Returning to the Roots of Mindfulness: The Four Noble Truths

I’m astonished at the impact of Buddhism on contemporary Western culture. Psychologists are churning out books about mindfulness at a pace that still surprises me.

In all the hoopla, however, we can forget that mindfulness — the precise and nonjudgmental awareness of our present-moment experience — is an ancient teaching. It comes directly from the Four Noble Truths taught nearly two millennia ago by the Buddha.

When an idea such as mindfulness ignites so quickly and spreads so widely, we benefit by returning to its historical origins. Then we can check for current misunderstandings.

The biggest danger is that we’ll cherry-pick such ancient teachings for “tips and tricks” that feed our desires for success, sex, and money — and ignore anything else. Preventing this outcome is the main reason for this post.

Please note that my understanding of the Four Noble Truths is shaped largely by the teachings of Steve Hagen, author of Buddhism Plain and Simple. I find his explanation of the Four Noble Truths to be the most penetrating and useful.

The First Noble Truth: Dukkha

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that dukkha exists.

Unfortunately, the word  dukkha is untranslatable. It is often rendered in English as  suffering. But this misleading. Even sukkha — satisfaction, or pleasure — falls within the realm of dukkha if we relate to it in an unwholesome way.

We’ll better understand dukkha when we remember two things.

First, dukkha is a layered concept. The most obvious layer is pain — physical and emotional. Yet there’s much more.

Dukkha also points to the fact that  everything changes. Our experience is pure flux. Even the most intense pleasures fade away.

We usually ignore this fact, though. We try to make some experiences last forever and other experiences end forever. The result is that we are duped and constantly at odds with reality.

That’s dukkha in a deeper sense. It’s a profound  dissatisfaction with a basic fact of our existence — impermanence.

Second, dukkha can end. You’ll often see the First Noble Truth rendered as “life is suffering,” but that’s inaccurate.

The whole message of Buddhism is that dukkha is optional. We don’t have to suffer. We don’t have to struggle with change.

In fact, we can relate to impermanence in a way that liberates us. And the rest of the Noble Truths explain how.

The Second Noble Truth: How Dukkha Arises

The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a source — our tendency to grasp at pleasure and repress pain.

The Buddha called referred to this tendency as tanha, which we can translate as  craving.

To understand craving is to make a life-changing discovery: Dukkha does not result from painful circumstances in life or the behavior of other people. Rather, dukkha arises with craving.

Also, craving is an “inside” job. It is something that we  add to our experience. Craving is something that we do.

The Buddha talked in detail about how craving arises. He pointed to five basic stages in the process — the five aggregates:

  • Matter is physical form. This includes the human body. However, craving is ultimately about  mind, not matter. The other four aggregates are all aspects of mind.
  • Perception is pure awareness of our moment-to-moment experience without any effort to describe it or change it. At the level of pure perception, there is just one unbroken stream of experience. Nothing is separate from anything else.
  • Sensation is our pure physical experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Sensations exist on a continuum from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant.
  • Conception is the realm of thinking and language. Conception separates perceptions and sensations into distinct categories: Self versus other. Past versus present versus future. And much, much more.
  • Intention is the realm of motivation. Once we separate experience into separate things, we compulsively  move toward the things we like and  move away from the things we dislike. Over time this hardens into longing and loathing, greed and hatred — in short, craving.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to craving. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths explain.

The Third Noble Truth — How Dukkha Passes Away

The Third Noble Truth is that when craving ends, dukkha ends. When we see and accept the impermanent nature of all things, we are liberated.

We see that it’s pointless to grasp at any experience with the hope of making it permanent. We understand the futility of clinging to anything that constantly changes.

Third Noble Truth reminds us that Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional sense. Buddhism is not based on belief in God — or belief in anything else, for that matter.

The Buddha saw beliefs of any kind as a form of craving: holding fixed ideas about fluid realities. Beliefs generate disagreement that can harden into conflict and violence.

The Buddha was not interested in theology or grand intellectual schemes. He was interested only in one thing: The end of dukkha.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path

The Fourth Noble Truth is that we can live in a way that allows craving to pass away. This way of life is called the Eightfold Path:

  • Right view is understanding the Four Noble Truths.
  • Right intention is a strong resolve to awaken to the end of dukkha — the strength of intention you’d have if your hair were on fire and you wanted to put it out.
  • Right speech is avoiding deception, rudeness, crude conversation, and speaking ill of others.
  • Right action flows naturally when we release craving and selfish intention.
  • Right livelihood is making a living in ways that do not harm other people.
  • Right effort in meditation avoids the extremes of laziness and exhaustion by following a “middle path” — being relaxed and alert at the same time.
  • Right concentration is the ability to focus attention during meditation.
  • Right mindfulness is to using attention see impermanence at work in the present moment.

Please note a few things:

  • The Eightfold Path is not a journey to future destination. To practice the path is to be liberated now.
  • Each step in the path begins with the word right. However, this word is not used in the sense of right versus wrong. Right in this context means effective and in tune with reality.
  • Though we list the elements of the Eightfold Path as separate steps, they are not separate in practice. To take any step is to practice the whole path.

Distortions of the Four Noble Truths

In our current enthusiasm for mindfulness, we can easily forget its origin in the Four Noble Truths. Self-help authors distort this teaching when they ignore the historical context and try to mix mindfulness with run-of-the-mill New Age teachings.

Take reincarnation, example. Reincarnation is based on the belief that 1) we have an essence — a permanent identity, soul, or eternal self, and 2) this essence moves from body to body over the course of many lifetimes.

The Buddha explicitly denied both points. He taught that the elements of our experience — the five aggregates — are constantly changing. And by definition, anything that changes constantly cannot have a permanent identity. Anything that is impermanent cannot remain “itself.”

This means that there is no soul to pass from body to body. There is nothing to reincarnate.

The notion of “living with intention” presents another problem. Many self-help authors tell us to focus on setting goals and achieving them. 

Not happy? No problem. Just do two things: First, determine what you want. Second, change your thinking and behavior to “manifest” or “attract” what you want. The result is “abundance” that flows from clear intention.

According to the Four Noble Truths, this is pure delusion. In fact, living with this kind of intention is a prescription for suffering.

The enlightened person lives without any intention except freedom from dukkha. Though many of us will find this teaching counter-intuitive, it is perfectly consistent with the Four Noble Truths.

Consider this: Setting a goal in order to become happy means identifying yourself as fundamentally incomplete and separate from something that will complete you. When you’re mindful of your present moment experience, however, all you see is just one never-ending, ever-changing stream of sensation. 

At the level of pure sensation, nothing is separate. There is no “self.” There is no “other.” There is just an unbroken Whole. (Some teachers refer to it as Mind, with a capital m. )

This also means that there is nothing “out there” to “get” that will “make” you happy. As the poet Basho reminds us, “No amount of sitting will turn you into a Buddha.”

In fact, the practice of mindfulness reveals that you already are a Buddha. When you see your connection to the Whole, you can act appropriately in the moment without self-centered intention. Wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously.

To make our happiness depend on achieving goals is to impose conditions: I’ll be happy when and if I get… (complete this sentence with anything that you believe will make you permanently happy).

In contrast, mindfulness reveals fulfillment without conditions — an unshakable serenity. Now.

This realization is the precious gift embodied in the Four Noble Truths. And, said the Buddha, it is available to anyone who is willing to walk the path.

Beyond Happiness: Budda and Yuval Noah Harari on Nirvana

Yoga and meditation practice have given me many things: More mental clarity. Insights. A reminder to observe before reacting. And the awareness that we’re all suffering and deserve a little kindness, even at our worst moments.

But one thing my practice has not done is make me happy — not even mildly blissed out on a daily basis. 

For a long time I thought this was a problem. 

As a meditator I still feel fear, anger, sadness and all the other garden variety emotions that I experienced as a non-meditator. 

I wondered if I was doing something wrong. Weren’t those unpleasant emotions supposed to all go away?

Then, after many years, I got it: meditation is not about being happy. It’s about cultivating nirvana, which is something different.

Lessons from a historian

One person who makes this distinction with supreme clarity is Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Sapiens is the most ambitious book I’ve ever read — a sweeping survey of our species from its beginnings to the present. And one of Harari’s major conclusions is that even with all our science and technology, we humans of the twenty-first century can still be as miserable as our ancient ancestors.

Harari is not the first person to make this point. But as a student of Buddhism and dedicated practitioner of Vipassana meditation, he has some trenchant things to say about the modern pursuit of happiness and how it can backfire.

First comes dharma

But first: Who was the Buddha? 

A man, says Harari, not a god. 

And what did the Buddha teach? 

Well, it all begins with the law of dharma — that suffering arises in a specific way, and that we can free ourselves from it

For Buddhists, the law of dharma is as dependable as the law of gravity. And obedience to this law comes before anything else, including creeds, rituals, or a relationship with God. 

As Harari notes:

The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists. What does He want from me?’ The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’

Suffering is an inside job

We suffer in countless ways. There are external causes — poverty, pandemics, racism, war, natural disasters, and more.

But the Buddha saw that even the youngest, healthiest, richest, and most powerful of us still suffer. Even in the midst of heavenly circumstances, we can feel like we’re in hell. 

As Harari observes:

Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?

According to legend, the Buddha sat down one day to meditate and vowed never to rise again until he answered that question. 

He emerged with an insight that became a pillar of his teaching: The source of suffering is craving. Harari describes it well:

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. 

What nirvana means

Thus far we’ve covered the first two of the Buddha’s noble truths — that suffering exists, and that it has a cause. 

Many people stop there and conclude that Buddhism is simply about explaining our misery. 

Actually, the Buddha went on to a third noble truth — that suffering can end. And a fourth — that there is a path to releasing craving and realizing the end of suffering, which is nirvana

What we need, as Harari points out, is practices that “train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, What am I experiencing now? rather than on What would I rather be experiencing?

This is the point of Buddhist meditation — to stop warring with our internal experience. To stop demanding that we feel differently than we actually do in any given moment.

In short, to stop craving.

A new relationship to feeling

I’ve seen people reject meditation as a spiritual practice because they fear it will rob them of their emotional life. They’re convinced that all those hours of solitary sitting and detachment from feelings will turn them into soul-less zombies. 

Harari reminds us that this is not true. As a meditator, you get to keep your full range of feelings. It’s just that you don’t cling to them any more:

If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.

Four findings from happiness research

To understand the radical nature of these teachings, contrast them with contemporary ideas about happiness.

Over the last few decades, our cultural conversation about happiness has been transformed by science. It’s hard to believe that happiness was once seen as a subjective state that is impossible to study. Today, in fact, happiness is a hot topic in mainstream psychology. 

Harari does a masterful job of summarizing the current happiness research. He emphasizes four key findings:

Happiness hinges on “subjective well-being.” This is a continuum that ranges from short-term pleasure to long-term contentment. To measure this factor, psychologists ask people to rate how they feel in different circumstances over time. 

Happiness depends on the match between your expectations and your circumstances. External circumstances such as wealth, health, and and fame do not directly cause happiness. The crucial factor is not what you have — it’s whether what you have correlates with what you want

“If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content,” Harari writes. “If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived.”

There are a few qualifications to keep in mind:

  • Money does increase happiness up to a point, after which it matters little. 
  • Chronic illness decreases long-term happiness if the condition deteriorates steadily, involves ongoing pain, or both.
  • Supportive relationships with family and a tight-knit community are potent predictors of happiness, and they matter more than wealth or health. 

Meaning matters. Beyond subjective well-being is another possible source of happiness — seeing your life as “meaningful and worthwhile.” 

The problem, says Harari, is that our lives are “the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose.” From the standpoint of science, meaning is an illusion that we impose on our experience.

Happiness is based on biochemistry. When our lives involve a consistent mix of pleasure and circumstances that meet our expectations, our bodies respond in a specific way: They deliver a steady supply of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and other hormones associated with pleasure. 

Contrast this with distress, which floods our bodies with adrenaline, cortisol, and related hormones that prompt us to “fight or flee.”

The point is that feelings of any kind boil down to biochemistry. And from this perspective, the ultimate path to happiness is to control our biochemistry. 

Drugs, of course, offer one way to do this, though their use comes with inherent dangers. A wiser path, say the happiness researchers, is to cultivate experiences that trigger pleasure chemicals in safe and sustainable ways over the long-term. 

Beyond happiness — a stable serenity

The Buddha would have agreed with modern psychologists who insist that happiness does not directly result from external conditions. He would have also agreed that emotions have a biochemical basis. 

However, the Buddha also taught that nirvana is not a function of our feelings. And the path out of suffering is not to get rich, find a lover, discover the ultimate meaning of life, or feel good most of the time.

Instead, the Buddha urged us to remember the law of anicca — our feelings are fickle and fleeting, changing from moment to moment. This will remain true no matter how much we try to manipulate our circumstances and biochemistry. 

Does this sound depressing? Actually, it’s how we get free from suffering.

Meditation reveals the impermanence of feeling so directly and so consistently that we gradually release the habit of craving. We begin to see, at a gut level, how pointless it is to cling to some feelings while trying to deny, avoid, or repress others. 

It’s one thing to simply say this and understand it on an intellectual level. It’s quite another to see it happening in your own mind and body as you silently watch feelings arise and disappear into the holy void, over and over again, during the practice of meditation. 

Nirvana as subtraction

Nirvana, then, does not mean adding something to your life. It means subtracting craving — the futile pursuit of fleeting pleasure. 

And it’s not like you have to try to release craving. If you learn to observe how and when it arises, you may find that craving simply starts to fall away on its own.

The result is not happiness as we usually define it. It’s more like equanimity — an ever-deepening serenity that persists through changing circumstances.

In fact, Harari writes, the “resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.”

Keeping it real

For all the reasons that Harari mentions, I’ve given up the search for happiness. 

Since coming to understand what nirvana really means, I actually find it more realistic and do-able. 

One of the great things about Buddhist meditation is that no feeling is a failure. Feelings are not “good” or “bad.” They are simply pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. 

This is immensely comforting on days when I when I feel crappy. (And during the pandemic there have been a few of those, I can tell you.)

Am I feeling angry? Sad? Afraid? Confused? No matter. They’re all a passing show. My job is to just watch them float by while continuing to work and be present to the people who matter to me. 

My practice is simply to notice any feeling without judgment and without automatically acting on it. I take comfort in knowing that whatever I’m feeling, it will pass.

Feelings of pleasure are certainly welcome when they show up, as they often do. But I know that they too will pass. So, I don’t expect them to last.

Honestly, about 80 percent of the time I forget all this stuff. But every moment that I do remember is a moment that brings me another tiny step closer to nirvana — the “peace the passeth all understanding.”   

Creating Space Between Stimulus and Response: Insights From Goenka

I found a beautiful talk by S.N. Goenka, one of the most influential vipassana meditation teachers. 

Goenka doesn’t ground the practice of meditation in claims of enlightenment or other exalted states of mind. 

Instead, he focuses on something that hits much closer to home — the challenge of just being kind to people every day. 

This is wise, because it’s possible to be enlightened and still be unkind.

More specifically, Goenka reminds us that we spend a lot of our precious lifetime passing pain to each other:

From time to time we all experience agitation, irritation, disharmony. And when we suffer from these miseries, we don’t keep them to ourselves; we often distribute them to others as well. Unhappiness permeates the atmosphere around someone who is miserable, and those who come in contact with such a person also become affected.  

As Goenka says, we tie ourselves in knots — “Gordian knots” of negativity. 

There’s nothing abstract about this. After sustained periods of emotional negativity, I can feel the tension-induced knots in my muscles and the shortness in my breath. 

Breaking the cycle

“So the question arises,” Goenka says: “how can we stop reacting blindly when confronted with things that we don’t like? How can we stop creating tension and remain peaceful and harmonious?”

This is a big question. Nothing about spiritual practice matters more than this. 

If enlightenment means anything, it includes releasing negativity. 

Conscious distraction

One possible solution, says Goenka, is to purposefully distract ourselves from negative emotions:

For example, get up, take a glass of water, start drinking — your anger won’t multiply; on the other hand, it’ll begin to subside. Or start counting: one, two, three, four. Or start repeating a word, or a phrase, or some mantra, perhaps the name of a god or saintly person towards whom you have devotion; the mind is diverted, and to some extent you’ll be free of the negativity, free of the anger.

I also find that a sudden burst of physical activity — a brisk walk or short session of hatha yoga — takes an immediate edge off the anger. It’s the same principle. 

Distraction strategies such as these really do help. They are band-aids for negativity that stop the emotional bleeding and buy us some time before we find ourselves reacting in destructive ways.

Going deeper

And yet distraction — no matter how sophisticated — works only on a superficial level. Goenka says it well:

In fact, by diverting the attention you push the negativity deep into the unconscious, and there you continue to generate and multiply the same defilement. On the surface there is a layer of peace and harmony, but in the depths of the mind there is a sleeping volcano of suppressed negativity which sooner or later may erupt in a violent explosion.

Dealing with negativity on a deeper level calls for an approach that is harder but longer-lasting — staring our demons straight in the face. 

Avoid suppression and expression

“As soon as you start to observe a mental impurity, it begins to lose its strength and slowly withers away,” Goenka says. 

The key is stand still in the depths of our emotional storms and simply watch them happen — mindfully, precisely, without judgment, and without acting on them. 

In short, our practice is to avoid the extremes of expressing negativity through our behavior and suppressing it through distraction. And our tools for doing that is mindful self-observation — the essence of vipassana practice. 

The lightning speed of negativity

This direct approach poses a big challenge, however — the faster-than-light speed of mental impurity. Anger and fear can arise and overpower us long before we even notice these emotional states are happening. 

As a result, we react to our knots by acting in mean-spirited ways. We say and do things that we later come to regret. And after the emotional storms pass, we wake up to the damage we’ve done to our relationships. We find ourselves begging forgiveness and promising to change our behavior. 

But before long another wave of negativity overwhelms us and we make the same mistakes all over again. It’s a vicious cycle with a predictable toll on ourselves and the people around us. 

Fortunately there is a better way.

Body and breath as early warning system

Imagine, says Goenka, that you could employ a private secretary for all your waking hours — someone with the supernatural power to observe your mental states as they unfold, moment by moment. 

Look! this person would say. Right now, rage is just starting to arise in you. Notice it now and respond skillfully, before it’s too late.

Of course, this is purely hypothetical. There is no person with such omniscient power that we can turn to for help.

No problem, says Goenka. By virtue of being born into a human body, we have two things even better than an imaginary secretary: We have our breath. And we have physical sensations. 

When any mental impurity arises, two things happen. One, our breathing loses its natural rhythm. Two, biochemical reactions take place within the body, and these create physical sensations. 

Breathing and sensations are our private secretaries. As soon as our emotional states shift, they alert us: Look. Something is changing. Notice it now — before it possesses you.

Once we’re alerted, we can hang out in a peaceful way with negativity. Instead of repressing or expressing it, we can patiently watch it rise and crest like a great wave. In its own time, the wave of negativity will pass and we can return to a state of emotional balance. 

Benefits of the practice

There’s nothing to fear about this process. Any emotion is an interplay of breathing and sensation. Unpleasant? Yes, sometimes. But permanent? No, never. 

There’s also nothing abstract going on here. One perk of vipassana practice is getting something concrete to work with. 

Taken as concepts, anger, sadness, and fear are difficult to observe. But breathing and physical sensations — those are different. Those we can notice. They are something we can hang our practice on. 

Giving it time

Observing breath and body sensation is not an immediate fix, of course. Like any skill, it takes coaching and practice. 

You begin by practicing in a low-distraction setting such as a meditation retreat. Basically, you put yourself in a room with a bunch of other people who are not talking and not moving. They’re all doing the same thing that you are — just sitting there quietly with your eyes closed, observing your breathing and body sensations. 

If you do this for a while, you might go through some pretty nasty mind states — boredom, resistance, anger, sadness, and whatever other sh** bubbles up the surface. 

What happens, though, is that eventually you get better at sitting through all those emotional storms. No matter what arises, you learn to meet it with mindful attention. You build the muscle of patient observation. You develop “negativity chops.”

Non-reactivity as a superpower

In fact, you get so good at self-observation that the skill eventually spills over into the chaos of daily life. When your child screams at you or your boss chews you out, you silently and reflexively slip into “watching mode,” becoming an impartial Witness of breathing and body sensations.

Eventually you can learn to do this more often and in more circumstances before reacting in mean-spirited ways. Between stimulus and response, you create a space for conscious choice about how to respond. 

Suddenly it occurs to you that all those hours of sitting on your butt are worth it. You gradually acquire a secret superpower of non-reactivity. And eventually it becomes something that no one can take away from you.

Finding a stillpoint

Another perk of vipassana practice is that it mercifully redirects our attention. Instead of looking outward to the faults of other people and blaming them for our misery, we look inward at our patterns of breathing and physical sensation. 

The resulting change of perspective is a miracle. We learn that the source of our suffering lies inside ourselves. It’s not about external events. It’s not about what other people say and do. Misery is about how blindly we *react* to all that stuff.

Taking refuge in the Witness — our developing powers of self-observation — unlocks a still point of serenity. No matter what happens in life, we don’t have to get permanently knocked off-center. 

We get closer to the heart of spiritual practice — a “peace that passeth all understanding” that does not depend on  getting the circumstances of our lives just “right.”

Keeping the practice in perspective

Vipassana practice does not mean that we have to passively accept whatever happens to us. Nor do we have to become punching bags for people who are acting out their negative emotions.

Instead, we can do what’s needed to change our circumstances whenever possible. We can set healthy boundaries with people and ask them to change their behavior when appropriate. 

The point is that we can do all those things without emotional impurities on our end. We can behave from a place of peaceful presence rather than blind reactivity. 

Again, this does not happen all at once. Even with meditation experience, I still lapse into emotional reactivity when feelings run strong. 

But to break the cycle of emotional reactivity — even over minor incidents, even once — is truly a miracle. It makes the practice worthwhile. 

Emotional detox

There’s more to vipassana than this — insights into emptiness and non-duality, for example. But for me the ultimate fruit of the practice is to serve the world by acting as an emotional “detoxifier.” People can treat me with rudeness, hostility sarcasm, indifference — whatever. No longer am I compelled to respond on the same level. 

On my end, emotions bubble up to the surface as discrete changes in breathing and physical sensation. 

I wait and watch, allowing those to changes to pass and hitting the pause button before I respond to what other people say and do. 

Whatever happens, the pain stops with me.

The Intimacy of Shared Silence

We are embraced by silence and silence cares for us deeply. In the embrace of silence we sense the essence of living things radiating loudly. 

To sit in silence with other people is one of the most intimate experiences imaginable.

Most of the time, we deprive ourselves of that intimacy. We avoid silence in social gatherings. It creates discomfort.

If there’s a gap in conversation, we try to fill it with small talk about sports. Politics. Work. Weather. Something. Anything.

The problem is, we dissipate a lot of energy in this way.

If you’re willing to endure shared silence for a few minutes, you’ll discover that on the other side of discomfort is something oddly beautiful.

The people you are most intimate with are the people who are most willing to be silent with you.

One mark of people who have loved each other for decades is the capacity to sit with each other for hours — in silence.


Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know.  

When our children were young, we wanted to take them to church.

This was hard.

I’d been raised Lutheran. My pastor once told me that non-Lutherans do not go to heaven. I had friends who weren’t Lutheran. 

Faced with a choice between heaven and companionship, I chose my friends. And at age 17, I stopped going to church.

But with children of my own, things seemed different. I wanted them to grow up in a spiritual community. It would have to be an open-minded group of people who were willing to create something beautiful and profound in each other’s presence.

So we visited a lot of churches, looking for that.

We drank coffee with Unitarians.

We sang hymns with liberal Baptists.

We event went to some Lutheran churches to see if anything had changed.

We never found what we were looking for.

The Quakers came the closest. They were willing to sit in silence for a while. But then someone would get up to speak, and all the energy leaked out of the room.

So we gave up on churches. Instead, we chose to spend an hour every Sunday morning doing yoga and meditation at home with the kids.

Eventually, this worked.

At first, I wanted to fill that hour with content. I prepared little homilies. I chose quotations to read and discuss.

Then I let all that go. We’d pull out our yoga mats, stretch together, and then sit in meditation for a few minutes.

During those weekly minutes of shared silence, I felt closer to my family than ever before.

Our kids are grown and have homes of their own. But am I confident that they will remember the silence.


The more we rest in this silence, the more we come to know it as our essential nature. It is this silent core of being that remains unmoving and unbroken throughout the glories and tragedies of “my life.” When we keep coming back to this silence, we become more rooted in it, even in the midst of the vicissitudes of life, and eventually it is recognized as the backdrop to the movie of “me,” and gives rise to the true fulfillment of our innate wholeness.

Silence is still my main spiritual practice. Actually, I don’t have to “practice” it. I surrender to silence, and the silence “practices” me.

The silence will gently sweep you up and carry you, if you let it.

There are two levels of silence. One is external silence — a reduction of noise in our physical environment.

Entering that level of silence eventually opens up the second level of silence — internal stillness.

You get to that second level if you’re wiling to sit though all the internal noise created by your stream of thoughts.

At first the thoughts come in torrents, like crashing waves. Then, eventually, they slow down. Your mind becomes more like a still lake with sparkles of sunlight glinting off the water.

At that point, you can actually see where thoughts begin and end. And in the gap between two thoughts is a space.

In that space, you’re aware but not thinking.

This is the space that the meditation and yoga teachers talk about. Getting to that space is the purpose of their teachings.

You get there through silence.

At the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, stronger, and happier, remind yourself that these feelings came about not because you got something you thought you needed, or because you fooled somebody into thinking that you are worthy of his or her love and affection, but rather because you simply quieted down your mind enough to experience what we all have, all of the time, if we just remember 

Note: The quotes in this article are from:

Practices for a Pandemic Year—a Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Sheltering in place, social distancing, and isolation during the recent pandemic forced many of us to live more like monks. As Leo Babauta put it, we’re all monastics now

I don’t say this with any romantic notions about monastic life. In fact, I’ve never wanted to be a monk. I like being married. I like sex. I like happy hours and parties. 

I do, however, resonate with Shinzen Young’s definition of a monastery as any place that forces you to change or become miserable. 

This form of monasticism descended upon many of us, whether we like it or not. 

Thomas Merton said that he did not become a monk in order to suffer more than other people, but in order to suffer more effectively. 

Taking a cue from him, I asked: How can we experience a pandemic effectively? 

As monks for the moment, can we possibly emerge from such experiences a little more wise, more loving, more free? 

Perhaps distancing and isolation can help us take our spiritual practices and self-care habits to a deeper level. Perhaps we can even move closer to enlightenment, liberation, or some form serenity that does not depend on circumstance.

Meditation and yoga are core practices for me. I also take refuge in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach that has strong support both in clinical practice and peer-reviewed research. 

I’m excited about ACT because it blends the best of East and West — mindfulness practices with values-driven behavior change. When combined, these create powerful practices for any difficult circumstance, including a pandemic. 

Distinguish “dirty” discomfort from “clean” discomfort

The first thing to do is free ourselves from the burden of relentless positivity. If you’re feeling unhappy during the conditions such as the pandemic, you’re not wrong: You’re just normal. 

According to ACT, there’s nothing wrong with waves of sadness, anger, or fear. And the true test of any practice is not whether it immediately makes those feelings go away. 

Contrast this with the premise of many New Age-y self-help books — that you’re supposed to feel good most of the time. And if you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you: You’ve failed to remove the blocks to your inner radiance and let your inherent bliss shine through.

ACT rejects this. According to ACT therapists, unpleasant emotion is not abnormal or evidence that we’re “sick.” Our nature is not bliss but constant emotional change. And unpleasant emotions are part of the cycle.

This means that some level of discomfort in our lives is simply a given. According to ACT, however, we can transform discomfort by changing our response to it. 

We experience dirty discomfort when we try to deny, avoid, or “fix” unpleasant emotions. Those emotions are challenging enough, but then we add a whole layer of struggle and resistance on top of them. 

In contrast, clean discomfort occurs when we drop the struggle and release the resistance. Instead, we simply allow emotions — whether pleasant or unpleasant — to arise and pass away in their own time. We treat emotions simply as internal events rather than problems to solve.

Tony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, had a perfect description of clean discomfort:

Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed: after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. But there’s a difference: I don’t identify with it any more. 

Yes, we will experience discomfort, especially when our routines and relationships are disrupted. But emotional discomfort does not define us, and we do not need to make it a problem.

Redefine happiness

This is where we get to the ACT definition of happiness — full engagement with life in the midst of any circumstance

Happiness is not a feeling state.

Happiness is not a life that’s free of discomfort. 

Happiness is doing what matters to you and caring for the people you love, even when life is hard and you’re weathering emotional storms. 

For example, we can feel sad about the loss of in-person contact with coworkers — and still meet with them online. 

We can feel sluggish — and still go outside for walks while greeting neighbors from a safe distance.

We can miss the happy hour scene at our favorite restaurants — and still support them by ordering take-out once in a while.    

In short, we don’t have to put off living until we feel good and the circumstances of our lives are “right.” We can live the meaning of our lives now, no matter what’s happening inside our outside of us.   

What makes all this possible? According to ACT, the primary practices are mindfulness and values-based action.

Practice mindfulness

In his book The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living, ACT therapist Russ Harris defines mindfulness as:

Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience with openness, interest and receptiveness.” There are many facets to mindfulness, including living in the present moment; engaging fully in what you are doing rather than ‘getting lost’ in your thoughts; and allowing your feelings to be as they are, letting them come and go rather than trying to control them. 

Moreover, mindfulness is not one practice but rather a cluster of related skills:

  • Defusion
  • Acceptance
  • Contact with the present moment
  • The observing self


I once saw a bumper sticker that said Don’t believe everything you think. That’s the essence of defusion — the ability to have thoughts without being had by them.

Defusion means stepping back from our thoughts and viewing them impartially. We learn to see thinking as a stream of internal events — words and mental images — rather than literal truth, binding commands, or statements about who we ultimately are.

Defusion is a sanity saver when we’re dealing with thoughts that do nothing except create dirty discomfort. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, referred to these thoughts as irrational beliefs and concluded that they are all variations on three basic statements:

  • I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.
  • Other people must do “the right thing” or else they are no good and deserve to be punished.
  • Life must be easy, without discomfort or inconvenience. 

When we fuse with thoughts that are this unrealistic and absolute, we are bound to suffer. Learning to defuse from them can immediately lighten our load.

ACT therapists use metaphors to describe defusion. Visualize thoughts as cars driving past your house, Harris says, or leaves floating down a river. This makes it easier to “hold them lightly instead of clutching them tightly.”

Other ACT techniques for defusing from a thought include:

  • Repeating it out loud over and over again until it sounds utterly meaningless
  • Singing it to the tune of Happy Birthday
  • Imagining it written inside a thought bubble in a comic strip
  • Saying it in the voice of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, or another cartoon character
  • Saying Thanks, mind, for that interesting thought
  • Speaking the thought out loud and prefacing it with I’m having the thought that….


Defusion becomes easier when you allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without clinging to them or resisting them. That’s the essence of acceptance.

Accepting thoughts is not the same as agreeing with them. Rather, acceptance is simply allowing thoughts to be present for the moment — holding a temporary space for them as they float by. Doing this eventually reduces their impact.

The opposite of acceptance is experiential avoidance. This term refers to struggling with our internal experience — especially unpleasant physical sensations and distressing thoughts. We try to push away anything that’s painful, and we cling to anything that’s pleasant.  

When practicing experiential avoidance, we treat unpleasant emotions as problems. And we start looking for solutions — *anything* that makes those emotions go away.

Problem solving helps us deal effectively with many situations in the external world. If you have a bacterial infection, for instance, you can take an antibiotic to get rid of it. If your car dies, you can get a new one.

Things start to break down quickly, however, when we apply problem-solving strategies to our internal world — thoughts, feelings, and urges. When we treat them as problems and try to get rid of them, our efforts eventually backfire. We get a rebound effect: The unpleasant experiences remain or get even stronger. We end up suffering even more.

Again, acceptance means dropping all that struggle and releasing any resistance to our internal experiences. The one thing that we can count on is that any feeling — no matter how strong or unpleasant — will eventually fade.

Contact with the present moment

During the years that I worked outside of my home, I drove the same route to work every day. One day I found myself sitting in my parked car outside my office and wondering how the heck I got there. I’d been so lost in thought during the commute that I had no conscious memory of making the trip.

How many routine tasks do you perform mindlessly, on autopilot? During those tasks, you lose contact with the present moment.

Contacting the present moment means showing up psychologically as well as physically. Instead of merely going through the motions, we pay full attention to the sights, sounds, and other sensations occurring right now. This is another way defuse from thoughts.

ACT therapists have a term for lack of contact with the present moment — dominance of the conceptualized past and future. This is a fancy way of saying that we get “stuck inside our head.” 

It happens in many ways. For example, we:

  • Spend hours reliving painful events from the past. 
  • Create elaborate and unrealistic fantasies about the future. 
  • Worry about things that are unlikely to ever happen and imagine the worst possible outcomes.
  • Ruminate — replay the same trains of thought over and over again. 

All this mental activity removes us from raw sensory experience — what we’re seeing, hearing, or feeling right now, in the present moment. 

And yet it’s easy to get out of our mind and get back into our body. Start by looking around the room and simply noticing three things that you see, three things that you hear, or something that you can smell or taste. From this humble beginning can come a mature mindfulness practice.

The observing self

Your mind has two aspects. One is the part that thinks. The other is the part that simply observes that thinking.

In ACT, the thinking part is called the conceptualized self, or self as content. In his groundbreaking book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, ACT co-founder Steven C. Hayes describes it as:

… the verbal ‘I am’ self, as in: I am old; I am anxious; I am kind; I am mean; I am unlovable; I am sweet; I am beautiful; and so forth. The conceptualized self is brimming with content: this content is the story about you and your life that you’ve been selling to yourself. It contains all the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and behavioral dispositions that you’ve bought into and integrated into a stable verbal picture of yourself. 

We use the conceptualized self to explain the world to ourselves — to create a personal narrative that makes sense of ourselves, other people, and events. 

This “stable verbal picture” often comes with a price, however. It can turn into a rigid script that blunts our capacity to change and locks us into a cycle of self-created suffering.

“Have you ever noticed that if someone thinks he is unimportant, most events in his life appear to confirm that view?” Hayes adds. “Or have you ever observed that if someone sees herself as a victim, somehow she keeps ending up (in her mind or in actuality) being victimized?”

Fortunately, we can practice contacting the other part of our mind — the observing self or self as context. (Spiritual teachers have many terms for this, including the witness and pure awareness

The wondrous thing about the observing self is its continuity. It’s present for your entire lifetime. The “you” that watched the events of your past is the same “you” that watches what’s happening in the present. That “you” will also be there as the events of your future unfold — right up to your last breath.

The observing self is a wonderful place to hang out because it’s impervious to harm. In the midst of constant change, the observing self remains unchanged. Defusion, acceptance, and contacting the present moment will help you spend more time there. 

Align your behavior with your values

ACT culminates in taking action based on what’s most important to you. This is the practice of committed action, which involves:

  • Defining your values 
  • Setting goals based on your values
  • Planning actions to achieve your goals

To begin this practice, remember the difference between values and goals.

Goals are outcomes that you can achieve and then cross off your list as done. 

Values are never done, however. They are desired qualities that inspire all your goals — past, present, and future. 

For example, getting married and raising children are goals that can be achieved by someone who values being a loving spouse and parent.

Fusion, experiential avoidance, loss of contact with the present moment, and the conceptualized self can drive us to lose touch with our values — what truly matters to us and how we ultimately want to show up in the world. 

This can happen in many ways. Fear of social gatherings can lead to avoiding people, for instance — even if we value close relationships. Sadness can lead to inactivity and fast food consumption — even if we value exercise and good nutrition. 

ACT therapists recommend two ways to this cycle.

First, put your values in writing. You might start out with a list of abstract qualities, such as love, creativity, and health.

Make those qualities more specific by turning them into domains of activity. For example:

  • Spending time with my children
  • Writing in my journal
  • Exercising daily

Second, check for alignment between your written values and your behavior. Take the stand of an objective observer whose job is to infer your values only by watching what you do everyday. What would this person see? 

Take it from someone who knows: This takes guts. Be prepared to discover facts that contradict your stories — behaviors that not only fail to align with your values but actively undermine them.

For example, I can say that I value physical activity but still spend most of the day on my butt in a chair.

I can say that I value writing in my journal but discover that my last entry is dated six months ago. 

This is where we get to practice self-compassion. The key is to mindfully notice any discrepancy between your values and behaviors. From that non-judgmental place, you can plan to rewrite your values, [change your habits](, or both.

For more details on defining values from an ACT perspective, see this cool worksheet.

The bottom line — psychological flexibility

“The goal of ACT is to create a rich and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it,” Harris notes. In ACT, the technical term for this is psychological flexibility.

A shorter version: “be present, open up, and do what matters.”

We can live with vitality and connect with our values even during moments of discomfort, such as grieving, enduring illness, or sheltering in place. 

“There is as much living in a moment of pain as in a moment of joy”, says Kirk Strosahl, cofounder of ACT.

And there is the knowledge that no circumstance — not even a pandemic — can prevent you from living the life of your choosing. 

Learn more about ACT

Russ Harris’s list of free online resources is a good place to start. 

Harris also offers an inspiring video about practicing ACT in the midst of the pandemic. Look for a link to the accompanying PDF.

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, co-authored by Steven C. Hayes is a popular introduction to ACT.

Also recommended is Hayes’s most recent book — A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.

In addition, Hayes offers a free introduction to ACT. He includes practical exercises that will give you a genuine feel for this approach.

Don’t Boost Motivation: Just Ride the Wave

Have you ever been forced to sit through a presentation by a “motivational speaker” — someone who’s been hired to squeeze more work out of you by whipping you into a frenzy of positive emotion?

If so, how long did your motivation last?

I’m betting that it was just long enough to look at your to-do list and see some things that you really didn’t want to do. It was then that the frenzy faded and you sank back into your emotional status quo. 

So long, motivation.

Pete Seeger described this experience in song: “My get up and go has got up and went.”

This is where so many self-help “experts” try to sell us a bill of goods. They treat motivation as a problem to be solved. They work like mad to boost our motivation or help us ramp it up by ourselves.

But notice what happens when we internalize the gurus’ messages, do everything they say, and still feel unmotivated: We’re likely to see ourselves as failures.

Well, I have good news from Stanford University psychologist BJ Fogg: All the frenzy and shame are unnecessary.

Lack of motivation is not a problem to be solved. Nor is it a character defect to eliminate.

When you don’t feel motivated, in fact, you’re just normal. And starting from this premise gives you a much more effective way to solve the “problem” of motivation.

This is the big idea from a presentation by BJ Fogg, who developed a powerful and unique system for habit change.

Remember that motivation is a wave

The first thing to notice, says BJ, is that motivation is slippery. More precisely, it’s a wave. 

Motivation rises and falls. It peaks and ebbs. This is something that any of us can verify by simple self-observation.

A second insight flows directly from the first: When motivation peaks, we temporarily feel like doing hard things. And when motivation ebbs, we gravitate toward easy things.

These are insights that we can apply to behavior change.

Match your behavior with your current level of motivation

Consider an example related to a key health habit — exercise. There are at least two ways to lay the ground work for this habit:

  • Do something easy, such as simply picking out a pair of running shoes. At this point you don’t have to go for a walk. You don’t even have to put the shoes on. You simply choose a pair that you intend to use in the future.
  • Do something hard, like finding a list of personal trainers, calling one up, and committing to working with this person on a regular schedule.

When your motivation is low, go for easy. Give yourself permission to just pick the shoes. If you instead try to schedule a trainer or go for a run, then you have to deal with the inner gremlin who says: Naaahhh. I just don’t wanna.

If you try to squelch that gremlin by artificially ramping up your motivation, you’ll just compound the problem.

When your motivation is high, do the harder thing, such as scheduling the trainer. If you instead settle for simply choosing a pair of shoes, you squander an opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile and challenging.

BJ sums up the big take-away: Don’t worry about motivation. Just choose the most desirable behavior that matches your current level of motivation — whatever that is.

In other words, ride the wave. When motivation peaks, do something hard while you still have the chance. And when motivation falls, go with the flow and do something easy. (For many more ideas about the latter option, enroll in BJ Fogg’s free course on Tiny Habits.)

Harness high motivation in three specific ways

High motivation is temporary. It can disappear in a matter of days, hours, or minutes. So, seize the precious opportunity that high motivation presents.

According to BJ, the most valuable things that you can do when highly motivated are:

  1. Structure your future behavior. Structured behaviors are presets — default options. For example: If you want to reduce your spending, then cut up your credit cards. If you want to stop eating junk food, then remove all that stuff from your kitchen and throw it away. This strategy is powerful for a simple reason: Reversing an earlier commitment forces you to exert extra effort, such as calling a personal trainer to cancel a scheduled appointment.
  2. Reduce barriers to future behavior. For instance, go to the grocery store and buy a lot of vegetables. Then go home, wash them, cut them, and put them into serving size containers. This reduces a barrier to making healthy meals when your motivation to cook is low. You’re less likely to choose the easy option — going out to eat.
  3. Increase capacity. When your motivation to cook a healthy meal is high, for example, then take that opportunity to learn a new recipe. This is harder than going out to eat or chopping vegetables. But as you practice making the new meal over the coming weeks, you’ll find it easier to do — even on days when you don’t feel like cooking.

Note that I’ve numbered these options in the order that BJ recommends. So when motivation peaks, start with #1 before trying #2. And opt for #3 after experimenting with #2.

Don’t motivate change — facilitate it

Riding the motivation wave is especially crucial for people design programs for behavior change.

Is your job about helping people to exercise more, eat better, or adopt some other desirable habit? Then forget about boosting their motivation to do hard things, says BJ. Change your job title from motivator to facilitator. Start guiding people to surf their natural waves of motivation.

Bill Wilson and Carl Jung on Addiction and Spirituality

This post is about alcohol, addiction, and God.

We start with a question:

How do you define spirituality?

I used the word for years with no clear definition.

I talked about being “spiritual and not religious.” Thankfully, no one asked me to explain the difference.

This dilemma resurfaced recently while I was browsing my back issues of Parabola magazine. There — in a moment of grace — my fingers landed on the Summer 1987 issue and led me to an answer.

It was an article titled “Spiritus contra Spiritum: The Bill Wilson / C. G. Jung Letters.”

Wilson on the necessity of hopelessness

Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, began the exchange in 1961. His purpose was to acknowledge Jung’s role in the birth of AA.

It all started, Wilson wrote, with Roland H.

Roland was an alcoholic who came to Jung in 1931 for treatment. Fearing a relapse, Roland saw Jung as his “court of last resort.”

Jung, however, described Roland’s situation as hopeless — beyond the reach of any further medical or psychiatric treatment.

There was one possibility, however. Jung said that Roland could “place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best.” There he might be able to experience “a genuine conversion” — a spiritual experience stronger than the craving for alcohol.

It worked. Roland returned to New York and found sobriety in the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement.

Wilson’s “white light”

Wilson, too, was an alcoholic under the care of a physician, Dr. William Silkworth. And Silkworth believed that Wilson’s only option was permanent “commitment to an institution.”

What turned Wilson’s life around was a visit from Edwin T. (“Ebby”) — recovering alcoholic, Oxford Group member, and friend of Roland’s. Ebby’s serenity and sobriety impressed Wilson, who later wrote: “I knew at once I must find an experience like his, or die.”

“In utter despair, I cried out, ‘If there be a God, will he show himself,’” Wilson recalled. And what followed is known in AA as “Bill’s white light experience”:

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.

Wilson never drank again.

He spent the rest of his life trying to understand what happened.

Conversion as “ego collapse”

Wilson eventually turned to Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a popular book among Oxford Group members.

James devotes an entire chapter to the conversion experience. He describes it as an emotional shock that leads to a new “center of gravity” — a permanent change in thinking, feeling, and behaving.

In his letter to Jung, Wilson described this as “ego collapse at depth.” He must have had it in mind while he wrote Step One of AA: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Jung on alcoholism as ‘low level’ spirituality

One week later, Jung replied to Wilson. Jung recalled his work with Roland:

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung admitted that such language is doomed to be misunderstood in the modern world.

He also noted that the craving for alcohol must be met with “real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community.” Without those counteracting forces, the “unrecognized spiritual need” will lead alcoholics straight into “perdition.”

Near the end of his letter, Jung makes this distinction:

You see, alcohol in Latin is “spiritus,” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Defining spirituality

In short, Jung described alcohol craving as a proto-spiritual quest. But beyond mentioning a thirst for “wholeness,” he offered few details.

For more insight, I turn again to Varieties of Religious Experience. James treats mysticism at length, describing mystical experiences as:

  • Ineffabile — impossible to capture in words
  • Noetic — bearing revelations and authoritative knowledge
  • Transient — lasting at most for an hour or two
  • Passive — received from “superior power” rather than produced by an act of will

Surely Wilson’s “white light” experience met these criteria.

And here is a working definition of spirituality — an answer to my opening question: practices that foster ineffable and noetic experiences in a context of ethical behavior.

Looking beyond ersatz enlightenment

I can easily picture an alcoholic at a bar reaching for a fourth or fifth and cocktail. He or she feels expansive, invincible, illuminated. The drinks have delivered the goods — revelations from above that seem both ineffable and noetic.

The literature of addiction and recovery is filled with people sharing their stories of ersatz enlightenment. There’s the narrator of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, for example. High on speed and hashish, he declares: “I knew every raindrop by its name, I sensed everything before it happened.”

James reveals the means to such revelations:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.

For the active addict, it easily ends in ruin — obsession with a drug and compulsive use despite life-threatening consequences. Revelations are long forgotten by the time that getting and using a chemical becomes an end in itself, the addict’s lonely calling.

But like Jung, we can see addiction as a pointer beyond itself — a reminder of our sacred impulse to expand, unite, and say yes.

And, we can obey this impulse through practices that complete us rather than defeat us.

Taking Refuge in ‘Big Sky Mind’—the Observing Self

According to many meditation teachings, there is an aspect of you that is free of suffering. 

This part of you is immune to stress and untouched by difficult circumstances. And it is available to you at any time and any place, if you only know how to access it.

This aspect of ourselves is often called the witness, the observer, or “big sky mind.”

This ancient idea has found its way into the third wave of cognitive-behavioral therapies. For example, practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) refer to big sky mind as the observing self and teach a variety of ways to discover it.

How language obscures the observing self

According to Steven Hayes, psychotherapist and developer of ACT, the observing self transcends our ordinary identity. That identity is created by language — specifically, by the ways that we complete the sentence I am….

For example:

  • I am sad.
  • I am angry.
  • I am happy.
  • I am afraid.

Language is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it creates a coherent sense of self — a definite someone who experiences the events of everyday life and creates a story to make sense of them.

On the other hand, we can hypnotize ourselves into thinking that our sentences tell the whole truth about ourselves.

The problem is that language is static and reality is dynamic. Thoughts and feelings — even the most ecstatic or distressing — come and go like clouds in the sky. Nothing about our internal experience is fixed or permanent.

Sentences such as I am sad and I am happy just don’t do justice to this fact. As result, they lock us into a fixed identity.

Ask these questions

Our refuge is big sky mind — the witness, the observer. The challenge is to discover this aspect of ourselves, since it cannot be fully captured in language.

In Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Hayes offers three questions that point to a direct experience of the observing self:

Where is “here”? This word does not always refer a specific place, such as the address of your home or office. In essence, “here” is a place from which observations are made.

When is “now”? This word does not always refer to a specific time such as Tuesday or 8 am. In essence, it is the time from which observations are made.

Where is “I”? You can’t use your finger to point to “I.” Again, this is simply a space from which observations are made.

This sense of an observer is fascinating. We have direct experience of it. Yet is has no boundaries in time or space:

Notice that you are here in this moment reading, and notice too that the person behind these reading eyes was there when you ate breakfast this morning and was there when you were a child. 

You’ve been you your whole life, though there have been many changes in your thoughts, your feelings, your roles, and your body. 

Treating thoughts and feelings as problems

This notion of the observing self has immediate applications.

Start with our reaction to unpleasant internal experiences — distressing thoughts and feelings.

Our typical approach to those experiences is to treat them as problems to be solved. We try to get rid of them, avoid them, or prevent them.

This approach fails.

Distressing thoughts and feelings are not like weeds in a garden. We can’t root them out, mow them down, or spray them with psychic weed killer. 

In fact, our efforts to suppress certain thoughts and feelings can actually increase our distress.

Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, notes that “ virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on.”

Making space for thoughts and feelings

When it comes to our internal world, ACT therapists take a radical approach.

They toss the problem-solving paradigm out the the window.

These therapists refuse to label any thought or feeling as a problem. The word symptom is largely missing from their vocabulary. And they do not focus on reducing symptoms.

Instead, ACT is based on mindfulness — the moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness fully allows these internal events, revealing that they will eventually pass if we simply let them.

In other words, we greet internal experiences with big sky mind.

Thoughts and feelings are clouds that arise and pass away in our conscious awareness. Even violent storm clouds — intense feelings — eventually disappear.

ACT therapists use other analogies to describe conscious awareness. For example:

  • Space. Consider the space in a room. It allows people to enter and leave the room. Those people can laugh, cry, or scream at each other. But no matter what happens in the room, the space remains unaffected. In the same way, awareness remains unstained by any thought or feeling.
  • Game board. Intense battles unfold on the squares of a chess, checkers, or Monopoly board. Yet all the games eventually come to an end. The pieces are picked up, and the players disperse. Thoughts and feelings are just as impermanent. 
  • Container. “What if you aren’t defined by your pain,” asks Steven Hayes in Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, “but rather you are the conscious container for it? ”

Thaddeus Golas, author of The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, says essentially the same thing:

When you look at a lake, there is no water in your mind. Put another way, the awareness of a hard object has no hardness in it. The awareness of confusion is not confused. The awareness of insanity is not insane.

I often recall those words from Thaddeus when I’m feeling stressed — especially the last sentence. They are my way of taking refuge in Big Sky Mind. 

Sam Harris on Spirituality Without Religion

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheist who is deeply committed to spiritual practice. 

How is the possible, you might ask?

The answers are in Sam’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

“Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions,” Sam writes. 

Indeed, I was surprised by how much meditation practice Sam has done, and by how many prominent teachers he’s studied with, including Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and H. W. L. Poonja.

Waking Up sums up his lessons from those experiences — insights that result from Sam’s particular blend of open-mindedness and skepticism.

Sam’s goal is to stake out a middle ground between religion and atheism. This is a brilliant star to shoot for, and Sam takes us closer to it.

Following are the big ideas I gained from Waking Up — plus a few things I’ll ask Sam if I ever have the honor of conversing with him.

Spirituality is for all of us — including atheists and agnostics

I appreciate the way that Sam defends the use of the word spirituality:

…there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.

Several of Sam’s other books describe the dangers of irrational religious beliefs, especially when they lead to intolerance and violence. Yet he concedes that “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

For centuries, in fact, people of many religious traditions — as well as atheists and agnostics — report similar states of “nonordinary” consciousness. 

Sam wants to reclaim such experiences, including states of self-transcendence and radical compassion. And, he says, we can discuss them in scientific terms without resorting to irrational beliefs. 

Spirituality is about non-duality 

During a visit to the Sea of Galilee — the place, according to many Christians, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount — Sam gazed at the surrounding hills and sank into a feeling of primordial peace:

It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been — the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water — but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes.

This is a prime example of non-dual experience, where the border between the observer and what is observed simply disappears.  

Over the centuries humanity has produced a vast literature about such experiences. They are reported by people of many faiths — and no faith whatsoever

In fact, the Buddha made anatta (no-self) the centerpiece of his teaching. 

I could list many more examples. Meditation teacher Michael Taft aptly describes them as “intimacy with everything”

You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong. Awareness is no longer split into an experiencer and the thing that is experienced, there is just pure experience with no divisions.

For Sam, non-dual experience is the sine qua non of spirituality. And Waking Up is largely an argument that our conventional sense of self — an isolated observer housed in a body separate from everything else — is an illusion.

Non-duality includes good will

There’s also a form of non-duality that involves relationships. Sam experienced it while taking the MDMA (“Ecstasy”) with a friend.

During this psychedelic trip, Sam recalls, he was suddenly struck by the simple knowledge that he loved this person:

I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him.

Moreover, this goodwill expanded to include others:

I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love…. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit.

Spirituality and science are compatible

Sam emphasizes that non-duality is not something that we have to take on faith.

Psychologists know that altered states of consciousness are possible and universal. We can talk about them in secular terms, like scientists, basing our conclusions on logic and evidence. 

In fact, our ability to have a selfless experience of the world is consistent with what we know about the brain. Waking Up goes into much detail on this point, including an entire chapter about the brain processes that mediate our experience of selfhood. 

The bottom line: There are many such processes, they spread across the entire brain, and it is possible to disrupt any of them. 

Caveat: The experience of non-duality is not a basis for making claims about the origins of the universe or the nature of the cosmos. Subjective experience does not automatically translate into objective truth — the claims made by scientists.

Sam encourages to stick with what we can reasonably claim about spirituality:

Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

Spirituality does not require religious beliefs

We can practice many Eastern forms of spirituality without belief in miracles or supernatural realms. As Sam reminds us, Siddhartha Gautama — the founder of Buddhism — was not a God. He was “merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self.”

The sacred literature of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta in particular are simply “lab manuals,” Sam writes — instructions for meditation. Accordingly, the literature is testable: Follow the instructions and see if you get the intended results. 

For example, Advaita “reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions”: 

Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.

You can experience non-duality for yourself

Our sense of self as a separate entity is language-based. When we talk, we divide the world into subjects (ourselves) and objects (other people, events, and things). And, we talk to ourselves constantly.

Experienced meditators will tell you that it’s possible for this internal conversation to wind down and eventually stop for brief periods of time. And when that happens, the distinction between self and other — along with all other distinctions — gradually disappears.

There are a couple of caveats here as well:

  • Non-dual experience is not always immediate. Getting there can take many hours of meditation practice. Be patient
  • Authentic non-duality requires a healthy sense of self. This is paradoxical: You can’t safely transcend yourself unless you first develop a functional ego. In practical terms, this means treating mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression before you begin meditating.

Suffering begins and ends in the mind

For centuries, wise human beings have reminded us that misery is mind-based. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, echoed this insight. He said that we suffer because due to the irrational beliefs that: 

  • We should succeed in everything we do.
  • People should always do exactly what we want them to do.
  • Events should always turn out the way we expect.

The Buddha, too, taught that suffering and nirvana (the absence of suffering) are fundamentally mental experiences. When we feel miserable, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become prisoners of our thoughts. 

“Our minds,” as Sam notes, “are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others.”

Spirituality reveals consciousness beyond its contents 

Our subjective experience of the world boils down to two primary events:

1. Thoughts, feelings, and urges to act

2. Awareness of those thoughts, feelings, and urges to act

Sam refers to 2 as consciousness and 1 as the contents of consciousness. 

This is not a mere technical distinction, says Sam. Spiritual practice is all about going beyond the contents of consciousness and learning to rest in pure consciousness. The more that we do this, the more we will be free of suffering.

This might sound strange, but consider the process: Meditation allows us to mentally stand back from any mental state. We learn to simply witness those states as they changes, continually arising in consciousness and then passing away. 

Our speaking can reflect this insight: Instead of saying I am anxious or I am depressed, you could say: Anxiety (or depression, or any other emotion) is arising in me.

This shift is subtle and profound. It reminds us that in any moment we can change our relationship to our thoughts. Instead of identifying with them, we can simply witness them and hold them lightly. 

Spiritual practice involves precision and acceptance 

Mindfulness meditation is analytic. The practice is to systematically deconstruct yourself.

Take the experience of anger, for example:

  • How is it arising in this moment? And the next? And the next one after that?
  • What words and images does it bring to mind? 
  • Where exactly in the body do you feel it?

The practice is to see yourself as a scientist — a neutral observer. Your job is to collect as many data points as possible. And you can do that only if you stop judging emotions as good or bad. Instead, simply say that they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Spirituality takes us toward unconditional serenity

Practicing in this way reveals that you can be free of emotions even in the midst of experiencing them. 

As Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young says: It’s not that This too shall pass. It is: This is passing right now, in the present moment. 

In short, says Sam, consciousness is never stained by what it knows: “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.”

This insight alone can change your life. Over time we can develop a stable serenity in the midst of constantly changing events. In the words of another Zen saying:

No matter how assailed, anger need not arise.  

No matter what the pleasure, compulsive longing need not arise.  

No matter what the circumstances, a feeling of limitation need not arise.  

In summary, Sam’s radical claims are that:

  • States of well-being are inherent to the human mind.
  • We can access these states through meditation.
  • These states are available in the midst of ordinary life with all its difficulties and constant alternation between pleasure and pain.
  • We experience these states independently of satisfying any desire or meeting any goal.

Spirituality can involve psychedelics

In addition to MDMA, Sam has experimented with LSD and psilocybin as aids to meditation practice. 

His conclusion: Psychedelics are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, these drugs can open up the flood gates of awareness and give you a sublime taste of non-duality. LSD and psilocybin in particular can do this non-toxic and non-addictive ways.

On the other hand, psychedelics can also trigger hellish mental states that resemble psychosis.

In short, psychedelics don’t guarantee that you will experience wisdom and compassion. They simply guarantee that the contents of your consciousness will change.

The beauty of meditation is that it’s a much safer way to change your mind. Sam compares LSD to “being strapped to a rocket,” while meditation “is like gently raising a sail.”

Gurus can go astray

The spiritual path present us with both delights and dangers. There are compassionate and competent teachers. There are also charlatans who milk their followers for money and insist on blind obedience.

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to tell the difference. 

As Sam puts it: “One can’t fake being an expert gymnast, a rocket scientist, or even a competent cook — at least not for long — but one can fake being an enlightened adept.”

The problem is that an unscrupulous teacher can take any objection raised by a student and recast it as fear, attachment, or some other form of resistance to the teaching. This dynamic creates the constant potential for abuse.

Sam gives many examples of gurus who went off the rails. (One that fascinates me is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who Sam describes as a sexually promiscuous and violent drunk.)

The fact is that teachers with genuine insight can also be ethical landmines. Sam offers guidelines for protecting yourself:

  • Distrust anyone who says that they’re infallible.
  • Avoid any spiritual practice that’s forced on you without your consent.
  • Continue with a spiritual practice only if it makes sense to you and produces concrete results.
  • If a teaching is based on numerology, prophecies, or channeling the teachings of invisible entities, then run away. 

What’s missing for me

I found myself eagerly highlighting juicy passages throughout Waking Up.

Overall, though, Sam tried to do too much in this book. It’s part spiritual memoir, part brain biology textbook, and part meditation manual. Waking Up reads like several unfinished books rolled into one. 

I had some specific disagreements with Sam as well.

You can’t think your way into non-duality. The main goal of Waking Up is to convince us that non-duality is real. 

To test Sam’s presentation, I recommended Waking Up to my book group — six sophisticated readers. No one was convinced. 

I can’t blame them. I’ve had non-dual experiences, and they were revelations. But I don’t think you can access them by reading and writing and talking about non-duality. 

The reason is simple: It’s the process of thinking that creates duality in the first place. 

Non-duality is possible only when the mind is still and free of concepts. It’s non-symbolic — an experience that’s not mediated by language. 

Thinking about non-duality is like trying to erase your image in a mirror by wiping it away with a cloth: No matter how hard and long you rub, you’ll still be there.

Better than attempting intellectual proof is offering instructions for meditation. This makes it possible for readers to have a direct experience of non-duality — the most powerful form of persuasion. 

To his credit, Sam does include several sidebars throughput Waking Up with practice instructions. These might be the best parts of the book.

There is a place for duality. I wouldn’t recommend living in non-duality all the time. In fact, there are times when a clear sense of separation is useful. If you’re being sexually or physically abused, for example, then your safety lies in setting clear and non-negotiable boundaries.

I like how Shinzen Young explains it: Rather than talking exclusively about no-self, he suggests having a flexible sense of self — one that can expand or contract in healthy ways based on your current context.

We need more help with integrating the experience of non-duality. Non-duality can be disorienting. If no one is really home, then how do I explain my sense of myself as an agent — an individual who makes decisions and chooses my behaviors? How do I carry out the tasks of daily life — interacting with people and going to work? And how do I tell people about what I’ve experienced? 

There are many possible answers to these questions. Sam doesn’t explore them, however, and I wish he had.

There are other forms of spirituality. Sam equates spirituality with nonduality and focuses on just two paths — Buddhism and Advaita. We have more options, however. 

Take the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example. Here is another potent form of spirituality without religion. Non-duality can be transformational, but recovering addicts will tell you that getting sober is nothing to sneeze at either. 

Let’s not vilify religious people. We can practice Buddhism and Advaita without believing in miracles or other supernatural events. This is not possible, Sam says, with Christianity and Islam, which require unscientific beliefs.

I doubt this. People who call themselves Christian range from intolerant fundamentalists to mystics such as Thomas Merton with a deep affinity for non-dual experience. The same can be said of Islam.

Again, the whole phenomenon of religion is more complex than Sam describes. I don’t assume that anyone who goes to church is a superstitious boob.

Ethical behavior is a prerequisite for spiritual practice — not a result. Sam describes “forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical: feelings like love, gratitude, devotion, and compassion.” 

Well, okay. But all the fallen gurus remind us of an inconvenient truth: Even profound spiritual experiences do not guarantee ethical behavior. 

In reality, the spiritual path begins with ethical behavior. Morality is the foundation of meditation practice — not the fruit. In his formulation of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha explicitly recognized this.

Let’s not oversell non-duality. I’m fascinated by non-duality, enlightenment, or whatever else you want to call it. It’s fun to explore, and Sam illuminates the path. 

And yet non-duality is not a panacea. The people we describe as enlightened can still struggle with sex, money, relationships, and a host of other issues. 

Let’s keep it all in perspective. Yes, the spiritual path can help us soar to planes of existence that defy description. But when it comes to waking up, compassion matters more than anything else. 

The highest expression of our spirituality is not in altered states of consciousness: It’s in our ordinary acts of kindness.

‘Every Moment is Fresh’ and More Slogans for Constructive Living

David Reynolds, author of Constructive Living, is fond of slogans, and so am I. Slogans can be powerful tools for immediately refocusing our attention and changing our behavior.

Following is my personal library of Constructive Living slogans. They’re drawn from books by David Reynolds and Gregg Krech, executive director of the ToDo Institute.

To get the context for these slogans, see my summary of Constructive Living principles. Then return here often to find a particular slogan that resonates with you.

Every moment is fresh

Who among us could bear being held accountable for every mistake we’ve ever made? Our past actions are beyond our control.

All we can do is apologize, make amends — and use the present moment to make a choice that sets a new direction.

Whatever you did just a second ago has already flowed into the stream of the past. The present moment brings a new possibility.

Even something that you’ve already done a thousand times can be done in a slightly different way, with greater attention and more precision.

I’m feeling…; what needs doing now?

There’s one aspect of being human that’s profound, easy to verify, and easy to forget: When appropriate, we can separate feelings from actions.

We can feel sad and still do the laundry.

We can feel stage fright and still give a speech.

We can dread doing our taxes and still sort our receipts.

We can feel angry with someone and still listen to what they say.

If we wait to take important actions until we feel “motivated,” then we could end up waiting a long time. Maybe a lifetime.

Variations on this slogan:

  • Feelings are for feeling.
  • Feelings change like the Japanese sky.
  • Making friends with fear.
  • Don’t try to shovel away your shadow (that is, control your feelings by will power).

And closely related: You can’t make anyone else feel good.

All I can do is…the next thing and the next thing and the next

“Moment by moment,” writes Reynolds, “reality brings us tasks in just this order.”

This slogan reminds us that there is no such thing as multitasking. When people say that they’re multi-tasking, they’re not really doing several things at once. They’re actually doing one thing for a few seconds, then another thing for a few seconds, and then another…ad infinitum.

The problem with this is that rapid switching between tasks imposes cognitive burdens that our poor brain is not designed to bear.

How much better it is — and how much more fun — to do one thing at a time with full attention.

A variation on this slogan: There is always just enough time to do what needs to be done.

Behavior wags the tail of feelings

This is one way to deal with procrastination. For example, don’t wait to do yoga until you feel like doing it. Waiting probably won’t generate the desire to get moving. Rolling out your mat, and doing one simple stretch might.

But even if this behavior doesn’t change your feelings, you’ll still be doing yoga.

A variation on this slogan: If it’s raining and you have an umbrella, use it. (If you can change unpleasant circumstances by taking action, then do so.)

Thanksgiving, not thanksfeeling

Recognize when other people deserve your gratitude even when you don’t feel grateful to them. Demonstrate this recognition through simple actions such as writing thank you notes to them and giving them token gifts. As a byproduct, such actions can actually generate feelings of gratitude.

A variation on this slogan: You care about what you care for.

Have it be the way it is

Cars get stuck in snow banks. People get laid off from their jobs. Accidents take place. Why pretend that reality is anything other than what actually happened?

If a problem surfaces, accept it. That is, permit yourself to have it for now (along with all your feelings about the problem). Then choose your next action.

A variant on this one is: Things turn out the way they do.

Run to the edge of the cliff and stop on a dime

Notice the three key words in this slogan:

  • Run refers to doing whatever you can to solve a problem.
  • Edge means keep taking action up to the moment that a solution appears.
  • Stop means letting go of the results of your efforts, which are ultimately beyond your control.

When we forget the meaning of these words, we fall into the traps of denying that the problem exists, making only half-hearted attempts at a solution, or blindly trusting that everything will “just work out.”

Variations on this slogan:

  • Effort is good fortune.
  • Flounder with full attention.
  • Don’t put your life on hold.

Action brings experience; experiential knowledge is dependable

Anxiety and depression can lead to over-thinking and under-acting. We waste time by spinning scenarios in our mind and predicting negative outcomes.

Taking action breaks this cycle. Some ideas can be understood only when implemented.

When reading self-help books, I look for ideas that I can turn into behaviors. I often wonder if the authors have ever done what they’re suggesting that I do.

Testing ideas through our own behavior gives us reliable knowledge about what works for us.

Give and give until you wave goodbye

We might feel tempted to disengage from a relationship long before it ends. Doing so is not necessary, and it can make matters worse.

Another option is to do everything possible to resolve the conflict until it’s clear that leaving is a wise choice. There’s inherent value in acting impeccably in difficult circumstances — and with difficult people.

And if we eventually choose to end the relationship, we can do so without regrets — knowing that we did our best.

For all of my dreams, I am what I do

It’s fine for us to imagine big possibilities for our lives — having a dream career, achieving financial independence, or even becoming enlightened. But dreaming is different than focusing on a specific outcome and actually doing something that moves us one step closer to the goal.

Repeating affirmations, chanting mantras, and doing mental exercises to “manifest your dreams” are no substitutes for taking action.

Stick it in your hara

Hara is a Japanese word for your lower abdomen. In certain spiritual traditions, this part of your body is considered the seat of wisdom — not your head. Americans might say that hara is “gut wisdom.”

The suggestion here is to refrain from acting impulsively, especially when your actions could alienate or hurt other people. Let your intention sit in your hara for a while. Act only after your gut wisdom has spoken.

Many “me’s”

You are a bundle of different identities. When with your parents, you might revert to a childhood role. At work, you might be competent and assertive. At a party with friends, another version of you emerges. Behavior depends on context.

This is useful to remember when you’re tempted to label someone in your life as “toxic” or “neurotic.” No single behavior or set of behaviors defines a person in an ultimate way. All of us have neurotic moments. Even “toxic” people have moments of clarity and compassion.

Unpleasant doesn’t mean “bad”

Many symptoms arise from positive intentions.

For example, someone who feels anxiety about public speaking wants to perform well. The person who fears getting on an airplane wants to stay safe. The person who is compulsive about making lists wants to make sure that everything gets done.

Remembering this can help us temper our judgments of ourselves and other people. It can also free up energy for taking constructive action.

Variations on this slogan:

  • Suffering grows from a seed of beauty.
  • Muck grows out of the lotus.
  • Look for the beautiful source.
  • Moldy perfume.

Symptoms are misattention

Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional ailments are strongest when we grant them our undivided attention. Constructive activities such as meditating, exercising, preparing healthy meals, and taking time to see friends can redirect our attention and reduce our suffering.

A variation on this slogan: When you’re not noticing your grief, where is it?

Self-centeredness is suffering

To dwell on our resentments is to place ourselves at the center of the universe. This is a recipe for neurotic suffering.

A constructive alternative is self-transcendence. For instance:

  • Instead of griping about how the government fails you, sign up to volunteer at your local food shelf.
  • Instead of complaining about loneliness, invite others to a dinner party at your house.
  • Instead of competing with other drivers for a prime parking space, drive to a more distant spot to relieve the congestion.

When our mindset shifts from What’s in it for me? to How can I serve?, life takes on a new quality.

Exchange yourself for another

We feel most self-conscious when we’re focused on our performance and worried about what other people think of us. The alternative is to redirect our attention to our larger purpose and moment-to-moment experience.

When making a speech, don’t dwell on how nervous you feel. Instead, focus on the point that you want to make and how to make it clear to your audience.

During yoga class, focus on doing the asanas with precision. Notice the body sensations that arise with each movement. Don’t worry about whether the other people in class think you’re too fat, too stiff, or too old.

As David Reynolds notes:

Self-consciousness disappears when attention is merged with reality. When the shy woman loses herself in her companion, when the beachgoer becomes the wave in which he swims, there is no awkward introspection.

Variations on this slogan:

  • Go be a wave.
  • Melt into the moment.

Reality is more interesting than all our ideas about it

Our default mental mode is distraction. We get lost in our mind by recycling events from the past, worrying about what will go wrong in the future, and spinning sexual fantasies.

Meanwhile, we become blind to the beauty and sensory richness of our environment. We stumble through our days on cruise control, not really noticing the world outside our head.

Take a few minutes every day to stop and simply notice colors, sounds, textures, shapes, and aromas.

Take a short break to close your eyes and feel the physical sensations associated with breathing.

During a conversation, observe the other person’s nonverbal language and tone of voice. Stop thinking about the next point that you want to make and pour 100 percent of your attention into hearing that person’s words.

The world is fascinating. If only we’d tune in to it!

I wish I weren’t miserable

Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, said that three beliefs are responsible for most of our misery:

  • I must always be perfectly competent.
  • Other people must always behave exactly the way that I expect.
  • Events must always turn out exactly the way I expect.

Since these statements all include the word must, Ellis also referred to them as examples of musterbating.

The spirit of musterbating is also present in statements that begin with:

  • If only….
  • They should have….
  • Why didn’t I just….

As an earlier slogan reminds us, things turn out the way they do. And, nobody is perfect. When circumstances disappoint us, the most constructive response is note that feeling and ask: What can I do about it?

Two kinds of “can’t”

Some of our difficulties result from sloppy language. Often we use the word can’t when what we really mean is:

  • I’m not willing to….
  • I’m afraid to….
  • I just really don’t want to….

In these cases, can’t is a sign of procrastination or a simple unwillingness to endure temporary discomfort.

Save can’t for the rare times when it’s actually physically impossible for you to do something.

Confidence follows success

Courage is the willingness to work toward your goals even when you feel unsure about achieving them.

Courage is the student who moves far away from home to attend college in a strange new city.

Courage is the person who starts a new business while knowing the risk of failure.

Courage is the first-time author who sits down to write a book — even if she feels inadequate to the task.

David Reynolds puts it this way:

Some people believe they should undertake a venture only after they feel confident of their ability to do it. With that attitude they rarely start any ventures. Trembling and unsure, without confidence, we give life a try. Confidence comes after we have succeeded, not before.

Freedom through discipline

After mastering the rules of grammar, great writers can use sentence fragments and neologisms (invented words) to great effect.

After memorizing musical scales and patterns, great jazz musicians can improvise gorgeous melodies on the spot.

After learning to draw with near-photographic realism, Picasso created masterpieces of cubism and abstraction.

Mastery begins with learning the basic techniques and materials of your craft. Then, after knowing the rules, you are free to bend or even break them.

In Constructive Living, mastery begins with learning to take charge of your behavior in the midst of constantly changing emotional states. This is a fundamental life skill that increases your effectiveness in any vocation.

Active rest

If you’re feeling tired, the most appropriate response might be to take a nap. On the other hand, staying in bed for more than nine hours a day might be an attempt to avoid problems.

Often we can refresh ourselves by simply switching activities.

If you feel foggy after sitting for long hours at the computer, then get up to take a brisk walk.

If you feel drained after a long day of meetings at work, then step on to a yoga mat and stretch for a few minutes.

Relaxation is not always the same as withdrawal from activity.

Bonus slogan #1: If nothing changes, then nothing changes

This slogan does not from David Reynolds. But it’s so closely aligned with Constructive Living that I feel compelled to include it.

Some people complain endlessly about their circumstances while refusing to change their behavior. They want better health, more money, and more friends. But they’re not willing to exercise more, eat better, gain new job skills, or invite a friend out to lunch.

When I’m not satisfied some aspect of my life, I ask: What am I doing to create this outcome? And, What can I do differently?

Bonus slogan #2: Eat, move, sleep

Again, this is not an “official” Constructive Living slogan. In fact, it’s the title of a wonderful little book by Tom Rath — Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes.

However, “eat, move, sleep” fits perfectly with another Constructive Living slogan: Depressed? Get moving!

Many self-help books for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues focus on techniques for changing self-defeating thoughts. But equally important is the simple stuff that we do everyday to maintain our fragile human body — sleeping, eating, and exercising.

In Constructive Living, David Reynolds suggests a simple experiment: Eat, sleep, and exercise regularly for one week. Then notice the effects on your overall emotional state.

Here’s his rationale:

Many of the troubled people I know have neglected these fundamental aspects of human life. A lot of moodiness, depression, nervousness, and even craziness improves when these simple needs are met in regular fashion. Erratic uncontrolled lifestyles produce erratic uncontrolled people.

This sounds drop-dead simple. And, it can be a Herculean challenge to carry out.

Why? Because you will meet walls of resistance in the form of rationalizations and fluctuating emotions: I’ll exercise tomorrow…. I don’t have time to cook…. I feel too tired to get up when the alarm goes off.

If you acknowledge all this resistance and act on your plans anyway, you will make one of the most liberating discoveries possible for a human being: You can take constructive action no matter what you feel.

Thoughts come and go. Feelings arise and fade. But none of them need to stop you from living a life based on your values.