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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 16

 Loving-Kindness Meditation (metta meditation, compassion meditation)

All of us know what compassion is. All traditions teach us that we should practice compassion. Some of us are, by nature, compassionate. Some of us have to learn to be compassionate. How do we learn? What are some of the basics we should learn, or be aware of, before learning Loving-kindness or Metta or Compassion meditation? (I plan to use the words loving-kindness, compassion, and metta meditation interchangeably) Buddhist meditation methods give us several tools.

I learnt loving-kindness meditation during one of the week-long retreats I attended with Rev. Thich Naht Hahn. It was an eye-opener. I realized very soon that one has prepare oneself to practice loving-kindness meditation. That preparation includes learning about and practicing Forgiveness,  Gratitude, Connecting to the five universal elements and Self-compassion.

To be compassionate to someone else, we must first be compassionate to ourselves. To be compassionate to oneself and not be too self-critical, one must look deeply and reflect on one’s own feelings, thoughts, and behavior. One must be able to accept the weaknesses and forgive oneself. This must be followed by efforts to remedy them to the extent possible. One should replace those “bad seeds” with many “good seeds” available within oneself. This is positive psychology.

It will be easier to practice compassion towards others if we understand how all of us are inter-connected and inter-dependent. Five element meditation will help recognize the fact that each one of us – indeed every life form – is made of the same basic elements, namely earth, water, fire, air and space. We are all made up of the same elements from star dust and energized by the same source. The source from which all of us came is a part of everyone. Therefore, part of you is in me and part of me is in you. If we can see this fact deeply and intuitively and feel it “in our bones”, there is no way we will do anything that is harmful to others. We cannot but feel the pain of others when they suffer.

One other step before practicing loving-kindness meditation is the ability to forgive others. Without forgiving others for their “perceived” weakness and real ones, we cannot truly be compassionate and send a message of good will and say with sincerity: “may you be well; may you be safe; may you be free from suffering”.

There are several sources to learn each one of these steps. The following is a list of a few.

Forgiveness meditation  by Jack Kornfeld (First 12 minutes for Forgiveness)

Self-ForgivenessMeditation, by Jack Kornfield - YouTube

Magical mantra (on gratitude and Thank you)   A magicalmantra for nurturing a blissful life | JayaShri Maathaa - YouTube

 Gratitude| Louie Schwartzberg | TEDxSF - Bing video

 FiveElements Meditation 360 Video - YouTube

Positive Psychology Exercises: Self Compassion Letter & Your Daily Holiday - Bing video

CompassionMeditation | Practice | Greater Good in Action (berkeley.edu)

TaraBrach Leads a Guided Meditation: The RAIN of Self Compassion - Bing video

Meditationon the Elements that Comprise the Body - Wake Up International (wkup.org)

https://www.mindful.org/category/meditation/   

This  last  site has guided meditations for Breath awareness, Body relaxation and Compassion also. This is the final essay on Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence. Hope they were helpful.


Saturday, January 9, 2021

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 15

 One of the strengths of mindfulness meditation is that it can be practiced with any daily activity. It helps you focus on whatever you are doing at present with full attention. As Rev Thich Naht Hahn used to say, you can be mindful when you are washing dishes or driving a car or answering a phone call. Instead of grumbling about having to wash dishes, you focus on the activity, enjoying the water falling on your hand, the softness of the soap, the clean dishes at the end and the fact that you are being helpful.

In what he calls “red light meditation”, Rev. Thich Naht Hanh suggests that when you come across a red light while driving, you stop, take a deep breath, relax the tense muscles, enjoy the present moment instead of complaining about the delay.

If you are doing research, you calm yourself down, take  two or three deep breaths and bring your focus to the here and now. The project will go that much smoother. The same can be said about prayers, using mindfulness meditation to bring to focus your mantra or visual image.

Walking can be a great time for mindfulness at several levels, particularly for people who just cannot sit still.  Here are two links to walking meditation. Walking meditation   AGuided Walking Meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn by mindful.org | Mindful Org |Free Listening on SoundCloud

OnWalking Meditation | Thich Nhat Hanh - YouTube

In addition to taking each step mindfully, you can also use this time to focus on the sunlight, the natural scenery and sounds around you. You can reflect on the fallen leaves and how they remind us of our own lives. As Rev. Hanh used to say: the leaves of this year become the manure for the next year. If you look deeply at those leaves, you should be able to see the sunlight, the rain and the earth elements in them. I have often reflected on the interrelationship between our lives and the lives of the trees – they give us the oxygen we breath; we give out carbon dioxide which plants to use to make their energy. 

 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 14

 There are Buddhist meditation techniques with focus on each one of the steps listed earlier. Samatha meditation is for calming the mind. Vipassana meditation is to help look deeply at the way our mind works. There is the Karuna meditation (compassion) and Tongleng meditation (for taking up the suffering of others) etc., They are not one dimensional. Each system has focus on one area but all of them have some common underlying Buddhist teachings at the core, including mindful breathing and being in the present moment. (The three seals of Buddhism, namely anatman or non-self, anitya or impermanence and nirvana are basic teachings in all branches of Buddhism)

Although these Buddhist meditation techniques (and also Hindu methods) are used commonly as part of wellness programs for stress-relief or insight into destructive mental habits, it should be possible to use these as steppingstones to higher levels of spiritual training. That does not mean one should become a recluse or an ascetic to practice meditation. But one can use meditation to grow in spiritual direction and develop helpful, healthy mental attitudes to life. 

I do not plan to venture into all the above areas. However, I plan to write my ideas on how to practice compassion and loving-kindness meditation since I believe strongly that we need as many people as possible in this world to learn and practice compassion meditation so that future generations can live in a peaceful world. It goes without saying that it is not enough to meditate on compassion - it should lead to practice. 

Once you have learnt to meditate with focus on the breath, you can learn to focus on various parts of the body and experience whatever sensations you feel in those parts. You learn to just observe and accept them without judgment or without any need to change what is real. This practice helps in several ways.

First, if there is itching in some part of the body, just observing it, and acknowledging it without a need to scratch, allows you to change your attitude to that sensation. If it is pain, by taking the time to experience it, you may be able to realize that you have been catastrophizing the pain and making it worse. You may realize that you have been imagining many bad outcomes in the future or disappointed about activities you may have to forego. This should make it clear that living in the present moment with focus on breath and the current pain, removes the sting of the anxieties about the future. Buddha calls the secondary pain associated with fear and anxieties as the “second arrow”.

This method is used currently as an adjunct to the treatment of many chronic conditions associated with pain. Studies have shown that learning to practice mindful meditation  gives a sense of control to the sufferer, reduces the need for pain medicines and improves the quality of life.

Second, by learning to focus on body parts and recognize various kinds of sensations (pain, tightness, warmth, tension etc.,) will be helpful when learning to understand our own emotions. For example, we know how our face gets flushed, voice trembles and hands shake when we get angry. Or we may feel a sense of sinking in the abdomen, when we are scared. By being aware of these sensations, next time any one of these sensations are felt and recognized we will be able to realize that we are about to get angry or get anxious or depressed and use that insight to modify our behavior instead of reflexive outburst or retreat.

This can also be used to practice gratitude meditation. We take our eyes and the ears and the legs for granted. They keep working constantly. How wonderful it will be to stop, meditate and relate to parts of our own body, experience the miracle of life and be thankful that every cell in our body is working to keep us afloat!

During one of the meditation-retreats I attended with Rev. Thich Naht Hanh, I learnt to go one level deeper. With focus on each organ, I learnt to say “thank you”, appreciate the miracle of each organ and also take a personal pledge to do things which will strengthen that organ. That gave me a chance to promise to avoid habits which are damaging to that organ. For example, when I am focusing on liver, I can promise not to drink alcohol and  to  eat healthy balanced food ; while focusing on the lung, promise to exercise regularly and not to smoke etc.,

Now, here is a link to a guided relaxation video from Ms. Tara Brach, a popular meditation teacher.      TaraBrach Leads a Guided Meditation for Sleep and Relaxation - YouTube

Monday, December 28, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - 13

 How do Buddha’s teachings form the basis for different types of meditation?

Although Buddha himself learnt from the Vedas and practiced the austerities taught at that time in history, he rejected them. He said that one should not be indulging in all the attractions and run after satisfying all kinds of desires in life; but he rejected asceticism also. That is why he called his method “The Middle Way”. His method of approach to life and practice differ.

In Buddhist meditation, the focus is on this life and how to live here and now

Buddhist teachings give you specific steps which are easy to follow. No belief is needed in some energy center, the other world, strict rituals etc.

Buddhist teachings follow normal human psychology and the methods they teach such as calming, deep looking, compassion etc., have now been substantiated as valid by neuro-scientific studies such as functional MRI of the brain.

You can use  meditation to calm the mind and relax the body and stop there. It will still be useful.

But it can also be used for spiritual growth. In fact, any one from any religion can use these methods to concentrate on their prayers.

There are specific meditation lessons such as Forgiveness Meditation, Compassion Meditation and Gratitude Meditation to develop these positive attitudes.

Deep looking meditation can help understand one’s own self better. In this method we first learn to know what our strength is before we work on our problem area such as anxiety or fear. This is unlike the western system where a medical paradigm is used and therefore the focus is on the problem area, on the “mental disease”.

Although meditation techniques are not meant to treat psychiatric disorders, specific kinds of meditations may be useful as adjunct to standard forms of treatment in competent hands.

In simple terms, Buddha diagnosed human suffering just like physicians diagnose physical ailments. He just observed and  made the diagnosis: suffering is part of life and is real. Second, he said that the cause of this suffering can be found. Third, he said that it is possible to stop this suffering and that a treatment is available. Finally, he gave the treatment – in the form of Noble Eightfold Paths. That is why Buddha is called the “Physician of the Mind” in modern mental health literature.

For reducing human suffering and for spiritual and emotional growth, we must first be aware of our current condition and how the mind works. That is only possible if we learn to control the mind from running in different directions and pay attention to the present moment. We have to accept the fact that life is a mixture of happiness and suffering. We have to accept the present condition as is without judgement – not running away from it. Not burying it. We have to train our mind from not living in the past ruminating or living in the future worrying and in anxiety. We have to learn to avoid distractions and learn to focus. In essence, this is what is meant by the concept of “being mindful and living in the present moment”.

Next, we must learn that fundamental causes of suffering are desire, attachment, craving, clinging onto things and concepts, and not learning to let go. We must also learn abut hindrances to our ability to meditate and look at ourselves deeply. These are laziness, anxiety, delusion, doubt and distraction.

Before listing the Eightfold Noble path, Buddha said that suffering can be controlled, minimized or eliminated by retraining our mind. In other words, he suggested the possibility of neuroplasticity almost 2000 years back! Problems will be there, but we can learn to look at it differently through meditation. This is what is called behavioral therapy in modern terminology. These suggestions are found to be true by recent studies that show structural and functional changes in the brain following various meditation techniques. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 12

 Here are some reinforcement ideas to help with daily meditation

Consistent practice is the most important

Same time, same place, and same posture are helpful

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said:  “If you want to get water in a riverbed, stay at one place and dig deep; do not keep moving after a couple of digs”.

We should not get overly stuck with detailed techniques of sitting and holding the breath etc. They are helpful but distracts you in the beginning

The focus should be on calming the mind. Patanjali starts his book on Yoga sastra with those exact words.

It is not controlling the mind

It is breathing normally and being aware of it

It is just bringing the mind back gently to your own breath every time it wanders

If you find that the mind has wandered, it is not a failure; it means you are mindful

Mindful means being in the present moment with your breath as your anchor and bringing the body and mind in one place

Mindfulness means being in the present and not in the past or in the future

The past is like a tape-recorder which keeps playing the same tune

The future is not knowable anyway; it just causes anxiety.

So be preset here and now with your breath

If the mind runs away, acknowledge it, accept the fact it has wandered and gently bring it back

Only thing is you do not judge yourself. Nor do you chase that thought

You recognize it and get back to the breath

Be a witness to your thoughts. That is what the Upanishads say

A witness is not judging; just recording what happened

The easiest way is to sit with intention to practice for a few minutes (just 2 to 5 minutes) in the beginning but gradually prolonging so you do meditation for at least 20 minutes

Intention and intensity of practice, and consistency are the main requirements

You will be disappointed if you sit for meditation expecting specific results, or expect results soon

Friday, December 18, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence - Series 11

 

Let us get started.

Here is a link to guided meditation on Breathing by Rev. Thich Naht Hanh.  https://youtu.be/tcEGMSaQZks.  Please just follow the instructions. The mind will tend to wander. Please recognize the “mind wandering” and get right back to the breath.

What if you are under stress right now and you are not able to work through the concerns and distractions?  Please try this link. It may help you to get back to breathing.

 Meditationfor Working with Difficulities | UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center -YouTube

Ideally, you should assign a specific time of the day. If you cannot, it should be possible to pause several times a day for just one minute, stop what you are doing, take a breath or two mindfully and bring yourself to the present moment. That is what some physicians learn to do, just before they enter a patient’s room.

Finally, what if you are not able to sit for a few minutes but some sensation such as itching or slight pain in one of part of the body makes it difficult to focus on the breath? Please use that as an opportunity not to respond immediately. In other words, if there is an itch, just observe it for a few seconds at least. Use that opportunity to learn the difference between the sensation itself and the way our habit energy makes us respond to it immediately by scratching. You will be amazed to find, just as I was, that the itching will go away in a few more seconds or in a  minute or two.

That leads to another learning opportunity. Various sensations we experience and various emotions we experience are transient. They come and go, if only we learn how to observe them for what they are and not make them worse. This will also help us learn how to use mindful meditation to relax muscles and deal with physical pain. 

Intention, Attention, Attitude

Neuroscientists who are studying meditation have found three components to mindfulness . They are Intention, Attention and Attitude. These stages are clearly correlated with changes in the brain as demonstrated in several imaging studies. The following two links will open relevant articles on this topic.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-reveals-the-secrets-of-meditation-s-benefits/

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/new-way-look-mindfulness (Please open the video at the beginning of this article) 

Neuroscientists have noted that there are three stages to the meditation process. They are intention to practice which determines how well you develop a routine and stick with it and how you prepare your body and mind for this practice;  how well you focus your attention on breath (or sound or mantra) and avoid distraction; and how you develop and maintain an attitude conducive to the practice. Amazingly, there are distinct changes in the areas of the brain and their interconnections which get activated during each of these stages. Here are some links to articles and videos.

ShaunaShapiro: Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain - YouTube


Monday, December 14, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence - Series 10

 Why is it important to learn about physiology when our interest is in learning meditation?

It is because of two basic facts: 1. many studies have shown that meditation, mindfulness meditation in particular,  is helpful in learning skills to deal with stresses in everyday life. 2. Whereas our sympathetic nervous system is set on alert when stressed, we also have a parasympathetic nervous system which has effects opposite to that of the sympathetic nervous system. Activation of this leads to slowing down of breathing, slowing down of the heart rate, and lowering of blood pressure. Just the act of breathing slow and deep has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the scientific basis of  the focus on breathing in all kinds of meditation. Our ancestors did not know physiology as we do now. But they knew that during meditation both breathing rate and heart rate can be slowed.

What are some avenues to reduce stress?

Each one of us have developed our own method for reducing stress. For example, meditation and music are my favorite methods. You may like walking in the woods or hiking or fishing. Enjoying activities with family and friends is a stress-buster. Behavioral scientists recommend good sleep, moderate physical activity, healthy diet, social interactions and positive outlook on life for mental health and stress-reduction. In studies on physicians who work in high-intensity specialties such as emergency room and neurosurgery, meditation and journal writing (diary) were found to reduce stress and burn-out. I have written about this in my blog on Dealing with Stress.  

https://www.timeforthought.net/2016/08/dealing-with-stress-letter-to-my.html

Here is where mindfulness meditation comes in. In addition to its beneficial effects on the body with stress reduction and muscle relaxation, it helps also with the mind and mental relaxation. Our mind operates (thinks) most of the time in one of two modes: goal seeking and therefore anxious and  avoiding dangers and therefore stressed. Our thoughts are often highjacked by distraction, emotions, imagination and addictions. Some of us tend to ruminate about the past or stay anxious about the future.

Mindfulness training offers an alternative, a healthy alternative. It teaches us to be alert and aware, focus on the present moment, and without an impulse to act on the thoughts reflexively. It teaches us to give time to reflect on the thoughts non-judgmentally, without suppressing them or running away from them.

By giving this time to slow down and reflect, mindfulness training helps us to avoid habitual, reflexive responses. Instead, it helps us to learn to observe the sensations we experience under stress and separate them from the narrative our mind creates, based on memories from the past or anxieties about the future.

For example, when we have pain in the chest, the pain is physical and real, and it causes suffering by itself. It is often made worse by the fear that it may be a heart attack. It may well be a heart attack. But our imagination and anxiety make it worse. The anxiety that we may have to cancel a scheduled conference next week adds to the suffering due to the pain itself. Instead, the mindfulness method teaches us to acknowledge the pain and take care of it without allowing the secondary concerns to make it worse. By looking at the pain mindfully we recognize and take care of the real pain experienced at the present moment by getting the needed medical help. By slowing down and reflecting, we realize that the concerns about next week may not come true and are the creations of the mind. This is change of attitude to the pain. This is behavior modification.

Mindfulness training teaches us also about positive psychology. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lfth1bJKMmA&ab_channel=PositivePsychology-com

Buddhist teaching says that all of us have wholesome tendencies, qualities and thoughts and also unwholesome, negative qualities. Thich Naht Hanh uses an analogy of  "basement and first floor" of a house with basement having several  flowering pots. There are pots, one for each “seed” of positive quality and one each for negative quality. This basement is what he calls the “seed mind”. The plants (qualities) grow depending on which seeds we water most. Whichever one we feed will show up at the first floor. It may be a beautiful flower or a weed, depending on what we feed, how often we feed it and how intensely. The first floor is a metaphor for outward behavior.

The point is that we all have the potential to be good or bad. We are not all angels, or devils. We are a mixture. It depends on which seeds we water that determines whether a flower or a weed will show up.

Put differently, whenever our weakness shows up and overwhelms us, it is best to stop watering the seed for a weed and replace it with the seed for a strength, a good quality. This is positive psychology. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to do this. Unlike Freudian psychology which works on the weakness (disease) of the people first, the Buddhist psychology says that one should work first on one’s strength. This will make the defeat of the weakness that much easier.

In summary, mindful meditation methods teach us how to be in control of the situation and of our emotions, instead of the situations and emotions controlling our thoughts and actions.