If Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta), then who meditates?

buddha statueI was asked, “If Buddhism teaches non-self (anatta), then who is doing all this that happens in my life; who meditates?”

There is meditation taking place. There is stuff happening in life. There is the thought, “Someone is doing this.” But that thought is a bit like the idea primitive man may have felt, looking at nature. The wind blows, the leaves rustle, the rain falls. There must be “someone” making this all happen! And so they imagined a god or gods who were doing these things.

Nowadays we talk about all this being an “ecosystem.” But we don’t think of “Ecosystem” as a god who hides behind the scenes, making everything happen. There’s just a bunch of stuff happening, quite beautifully. It doesn’t need a central controller. Nor do we.

A thought or feeling arises within us, or an action takes place, and part of us thinks, “Who did that? Why, it must have been me!” We invent a sort of “inner god” who rules a very small universe, and who is in charge of “us.”

If this is still confusing, you might want to check out an article I wrote recently, “The empty room, the plagiarist, and the boys in the basement.” I hoped to make this topic more easily understandable.

Posted at 3pm on Oct 1, 2014 | no comments

Buddhism, grief, and loss

Ancient Buddha head without body in Sukhothai, ThailandRecently a meditation student who’s only just begun practicing wrote to say that she’d experienced a bereavement. She wondered if I had any suggestions to help her through the grieving process.

I have to say first of all that I’m not a grief counsellor. I’m just a meditator who has ended up sharing what he’s learned about working with pain. And I also would like to add that I’m hesitant to give advice in such situations because I know how feeble words can be in the face of powerful emotions. I long ago gave up on the notion I once held that there is some magical form of words that will make everything better.

Despite that, though, I know that sometimes when we share our perspectives with others (or when they do this with us) it can be helpful. So here’s an edited version of what I wrote to her.

Grief can of course be very painful. I think the main thing I’d emphasize is that the pain of loss is very natural, and to be accepted. It’s common to think that there’s something wrong when we feel pain, but when our life has been deeply entangled with that of another being, the two of us are part of one emotional system — a kind of shared love that flows between us. In that kind of a relationship we’re not, on an emotional level, two entirely separate beings. And so when we lose the other, it feels like a part of us has been ripped out. It feels that way because that’s exactly what’s happened.

So take a breath, and say, “It’s OK to feel this.” It really is.

Even those who are enlightened feel grief.

Just as one would put out a burning refuge with water, so does the enlightened one — discerning, skillful, and wise — blow away any arisen grief, his own lamentation, longing, and sorrow, like the wind, a bit of cotton fluff.
The Sutta Nipata

When we think there’s something wrong about feeling grief, then we add a second layer of suffering, which is often far more painful than the first. This second layer of pain comes from telling ourselves how terrible the experience is that we’re having, how it shouldn’t have happened, etc. Accept that it’s OK to feel the initial pain of grief, and you’re less likely to add that second layer.

Grief is an expression of love. Grief is how love feels when the object of our love has been taken away. And that’s worth bearing in mind. Try being aware of the grief and seeing it as valuable, because it’s love. Without love, there would be no grief. But without grief, there would be no love. So we have to see grief as being part of the package, so to speak.

You can treat the pain as an object of mindfulness. What we call “emotional” pain is actually located in the body. When the mind detects that something is “wrong,” it sends signals into the body, activating pain receptors. The more you can be aware of where those painful feelings are located in the body, the less your mind will have an opportunity to add that second layer of suffering.

You can recognize that a part of you is suffering, and send it loving messages. While you’re paying mindful attention to the part of you that’s suffering (noticing where in the body your pain is located) you can say things like “It’s OK. I know it hurts, but I’m here for you.” You can find your own form of words if you want.

Lastly, it’s worth reminding yourself that all living beings are of the nature to die. It’s a natural part of life. We don’t do this to numb the pain or to make it go away, but to help put things in perspective. Today, thousands of people are mourning the loss of pets, parents, even children. You’re not alone…

The enlightened feel grief, but it passes for them more quickly than it does for us, because they recognize that everything is impermanent, and they don’t add that second layer of suffering.

So your grief is natural, but I hope it soon becomes easier and easier to bear.

Posted at 8am on Sep 30, 2014 | no comments

An urgent appeal – please give today!

Holding a red roseUnfortunately we’re struggling financially again this month, and we need to raise at least $4000 before the end of September so that we can cover our payroll expenses as well as the rent and other bills that are due at the start of October. Despite the meditation we do, we find that our position is still rather alarming!

Two months ago Wildmind hit a financial crisis, and you, our supporters, responded magnificently. We were deeply grateful to be helped out of a very scary situation. I apologize for having to approach you again so soon. I’ll say a little about what’s going on so that you understand our situation.

Last year we took on Mark Tillotson full time, so that he could take over doing the office admin, publicity, and other tasks that were distracting me from writing and teaching. We were able to do this thanks to our very successful Free Bodhi appeal on the Indiegogo crowdfunding website.

We hoped that in the long term Mark’s work would pay for itself, because he’d be able to promote our online store, improve our event publicity, and allow me to run our Year of Going Deeper program, which would be free but which would bring in donations from participants.

In some ways this has worked out very well. As planned, I’ve been able to write and teach full time, and so far this year we’ve run six meditation events, including the current “42 Days: Six Elements.” In total there have been over 7,500 participants in these events. That’s a lot of meditation teaching, although we aspire next year to have 10,000 participants in each event!

Other successes? Our website offers free (and ad free!) meditation instruction and guidance. In the past 12 months, 1,129,778 people have read 2,234,165 articles in our blog and in our online meditation guides. If you want to get really geeky, the total data (free guided meditations, text, etc.) downloaded from our site each month averages 845 gigabytes!

But recently the donations from participants in our Year of Going Deeper events have been very low. Our last 28 Day Meditation Challenge had over 1,200 participants, but brought in only $383 in donations. That’s $0.31 per person, on average. Yikes! We think we’ve worked out how we can avoid this problem next year, basically by making it more explicit to people before they sign up that making a donation is the default choice, and having them explicitly opt out of doing that. We’re still working out the details. But in the meantime we have a difficult and stressful short-term financial situation to navigate around. And we’re hoping that you will help with that.

Anything you can contribute would be most welcome. As I said in our last appeal, you’ll not just be helping the Wildmind team (Mark, Amy, and myself), but also the “greater us,” which is the tens, and even hundreds of thousands of people Wildmind benefits.

It would be wonderful if you could donate $1000, or $100, or even just $10 — whatever you can.

  • If you want to use a credit card, you can go to this page, enter the amount you want to donate, and then begin checking out by clicking on “add to cart.”




  • And lastly, checks can be mailed to: Wildmind, 55 Main St. Suite 315, Newmarket NH 03857, USA.

Although we raise funds by selling CDs and MP3s, and by selling Buddha statues and other meditation supplies through our online store, Wildmind’s activities are largely supported by donations from our supporters. We’re very grateful to each and every one of you who contributes to what we do. Without your support, we wouldn’t be able to offer free events like our Year of Going Deeper, or maintain our free online meditation guides, or keep bringing you a constant stream of advice, news, and inspiration to nourish your meditation practice. So please do help support Wildmind!

Posted at 2pm on Sep 26, 2014 | no comments

Personalities are not fixed, and that’s great news

Children's yoga. The little boy does exercise.A mountaineering friend of mine used to remark that when he’d meet a rock or other obstruction while coming down a mountain, and was faced with choices — go left, or right? — each choice would lead to other, different, choices. In this way, two different decisions early on — although seemingly insignificant — could result in profoundly different outcomes.

Views we hold can be like that as well. A view like “personalities are fixed” leads to very different results compared to a view like “personalities are fluid.”

A new study illustrates how easily views about our personalities can be changed, and how powerful the effect of changing them can be.

David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, working with a graduate student from Emory University, Adriana Sum Miu, wondered whether the belief that people’s personalities are malleable would have an impact on bullied teens, perhaps reducing their levels of hopelessness, despair, and depression.

Yeager observed, “When teens are excluded or bullied it can be reasonable to wonder if they are ‘losers’ or ‘not likable,'” and he wondered whether teaching teens that people can change would reduce those thoughts, and if so, could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?

At the start of a school year, roughly 600 ninth grade children were assigned to an intervention group or to a control group. Neither the children nor the teachers and staff at the three schools involved were aware of the purpose of the exercise, so that their attitudes wouldn’t differentially affect either group.

The intervention group read a passage about how personalities are subject to change, and how being bullied is not the result of a personality defect. It was also emphasized that bullies are not inherently “bad.” There was reinforcement in the form of information about brain plasticity (the idea that our brains, and thus our skills, attitudes, and behaviors can change and evolve). Endorsements from older students were given, and the group members were asked to write an account of how personalities can change.

The control group did similar exercises, focusing not on personality but on athletic ability.

Nine months later, the symptoms of clinical depression, including negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem, had risen by 39% in the control group, while there was no increase in the intervention group. This was true even for students who had been bullied.

This change is rather stunning, given that the intervention was very brief, taking place in a normal class period. There was no counseling given, and the exercise used only computer and pen-and-paper activities. I’d estimate that achieving the same outcome, on that scale, through individual guidance and counseling would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The message being taught is very in line with Buddhist teachings on anatta (lack of fixed self). One of the things that Buddhism teaches us is that our mental habits are just that — they are habits, and subject to change, given the right circumstances.

You can read more about the study at the Association for Psychological Science website.

Posted at 8am on Sep 24, 2014 | no comments

Intimacy with oneself, intimacy with others

parrotsYou know that feeling when you’re with another person, and there’s an awkwardness — a sense that there’s something missing? And you find yourself scrambling around thinking of something interesting to say that’ll bring your connection back to life?

Sometimes this does in fact kick-start a conversation in which we can both become absorbed, but sometimes our anxiety prevents that from happening.

I realized recently that I’ve had that a lot in my life.

Now when I’m on my own, I know what to do with unpleasant feelings of awkwardness. I’ll simply pay attention to them mindfully, until they pass. And often, even as I’m in the act of noticing my discomfort, I’ll find that a sense of well-being arises, so that first I’m comfortable with my discomfort, and then once the unpleasant feelings pass I’m deeply content.

But for some reason I haven’t thought to do this when I’m with others, especially in intimate relationships.

Recently however, when I was with my girlfriend, and I noticed that sense of our silence being awkward rather than comfortable, I found myself happy just to be with the feeling of discomfort. Rather than trying to think of something clever to say, I simply noticed how I felt, and accepted it. There was the faint stirring of anxiety, but I just accepted that as well.

And what happened was, in a way, quite predictable. Just as when I’m on my own, I felt happier, and the anxiety passed. But in another way the experience was a complete surprise; I found that paying attention to the uncomfortable sensation reconnected me with my heart. It felt like my heart was blown wide open, and I felt an overwhelming sense of love for my partner. This feeling of love, expressed through body language, looks, physical communication, and — yes — words, brought about a powerful sense of rapport and intimacy. This is an experience that recurred several times while we were together.

And I love that simply being with my discomfort not only allows it to pass, but also connects me with a powerful sense of love. And I love feeling freed from the anxious need “to be interesting” so that I’m able just “to be.”

I suppose that in a way this isn’t profound, and I’m sure that many you are saying “of course, everybody knows that!” But I thought I’d share it since I’m a fan of showing my “work in progress.” So if this practice is something that’s new to you, then please try it yourself and see what happens. I’d love to hear from you.

Posted at 3am on Sep 16, 2014 | no comments