Archive for October, 2014

Hot & Cold Loneliness

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

This is the fourth of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapter nine through eleven. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.


I find it helpful to think of mindfulness as a skill.  We don’t need to think of it as character, or a “good” way to be—which injects judgment into the practice.  We can say very simply “I am training to handle my thoughts and emotions in a way that will prevent unnecessary suffering.”  There is no single right way to do this that will work.  There is no single way of understanding or “getting” it.  It is for each of us to listen to our teachers and to experiment. If it was just a matter of being told what to think and do,  When Things Fall Apart would be a very short book. It would be something like this:

When Things Fall Apart.  Be aware in the present moment, without judgment and with loving-kindness toward yourself.  Remember: reality is not dualistic. THE END.

What Pema Chödrön’s book is, essentially, is explanations, anecdotes, metaphors and various major and minor practices to help us shift our thinking and behavior as we face our feelings.

One metaphor  that she introduces in these chapter is “touching a bubble with a feather”.   She  encourages us to have a warm and friendly attitude toward whatever arises in our mind—even those unbidden thoughts that we may feel are ruining our mindfulness.  She tells us that whatever arises “what we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as ‘thinking’, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong.  We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather.  This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.”


        One way that she helps us to see and experience things in different ways is to have us look at emotions in detail and with an eye to subtle aspects of a particular emotion.  We are encouraged  to experiment with cultivating a different sort of relationship than what we have typically had with even our most painful thoughts and feelings.  Her teaching on Six Kinds of Loneliness addresses one such difficult emotion. She explains that loneliness is usually experienced as “restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company”.  This she calls hot loneliness.  When we cultivate a different attitude and relationship with our loneliness she describes this as cool loneliness. This, she writes “completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.” Here are six ways of describing cool loneliness:

Less Desire

  • Less Desire is the willingness to sit with our loneliness even as we yearn for something to relieve it.  She writes, “After we practice Less Desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts…  So even if the hot loneliness is there, and 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior. That’s the path of bravery.”


  • She says that we tend to draw a line. We say, for example, I’m happy on the left side and unhappy if I’m on the right.  Without the line and the good and bad sides we are uneasy.  Without a reference point to tell us to be happy or sad we have to deal with the uneasiness of gray.  She tells us, “we can either freak out or settle in.”  Contentment is living with the uneasiness that comes when we give up on “happy ever after”.  We give up on thinking ‘if only we were with the right person at the right place we would be happy’.  “Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times… with awareness”, she writes.  “Then without even noticing, something begins to shift.  We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening”

Avoiding Unnecessary Activity

  • When loneliness is heated it fuels a frantic search for a way out or for something to save us.  We may create busy work, create drama through gossip, or get caught up in fantasy or obsessive thinking. “The point is”, she writes, “that in all these activities we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness.” This demon, when we stop running and then turnaround and look it in the eyes, becomes our teacher.

Complete Discipline

  • Complete discipline is the practice of coming back to the present moment and coming back again to the present moment with patience and no judgment, cultivating cool loneliness even as the hot loneliness sends our mind elsewhere.   There is no need to cultivate this type of loneliness because it arises naturally as part of human experience. We don’t need to invite loneliness or push it away. We don’t have to like it.  But we are wise to allow ourselves to experience it when it arises.  Pema goes as far as to say, “We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.”

Not Wandering in the World of Desire

  • We desire food, drink, people, sex, etc.  It is not these things, per se, that are the problem.  It is desire for them that is problematic.  Desire brings us away from the moment; desire is so often about running from an uncomfortable moment, such as a moment of loneliness.  Desire puts us at great risk of attachment to the thing that we desire.  She tells us, “The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay.
  • Wandering into desire is a way of remaining childish and dependent.  We wish or believe that someone will take care of things—take care of us;  that mom is there to make all the hurts go way.  Not wandering into desire is to leave home “ and becoming homeless”, as P puts it. It’s about “relating directly with how things are.  Loneliness is not a problem.  Loneliness is nothing to be solved.”

Not Seeking Security from Ones Discursive Thought

  • Cool loneliness is to not expect that our constant internal chatter will give us security.  We find we don’t need to talk “with ourselves about how it is and how it isn’t, whether it is or whether it isn’t, whether it should or whether it shouldn’t, whether it can or whether it can’t”. Further, Pema tells us that that is why we are instructed to label these things “thinking”.  “[This chatter] has no objective reality”, she tells us. “We’re encouraged to just touch that chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing”



After settling in to your sitting and concentrating on your breath for some moments, experiment with different metaphors for dealing with any thoughts that arise during meditation and for staying with strong emotions.  Spend a few moments with each metaphor.

  • Metaphors for not grasping any thoughts that arise:
    • Touching a bubble with a feather
    • Clouds passing over a clear sky
    • Waves on a beach
    • A barge floating down a river
    • A butterfly alighting on a flower and flying away


  • Metaphors for facing and staying with strong emotions that may arise:
    • Turn around and face the emotion (anxiety, loneliness, sadness) that is following you.  Look it in the eyes and ask, “What do you have to teach me?”
    • Pay attention to a particular emotion.  Notice it’s heat—it’s urgency.  As you stay with it imagine it cooling.
    • Notice where a particular emotion is within your body. Feel its hardness.  As you stay with it imagine it softening.
      • Or feel its solid-ness and its dense-ness.  Imagine it dissipating like fog as the sun arises; or imagine it lightening.

Link to online discussion:  DISCUSSION    If your not already member and would like to be, contact me at






Saturday, October 18th, 2014

buddhaOne of the basic Buddhist precepts is Nonagression.  If you’re like me, when you first take this seriously you realize how often you are aggressive and you feel guilty for the times you’ve lost your temper, harmed someone close to you, or feel ashamed for past behaviors that you now see as hurtful. From the standpoint of mindfulness, such feelings of guilt and shame are actually harming ourselves and are therefore considered aggressive.  This is when my thinking starts to loop—because then I start to feel incompetent for feelings guilt and shame, yet the feeling of incompetence is a kind of shame.  Of course all this makes me feel grumpy and then I lose my temper with my wife.  You get what I’m saying.

This kind of thinking-loop is at the core of all kinds of obsessive thinking, not just about outright aggressive behavior.  So what’s to be done about it?  In chapter 6, Not Causing Harm, Pema Chödrön tells us how to do this beginning with maitri—loving-kindness toward oneself.  She feels that it is so important for us to confront this aggressiveness-toward-self with love that she writes, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” She goes on to say, “The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see”.

            She talks about the shock people feel when they realize  how blinded they are to some of the ways they cause harm.  And right away, how painful it is to face it. This is why courage is needed.  She sees it as “a journey that happens because of our commitment to gentleness and honesty, our commitment to staying awake, to being mindful.”

            She then introduces the practice of refraining.  Refraining is an approach for dealing with our difficulty with staying in the moment.  When we are still, there is the urge to move;  when we have an unpleasant emotion there is the urge to change focus.   When things naturally arise such as boredom, anger or craving we often automatically do something to fix it.   When we actively refrain, from fixing or shifting away we can actually notice the space between the arising of the craving, or whatever, and our action to shift our fix.

Think of an itch.  It can seem that a scratch automatically follows an itch, because we feel compelled to scratch.  But if, through restraint, and mindful attention we experience the space between the itch and the scratch, what had seemed like cause and effect is actually not cause and effect.   It is a space outside of cause and effect that makes us uneasy because it is uncertain and we don’t know if we can stand it.

She tells us that this space is groundlessness, the fundamental nature of things in Buddhist philosophy.  Things are not entirely predictable because everything is impermanent; nothing is solid.

OCD To Do list             The practice of refraining is akin to “response prevention”—a behavior therapy technique  for dealing with obsessive – compulsive disorder (OCD). For example, someone who washes their hands compulsively will be told by the therapist to touch something that they see as unclean and then they are to refrain from washing their hands.  This is worked out with the client ahead of time and done in a gradual way so not to overwhelm them.  The term “response prevention” means to refrain from responding in the compulsive way when one is exposed to the anxiety that precedes ones compulsion.

            OCD is really just an extreme form of a common human tendency.  A compulsion is an attempt to re-establish a sense of order when one is anxious.  Say, for example, that you are anxious about completing your tax return.  You sit down to your desk which is disorganized and feel a sense of relief and readiness once you’ve organized your desk.  Each time you sit down to your desk after that you “organize” it whether or not it is in disorder. You might sharpen pencils that aren’t that dull or line up the stapler neatly with the other items on the desk.  Over time if the organization ritual continues and expands even as the sense of relief diminishes you have probably developed a compulsion.

From the Buddhist perspective, our tendency towards obsessions and compulsions are universal.  They are pervasive and built in so that, particularly the subtler behaviors, we aren’t  aware of them.  Refraining is a practice to see these behaviors and to experiment with breaking the chain between the anxiety and the automatic response.




Seat yourself for meditation and follow your  natural breath for a few moments.


Then scan your body and note anything that is  uncomfortable or annoying.  An itch, your positioning,  the way your leg is.  Remain seated for, what for you, is a fairly long period of time.  Practice refraining by doing nothing to change anything that is uncomfortable or annoying—e.g., refrain from scratching an itch; refrain from shifting your position. Pay attention to the space that you’ve  created between the urge and your reaction.  Notice what you are feeling physically and emotionally and notice what you are thinking.  Also notice changes in your thoughts or in how you feel physically or emotionally.



If you have already accepted an invitation to be part of the discussion go to: DISCUSSION

Next Post: 10/25/14

This is the third of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapters six through eight. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.






Facing Our Pain

Saturday, October 11th, 2014


Facing Pain


This is the second of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapter three through five. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.



You may recall from the introduction that Pema Chödrön identified the main underlying thread of the seven years of her talks that led to this book.  This thread is maitri. I thought it would be helpful to begin the discussion of chapters three through five by describing maitri in more detail.

Maitri (pronounced mītrē): Developing loving-kindness and unconditional friendship with ourselves. Maitri is to observe clearly and accurately “who we are, what we do; seeing our patterns and habits” while loving ourselves. To have maitri is to see ones habits and patterns unvarnished AND with unconditional friendliness.  She emphasizes that this is not self-improvement process “rather it is a process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask to hide us.”  It is “giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart.”

In chapter three she writes, “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators.  We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives”. 

So we meditate to be awake—not to be good at it, not to be good. And what is it that we are to be awake too?  We are to be awake to Here and to Now.  Here and Now. That is, this very moment is the perfect teacher—the teacher that we need right here and right now.   We have, then, a very reliable teacher who is always here when needed.

But what if this teacher tells us, as Pema Chödrön’s  teacher told her, that we are to “lean into the sharp points”—that we are to confront the painful things, the things that our instincts tell us to run from.  What if this very moment is a very painful moment—a moment of fear, despair or shame?  What if this moment seems unbearably lonely?  Is this really a teacher we should stay with?  

It at first seems contradictory to self-love to expose ourselves to such pain.  Besides, it is very hard to do without lots of practice.  The point, however, is that suffering is lessened by facing pain, seeing it for what it is and coming to understand it’s impermanence. This is hard to do but it can be learned.  Having the courage to learn this is an act of love and compassion toward ourselves. 


Here’s how Pema Chödrön puts it:


“The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening… Basically, life has just nailed us…

            “Most if us do not take these situations as teachings.  We automatically hate them.  We run like crazy.  We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it.  We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain…

            “Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear… What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance.  We’re able to see how we run and hide and keep ourselves busy so that we have to let our hearts be penetrated.  And we’re also able to see how we could open and relax.”  So when we begin to apply this to our lives and don’t succeed, we begin to see and learn from it.


So what is the alternative to staying with the moment as it is?  The alternative is to run, hide or pad it with something.  We push away reality and grasp comfort or what, at first, seems like protection.  Since what we grasp  is not real comfort or real protection we continue to grasp for more, in the futile hope that we will find something we can hold on to.  This endless chase, with only temporary relief until we need to grasp for more,  is the very core of addiction.


If only we can stay with our teacher—this present moment, however painful, we can learn what it has to teach. “To the degree that we’re willing to see our indulging and our repressing clearly”, Pema Chödrön writes, “they begin to wear themselves out.  Wearing out is not exactly the same as going away.  Instead, a wider, more generous, more enlightened perspective arises.” She encourages us during the most difficult moments, “When we reach our limit, if we aspire to know that place fully—which is to say that we aspire to neither indulge nor repress—a hardness in us will dissolve.”


Meditation Tips:

  • The goal is mindfulness.  Meditation is the vehicle.  We do not strive to be good meditators.
  • Mindfulness is broad awareness versus laser focus.  It is helpful to think of soft focus.
  • Clear awareness is impermanent.  That is the nature of things.  Just like clear sky is impermanent.  Just like still water is impermanent.  A cloud passes through the clear sky.  The winds creates a ripple in the water.  Then it passes. So do not expect   many consecutive moments of clear awareness—if you have three seconds that is great..
  • Label you discursive thoughts, “thinking”.  Do this without judgment, with maitri, loving-kindness toward yourself.


Exercise:  After having established self in this sitting, comfortable but with straight back and relaxed chest and with eyes closed or half-closed:


Say to yourself (aloud or silently) “I am here and this is now.”  For moment be aware of the space you are in with everything around you but focus on nothing in particular.  You can look around or with your eyes closed scan the space by memory.


After awhile, shift your  focus to a worry, pain or sorrow that is present to you today.  Think of the trouble as following you as you walk away and then you turn around, stop and face it.  Say to it, “What do you have to teach me today?”

Then turn you mind to your body.  Where do you feel this worry, pain or sorrow; in your chest? In your gut?  What does it feel like?  Notice it’s solidity—it’s density.  “Ask yourself, is this really as solid and as dense as it feels; is this really as solid, as dense and as enduring as I think or fear it is?”  Maybe your answer, in the moment is “yes”.  That is okay.  Accept this.  Say to yourself  “At this moment my (worry, pain, sorrow) feels solid, dense & enduring.  Even as I am learning this may not be the case.”

If you can locate a different pain, sorrow or worry in your body shift your awareness there.  Focus on that for a moment in the same we just did.  If you don’t have another pain, worry or sorrow sit mindfully for a few minutes.


If you have already accepted an invitation to be part of the discussion go to: DISCUSSION

Next Post: 10/17/14


Leaning into the Sharp Points

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

No Sharp Objects

This is the first of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses the book’s introduction through chapter two. To find out more or to ask to be of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.

Pema Chödrön’s teacher advised his students to lean into the sharp points;  kind of seems like a teacher you’d want to back away from—after all we have been trained to avoid sharp objects!

This is how Pema Chödrön introduces us to her book When Things Fall Apart.  She is instructing us to move toward the very things we want to run from.  At the book’s outset we find her, enviably,  on a year long sabbatical relaxing—“I read and hiked and slept,” she wrote.  But she began, less enviably, to confront two cardboard boxes filled with 7 years of transcripts from her own talks looking for a unifying thread.   And some of us, looking for a unifying thread in our own lives,  at some point picked up this book that was the product of her courage to face two cardboard boxes filled with transcripts.

She discovered that the unifying thread was the great need for maitri (mītrē; loving-kindness toward oneself), and developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others… that we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation. The other underlying theme was dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid.”

In reading Chapter One, Intimacy with Fear, it occurred to me that the psychological purpose of fear is to get our attention—to become aware of something that it is vitally important to be aware of.   For example, if our prehistoric ancestors walked through a forest where a Sabre-Toothed Tiger had killed a friend,  fear provided the emotional/physiological alertness necessary for survival.  While this evolutionary trait has contributed to our survival it has also saddled us with millions of years of conditioning.   The vast majority of the thousands of fears we experience in our everyday lives are more like the fear of being late for dinner than the fear of being dinner for a large cat.   Unfortunately, because of this evolutionary residue we tend to greatly overreact, to fight or to flee, when simple alertness and attention are what we need.  The goal of mindful practice is alert awareness.  With true awareness and the space to breath we can face what we fear without fighting it or fleeing it.  Practicing mindfulness develops what is called a “beginner’s mind”  a mind open and free of conditioning.  In one sense, mindfulness is a process of unlearning the conditioned responses of anger and fear.

In the second chapter, she tells us that when she looks back at the moment when her life fell apart—her husband announcing he was divorcing her—she now realizes that he saved her life.  “When that marriage fell apart”, she wrote, “I tried hard—very, very hard—to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place.  Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off.  Instinctively I knew that annihilation of my old dependent, clinging self was the only way to go.”

            Consider mindfulness to be a practice for what to do when things fall apart because things will fall apart.  It is the reality of all things.  The athlete at her peak, the intellectual at the zenith of his powers will, however slowly, decline.  This is the nature of things.  To say it is bad is to make a judgment.  To look at things mindfully is to look at things realistically and without judgment.  Pema writes that things “come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again.  It’s just like that.  The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”  By this acceptance we loosen up where we once tensed up; we open up were we once closed down.   We can then, even in the face of painful realities, loosen and lighten up.


Exercise:  When people who have been blind or deaf their entire lives have their senses restored through medical technology, they cannot at first make sense of the visual or audio stimulation.  This is true of newborns as well.  Our perceptions do not immediately have meaning to us.  To live in the world our minds learn not only to read  and organize perceptions but develop associations with them: “open flames are beautiful and painful” but also things like, “young black men with hoodies are dangerous”.  Without viewing our perceptions anew we may confuse what is really real and what is fear-based judgments.

Begin in a seated position. Close your eyes or, alternatively, lower your eyes but keep them open with a soft gaze several feet out. Then slowly scan each of your senses: feeling, hearing, seeing; for smelling and tasting you may want to recall a smell or taste if one is not immediately available.  Slowly and one-by-one, try to imagine each of the five senses as if you were experiencing them for the first time.  For example, hear the sound of a car driving past, a dog barking a door shutting* as if you didn’t know what they were.  Hear them only as sounds without thinking about how they were made.  This is a practice of “beginner’s mind”.  Don’t worry if you are unable to succeed in freeing your sensations from their associations.  Just realize, then, how strong the associations are.

* In a mindfulness practice these are not “noises” or disturbances but sounds that can be acknowledged and let go of.  You don’t need to practice in a totally quiet or serene environment.  For starters, though, its not advisable to practice on your patio while the house next door is being demolished. But within reason accept small disturbances.

If you have already accepted an invitation to be part of the discussion go to: DISCUSSION

Next Post: 10/11/14,

Resources:  For a definition of meditation go to the mindfulness resource page at Mindfulness Resources.