Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mirror Mind

The nature of mind is like a mirror.

Thoughts are like the reflections in the mirror.

If you point a mirror to reflect flowers, people will thing "Oh how beautiful!"

If you point a mirror to reflect dog shit people will think: "Eww, how disgusting!"

Whether reflecting flowers or dog shit, the nature of the mirror remains the same.

The nature of mind is undisturbed by the content of the mind.

The content comes and goes, but the underlying state is the same.

Relax and rest in the nature of mind rather than the content.

Having been introduced to this state, remain within it, allowing content to arise and dissipate within the mind without disturbing your awareness.

There is no higher teaching than this.

*I realize that this is quite similar to what many dzogchen teachers call the Introduction to the Nature of mind. I am not attempting to be a cyber-lama here. If you go and actually receive these instructions from an expert Dzogchen teacher, there is a lot more that goes on mind to mind, than just a little rap like this. However, the idea above is so fundamental to human nature itself, that i refuse to see it as belonging to one tradition or another.

Monday, August 3, 2009


“Do one thing that scares you every day”.

- Eleanor Roosevelt –

The quote above is laminated to Tim Ferris’s desk at home. Tim is the author of The Four Hour Work Week” and is one of my heroes. I try to take that advice myself and am having more and more success with it every day. If you take that quote as a religious instruction, the way that Tim does, you will find yourself confronting one of lifes most powerful motivators daily: FEAR

Let me start off by saying that I am not one of these guys that thinks fear is the enemy. Fear is not the enemy. Fear serves a powerful evolutionary function. Without it I doubt our species would have survived this long. The problem is not fear itself, as Eleanor’s husband once noted, but rather our reaction to fear.

We learn in high school biology about the fight or flight reflex: that when we are confronted with something that scares us, we are programmed by nature to kill it or flee from it. In todays world where there is much more emphasis placed on safety and comfort than ever before, I would say that most peoples reaction to fear is to flee.

When you begin to think about fear and how it plays out in your life, it is really staggering how much we can be defined by it. We do not ask out the really hot girl or good looking gent because of the fear of rejection. We do not invest our money places that an make us rich because we are afraid of losing it. We do not share our great idea with the boss at work because of fear that he will dismiss it.

The thing is that in every case success is made by those that not only conquer their fear, but actually experience the object of their fear from time to time, but still have the tenacity to move on. Every pick up artist has gotten shot down, only the lonely never get rejected because they never ask. Every rich person I have ever met has lost money on a deal, only the poor never loose money because they never take the risk. Every executive I have ever met has found their place because they overcame their fear and put forth the idea.

When I was younger I was, to be honest, a bit of a pussy. I was scared to fight because I was afraid of getting hit. Eventually, due to circumstances beyond my control, I got hit and hit again until I realized that it wasn’t the end of the world. I gained from it, the courage to fight. When I was younger I was scared of heights, but I wanted to work on the rides as Six Flags. I went to the jetty at Pt Pleasant beach and climbed the tower there over and over again, until it was no big deal. Eventually I climbed it without the ladder, just the scaffolding. Finally, I spent the night up there to get used to the height.

That is one way of dealing with fear, confront it directly and just get used to it. There are other methods.

If you have ever read the book Dune (or saw the movie I suppose) you will probably remember the scene where Paul has to control his fear by repeating a litany:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Though taken from a work of fiction, this type of meditation is extremely useful. It takes the fear out of the emotional realm and moves it into the analytical. This shift from right to left brain makes it easier to overcome than simple confrontation. By naming it, and declairing a path for it, you gain control.

Breath is another key that operates on the same principle. It is an automatic function that can be taken over easily by the conscious mind. When you are afraid or stressed your breath gets shallow and rapid. By simply willing the breath to slow down to normal, you feedback upon the emotion. If you have any yogis training you can slow down to deeper levels using the vase breath and so on. The topic of breath is of votak importance, and will get its own post here as soon as I have the time.

If you meditate at all, you should be able to dismiss fear as easily as any other distraction. Simply aknowlege it and put it aside. It arises from nothing, and dissipates into nothing like any other conditioned thought.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Enjoy the Silence

"In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. "
- Mahatma Gandhi

Ever notice how sometimes great ideas and insights come when you are performing simple repetative tasks like mowing the lawn or washing the dishes by hand? Oue lives are so filled with activity and information that these are sometimes the only moments that the mind is simply at rest. The body is busy enough to be occupied with something simple enough to let the mind wander.

If you read this blog you probably already make some time in your life for meditation and perhaps some other practices that support mindfulness like Yoga, Qigung, Centering Prayer and so on. Though these practices are invaluable, they do not really provide the mental free time that is necessary for the mind to express itself.

There is an old saying from Zen Buddhism (Liu Chi I think, but I cant find a firm reference):

If you see a Buddha on the road, kill him.

The idea here is that in even in the most formless meditation styles, you are letting go of grasping onto thoughts. Even if you start thinking the holiest of thoughts, in meditation you need to let it go. Should the Buddha appear before you and try to get your attention, you must kill him by turning back to the meditation.

Thats all well and good, but as we refine our awareness through meditation we become clearer in thought as well as primordial awareness. Since we are living in the world of action and not just in a monestary, we should take advantage of this and provide ample time not only for meditation, but simple silence in which our mind can wander.

Anyone can do this no matter what your schedule. Here are some ideas:

  • Drive with the radio off - I like NPR and loud music as much as the next guy, but I try to make at least one car trip a day in silence.
  • Fake a habit. Hopefully you don't smoke, but that doesnt mean that you cant take a break like the smokers do. Excuse yourself, go outside and just stand or walk a bit.
  • Leave the Ipod at home when running or walking in the morning.
  • Excremeditate - thats right, just linger a bit longer in the can.
  • Tack on 10 minutes to just about anything. Running a quick errand on a busy day? Take 10 and just relax. No one has to know.
  • 5 minutes after a meditation session. Best one yet, after meditation, take 5 minutes to just walk or sit without any thought as to meditation instructions, breath, or asana, just hang and let your mind grasp onto all those thoughts that you have been setting aside during your formal practice. One of them might just be the next big thing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sleep Hacking

As you know from last weeks post, I recenly became a parent of twins. Every person that I spoke to about it gave the same advice:

"Get as much sleep as you can now, because when they are here you won't get any at all"

I love advice, and hit people up for it whenever I can. Thankfully I am also good at ignoring advice that sound fishy, even if it was given by almost everyone. Think about the quote above. What sense does that make? You cannot store sleep like that any more than you can store hours sitting in front of a television. If someone you knew was going to kile the Appalachian Trail, would you tell them "Good luck man, better sit on your fat ass as much as you can now, because once you hit that trail you are gonna be hurting."? Of course not. You would advise them to train for the task, and research any tips or tricks.

Now that both twins are home, sleep does not come easy. Since one twin was in the hospital for a week and the other was home, they are on very different schedules - a bog problem for parents of twins. Sleeping through the night was not happening with just one of them home. Now that both of them are home, the task is getting any sleep at all.

When I was younder I toyed around with biphasic and polyphasic sleep patterns ( as opposed to monophasic whic is the norm), but these all depended upon keeping a very strict schedule. Churchill for instance was a strong advocate of Biphasic sleep, but was very methodical about it:

"You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That's what I always do. Don't think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That's a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one -- well, at least one and a half"

With the chaos of children I knew that I wouldnt really be able to keep to any kind of sleep schedule at all, much less a complicated one. So instead I am employing a bunch of little tricks that I have learned over the years to just sleep when I can. Here are some of my methods:

Caffeine Management: I am a coffee drinker. Under normal conditions I start every day with a Grande Americano that has 3 shots of esspresso in it. Unless I am going out late, this is all the coffee I drink in the day. When sleep is not easy to come by, the gut reaction is to increase caffeine intake. This is good on some days and not on others. Yesterday for instance, I knew that I would have to be up to receive company the whole day long with no naps. Given that I got about 2 hours of sleep the night before, I asked for an Octopus - 8 shots of esspresso. Which I drank right before company arrived. Today however, I had the opportunity to nap periodically throughout the day. A lot of caffeine would hamper these naps, I took only a small americano (2 shots) in the morning and than a caffeine nap on the afternoon.

Caffeine Naps: I am not a good napper. By an large, if I nap for a few hours I feel more groggy than I did before sleep. Caffeine naps changed all that. To take a caffeine nap, drink a cup of coffee or two. than go to sleep immediately. The caffeine takes about 15 minutes to cross the blood barrier so if you sleep 15-20 minutes, a length that is long enough to rejuvinate you but not long enough to enter REM or SWS, you will have burst of natural rest and caffeine hitting at exactly the right time. The trick of course is getting to sleep within that short time frame.

Sleep Yoga: While Tibetan Dream Yoga is certainly more popular and perhaps more interesting, there is such a thing as Sleep Yoga. This type of yoga is actually designed to minimize dreaming and give you the experience of clear light while sleeping. While I have not yet worked with it enough to say that I have experienced the clear light through it, I can say that I can fall directly asleep most of the time by doing it. When you do have 90 minutes or more to drop on sleep, its important that you progress through the fast wave sleep into REM and SWS to get the maximum benefit. The method involved visualization of a lotus with four petals. Each of the petals and the center are a different color relating to a different element and different stage of sensory engagement. One adopts one of the sleep postures, meditatively rests ones mind in the lotus and jumps through the five stages, than releases the meditation. Though the method that I use is from a restricted text You can read a morepublic version in Tenzin Wangyal’s book, “The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep”.

Drumming the Jade Pillow: After you have managed to figure out how much sleep you can get, the next step is fending off the signs of deprivation. One of my favorite methods for this is from China and is called “Drumming the Jade Pillow”. To do this, cover your ears with your palms so that your middle and index fingers are touching the base of your skull at the back. Place the middle finger on top of the index finger and than snap it down into the soft spot at the base of the skull called the Jade Pillow. Do this with both hands together or alternate. After 36 repetitions you will feel a lot of energy in the head and an increased alertness.

Shocks to the System: Yesterday morning, before I drak my coffee I went over my neighbors house an jumped into the ice cold pool. Colder the better. If you don’t have access to a pool, take a cold shower, or use another types of shock like loud music or a sudden burst of exercise. Do these only when you know you will be up for at least four more hours though.

The Bellows Breath: The following exercise is a quick way to increase energy in just a few seconds. The technique is simple. Take a full deep inhalation, than exhale rapid, short, sharp, forced bursts. You should be able to exhale about 30 short breaths in 10 seconds. After about three breaths like this, switch back to the vase breath. As you inhale, focus on drawing the breath deep down, towards the genitals. As you exhale, move your focus up the spine to the top of the head. The vital force will follow your mind. After a few vase style breaths in this manner, you can go back to the short sharp rapid exhales.

Be Nice: Lastly, its important to recognize that even with all this, you will still not be operating at maximum. Smile to yourself and to others. Recognize that your partner is feeling the effects probably even worse than you are. Bening nice, even faking it, will take the edge off of things and make your long waking hours that much more endurable.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tempus Fidgets

"Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side."
~The Talmud

This week finds me a brand new father of twins. One of them is still sick and in a hospital an hour away. The other just arrived home today. I contemplated posting a note sunday that time is tight and there would be no Monday update, but as it turns out, if you yield to time a bit everything kind or works itself out.

I have a busy schedule as an author and teacher, but not busy enough to pay all the bills, so I keep a full time day job as well. I have often found myself scorning time, wishing for John Lennon's eighth day a week, and trying to balance my two jobs with my home life. When my wife got pregnant with twins and eventually needed help doing just about everything I knew I was racing full speed ahead into a wall and I would crash soon.

As I often do in times of difficulty, I look to providence for a sign. In this case it was a little Thich Nhat Hanh book that Tiffany had amongst the books that we were donating to the library. I did'nt even know she had it. I nabbed it back from the pile and read it. The very first chapter taught me a lesson about time that shifted my whole thinking.

I used to view time as segmented. I would have part of my day as wife time, part as work time, and what was left was me time. One of Hanh's students came to the realization that it's actually all me time.

When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. There was after all no one and no thing that I couldnt just kiss off and leave if I really wanted to. When people or activities really feel like I waste of my time I have never had any problem ditching them. What is left, really is my own time, even if it doesnt seem that way at first.

This shift in perception cut my frustration drastically and made me value all my time much much more than I did. I am not sure how exactly, but apart from keeping calm, this view has in fact upped my productivity, allowed more frequent pockets for spiritual practice, and made room for even the not so vital tasks, such as the short post you are reading now.

Do I get everything done I want to? No. Not even close. But when you know that all time is your time, you know that none of it is ever really wasted, therefore you feel ok about what is left.

Time to go change a diaper now.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Pain Period

“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That's what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they'll go through the pain no matter what happens.”

- Arnold Schwarzenegger

While some may be surprised to see a quote from the Governator on a blog about mindfulness and awareness there is a simple spiritual truth that he expresses quite well in the quote above: whenever you are adopting a new habit there will be a period of pain that you need to suffer through. If you suffer through the pain, you win. If you don’t you lose. Simply trying isn’t good enough.

I could have chosen a quote from a Lama or Saint that says something similar, but I chose Schwartzenegger to illustrate how universal and far reaching this principle is, and how bluntly we need to deal with it. Whether you are lifting weights, changing your diet, learning to pick up chicks, getting through med school, writing a book, or taking up meditation there is a period of pain that you must suffer through as your body and mind adjust to the new habit.

Some people claim that everything is a matter of simple choice. One Guru that I met suggested to a student that obviously they loved smoking more than living longer because they still smoked. The same would probably apply to me. I must love junk food more than being thin because obviously I still choose to eat it. Sounds like common sense right?

The thing to remember about common sense is that it made people think that the world was flat. Common sense not always correct.

Changing habits is not just a matter of simple choice. The more you do something, the more your brain accommodates and craves it. If you eat a lot of fatty greasy foods like me, your brain develops neural connections to support those habits. Soon those connections get stronger and deeper and make you crave more of the same. Meanwhile the ones that don’t get used, the connections that deal with you eating healthier foods, shrivel up and disappear because they don’t get used. When you try to stop using the well worn pathways and start carving out new neural connections it hurts. Just as sure as muscles burning on a weight lifter, you must endure the pain.

Thankfully, there are a few methods that help us get through the pain period. Meditation is an obvious one. As I mentioned last week, if you can train yourself to recognize distraction on the cushion, you will eventually be able to recognize distraction at the drive through menu. Even better, if you have gone a bit further in your meditation, you have learned to recognize the essential emptiness of any thought of sensation. Even if you are experiencing physical pain, if you can remember to shift your awareness to that state, the pain can actually disappear or at least become a meditation in and of itself.

Hypnosis is another good method for assisting in getting over the pain period. A lot of pain in forging a new habit comes from what doctors call a nocebo effect; essentially the opposite of a placebo, you think its going to be hard and painful so it will be. This phenomena should not be underestimated. In some cases the nocebo effect has even caused death from cancer that the patient turned out not to really even have! Hypnosis is excellent at changing expectancy, so if you can see a hypnotist or learn a bit of self hypnosis it can help a lot in making your change less difficult.

Sometimes though, even if you meditate, get hypnotized, use NLP, repeat affirmations and creatively visualize your result, you will still have the pain to deal with. The pain can be physical, psychological or both, but the way to deal with it is the same no matter what the task: Suck it up bitch!

This is the point where you just have to buckle down, not give in and will your way through it. In times like these there is a mantra that I like to repeat to myself. It doesn’t come from a tantra or a sutra. It’s a piece of propaganda from the Unites States Marines:


I love that. The next time you are suffering the pain from trying to instill a new habit say it to yourself. It doesn’t make the pain go away, in fact it puts it front and center. Rather than letting it creep around the edges of your mind making justifications as to why it’s ok to give in just this once, it shoves the spotlight on the pain and provides a role for that pain: it is the sign of your progress. Whether you are learning to run 15 miles a day or sit in meditation for 30 minutes in the morning, the more you do it, the better you get. The same neural connections that make the bad habit hard to give up make the new one easier to maintain the more you persist at it. Just get through the pain period.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

You Cannot Suck At Meditation

You Cannot Suck at Meditation

I meet people all the time who claim to be bad at meditation. Many even claim that they can’t meditate. They tell me that they tried in the past and couldn’t “get there” or “clear their minds”. They would like to meditate, but they just suck at it. These folks are wrong. You cannot be bad at meditation. Barring serious mental illness* everyone can meditate.

The problem can be summed up as expectation and tenacity. The expectation of what is supposed to occur in meditation is often a lot grander than what actually happens. People expect that they will sit down; the mind will quickly quiet and stay perfectly still for the length of the session. They will feel a calming peace that they have never felt before and be at one with everything. Needless to say, these expectations are unrealistic, especially when the subject is willing to give all of three sessions worth of effort towards the goal before declaring that they cannot meditate. This lack of tenacity is even worse than the unrealistic expectation.

Part of the reason that people throw in the towel so quickly is that during their first few sessions, they are surprised at how little control they have over their mind. Most people feel like they have a good handle on themselves; they are successful, smart, and healthy and generally feel in control of their lives. It can be a pretty big shock to find out that they cannot focus on one thing exclusively even for one minute. Something seemingly so easy and so basic as directing your own thoughts should not be this hard. They judge themselves and feel embarrassed at their lack of control and quickly abandon the practice.

The first thing to do when undertaking meditation is abandon any lust of result. You should expect to be distracted almost constantly. In fact, if you are keeping a regular practice of meditating every day, you should expect nothing but distraction for at least six months!

You sit and focus on breath, or mantra, or yantra, or whatever and a thought of food arises in the mindstream. You start thinking about dinner. Which gets you thinking about the time, and how much time as passed so far. You realize that you have lost focus…

This is the crucial moment. When you recognize that you are distracted the natural reaction is to berate yourself because you stopped meditating. The secret is this: you did’nt stop meditating. You recognized your distraction: that is meditation. If you can than return to the focus without judgment you will continue to meditate properly. If you willingly continue to be distracted knowing that you are distracted; now you have stopped meditating.

If you spend your whole life experiencing nothing in your meditation sessions other than being distracted and returning to the focus of the meditation, you will have accomplished quite a lot. You will master your own thought process. I cannot stress enough what a wonderful feat this is. Almost everything that people do, say, and think is just a mechanical reaction. How you were raised, what you ate for breakfast, what traffic was like, what genes you inherited, how you are dressed, these all impact every moment and push us one way or the other. If you can recognize the mind being distracted by habitual pattern in meditation, you will learn to recognize these patterns in the heat of everyday life. The next time someone pushes your buttons and you start to react, you will probably catch yourself and be able to react from a place of real thought rather than habit, because you know how to recognize attachment and distraction. Good job!

Of course, most people will eventually experience more than just this process during the course of their meditative journey. You may see visions, you may feel bliss, you may feel the barriers of the self melt away. All of this is what Tibetans call Nyams, which I translate as weird shit that happens during meditation. None of it is as important as the process of recognizing distraction. Eventually, with practice, you will probably experience some genuine subtle states described in classical texts like Rigpa or Samadhi, but these come with time, and must not be sought after directly. Even if you do not experience these states, you will have accomplished much just by taking a little bit of control over your own mind.

Just remember that you cannot be bad at it. If the point is to recognize distraction, what is there to be bad at?

*Those with serious mental illness should not be meditating. Meditation can have side effects that are disturbing at times and has caused serious psychosis and destructive behaviors in people that were not fit for the practice.