that taxes fund, and yet gives little or nothing back to the tax system.

Check out our online meditation supplies store for gifts, meditation MP3s & CDs, and more!
Check out our online meditation supplies store for gifts, meditation MP3s & CDs, and more!
We have choices. We can choose to support other retailers, online or off. So that’s why I decided to boycott Amazon. I feel better giving my money to a small herbal tea company that, I’m pretty sure, treats its workers with more respect and, like most small businesses, pays into the taxation system. I consider that the extra costs I incur by avoiding Amazon aren’t really costs. After all, if Amazon isn’t paying the taxes that support our national infrastructure and essential services, then someone else is. That someone else is me, and you.

We may think our economic choices don’t make a difference, but as someone who runs a small online store, I have to tell you that that’s not the case. Every order for a CD, or for incense, or for a Buddha statue that we receive on Wildmind’s store is received with gratitude — and sometimes relief. And our suppliers, many of them artisans in the developing world, being paid fair wages for their work, are grateful too.

So this is the point of #ethicalchristmas. Over the next few weeks you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spend your money at small companies, some of whom make a positive contribution to the world. You have a choice. I’d suggest you choose with wisdom, and with compassion. Choose to create a better world.

Posted at 8am on Dec 13, 2014 | no comments

(#EthicalChristmas) The evolution of donation-supported online teaching

woman hands with flowers outdoorThere’s been a rapid evolution of how Wildmind runs online courses. For years we held online courses with anything from half a dozen to 20 participants. Then we decided to start 2013 with a more public 100 Day Meditation Challenge, followed by another 100 days exploring the four Brahmaviharas. For these events I wrote a daily (or almost daily) article on Wildmind’s blog, accompanied by guided meditations.

When Mark joined the team, we decided to develop that model yet further, in order to create a year-long schedule of meditation events for 2014. This became our first Year of Going Deeper. We offered a program of eight online courses, covering everything from learning basic meditation techniques, to cultivating absorption (jhana), to developing insight.

We’ve learned a lot on the go! With the two events in 2013 we didn’t know how many people were participating; we guessed it was a few hundred, but we were simply posting material on the blog and hoping that people were paying attention! So for our first Year of Going Deeper we decided to run the events via email. This gave us a clear idea of how many people were participating. As it happened, we had over 1,200 people sign up for each of the eight events!

We’re building on that success by offering another Year of Going Deeper in 2015 with an even larger program.

One thing we’ve learned is to have shorter events. For example, instead of a 100 day event exploring the four Brahmaviharas, we have one 25 day event for each of the four practices. This is less daunting for potential participants, and allows people to join at different times.

We’ve also learned not to use the “f-word” — that is, the word “free”! We’d said that our first Year of Going Deeper was “free,” but that donations were welcome. That turned out to be a mistake! The word “free” is very attractive, but it sets up an unhelpful expectation: last year only around five percent of participants donated.

Like any organization we have financial needs, and we’ve really struggled this year because of our missteps in communicating them. So for 2015 we’re encouraging participants to donate when they enroll, being more upfront about our needs while (we hope) avoiding being pushy.

If you like our articles and want to support the work we do,  please click here to check out our books,  guided meditation CDs, and MP3s. Or you can make a donation.
If you like our articles and want to support the work we do, please click here to check out our books, guided meditation CDs, and MP3s. Or you can make a donation.
Our first event of next year — a 28 day meditation challenge called “Sit Breathe Love” — starts on January 1, and so far the indications are good. It’s quite likely that we’ll end up the same number of participants as last year, and so far about 50% of those who’ve enrolled have made a donation: a ten-fold increase on last year. We’re hopeful that this is going to bring us some much-needed financial stability.

Wildmind, I think, does an amazing job in reaching out and making meditation instruction available on a mass scale. We’ve literally touched millions of lives through our website. I’m looking forward to the day when no longer have to do this on a shoestring and with an anxious eye on our cash-flow, but instead have an abundance of resources to draw on!

I’m sure that 2015 won’t be our last Year of Going Deeper. In fact I’d like to keep running these events and for them to grow. Wouldn’t it be inspiring to have 10,000 people participating in each of these events? Or even 100,000? I hope you can join us for one of them!

Posted at 8am on Dec 10, 2014 | no comments