Heeding Your Inner Guide

Sunset over the lake in the villageWe all have an internal guidance system that helps us navigate our lives. It directs our senses, mobilizes our energies, and drives our responses. We may “hear” this inner voice and act on it, but most of us are not truly “listening” to it. To heed the inner guide means to really take notice and pay attention.

Our inner guidance system is made up of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, urges to action or impulses, and perhaps even more importantly for some, a sort of “felt sense” that transcends everything else. When we live on automatic pilot, we tend to react as though the inner guidance system is us rather than seeing it as a navigation aid. We understand that Siri, or a Garmin, or Google Maps, are not foolproof guidance systems – we don’t just follow them blindly. We see the directions as helpful suggestions, also using our senses to get from one place to another. So too, should we view our inner guidance system

An unexamined mind often possesses an unbalanced navigation system. One faculty takes dominance over the others. What’s in the driver’s seat for you? Are emotions calling the shots and if so, which emotions are most dominant? Are you being guided by fear, anger, or shame or are you operating from a space of love, compassion, or courage? How does this impact your reactions?

Maybe thoughts and beliefs are in charge. What are the qualities of these thoughts? Are they primarily made up of expectations, premature judgments, or assumptions, or are they balanced by objective observations of your experience? Are you witnessing thoughts and emotions objectively as they arise, or are you usually caught up in them as if you were an actor in a movie called My Life?

Do you know what’s happening in your body? The body has a wisdom of its own which can subtly (and not so subtly) influence our thoughts and emotions. Frank Ostaseski said in a Dharma talk that he only realized the chest pains he was having before his heart attack needed to be checked out medically when he noticed himself becoming inexplicably irritated by his lovely co-teacher, Ram Dass. Are you adept at noticing body sensations as they arise, or do they unconsciously color your beliefs and actions?

A dedicated mindfulness practice helps us become more attuned to these internal experiences. Through practice, we become more familiar with our patterns and habits. We take time to get quiet and really listen so that inner knowing has a chance to bubble into conscious awareness. This allows us make space for balanced consideration before making decisions and taking action. When we heed the inner guide, it is more likely that our actions will be in line with our highest values, benefitting ourselves and others around us.

You are your master. Only you have the master keys to open the inner locks.
― Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations

Serving with Wise Compassion

The love stoneIn the mindfulness and yoga community we are fortunate to have so many wonderful, loving, and giving practitioners. I have benefitted greatly from the guidance of more caring and talented teachers/mentors here in Kansas City than I can count on both hands. Much gratitude to them all!

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths. – Desmond Tutu

The heartfelt desire of most mindfulness practitioners, caregivers, coaches, teachers and educators is to alleviate suffering.  This is called compassion and it gives great meaning to our work. However, many of us do not get the kind of training needed to work with the most vulnerable people who are drawn to the practices. These include those who:

  • are suffering so intensely that they need more than we alone can provide, – or –
  • lack the insight required to prevent harm to self and/or others.

In these cases, our beneficent intentions may not be enough. Although we may feel a strong desire to help, uninformed or misguided action can actually make things worse in the long run. Our attachment to our identity as helpers and healers can override reason. Kind-hearted souls may end up doing inadvertent damage. It can be quite complicated.

My experience as a psychologist has shown me that not all caring, well-intentioned as it may be, is skillful. Benefiting others does not always mean giving someone immediate satisfaction. We are taught to believe that if someone is unhappy with us, we have done something wrong. We forget that one’s thoughts and feelings are more reflective of one’s inner experience than external conditions – and we can’t fully know someone else’s inner experience.

In the yoga community we endeavor to maintain a healing energy in the studio and in our minds, so we sometimes avoid confronting harmful behavior and setting boundaries. In meditation circles, we often practice non-reactivity and acceptance, so we may let harmful phenomena wash over us. We try to embody right speech and ahimsa, so we are careful not to “gossip” about others. We are giving, so we patiently listen, holding space again and again.

These are usually quite useful practices and qualities, but if taken too far, they can discourage us from speaking up when something seems wrong. A pattern of damaging behavior can be allowed to escalate. We may inadvertently enable, through reinforcing with loving attention, behaviors and qualities that should not be encouraged. As hard as it is to believe, some people do not understand the language of patience and compassion – they mistrust and defend against it or they misinterpret it as weakness and exploit it. By the time we realize we are really in a pickle, the situation is much worse than it ever needed to be. In the long run, this causes more suffering for everyone involved.

…it is necessary and very important to avoid idiot compassion. If one handles fire wrongly, he gets burned; if one rides a horse badly, he gets thrown. There is a sense of earthy reality. Working with the world requires some kind of practical intelligence. We cannot just be “love-and-light” bodhisattvas. If we do not work intelligently with sentient beings, quite possibly our help will become addictive rather than beneficial. People will become addicted to our help in the same way they become addicted to sleeping pills. By trying to get more and more help they will become weaker and weaker. So for the benefit of sentient beings, we need to open ourselves with an attitude of fearlessness. Because of people’s natural tendency toward indulgence, sometimes it is best for us to be direct and cutting. The bodhisattva’s approach is to help others to help themselves. It is analogous to the elements: earth, water, air, and fire always reject us when we try to use them in a manner that is beyond what is suitable, but at the same time, they offer themselves generously to be worked with and used properly. – Chogyam Trungpa

One of the most wonderful things about yoga and mindfulness communities is they tend to be inclusive and welcoming of differences. This creates a powerful sense of safety and belonging, and brings a richness to the practices. However, we also have to realize that a rare few people are on the “fringes” because their chronically harmful or abusive behavior alienates others. When this becomes apparent we must practice wise compassion so we don’t inadvertently support the proliferation of suffering.

Sometimes taking a step back, consulting with others, or setting a boundary is the most compassionate course of action.

Wise compassion can be firm and even fierce, but it is never angry. In both yoga and Buddhism we have the imagery of the spiritual warrior, understanding that love can be a powerful force for transformation. It takes courage and determination to set and maintain a boundary or to sit unwavering in the burning heat of another’s disapproval. Remember that setting a limit does not mean closing your heart. It means seeing the bigger picture and allowing your intention to help outweigh your desire to be comfortable.

…forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed? – bell hooks

Mindfulness & The Thin Line Between Helping & Harming

Path to Relaxation by Muha…

We all want to do good, but in the messiness and complexity of real life, it isn’t so simple as exchanging the black hat for the white one. Notions of what is helpful and what is harmful are diverse and they seem to change with the times.

Helping and harming are emotionally laden concepts. There is a long tradition of valuing thought and behavior that supports the first and prevents the second. A number of the commandments from the Judeo-Christian tradition, several of the precepts in Buddhism, and many of the yamas and niyamas in yoga involve non-harming. You’ve probably also heard the phrase, “First, do no harm” (or primum non nocere in Latin), which is one of the primary concepts we learn in the caring professions.

Its Complicated

Actions that, in the moment or on the surface, seem helpful, can turn out to be quite harmful in the longer term or once we’ve dug a little deeper into the factors. In addition, responses that are helpful in one context may not translate well in another context. Finally, there are situations in which some proportion of harm may occur in pursuit of the greater good. While we tend to give priority to non-harming over adding benefit, there is often a weighing of pros and cons that is necessary before we can come to a wise conclusion.

In US culture there is a high value placed on fighting for what we think is right and against what we think is wrong. This strong sense of justice deems silence or inaction in the face of harmful behavior problematic, even labeling them as acts of complicity. At its extreme, we may become intolerant of any phenomena that even hints at potential harm. Eventually, our minds may turn to thoughts of radical prevention – perhaps a demonstration of strength or an act of force is needed in order to prevent future harm.

So how is a conscientious person to avoid sliding into paralysis? How can we choose the path that serves the higher good? What is the formula for benefitting others and working toward ending suffering without risking even greater harm? Wiser minds than mine have pondered this over the centuries and there are no easy answers. But, there are some considerations that can be useful.

Knowledge is Important

There are rare occasions when time is of the essence. For example, if a friend is about to be run over by a bus, we must act on instinct or reflex to prevent harm. Usually though, we have more time than we allow ourselves to unpack a situation. If we have a regular mindfulness practice, our minds are better trained to make space space for skillful responding. Being mindful in the moment helps us pause, observe and consider both internal and the external phenomena, as well as our options for responding.

Is there an urge to action arising from strong emotion? If so, what is the story line behind this emotion? Does it fit the facts of the situation or are there biases and assumptions at play? Do you adequately understand what is happening in the moment? Are you aware of all the factors at play including history, context, cultural implications, etc. and their interactions? Or is it only in hindsight that the situation will become clear?

Intention is Key

An intention is a roadmap for thoughts, feelings and action. Intention doesn’t require action and is not attached to outcome. Cultivating intentions that are “pure” may be the best we can aspire to with our limited senses and biology. After all, we can’t read minds or divine the future – mistakes will be made. If our intentions are benevolent, this sets the tone and shapes the attitudes within which action may arise. Of course it is important to learn from the effects of any action we take, which brings us back around to knowledge that we can use for wise decision making.

How can we know if our intentions are pure, toward benefiting others and ending suffering? Ask yourself if there is something you are hoping to accomplish in a particular situation. Is there an outcome you are attached to? How much of this outcome is related to I, me and mine? Does it align with your highest values? Is there compassion for the “transgressor” – a wish for their wellbeing, or is there merely a desire to punish or destroy?

To act rightly–to do the right thing in the right way at the right time in the right place–and nothing more: that is the way of the Gita. Therefore, to keep the fruit, the effect, of an act in mind as our purpose, is to deflect ourselves from the right motivation and to entangle ourselves in the net of egotism and the snare of binding deeds. – 

When we have taken the time to see things as they are and examine our intentions, we may actually discover that silence or inaction are indeed the wisest response. We find that we can stand for what is right without causing additional suffering for others. Leading by example is underrated in this country, maybe because it isn’t flashy and plays the “long game”. It is a quiet, but very powerful change agent and one over which we actually have some influence.

Life is an Experiment

Since change is constant and nothing lasts forever, life is an experiment with many variables. Like everything else, helping and harming become moving targets. A devoted mindfulness practice reinforces the skills to truly “be here now” so that we have the greatest possibility of responding compassionately and effectively to what is arising and transforming moment by moment.

Equanimity: Feather or Stone, 1 Arrow or 2?

CuracaoWhen it comes to uncontrollable  events and circumstances, are you more like a stone or a feather in the stream of life? A feather floats on the surface, riding the waves and eddies, allowing the current to carry it. A stone sinks into the mud where it is eroded; gradually worn away by friction until, it too, is inevitably taken by the current. In our culture it is considered admirable to resist or fight against unwanted things and to relentlessly pursue things we want. However, this approach can have problematic consequences when applied indiscriminately.

Acceptance is the decision to be a feather in the stream of experience, rather than a stone. It is allowing what is already here, rather than avoiding, pushing away or struggling against it. Sometimes it makes sense to take action in order to change our circumstances. Other times anything we do will only make things worse. Mindfulness provides space to discern and respond with wisdom.

The immediate, unexamined reaction we have to feelings of aversion can contribute enormously to our suffering. This is illustrated beautifully in a Buddhist teaching about the second arrow:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow &, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. – from Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Wisdom comes from a willingness to see things as they are rather than the way we think they should be. A consistent practice of mindfulness, or non-judgmental observation of what arises in any given situation, allows us to gather information we might otherwise miss and to learn from it. This patient accumulation of knowledge creates a sense of trust in experience and cultivates equanimity – balance and calm amidst difficulty.

Meditation teacher Shinzen Young said, “Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence,” calling it a “balanced state of non-self-interference.” Instead of being mindlessly dragged around and dominated by strong emotion or pain, the wisdom and equanimity cultivated through clear seeing bring a calm, undisturbed space in which we have the opportunity to choose our response. We develop the freedom to ask ourselves, “In this moment, will I be a feather or will I be a stone? Will I feel the pain of one arrow or two?”

For a learned person who has fathomed the Dhamma (truth),
clearly seeing this world & the next,
desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His acceptance & rejection are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.

Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state,
he discerns rightly,
has gone, beyond becoming,
to the Further Shore.

– Sallatha Sutta

Foundations of Mindfulness: Body

BackYardBuddhaThe first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body including physical sensations and the breath.

The posture we take during meditation fosters alertness and serves the mind-body connection. We discover that many body sensations arise from constructs of the mind and the mind is the root of much of physical discomfort. Over time we begin to become aware of ever subtler tensions in the body and learn to open to and soften them.

We can use the body sensation of breathing as an object of concentration as it is always with us, ever-present and uninterrupted, as long as we are living. Thoughts and other distractions come and go, but we can always return to the breath. In addition, focusing on the breath has a calming effect for many people (though not for everyone) and so it is a useful starting place in learning to settle the mind.

It is written in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Greater Discourse on Steadfast Mindfulness) that the Buddha instructed monks in mindfulness of the body in the following way:

… a monk, having gone to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty, solitary place; sits down cross legged, keeping his body erect, and directs his mindfulness. Then only with keen mindfulness he breathes in and only with keen mindfulness he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I breathe in a long breath; breathing out a long breath he knows, “I breathe out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I breathe in a short breath; breathing out a short breath he knows, “I breathe out a short breath”, “Aware of the whole breath body, I shall breathe in”, thus he trains himself; “Aware of the whole breath body, I shall breathe out”, thus he trains himself. “Calming the process of breathing, I shall breathe in”, thus he trains himself; “Calming the process of breathing, I shall breathe out”, thus he trains himself… Thus he dwells perceiving again and again the body as just the body, not I, not mine, not self, but just a phenomenon in himself…

We watch the breath, moment by moment, non-judgmentally and with curiosity, from the start of each inhale to the finish of each exhale and the spaces in-between. Without changing the breath in any way, we notice its qualities – its physical sensations of expanding and contracting, entering and exiting – its shifting rhythms and patterns, from breath to breath, day after day. Concentration is strengthened paving the way for deeper levels of meditation. With practice we develop greater wisdom about our habits and reactions that leads us ever closer to clear seeing and liberation.

Svādhyāya: Being a Scholar of the Self

iStock_000006768581_MediumSvādhyāya is the 4th Niyama or virtuous observance, which is the 2nd limb of yoga. It means self-study, self-reflection, or introspection of one’s body and mind, thoughts, speech and actions.

Study thy self, discover the divine. — Yoga Sutra, II.44

Through self-study, we discover our true nature. Who are we behind all the stories we create and the ideas we internalize about ourselves?

Discovering who we truly are emerges from a growing understanding of what we are not. Through meditation and self-reflection we gain insight into our conditioning and habits. We begin to understand the ways in which we cause ourselves and others to suffer. Through asana we engage in observation and get direct feedback from the body, breath and behavior. We see that we are not our bodies or what we think, feel or do. An exploration of wisdom teachings imparts us with the knowledge of great teachers throughout the ages. We benefit from what they learned through their own self-study.

Gradually, with patience and devotion, we shine the light of awareness into all the dark corners, chasing away delusion and illuminating reality. Obscurations are cleared to reveal our eternal essence which was there all the while, just waiting to be discovered.

…human body is cleansed by water, the mind is cleansed by truth, the soul by self-study and meditation, while understanding is cleansed by knowledge. – Vishnu Sutra, 22.92

Attitudes of Mindfulness: Trust

Trust is one of the seven interdependent fundamental attitudes of mindfulness that are consciously cultivated during practice, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn. This is a sense of assuredness in the wisdom of the body, heart and mind to manage itself.

Through practice, confidence builds in our ability to face things. This eventually ripples out to increased trust in the outside world such as other people, relationships and the environment. We develop a certain courage and fearlessness as a result of this conviction.

The attitude of trust is not a matter of naiveté – it is rooted in experience and wisdom gained through consistent practice over time. Trusting in ourselves does not necessarily mean heeding our first unexamined instincts. When the mind is untrained, our initial impulses are often emotion or ego driven and arise out of conditioning and habit. Trusting also doesn’t mean being passive or complacent. We may still choose to act, but trust born of wisdom may prevent us from getting in our own way out of fear or ignorance.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. ― Ernest Hemingway

Trusting in ourselves means believing that we are enough. We come to understand that we already possess everything we need to be fully ourselves – our essential nature is there waiting to be uncovered. We can trust in our good intentions knowing that we all want happiness, even if our actions in its pursuit are sometimes misguided. We can trust in our practice to provide clarity and guide our responses. Trust doesn’t require blind faith – we can test it through experimentation in our practice and through mindfulness in daily life.

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. ― E.E. Cummings

We have to take care not to fall prey to false trust. This is believing that something is trustworthy only if it goes the way we want it to. There are many things we can count on that are unwanted (like death and taxes). In a way, we can even count on uncertainty. These things may seem unpleasant, but they certainly are reliable. Trust means allowing ourselves, others and experience to be as they are, understanding that: 1) each being is on his or her own personal path, and 2) experience unfolds in its own time, within a larger context, beyond the scope of I, me, and mine.

Mindfulness Myths: #2 Its Selfish

GermanStove - Version 2Like anything that is subsumed by popular culture, mindfulness has at times been misrepresented and misunderstood. In this series I attempt to debunk some of the most common myths I encounter in my work as a psychologist and mindfulness coach.

Myth #2: Mindfulness is Selfish Navel-Gazing

I had a client once tell me, “Mindfulness just feels indulgent.” Many new practitioners, including myself in the beginning, experience a nagging sense of guilt about time spent in practice. On the surface it may seem more valuable or caring to spend half an hour checking off items from the never-ending to-list, earning money for the family, or socializing with loved ones than sitting on a cushion watching our breathing or placing our bodies into odd postures and noticing internal sensations.

Waking up is not a selfish pursuit of happiness, it is a revolutionary stance, from the inside out, for the benefit of all beings in existence ― Noah Levine

It is true that practice is for you first – through practice you naturally become a benefactor. However, the ripple effects of devoted practice make it an act of great compassion for others as well. Practice enables us to be our best selves, which, in turn, makes space for others to be at their best, if they so choose.

When we are operating on autopilot as most ordinarily do, we are more likely to react emotionally through a thick veil of bias and attachment. Through our practice we begin to awaken – we see things more clearly and we are better able to respond wisely.

…You are the first victim of your own anger… you first harm yourself and then you harm others – You can’t harm anybody without harming yourself… Unless there is peace in the mind of the individual, how can there be peace in the society? – S. N. Goenka

Navel-gazing implies getting lost in the minutia at the expense of the seeing the bigger picture. However, it is through attending to moment by moment experience on a granular level that we begin to see the big picture – the interdependence and impermanence of all things. Without this understanding, we are living a story of how things should be rather than resting in the wisdom of how things are.

Building and maintaining a mindfulness practice actually takes courage, strength, discipline and devotion. The benefits accrue incrementally and over  time, so consistency and dedication are important. Conviction, which is a sort of faith or freedom from doubt that is cultivated through experience, helps us persevere through all of life’s changes. Finally, courage brings with it a willingness to: 1) sit with difficulty rather than avoiding or fighting against it, and 2) let go of expectations, desires and preferences in order to attend to what is.

It is not those who lack energy or refrain from action, but those who work without expectation of reward who attain the goal of meditation… Those who cannot renounce attachment to the results of their work are far from the path – Bhagavad Gita


Mindfulness Myths: #1 Its Pure Bliss

DangerLike anything that gains popularity and is consumed solely through the (often) superficial lens of the mass media, mindfulness has been mischaracterized and misunderstood. In this series, I will attempt to address some of the most common myths that I encounter around the practices.

Myth #1: The purpose of mindfulness is to relax & stop thinking.

Many new practitioners feel concern or frustration when they do not achieve relaxation, a sense of peacefulness, or a mind free of thoughts when they meditate or try any of the other mindfulness practices. In fact, there are some that are so attached to experiencing “bliss” that they quickly become discouraged and give up.

The real goal of mindfulness is liberation from suffering. By consistently directing bare attention to phenomena we gain insight into reality and free ourselves from the conditioning and habits that color our experiences.

To end internal human suffering, we must see through delusion and awaken to the nature of awareness, not just pacify the mind. – Robert Epstein

Many times we do indeed feel relaxed during practice and our minds become relatively still. At other times the mind is full of incessant chatter. Striving to “empty” it gets us nowhere. In addition, some of what we encounter in practice can be uncomfortable, unpleasant or unwanted. We may experience boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or sensations of pain in the body. Not all phenomena are peace inducing and insisting on bliss will only add to our suffering.

Instead, we set an intention to be open to and present with what is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted. We develop insight into and a new relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and urges to action. Over time we are freed from the grasping and aversion that initially drove our behavior and caused much of our suffering.

The take away: Don’t be discouraged when you encounter difficulty in your mindfulness practice. When it happens, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. Instead, try to cultivate patiencebeginner’s mind and a spirit of friendly curiosity so that you can see it more clearly and relate to it with greater wisdom.


The Cultivation of “Goodness”

germanchurchbrI recently read an article that inspired me to write about cultivating “goodness”. When I first learned that the author is someone known for his very politically “conservative” views, I noticed a sense of surprise emerge – my own habits and assumptions at work! After further consideration, I realized that this only reinforces the concept of a “universal knowing” – that everything, no matter how seemingly disparate, is made up of the same fundamental stuff and this is as it should be and it is enough. All that is required is already here, inherent in everything, and we only need to polish away obscurations, uncover our true nature, and awaken to it.

Many spiritual journeys include some sort of cultivation of goodness toward liberation or awakening. The Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism involves the development of understanding, intention setting, maintaining awareness, as well as being mindful of what we say and do, how we make a living, and where we place our focus and effort. The Eight Limbs of yoga includes guidelines and observances for ethical living, in addition to instructions for training the body, breath, senses, and mind with devotion toward union with the “divine”. The steps along these paths are the skillful means that aid in the uncovering of “truth”, serving to dissolve delusion.

The focus of my own spiritual efforts – my intention for my personal practice and in my coaching practice – is this gradual uncovering of innate wisdom. I trust in the concept of universal knowing – an “inner voice” so to speak – that, in the Dalai Lama’s words is “very small” and easily overlooked:

..our voice is very small. Very small! The other is very shiny!” – the Dalai Lama, Emotional Awareness

If we are not still and objectively observant, we miss it. This voice of wisdom is drowned out by the myriad distractions of everyday life – the insistent pull of immediate gratification or the false promise of immunity from danger. Even when we hear it, we may lack the courage to heed it.

Listening to the inner voice is not an impulsive response to an immediate urge, but a gradual awakening resulting from devoted investigation over a long period of time. It may not be easy to distinguish impulse from true knowing. Habits and desires can be quite seductive and convincing. This is why long-term devotion to practice is needed:

Practice, when continued for a long time, without break, and with devotion, becomes firm in foundation. – Patanjali, Yoga Sutras 1.14

Opening to a deeper wisdom seems challenging and perhaps even frightening to us because it requires surrendering conditioned views, letting go of habitual responses, and releasing desires and aversions. It also requires an acknowledgment of the limits of our control, the impermanence of all things, and our fundamental interdependence. However, this process of letting go releases some of the unconscious tension and tightness we carry around with us produced by continual striving and holding on. A burden is lifted, a softening and a lightness spreads, and an emerging sense of spaciousness and freedom takes bloom.

You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge. But it can only emerge if something fundamental changes in your state of consciousness. ― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth