Pay Attention and Act Purposefully—the Heart of Constructive Living

Constructive Living is the name of a book and a body of teachings by David K. Reynolds. The book is one of my favorites — a simple and eminently sensible path to mental health.

You can easily test the principles of Constructive Living for yourself:

  • Accept your feelings
  • Act on your values
  • Refocus your attention
  • Reflect on what you’ve received, what you’ve given, and the difficulties you’ve caused

Accept your feelings

Unpleasant feelings are…well, unpleasant. Our natural tendency is to try to “fix” ourselves with a variety of strategies for making those feelings go away.

David says that our attempted solution is in fact the problem. Trying to control feelings is like trying to control the weather. Since we cannot change them by sheer force of willpower, the wisest course is simply to accept them.

Accepting feelings is easier to do once we see their true nature — complex, often illogical, and morally neutral. Feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong. They simply are.

Moreover, feelings are fluid. Over time, most feelings — even the most intense — will fade on their own. We can simply allow them to wash over us and let them pass without fanfare.

Note: Nothing in Constructive Living is an injunction to deny or suppress your feelings.

Feelings are important. They help us survive. They are cues to take care of ourselves: Fear is a signal to avoid danger. Sadness prompts us to slow down and take to grieve a loss or recover from a failure.

The point is that we can heed such messages and channel them into constructive behaviors.

And when we give up on fixing feelings, we are free to focus on what we do control to a far greater extent — our behavior and our attention.

Act on your values

Instead of dwelling on unpleasant feelings, we can accept them and simply ask: Now, what is my purpose? What is important to me? Today, how will I translate my core values into action?

Remembering to separate feelings from behavior allows us to avoid the trap of motivation — believing that we have to feel inspired, energized, or enthusiastic before taking action. For in fact:

  • We can feel sad and still do the laundry.
  • We can feel uninspired and still sit down to write.
  • We can feel fear and still stand up to give a speech.

In short, motivation is a luxury — nice when it happens, and not necessary.

This is good news: Our feelings don’t have to stop us from acting our intentions. And once we move into the stream of action, our unpleasant feelings will often start to fade: We might even feel less sad when the laundry is done.

In short, we can respond in a constructive way to our circumstances — no matter what they are, or how we feel about them in the moment.

To understand this at a gut level is a taste of unconditional freedom.

Note: It helps greatly to define your values as areas of activity and then translate them into clear next actions

Refocus your attention

There’s a saying in Constructive Living: “Self-centeredness is suffering.”

When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on my resentments and fears. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

The alternative is to refocus my attention on the world outside my head. Instead of dwelling on others’ faults and what’s missing from my life, I ask: 

  • What’s going on around me, and what calls upon me for a response?
  • What tasks in my environment remain undone?
  • What promises have I made to other people?
  • What’s the very next thing I can do to keep my promises?

This shift in perspective reveals that there are many useful things to be done in the present moment: Dishes to wash. Papers to be filed. Books to read. Bills to pay. Friends to call. And much more.

Here — in the homely details that are revealed by paying attention — is our opportunity to live impeccably.

Refocusing our attention reminds us that Reality is our most reliable and ever-present teacher. Our actions — and inactions — have visible consequences in the material world. Observing those consequences gives us valuable clues about what to do next.

Reflect on these three questions

In creating Constructive Living, David drew on a Japanese tradition called Naikan. This is a Japanese word for introspection, or “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye.”

Naikan is a structured method of reflection developed by Yoshimoto Ishin, a Buddhist monk. He taught the value of systematically answering three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What difficulties have I caused others?

In Japan, people go on extended retreats and write out detailed answers to these questions — often focusing on specific people during specific periods of life. Naikan is also used in the treatment of alcoholism.

Yoshimoto described Naikan as developing “a thankful heart in order to prepare for death.” This is a profound practice that promotes appreciation and a visceral sense of our interdependence. It leads — quite naturally and joyfully — to the expression of gratitude.

Summary

Reduced to its core, Constructive Living reminds us that mental health springs from a balance between reflection and action. When troubled by negative feelings, we can apply the above principles to achieve this balance.

I’ll end with this quote from Constructive Living, where David sums it all up:

The key to successful living is to pay attention and act purposefully. Life won’t be trouble free that way — but then no life is trouble free. Being on top of the world depends on being on top of the world: being in control of you acting in the world.

Where to learn more

David Reynolds has written many books. In addition to Constructive Living, I recommend his “water series,” with their Taoist-inspired titles:

  • Even in Summer the Ice Doesn’t Melt
  • Water Bears No Scars
  • A Thousand Waves
  • Pools of Lodging for the Moon
  • Rainbow Rising From a Stream
  • Playing Ball on Running Water

Another wonderful resource is the ToDo Institute, a non-profit organization in Vermont that’s dedicated to the theory and practice of Constructive Living.

The Art of Crap Detection

One purpose of liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for one simple reason.

Because you are a fool. 

And so am I.

Please do not be offended by the above statements. They are cause for compassion, not criticism. 

We are all partners in fool-hood. We live, move, and have our being in foolishness. 

And it’s not our fault. We are born into foolishness, and precious few are the voices that call this fact to our attention—let alone point a way out.

Crap as commodity

Pundits and politicians of all stripes utter foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. 

Sometimes the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject are pure foolishness.

This is otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply: crap. 

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

That’s not exactly a warm fuzzy. But what a useful insight. 

Hemingway was not the wisest or most compassionate member of the human race. But on this point he was right: Crap detection calls for eternal vigilance.

Finding mentors in crap-detecting

Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. Fortunately we can find mentors in this craft. 

Many of these folks are dead, but that matters little. Crap is timeless, and so are the ways to avoid it. 

One beacon is “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection,” a 1969 speech by Neil Postman.

Also check out On Bullshit, by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt.

My favorite anthem to crap detection is Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. It’s worth re-reading every year or two.

According to Orwell, we utter crap when we string together:

  • Words that have no clear meaning
  • Assertions that violate logic
  • Arguments that have little or no supporting evidence
  • Sentences that are unnecessarily ugly 

These guidelines get to the heart of crap detection. To them I humbly add a couple of my own.

Beware the oft-told story

Case in point: the “boiling frog” story. Though there are countless versions of it, the key points are:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail—to their peril—to notice gradual and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

The Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company’s website nailed it with Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant

This article quotes two biologists who point out that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The bottom line: When I hear an anecdote more than three times, my crap detector glows red.

Avoid brand-building books

I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Dave Logan about the banality of many business books. He describes them as “air sandwiches”—first and last chapters with little of substance in between. 

“One of my mentors told me to read the first and last chapters of a book,” Logan writes, “because everything in the middle is either stories or takeaways so simple that watching Mr. Rogers is a better use of your time.”

I’m afraid these comments apply to many nonfiction books beyond business titles. This is especially true in the era of brand-building books, commonly published by consultants who want to boost their credibility and build their client base.

A few of these books are actually worth your time. But a great many of them are simply overgrown business cards.

Are you thinking about writing a book to build your brand? If so, start by asking some inconvenient questions:

  • Do I have a book-length idea—one that actually merits 50,000 words? Or, do I actually have a magazine article? Or a blog post?
  • Can I support my thesis with something more than personal anecdotes?
  • Can I balance clarity with complexity—that is, offer credible solutions without over-simplifying the problem at hand?
  • Can I go beyond superficial take-aways and help readers to do the hard work of thinking?

For more guidance, see Should You Write a Book? by John Butman and his own book—Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Ideas.

In any case, please be careful. Because anything you read—including some of what you find on this very website—might be pure, unadulterated crap. 

BJ Fogg on the Myths of Habit Change—and a Method That Actually Works

 I could bore you to tears with stories about my failed attempts at self-improvement. 

Take, for example, all those times that I returned from meditation retreats declaring that I’d begin each day with a heroic session of hatha yoga followed by an hour of silent sitting. 

These declarations suffered the common fate of New Year’s resolutions. Despite my plans for dramatic and sudden behavior change, I eventually defaulted to the status quo — sleeping late and seldom making it to the yoga mat or meditation cushion. 

The result was a half-hearted spiritual practice and a loss of self-esteem. 

After many incidents like this, I was relieved to discover BJ Fogg and his Tiny Habits method, which is documented in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.

BJ urges us to scale down our grandiose plans for behavior change, start with small changes that scale up over time, and celebrate success at every step along the way.

Release the self-defeating myths

BJ is on a mission to stop us from blaming ourselves when our attempts at habit change change backfire. The real problem, he says, is unscientific models and methods that almost guarantee failure. 

Following are some examples.

Myth: You fail at habit change because you lack motivation, willpower, or both. Not at all, says BJ. In fact, it is possible to design habits so that they require little or no willpower. If you’re struggling with habit change, then stop looking for personal flaws. Instead, look for design flaws. 

Myth: When you fail at behavior change, the solution is to get more information. This is a common weakness in corporate wellness programs. Does your company have too many employees who smoke? Give them more facts about the health risks of smoking. Too many employees who sit all day? Give them more statistics about the benefits of exercise. 

This reasoning sounds so…reasonable. And yet there’s little evidence to support it. 

Providing information alone does not consistently change behavior — especially when you don’t give people any guidance in what to do with the facts. BJ calls this the Information-Action Fallacy.

Myth: Epiphany is a reliable method for behavior change. Behavior change can result from  altered states of consciousness such as spiritual awakenings and mystical experiences. (For examples, see the chapters on conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.) BJ refers to such events as epiphanies

Alas, epiphanies are beyond our control. We cannot make them appear at will. 

What’s more, epiphanies can fail to change behavior. There are plenty of celebrated gurus whose post-enlightenment behavior continued to harm people. 

To avoid ethical land mines, we can supplement our spiritual practices with some wise guidance for habit change.

Myth: Successful habit change includes setting goals. The word goal is ambiguous. It can refer to:

  • An aspiration — an abstract ideal, such as being a loving husband and father
  • An outcome — an visible and measurable result
  • A behavior — for example, exercising or sleeping eight hours per night

Instead of talking about goal-setting, BJ uses these three words for greater precision. 

Myth: Successful behavior change includes behavior tracking. I remember a viral post about behavior change from 2007. It centered on an anecdote about comedian Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry wanted to develop a habit of writing jokes every day. So, the story goes, he armed himself with a wall calendar and red magic marker. For every day that he actually completed his task of writing jokes, Jerry put a big X on the calendar with the magic marker. He knew his habit was stable when he saw an unbroken chain of Xs on the calendar.

In short: If you want to develop a habit, track your behavior and don’t break the chain. This single phrase spawned a host of copycat blog posts and Don’t Break the Chain apps. 

Even so, BJ does not include behavior tracking in his behavior change model or methods. His research does not support this technique. 

On this issue, I’m choosing to go with the behavior scientist over the Internet meme. 

Myth: You can change or break habits with a single, powerful intervention. We live in a culture that thrives on stories about overnight success, including sudden and dramatic behavior changes. 

But think about it: How many times has such transformation actually occurred to you, or to people that you know well?

BJ’s research reveals that transformation is more likely to occur in increments, the cumulative effect of many small behavior changes. In fact, there’s a whole chapter in his book (Growing Your Habits From Tiny to Transformative) with examples and explanation.   

Clearing the conceptual decks and getting back to the data

Releasing myths about behavior change allows us to drop a lot of baggage. 

Forget blame and shame. 

Forget willpower. 

Let go of dependence on information, goal-setting, behavior tracking, or epiphany. 

What relief!

Instead, we get to see behavior change as a skill — or, more accurately, a set of skills. 

We can let go of self-judgment and get down to the real work of applying design principles to find habits that “stick.” 

On this path there is no such thing as failure. There are only behavior change experiments, which give us data about what works and what doesn’t. 

In the process, we get to move past behavior folklore to behavior science. Tiny Habits is based on data that BJ gathered from more than 40,000 people who took his free Tiny Habits course. (For more details about the research, see his references.)

What’s more, BJ  has personally coached people to use the Tiny Habits method. He brings both quantitative and qualitative perspectives to this topic — a rare and valuable combination of skills. 

Above all, the Tiny Habits method is testable. The steps and specific and concrete, and it’s easy to tell whether or not it’s working. 

The results you get are crispy, as BJ likes to say, rather than fuzzy or abstract. 

To understand this, let’s start with BJ’s model of human behavior. Then we’ll see how it’s applied in his method for habit change. 

The Fogg Behavior Model 

First, says BJ, remember that any human behavior (B) occurs only when three factors intersect:

  • Motivation (M) — you want to do the behavior. 
  • Ability (A) — you can actually do the behavior. 
  • Prompt (P) — you are reminded to do the behavior. 

You can express this as a formula: 

B = MAP

Next, remember some key points about how these factors interact: 

  • The higher your Motivation to do a behavior, the more likely you are to actually do it. BJ’s first maxim of behavior change is: “Help people do what they already want to do.”
  • The higher your Ability to do a behavior, the more likely you are to actually do it. To succeed at habit change, choose a behavior that’s simple and easy to do. As BJ says, “Simplicity changes behavior.”
  • Motivation and Ability have a reciprocal relationship. When your motivation is high, you can do harder behaviors. But when your motivation is low, you’ll gravitate toward easier behaviors. 
  • Motivation is fickle. Like a wave, motivation rises and falls. You can wake up one day feeling excited to exercise and another day absolutely dreading it. For this reason, BJ cautions us to avoid the “Motivation Monkey” — the temptation to make big behavior changes that depend on having high motivation all or most of the time.
  • No matter what your levels of Motivation and Ability, behaviors happen only with a Prompt. Some synonyms for prompt are cue, reminder, and trigger. For example, I designed a habit to do yoga right after I start coffee in the morning. When I see the “on” light for the coffee turn to bright blue, that’s my prompt to step on the yoga mat. 

All this has two major implications for starting new habits and stopping old ones:

  • You can make a behavior more likely by increasing motivation, making it easier to do, or adding an effective prompt. 
  • You can make a behavior less likely by reducing motivation, making it harder to do, or removing the prompt.  

Which leads us to the essence of behavior design: 

Tinker with motivation, ability, and prompts until you get the desired behavior. 

(For more details and a visual representation of these ideas, see the Fogg Behavior Model.)

Tinkering means iterating like crazy, running lots of experiments, and learning from failure until you find some combination of these factors that actually works. 

The Tiny Habits method 

Now we’re ready to apply the behavior model in a more explicit way to habit change. 

1: Choose a tiny behavior. This is one that:

  • Fits in with your existing behaviors
  • Takes less than 30 seconds to do
  • Is something you can do right now
  • Is easy

Examples of tiny behaviors include:

  • Flossing one tooth
  • Doing one push up
  • Stepping on the yoga mat 
  • Taking one mindful breath

Examples of behaviors that are not tiny include:

  • Flossing all your teeth
  • Doing 20 push ups
  • Doing 20 Sun Salutes (a sequence of 12 yoga poses) 
  • Sitting down to meditate for 60 minutes

The underlying principle at this point is to dial down the amount of Ability required. You want a behavior is simple enough to do even your Motivation is low. 

This — like many aspects of BJ’s work — is counterintuitive. It seems to contradict much of what we “know” about habit change. 

If this is an obstacle to you, you can get past it by remembering two things.

First, review your past experience with habit change. Chances are that the accepted “wisdom” about this topic has not served you well. Again, that’s because it’s probably based on myth and misinformation. 

Second, small changes scale naturally over time. Success with the Tiny Habits method leads to behaviors that grow and multiply. 

For example, my first Tiny Habit involved simply stepping on to my yoga mat. I did not commit to doing any specific postures or practicing for any specified period of time. All I committed to do was simply place my feet on the mat. 

At first, this seemed absurd — such a trivial commitment. But it soon became clear that I can step on the mat even on days when the last thing I feel like doing is yoga. 

This particular combination of Motivation and Ability — arrived at after several Tiny Habit for yoga designs that failed — now works beautifully. After stepping on the mat, the thoughts that run through my head are: 

Well, I’m on the mat. I made it this far. I might as well go ahead and do something as long as I’m here. 

On most days, the result is that I end up doing several sun salutes followed by squats, push ups, and a plank pose.

Tiny Habits offers many more examples of how habits scale up naturally over time. If you’re skeptical, just test it for yourself. 

2: Pair your tiny behavior with a prompt. Use this Tiny Habit template:

After I [fill in your Prompt] I will [fill in your Tiny Habit].

For example: 

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth. 
  • After I wake up and put my feet on the floor, I will say It’s going to be a great day. (BJ refers to this as the “Maui habit” and tells its origin story.) 
  • After I walk into the kitchen, I will drink a glass of water. 
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will write one sentence in my journal. 
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom. 
  • After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my exercise clothes. 
  • After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day. 

Tiny Habits includes an appendix with 300 such Tiny Habit examples. This alone is worth the price of the book. 

By the way, some of the most useful thinking you’ll ever do is to make a list of the “anchor moments” in your day — your current and stable habits that can serve as prompts for a new Tiny Habit. 

3: Celebrate every time that you do your tiny behavior. To complete your behavior design, add a specific way to celebrate that feels authentic to you. For instance:

  • Smile big.
  • Nod your head. 
  • Say Yes! while doing a fist pump. 
  • Imagine your favorite teacher saying Well done to you. 
  • Do a short victory dance. 

Again, Tiny Habits includes many more celebration techniques. All of them illustrate the underlying principle: Habits are “wired in” with positive emotion. 

Celebration is a big deal to BJ. “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad,” he writes. And, his second maxim of behavior change is: Help people feel successful. 

In fact, BJ claims that:

Celebration will one day be ranked alongside mindfulness and gratitude as daily practices that contribute most to our overall happiness and well-being. If you learn just one thing from my entire book, I hope it’s this: Celebrate your tiny successes.

Remember to celebrate every time that you do your Tiny Habit. If your plan is to do one squat after you turn on the water for a shower, then celebrate that single squat. 

If you happen to do five, ten, or even more squats — great. You’re welcome to do some extra celebration. But celebrate every time you do your designed behavior, even it it’s the minimum. 

4: Create a Tiny Habits recipe. BJ recommends writing out a recipe for every Tiny Habit. The acronym for a complete recipe is ABC:

  • Anchor — the Prompt, referred to here as an anchor so that we get the nifty ABC acronym 
  • Behavior — your Tiny Habit
  • Celebration — your preferred way to celebrate

If you buy Tiny Habits, you’ll get access to a PDF with printable Tiny Habit recipe cards.  

5: Rehearse your Tiny Habit. When your Tiny Habits recipe is in writing, the design phase of the method is over. Next comes rehearsal, which leads naturally to execution (actually doing your Tiny Habit during the course of your day).

To rehearse a new Tiny Habit, mentally picture yourself doing the behavior in response to the anchor and then celebrating. 

Also physically rehearse your ABC sequence a few times. Success with behavior change hinges on remembering to do your Tiny Habit in the first place. This is no small matter, and rehearsal helps a lot.

How to learn more

There’s much more juicy material in Tiny Habits about how to change your behavior. I’ll cover more of this in a future post. For now I’ll simply refer you to the website for this book and the free Tiny Habits course.

Further Reflections on the Landmark Forum

In 2005 I took the Landmark Forum, a three-day workshop. It was one of the most powerful educational experiences of my life. And like many Forum grads, I’m moved to dust off my memories of the event and document what still resonates with me.

First, however, some context.

The Landmark Forum is an extension of est and The Forum, which were created by Werner Erhard. As controversial as est was, it offered insights that are worth preserving. The Landmark Forum revisits some of these and adds more.

When people ask you about the Landmark Forum, I was told: Don’t summarize the content. Just explain what you got out of it.

What I got was three things:

  • Seeing myself objectively, including some painful insights into my pretenses and lack of integrity
  • Getting to nothing — seeing that my personal identity was based largely on arbitrary interpretations of past events
  • Creating from nothing by speaking about new possibilities and then aligning my moment-to-moment behavior with my speaking

Oddly enough, I also overcame my fear of public speaking enough to stand in front of the group several times and share some embarrassing personal experiences. 

This probably resulted from Forum-inspired insight into a) my near-constant fear of what other people think about me and b) how limiting that is.

During the Forum I somehow became willing to let all that go and risk full self-expression.

This alone was liberating and worth the enrollment fee.

Starting from absurdity

To distill the essence of any teaching, start with the diagnosis: How does it describe our fundamental issues?

For example, the Buddha started with dukkha — often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. Christians often start with original sin and separation from God.

The Forum starts from the premise that our lives are absurd.

To understand this, first consider that we are simply machines. Few of our behaviors are consciously chosen. In reality, they are driven by complex chains of stimulus-response conditioning. These lie well below our threshold of awareness.

What’s more, our whole existence is inauthentic.

We routinely suppress our emotions and hide what we truly think and feel.

We live in constant fear of looking bad in front of other people and then pretend that we aren’t afraid. 

And since we so seldom tell the truth about our experience — even to our intimate partners — our lives are fundamentally based on pretense.

Beyond this is what happens when we encounter people who disagree with us: Our first impulse is to dominate them and “win” the debate.

We work hard to make other people wrong and make ourselves right. This comes at the the cost of learning something new and seeing the world through fresh eyes.

What my Forum workshop leader said about this still rings true: “We’d rather be right than be in relationship.”

In addition, we live with an absence of integrity. We make agreements and consistently fail to keep them. We settle for coming up with reasons, rationalizations, and excuses for our failures rather than producing results.

Fortunately, the Forum doesn’t stop there. Even with a dire diagnosis, there comes a treatment.

Getting to nothing

One purpose of the Landmark Forum is to erase your identity and reduce you to nothing.

Seriously.

Consider that the core elements of our identity are rackets and strong suits.

A racket is a circumstance that you complain about — even though you receive a payoff from it.

Example: Suppose that my mother sends me money every week, even though I’m 48 years old. Every chance I get, I gripe that she’s overprotective. But if she ever stopped sending the money, I’d sure miss it.

Strong suits are decisions we make at certain crucial points in our development. These decisions might be random, hasty, and irrational. Yet they can shape our lives for decades to come.

According to the Forum, there are three pivotal decisions:

  • During childhood, you experienced a time when you weren’t good enough, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • During adolescence, you experienced a time when you didn’t belong, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • As a young adult, you experienced a time when you realized you were on your own, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)

During my own adolescence, for example, I didn’t belong to a group of peers that I admired. So I decided to become a straight-A student and master the guitar. These became coping mechanisms and ways to win social approval — my strong suits.

One entire day of the Forum was devoted to investigating rackets and strong suits. We learned to see them as arbitrary interpretations of past events — in Forum terminology, as stories

This, in turn, led to another purpose of the Forum — to systematically separate our stories from the facts about what actually happened to us.

I found that even a momentary glimpse into the emptiness and meaninglessness of my stories was enough to shift my perspective on just about everything.

This, in brief, is what happened to me at 5 pm on the second day of the Forum: I suddenly felt reduced to nothingness

This must be, I thought, what Buddhists call anatta, or “no-self.”

It was terrifying.

It was beautiful.

And it was holy.

As our Forum leader said: Life is empty and meaningless. And this insight in turn is also empty and meaningless.

Creating from nothing

Stated so baldly, “getting to nothing” might sound strange or even cruel.

Actually, it’s liberating.

From a state of nothingness, anything is possible.

Once you’re reduced to a psychological blank slate, you are free to reinvent yourself.

You can declare new possibilities — new aspirations, new outcomes — and align your moment-to-moment behaviors with them. (This alignment is the essence of integrity.)

Think of it all as a psychological re-boot. A large part of the Forum is about ways to do this.

The key point is that this kind of speaking is pure creation. We call new possibilities into being solely through the power of our word.

And, these possibilities can transcend rackets and strong suits, which are part of the past that no longer binds you.

This leads to my 9-word summary of the Forum: Get to nothing. Create from nothing. Act with integrity.

Seven key distinctions

Every system for self-transformation posits some kind of ideal state — a vision, as Carl Rogers described it, of a “fully functioning human being.”

According to the Forum, we can ultimately become unreasonable in the best sense of that word. This does not mean being irrational. Instead, our possibility is to go beyond our reasons — that is, our excuses — for failing to create new results in life.

As we systematically practice creating from nothing, we demonstrate seven new ways of being:

  • Integrity — honoring your word; making and keeping promises that make a difference in the quality of your life; cleaning up the messes that result from breaking promises and then making new promises.
  • Being racket-free — noticing the early warning signs of a racket, such as losing your sense of humor; giving up being right all the time — even when you are right.
  • Being powerful — instead of using force, pressure, begging, or conning, producing new results through straight communication and taking what you get.
  • Being courageous — feeling fear, acknowledging it, and doing whatever it takes to keep your promises anyway.
  • Being peaceful — staying centered in the midst of chaos; dealing with what is rather than what “should” be; giving up the interpretation that anything is wrong; greeting criticism and personal attacks with non-resistance.
  • Being charismatic — entering the present moment and fully listening to people with no agenda to get something from them.
  • Enrolling — sharing possibilities that touch, move, and inspire people.

In the Forum, this list has an iconic status and is often called the seven distinctions of being an unreasonable and extraordinary human being.

Reflecting on what remains

It’s been a long time since my Landmark Forum experience. So what does it all add up to after so many years?

Remember that approaches to human transformation — even the best — come with inherent dangers.

For one, we can fall prey to “workshop syndrome.” This means basking in the warm afterglow of a powerful training — only to silently sink back into our behavioral status quo after our memories the event fade.

This is connected to the danger of abstraction — getting lost in theory and forgetting about practice.

It’s one thing to acquire some new terminology, as I did in the Landmark Forum. It’s quite another to to integrate those ideas so thoroughly that they change what I actually do on a daily basis.

Even so, the Landmark Forum still resonates with me. Four of its teachings in particular became working parts of my personal operating system.

First is noticing my desire to “be right rather than be in relationship.” After observing this tendency, I can remind myself to let it go. 

I can relax, take it easy, and open up to what other people have to say — no matter what that is. And I can free myself from the need to dispute it and force people to agree with me. 

A second lasting legacy of the Landmark Forum is compassion. I see now that we run rackets not because we’re evil but because we’re all thrown into this empty universe without a clue to its meaning. 

We’ve all felt existential fear. And we all did whatever seemed necessary to survive at the moment — even if it compromised our self-expression, our relationships, and our basic aliveness.

I remember those people who, like me, stood up in front of the room during the Landmark Forum and shared their stories. They were all like me, really — just running different rackets and developing different strong suits.

The content of those rackets and strong suits doesn’t matter. It’s the process that owns us. In that context, we are one. Remembering this helps to temper my anger and practice a little more patience.

Third is the matter of integrity. My practice is to give my word consciously then and keep it rigorously. 

Another way of saying this: I seek to be as dependable as gravity. Gravity never stops working. It just is. As long as you live on planet Earth, you can count on gravity. Absolutely.

The world works when people keep their word. When people don’t keep their agreements (and don’t separate their stories from the facts), then all hell breaks loose.

This practices hinges on recognizing when you are making an agreement. I’ve seen few people who do this. They make statements such as these with zero intention of following through:

  • We should get together soon.
  • Let’s do this again.
  • I’ll get back to next week.

You are hereby warned: If I ever say that I’ll give you a call next week, then you can count on the fact that your phone will eventually ring with me on the other end.

Finally, my intention is to operate without beliefs

Several people have told that I have to believe in something. Actually, I find that life works much better when I don’t believe in anything. 

This makes sense when you remember that belief is an attachment to an idea. And when you are attached to an idea, you are no longer willing to think about it and discuss any alternatives. 

Do you want to index all all the places in your life where you’ve stopped learning? Just make a list of your beliefs.

In a nutshell…

So now I can offer you a two-sentence summary of the Landmark Forum. It is a quotation from a collection of aphorisms that was sometimes given to graduates of the est Training:

One creates from nothing. If you try to create from something you’re just changing something.

So in order to create something you first have to be able to create nothing.

Those sentences are now alive for me.

Note: I also published a “distinctionary” of key Landmark Forum terms.

Bodywork as Spiritual Practice

Meditation is not restricted to the mat. 

We can turn bodywork (therapeutic massage) into meditation, too. 

Going on traditional meditation retreats gave me the necessary techniques.  

I learned to notice the sensations associated with breathing — the feeling of cool air drawn up into my nostrils.  

The gentle rise of my belly with each inhale.  

Warm air exhaled as my belly falls. 

Bringing mindful awareness to such sensations brings me into the present moment.  

And when past and future disappear, so do my problems. 

During bodywork I work with stronger sensations — the experience of being touched rather than the experience of breathing.  

When a massage therapist’s hands move, my awareness follows. When her fingertips meet my skin, my attention goes there. 

I sink into pure sensation, become a body, and see where that leads. 

***

Our lives are the story of how we relate to pleasure and pain.  

We cling to comforting sensations and we resist discomfort, but these primal strategies never yield more than passing satisfaction. 

The alternative is to cultivate a mind that does not cling or resist.  

This bright, shining awareness is able to witness the rising and passing of any sensation without a sense of suffering. 

Both pleasure and pain can lead us to this high plane of realization, say the meditation teachers.  

But pain is so oppressive and hard to learn from. Pleasure can also teach us. 

Perhaps the path of mindful pleasure will take me to nirvana as readily as silent and solitary sitting meditation.  

I’m not sure I want to spend so much time firmly parked on my butt. I’d rather be on the massage table — supine, serene, and caressed. 

Why not use bodywork to take pleasure to its limits and then die to it?  

Just feel whatever arises without limitation, without longing or loathing.  

Beyond that is the peace that passes all understanding. 

***

My body will die soon — today, tomorrow, or years from now. (From the standpoint of eternity, it makes no difference).  

All the more reason to make it the vehicle of my practice. 

Many spiritual practices are slow to tap into our energetic core. Bodywork offers a direct path. 

Let’s begin with touch.  

Let flesh meet flesh and spirit meet spirit. 

This is how God enters the world — through a human body. 

***

Bodywork is pure paradox. It is intimate and distanced, professional and personal, private and public. 

These qualities exist as opposites only in my mind.  

The bodyworker’s touch erases all distinctions.  

They are not part of the body’s vocabulary. 

***

During sitting meditation I have an intuition that there is more to “me” than a physical body.  

Paradoxically, the body itself is a path to this knowledge. 

While on the massage table, my eyes close and my mind settles.  

Thoughts are not needed. Words are crude instruments, too blunt to be used.  

All the necessary information flows through the bodyworker’s hands. She writes entire books on my body. 

Our edges blur. Our boundaries soften.  

There is only motion and sensation — one unfolding event with two poles, her and me.  

The two of us are not so separate.

***

As the bodyworker’s fingers tunnel deep into my tissues, I am complete.  

I fear nothing and want nothing. I feel empty and full at the same time.  

The need for effort and meaning and self-definition drops away.  

Life is simply a given — empty, meaningless, and immense. 

***

Undress.  Climb on to the massage table.  

Close your eyes. Be quiet. Silence your mind.  

Surrender your clothes and your categories. 

See the whole world in a single moment and understand everything at once. 

“Stop talking and thinking,” Seng-tsan wrote, “and there is nothing you will not be able to know.” 

***

What are the boundaries of the body?  Where do I end? Where do you begin?  

Bodywork raises these questions. 

I talk about my body, my hands, my legs. My words set me apart from you.  

You touch me while I lie on the table. At that moment, sensation arises “inside” me and “inside” you.  

But these events are simultaneous, and we are in direct physical contact.  

Where does one flow of sensation end and the other one begin? And who owns those sensations? You or me?  

Are we really solid and separate entities? 

***

During bodywork, I am aware of sights, sounds, aromas, tastes, feelings — five senses, five streams of experience with no visible boundaries.  

You, me, yours, and mine are not present in any of them.  

Self is a concept that we layer on top of raw sensation. 

***

During bodywork, we settle into the experience of being touched. Eventually, thoughts stop.  

No thoughts, no self. 

***

Bodyworker, your touch dissolves my disguises and distinctions. You take me back to the world before words.  

When you touch me, time stops and nothing belongs to me, including this body.  

It was never even mine to begin with.  

To be fully embodied and to have no body; these are the same. 

Who am I? 

I’m no body. 

We’re one body. 

***

Removing shoes is a primal gesture.  

In monasteries and meditation halls across the world, this simple ritual signals a transition from the profane world to sacred space. 

The Bible tells us that God appeared to Moses in the form of a blazing bush. The flames rose and yet the bush was not consumed.  

When Moses approached for a closer look, a voice emanated from the flames: “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 

When entering the bodyworker’s studio, we also stand on holy ground. And in deference to spiritual tradition, we remove our shoes along with everything else. 

Undressing in preparation for bodywork is a ritual and sacrament — the “outward sign of an inward and invisible grace.”  

To remove my clothing is to remove my armor, my uniform, my façade. 

The bodyworker accepts me unconditionally. She harbors no judgements about my body.  

In her presence I can lower my defenses, present myself without artifice, and surrender to transformation by touch.  

During bodywork, I am passive and plastic, ready to be molded and reshaped. 

What if it were possible to live this way all the time — not caring about people’s judgments, not worrying about appearances, not needing to look good? 

To be free of psychological draping and the need for approval lightens our load. 

***

A bodyworker’s presence is everything.  

Some of them come to you from a stance of compassion, of I-Thou.  

Others from boredom, resentment, and I-It. 

You feel the difference the moment that they touch you. 

For the best bodyworkers, therapeutic touch is the default mode, as effortless as breathing. They do more than merely massage me. They baptize me. 

I call them dakinis, bodhisattvas, high priestesses of touch. 

***

The challenge for the person on the massage table is the same as a challenge for the person sitting in meditation: distraction. 

During bodywork, my mind proves that it has a mind of its own. Even during blissful sensations, my thoughts often take me elsewhere. 

How many things have I thought about while lying on the table with eyes closed?  

Here are a few:  

  • The size of my feet.  
  • The size of my belly.  
  • The size of my buttocks.  
  • The size of my penis.  
  • My grocery list.  
  • My to-do list.  
  • My plans for lunch.  
  • My plans for dinner.  
  • My plans for my next massage. 

This is the infinite capacity of the mind to wander.  

The horse breaks through the fence and runs amok. 

***

I am no stranger to this mechanical mode of living.  

I drive home from work via the same route day after day. I do this unconsciously, mechanically, like a robot programmed to execute a task. Then I pull into the driveway, park, suddenly and wonder:  

How did I get here?  

I don’t remember driving home. I was in thought. Lost. Dead to the present moment. 

More than once I arose from the massage table at the end of an hour and realized that I had yet to show up for the session.  

My mind drifted for the entire time. 

Then suddenly there’s a thought: Where am I? How did I get here?  

And I barely remember being touched. 

***

During bodywork, my practice is simply to bring my attention to physical sensation and let it rest there — and to do this a hundred times each hour. 

When I can maintain that focus, time fades away, no more real than a dream.  

I wake up in my body.  

I incarnate.  

My heart is a little more open.  My mind is a little more clear. 

Hey you, come join me on the table, I say to myself when my mind drifts during a massage.  

Your back, butt, and legs are here. Why not you? 

If we can stay awake for an hour of bodywork, then we can stay awake for anything. 

***

No resistance. 

The whole of meditation practice reduces to those two words. 

No matter what thought or feeling surfaces in your awareness, just greet it. Just notice it, register it, and observe it. Don’t judge it, indulge it, or repress it.  

And if you notice that you’re resisting any thought or feeling, then just notice that resistance.  

Any thought or feeling that you allow to arise and pass without interference will take you to deeper peace. 

Remember this when you are dying on the massage table. 

Notes on the Landmark Forum—a Personal Distinctionary

This post is a response to requests for my notes on the Landmark Forum

I offer these to you with some caveats. 

For one, the Forum is philosophical, not scientific. It’s all about experiencing a personal epiphany. This is hard to produce, and it might not happen for you.

In addition, I was turned off by the Forum’s marketing strategy. I felt pressured to promote the training to relatives and friends. 

Even so, I still find many Forum ideas to be useful. What follows is my summary of them—a glossary, or “distinctionary”. (See distinction below.)

As you proceed, please keep these things in mind:

  • These notes come directly from my personal journal with minimal revision. You might find them cryptic. That’s because they are cryptic.  (I posted a cleaned-up version.)
  • I took the Landmark Forum in 2005. It’s possible that the content has changed since then. 
  • I have no affiliation with Landmark Worldwide. These notes have not been reviewed or approved by that organization.

Authenticity

We are inauthentic. We live absurd, small lives based on suppressed emotions, irrational decisions, hiding what we truly think and feel, and a total absence of integrity.

We live with a fear of looking bad in front of other people while we pretending that we aren’t really afraid.

Our whole existence is based on pretense, including:

  • Failing to keep our agreements
  • Settling for reasons, rationalizations, and excuses rather than results
  • Basing our behavior on irrational decisions 

We make up stories about what happens in life, and we use those stories to justify breaking our agreements, holding back, and avoiding risk. (See story below.)

We are machines. Our behavior is a series of automatic reactions — complex chains of stimulus-response pairs. (See machine below.)

We get to work with our inauthenticity for the rest of our life. And then we die.

We can, however,  be authentic about our lack of authenticity. And this creates a whole new realm of possibility.

Blind Spots

The Forum distinguishes between:

  • What you know that you know
  • What you know that you don’t know
  • What you don’t know that you don’t know — your blind spots.

Blind spots produce constraints that are invisible to us. Once we see them, we gain access to personal breakthroughs.

Breakdown

In the face of any breakdown, skip the conversation about what’s wrong. Just re-commit to the possibility that you originally spoke about. Then act in alignment with that possibility.

Certainty

Look for whatever you’re certain about. These are the points where you’ve stopped learning. These are the places where you your feet are nailed to the floor. 

It is possible to lead an authentic life without beliefs, without certainties. 

Change

Change is about getting more or less of what you had in the past. It’s about tweaking your habits. It’s about playing your old games in new ways.

Transformation creates a new realm of possibility — a whole new set of options. Transformation is independent of the past.

There is the game of change and the game of transformation. These are different games.

Conventional goal setting and problem solving is grounded in change, not transformation.

Choice

Choosing is independent of reasons. 

I choose chocolate because I choose chocolate. There are no reasons. 

Commitment

To commit is to stand for something.

Committing to a new possibility for the future means changing our behavior in the present. Action based on commitment produces results. In short:

  • Commitment —> Actions —> Results
  • Being —> Doing —> Having
  • Future —> Present —> Past

You create a new possibility by speaking it. The possibility comes into existence with your word.

Ask how you want a possibility to show up in your life. Then state it as a goal in specific, measurable terms.  

Remember that you don’t create results in order to become happy. You are happy and then you create results. (See gratification and satisfaction below.)

Context

To create a new context is to stand in a new place. 

For example, you can live from the context of satisfaction or the context of gratification. (See gratification and satisfaction below.)

Creating a new context creates a new view of life and new possibilities for action:

New context —> New commitments —> New actions —> New results

Transformation comes from new contexts — not from new circumstances.

Conversation

Human beings are “clearings” in which conversations occur — much like a blackboard is a clearing for writing with chalk to occur.

Organizations are clearings for networks of conversations.

Distinctions

To distinguish is not the same as to define.

To distinguish is to call something into the foreground through your use of language — something that was undifferentiated and not noticed before.

Enrollment

To enroll is to create possibilities and inspire people.

To register is to ask people to make a commitment to act.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is enrollment. 

Asking people to march to Selma was registration.

Enrollment is the heart of transformation. And enrollment starts with being authentic with someone about how you’ve been inauthentic.

Sharing is the basis for new results and enrollment.

Stop trying to fix or change people. Enroll them instead.

Games

A game is based on rules and declarations. In baseball, a strike happens when the umpire declares a strike.

We are playing a game called life. The stakes appear to be the highest imaginable — death. But we forget that we are playing a game and that we invented the rules.

Many of us live as spectators. We’re “in the stands” rather than on the court and in the game. We avoid risks and stay in our comfort zone.

Instead of sitting on the sidelines and just observing, you can participate. You can play full out. You can be in the game rather than in the stands.

Taking risks brings aliveness.

The conversation that happens between players during a game is a form of action. 

The conversation that happens in the stands — explanations, reasons, excuses — does not change what happens in the game.  

The Forum is a game. The leader is a coach. Be coachable. When others share, listen for ways to apply it to yourself.

You can have reasons or results. You choose.

Gratification

We experience gratification when we satisfy a need, achieve a goal, or solve a problem. 

Contrast this with satisfaction — an experience of being fulfilled and complete that is independent of circumstances and conditions.

Insanity

Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting new results.

Integrity

Integrity means being complete, whole, and powerful. Levels of integrity include:

  • Following the rules (less power)
  • Being true to your values (more power)
  • Honoring your word as yourself (even more power)

Your word has creative power. You create new possibilities simply by speaking about them and then aligning your behavior with them. 

Being powerful means that your word produces new results.

Keeping your agreements allows you to access transformation. 

Keeping your agreements is not right or wrong; it just works. 

Failing to keep your agreements is not right or wrong; it just does not work.

Jerk

We are jerks when our life is about dominating other people by making them wrong and making ourselves right. 

We do this at the cost of being in relationship with other people.

Machines

We are machines. Our behavior is a collection of reflexes — chains of stimulus-response patterns that happen without our conscious awareness.

Like machines, we respond automatically to stimuli. We get “turned on” and “turned off” by events. We do not consciously choose to act. We simply react.

You don’t act. It acts.

When a machine observes itself, it stops being a machine in that moment. 

We stop being machines while meditating, for example, and while we sleep. But when that’s over, we go back to being a machines.

Meaning

Life is empty and meaningless.

And, the fact that life is empty and meaningless is in itself empty and meaningless.

At crucial points in our lives, we make meaning through our rackets (see below) and strong suits (see below). Transformation means transcending those meanings.

Money

It’s not the amount of money you have that produces suffering — it’s the meaning you make up about the amount of money you have.

Don’t look for money to bring satisfaction. Be satisfied. Then make money.

Nothing

When you see through your rackets (see below) and strong suits (see below), you are left without a personal identity. You are left with nothing.

This is what you get out of the Forum: the experience of being nothing.

Nothing is an open space. Nothing is a clearing that allows for new possibilities. 

From nothing you can declare a way of being. That way of being comes into existence the moment that you declare it.

Everything that we’ve learned tells us that the most important factor in shaping who we are is the past. This is wrong. We can choose and create possibilities independently of anything that happened in your past. 

Starting from nothing, we can create anything.

Sartre saw nothingness and it left him with nausea.

We see nothingness and then create a new realm of possibility.

We forget that we are nothing — and therefore everything — and can never die. 

Possibility

Possibility means bringing something new into life. This is inspiration. 

A possibility changes you in the moment that it occurs. A possibility changes you as you take action based on that possibility.

The future that you’re living into creates your experience of the present. Action brings your future into the present.

Create possibilities that draw you forward by practicing new ways of speaking:  

  • I invent the possibility that…. 
  • I create the possibility of being…. 
  • The possibility I am inventing for myself and my life is the possibility of being….

Some ways to complete those sentences are:

  • fully alive
  • authentic
  • connected
  • self-expressed
  • complete with the past
  • contributing
  • present
  • satisfied
  • someone who shares and invites other to share
  • an extraordinary human being
  • a space where love happens
  • a space where negativity disappears
  • free from judgments
  • free from fear of looking bad

Procrastination 

People tell you that your life will really start someday, such as when you:

  • Graduate from grade school.
  • Get your drivers license.
  • Graduate from high school.
  • Graduate from college.
  • Get married.
  • Have kids.
  • Retire.   

The result is that your life never actually starts. You keep living a “practice” life in preparation for “real” life.

Give up someday. Stop becoming and start being.

We get it now or we don’t get it at all.

Problems

Any solution creates new problems. The result is an endless series of problems — a problem-solution mass.

Problems will keep happening. So find bigger problems — those that are worthy of your attention and action.

Rackets

You run rackets by complaining constantly about circumstances while receiving a secret payoff from those circumstances.

A 40-year-old man complains for years about being broke. His parents respond by giving him regular infusions of cash. The payoff: He gets money while not taking responsibility for under-earning. 

To discover your rackets, look at your complaints. What are you doing to perpetuate the sources of those complaints?

Registration

To enroll is to create possibility and inspire people.

To register is to ask people to make a commitment to act.

The “I have a dream speech” is enrollment.

Asking people to march to Selma is registration.

Enrollment is the heart of transformation.

Right

When we meet people who disagree with us, we typically shut down. Instead of listening fully and trying to enter their world, we do everything possible to prove them wrong. 

We do this at the cost of being in relationship with other people.

We can be right or be in relationship. 

Satisfaction

Werner Erhard described this in a paper about the est training

Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive —when we know — without thinking — that life is exactly as it is in this moment. In such moments, we have no wish for it to be different, or better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge — and have no desire to hold on — to store up — or to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete.

Some implications:

  • The Forum is not about solving problems.
  • The Forum is not about achieving goals. 
  • No one needs the Forum.

Contrast satisfaction with gratification (above).

Self

Give up trying to “find yourself.” You won’t find anything. Just declare a possibility and then be that.

Seven Distinctions of Being an Unreasonable and Extraordinary Human Being

Be unreasonable in the sense of going beyond your reasons — your excuses for not getting new results in your life.

Be unreasonable in the sense of producing extraordinary results. Being reasonable leads to smaller results.

Remember that going beyond your reasons does not mean being irrational.

The seven distinctions of an unreasonable and extraordinary human being include:

  • Integrity. Honor your word. Follow rules. Make and keep promises that make a difference. Clean up messes from broken promises and then make new promises.
  • Being racket-free. Notice the early warning signs of a racket, such as losing your sense of humor. Give up being right all the time — even when you are. If you are right, then get off it.
  • Being powerful. Instead of using force, pressure, begging, or conning, produce new results through straight communication and taking what you get.
  • Being courageous. Feel fear, acknowledge it, and act on your word anyway.
  • Being peaceful. Be centered in the midst of chaos. Deal with what is rather than what “should” be. Give up the interpretation that something is wrong. Be free and unconstrained no matter what life throws at you. Greet criticism or attack with non-resistance.
  • Being charismatic. Be present. Be here now. Give up trying to get somewhere.
  • Enrolling. Share possibilities that touch, move, and inspire others.

Sex

The truth about sex is that you’re hot when you’re hot — and you’re not when you’re not.

Sex is pure machinery.

Don’t confuse sex with love. Love is unconditional acceptance — not simultaneous orgasm.

Don’t look for love or sex to bring fulfillment. Bring fulfillment to love and sex.

Someday

Give up the myth of “someday.”

Transformation happens now — not “someday.”

You don’t create results in order to become satisfied “someday.” Rather, you are satisfied and then you create results.

Waiting for “someday” is procrastination.

Story

We routinely collapse the distinction between what actually happens and our interpretations of what happens. Stories are interpretations of the facts.

Example: Your mother-in-law asks you to not call her “mother.” You make up a story about this: She doesn’t love me. 

From then on, your behavior around your mother-in-law is based on this story. You pretend that your story is what actually happened.

It’s possible that your mother-in-law never rejected you. Maybe she truly loves you — and just wants to be called by her first name.  

When you forget the distinction between what actually happened and your stories, you become inauthentic. You lose power.

Strong Suits

Your strong suits are fundamental decisions about how to live. You made these decisions at certain points in your life:

  • During childhood, you experienced a time when you weren’t good enough, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • During adolescence, you experienced a time when you didn’t belong, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • As a young adult, you experienced a time when you realized you were on your own, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)

These decisions are often random, hasty, irrational, and even absurd. Yet they can shape our thinking and action for a lifetime.

Transformation

Transformation is the genesis of a whole new realm of possibility — many possibilities, not just one.

Transformation comes from a new context, not a new set of circumstances.

Creating a new context creates a new view of life and new possibilities for action:

New context —> New commitments —> New actions —> New results

We access transformation through a new conversation. Transformation happens when you speak about a new realm of possibility. This conversation about what’s possible in the future changes your behavior in the present.

In transformation, you create your life rather than just react.

The purpose of the Forum is for people to transform.

Anyone can be transformed.

Gaining more information or more money or different circumstances is about change — not transformation. (See change, gratification, and satisfaction above.)

Urgency

All that will remain of your body-mind after you die is a pile of ashes.

So, live powerfully. Create a life that you love.

Live your life as if your life depended on it.

Remembering Thomas Merton: Rain, Grace and Rhinoceros

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.
— THOMAS MERTON, from “Rain and the Rhinoceros” 

Whenever it rains, I think of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer.

The Encyclopedia Britannica refers to Merton as “one of the most important American Roman Catholic writers of the 20th century.”

For me he is simply one of the most important writers, ever.

As I grow older I find myself around fewer people who talk about Merton. And yet he shed more light on the mystical heart of religion than anyone I know.

Almost single-handedly, Merton initiated a Catholic-Buddhist dialogue that continues to this day.

He recognized that the Buddhist meditator and Christian contemplative are both grounded in a silence that is free of concepts. And, that silence is inherently ecumenical.

For Americans in the 1960s, this was a revelation.

It still is.

And what a body of work Merton left us! It includes poetry, a novel, a best-selling autobiography (The Seven Story Mountain), and many collections of essays — Zen and the Birds of Appetite, The Wisdom of the Desert, The Way of Chang Tzu, and more.

For me his most memorable piece is an essay titled “Rain and the Rhinoceros” from Raids on the Unspeakable.

Into solitude

Merton begins this essay by describing the setting. He has retreated, alone, to a cabin in the woods outside the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky.

His meditation for the night is the rhythm of the rain:

The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with inconsistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer. 

Rain cannot be planned, controlled, or sold. For Merton, this is what makes it sacred:

Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world…! 

In contrast to the rainy woods is the city, where every object is engineered for a purpose beyond itself:

There is nothing in the world of buildings that is not fabricated, and if a tree gets in among the apartment houses by mistake it is taught to grow chemically. It is given a precise reason for existing. They put a sign on it saying it is for health, beauty, perspective; that it is for peace, for prosperity; that it was planted by the mayor’s daughter. 

For people in cities, Merton writes, rain is an inconvenience. City dwellers do not see rain as renewal. Instead, they defend themselves from the rain with umbrellas and canopies, failing to see that “the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water.”

The tyranny of fun, the multiplication of needs

Meanwhile, Merton sits in his cabin and reads a book by the light of a Coleman lantern. He wonders how he can explain to city dwellers why he is alone in the woods.

Finally, he decides what he will tell them.

He will say that he is “having fun.”

This is something that even the makers of the Coleman lantern will understand. In fact, the lantern originally arrived in a cardboard box which stated that this product “stretches days to give more hours of fun.”

Merton finds this absurd:

Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason? Just being in the woods, at night, in the cabin, is something too excellent to be justified or explained! It just is. There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them. We are not having fun, we are not “having” anything, we are not “stretching our days,” and if we had fun it would not be measured by hours. Though as a matter of fact that is what fun seems to be: a state of diffuse excitation that can be measured by the clock and “stretched” by an appliance. 

For Merton, the problem goes deeper than an obsession with having fun. At bottom it is the attempt to define yourself “as one who has no needs that he cannot immediately fulfill.”

None of us, however, can fulfill all our needs alone. We need the collective — the system that manufactures products and services to satisfy our every need.

As long as we conform to the collective, we can avoid feelings of emptiness and contingency. We can have fun forever.

To guarantee its continued existence, the collective multiplies our needs. Advertisers tell us that we must buy more and do more in order to become complete.

This burden of ever-expanding need is the price of our submission.

Solitude as subversive

How do we escape?

One way, says Merton, is through the life of service — contributing to the lives of other people with no expectation of return.

Another way is the life of contemplation — regular periods of solitude.

Many spiritual practices are based on solitude. Even if you sit silently in a room full of people during a meditation retreat, you are still alone in a fundamental way. You are diving inward to investigate the nature of your body-mind.

The collective, however, views almost any form of solitude as an escape from social responsibility. After all, hermits are not useful to society.

But for Merton, solitude reveals truths that cannot be discovered in any other way:

…a confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of “being nothing.” The man who dares to be alone can come to see that the “emptiness” and “uselessness” which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. 

Monastics of every religion can understand this. And they are not alone.

Enter the rhinoceros

Merton finds the same insight even in the Theater of the Absurd — specifically, in Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco.

This play is about the citizens of a small town who gradually turn into rhinoceroses — all except Bérenger, the main character.

Bérenger’s girlfriend (Daisy) and his best friend (Dutard) eventually argue for accepting this fact. Best to simply accept the bizarre appearance of the beasts and accommodate their behavior, they say. After all, they were formerly friends and family.

Berenger struggles with this. He feels so isolated at one point that he even tries to turn into a rhinoceros and fails.

But at the very end of the play — after Daisy and Dutard have both turned into rhinoceroses — he shouts “I’m not capitulating!”

In Rhinoceros Ionesco dramatized the dynamics of mob mentality and conformity. How do you respond when you feel like the last sane person in a land of monsters?

I can only wonder how many Germans asked this question as Hitler gradually ascended to power and Fascists claimed their country.

Solitude and the sacred as useless

Yet for Ionesco there are other dimensions to his play, which he describes in Notes et Contre Notes.

For one thing, it is the very people “who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude” who eventually turn into rhinoceroses.

In addition, they are also immune to art:

In all the cities of the world, it is the same. The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e. a rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots. 

Here Merton touches on my favorite definition of the word sacred — that which is ultimately useless, an end in itself and not a means to another end.

For example, many Buddhists hold nirvana — the end of suffering — as sacred.

If you ask why, you might get noble silence as an answer.

Nirvana is not a means to another end. It is the fruit of the path. It is the end of our seeking. It is divinely useless.

The present festival

I like to think that Merton — who died in 1968 — would have been pleased to see the spread of Buddhism, Taoism, and other contemplative traditions to the West. He was one of the main forces behind it.

I bet that he’d also be pleased by the current enthusiasm for mindfulness meditation. He’d find kindred spirits in people who go on retreats from daily life for regular periods of solitude and silence.

Mostly my heart aches for Thomas Merton. He died so young and has been gone so many years.

I often tear up near the end of “Rain and the Rhinoceros” at this haiku-like passage:

The rain has stopped. The afternoon sun slants through the pine trees: and how those useless needles smell in the clear air!

Wear the World Like a Loose Garment

I’m a fan of slogans. They are potent spiritual practices.

Repeating a slogan can shift your mental state in a second, activate wise mind, and reinforce healthy behaviors.

In particular, I’m a fan of the slogans quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups based on its Twelve Steps. For example:

  • Live and let live.
  • Progress, not perfection.
  • This, too, shall pass.
  • Take it easy…but take it.
  • If you sit in the barber chair long enough, you’ll eventually get a haircut.

But my favorite by far:

Wear the world like a loose garment.

A universal teaching

Beneath the folksy tone is a profound practice that spans the world’s spiritual traditions — living without demands and requirements.

According to the Bible, Jesus told us to be in the world and not of it.

“A skillful traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving,” says the Tao te Ching.

“There is a good attitude to take towards any goal,” notes Thaddeus Golas in The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment. “It’s nice if it happens, nice if it doesn’t.”

Eknath Easwaran, meditation teacher and translator of spiritual texts, put it this way in The Mantram Handbook

When we are caught up in likes and dislikes, in strong opinions and rigid habits, we cannot work at our best, and we cannot know real security either. We live at the mercy of external circumstances: if things go our way, we get elated; if things do not go our way, we get depressed. It is only the mature person — the man or woman who is not conditioned by compulsive likes and dislikes, habits and opinions — who is really free in life. 

The key message in each case: Wear the world like a loose garment.

Letting go of goals

This message is noticeably missing in popular self-help literature — especially books that are grounded in the “law of attraction.” 

Instead, we’re pummeled with directions for setting goals, achieving them, and “manifesting” our every desire. Then we’ll be complete. Then we’ll be happy.

But goals come without guarantees. As Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling On Happiness, we are notoriously poor at predicting what will make us feel good in the future.

There is another option — to loosen up, let go of attachments, and celebrate what we already have.

Getting our terms straight 

I know this sounds strange — perhaps even unloving. That’s because we use the word attachment as a synonym for caring about people.

In reality, what the spiritual teachers mean by an attachment is much closer to a requirement. When we’re attached to something, it means that we demand it. 

In order to be OK, for example, we might believe that we:

  • Have to be married to a certain person
  • Have to raise children
  • Have to land a certain job
  • Have to make a certain amount of money 

Oy! So many “have-to’s.” 

The possibilities are endless. Human beings can attached to almost anything.

The perils of “musterbating”

Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, consolidated the list of possible attachments to just three irrational beliefs that make people miserable: 

I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.

Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.

The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.

Ellis’s term for living by such an absolute list of demands is musterbating.

The Buddha made essentially the same point when people told him that they were upset because by the antics of their family members or friends. 

If you’d made such a complaint, the Buddha would have said: You are not upset because of any of these things. You are upset simply because you are upsettable.

Doing the work, releasing the results

What would be it be like to wake up in the morning and have no requirements? Perhaps this is what the spiritual masters meant by living without attachment.

This does not mean being unloving. In fact, we might be more loving when we don’t require other people and events to rigidly conform to our expectations.

Nor does this mean being inactive. We can still participate in the world, and even work hard, while living without attachment. 

The key is to discover the rewards that are inherent in a task and let go of the ultimate result — which is usually beyond our control anyway.

Taking this attitude allows us to be truly spontaneous. 

We can see our circumstances without the mental filters imposed by our requirements. 

We can respond to people as they are rather than as they “should” be, attuning our behavior to reality rather than selfish demands.

“Do everything with a mind that lets go,” said meditation teacher Ajahn Chah. “Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”

The peace that comes to pass when we let go of our absolute and irrational demands—that’s the wonder of wearing the world like a loose garment. 

The Ellis quote is from: Albert Ellis (2003), Early theories and practices of rational emotive behavior theory and how they have been augmented and revised during the last three decades. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 21(3/4): 219–243.

Enlightenment: Possibilities and Limits

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. TONY DEMELLO

Ever since my late teens, when I first read The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, I’ve been trying to get my head around the concept of enlightenment.

Of course, any competent Zen teacher will tell you that such an effort is futile — like trying to scoop up an ocean with a spoon.

Enlightenment experiences are both noetic and ineffable, as William James described them in The Varieties of Religious Experience. They carry the force of revelation and yet cannot be captured words. 

As Zen master Huai Jang put it, “Anything I say would miss the point.”

So right from the beginning of our inquiry into enlightenment, we run into a wall of mystery:

  • If we can’t say anything definitive about enlightenment, then how can we experience it?
  • How can we tell the difference between someone who is enlightened and someone who is not?
  • Why bother with enlightenment in the first place? How do we benefit?

I’ve spent decades searching for answers to these questions. And what I discovered is this: Enlightenment is both more — and less — than I originally thought.

On the one hand, enlightenment holds the possibility of something infinitely precious, such as:

  • Equanimity in the face of death
  • The end of suffering (nirvana)
  • Unconditional serenity — the “peace that passeth understanding”

At the same, it pays to think critically. 

Enlightenment has limits. It won’t necessarily change our behavior, make us more successful, or even more kind. 

In fact, it’s possible for people described as enlightened to be unethical business people and sexual predators.

But first — what is enlightenment? Though trying to contain the experience in words is impossible, we can at least offer pointers, hints, and analogies.

Your mind before thinking

In his autobiography, In My Own Way, Alan Watts described how enlightenment is cultivated in Zen practice:

It continues, in its own way, the general practice of Buddhism, which is to free the mind from its habitual confusion of words, ideas, and concepts with reality, and from all those emotional disturbances and entanglements which flow from this confusion. Thus the ego, time, the body, life, and death are all viewed as concepts having neither more nor less reality than abstract numbers or measures, such as inches or ounces.

If someone asked me to describe enlightenment in 10 words or less, I would say: Enlightenment is the world before words.

The function of language is to carve up the world into separate and discrete entities. Language makes distinctions. It organizes our perception by pointing to differences between things: self versus other. Past versus present and future. Positive versus negative. Pleasure versus pain.

But distinctions exist only in language — that is, when we’re thinking or talking. At the level of pure sensation — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling — no distinctions are found.

Seung Sahn, the Korean Zen master, made this a cornerstone of his teaching. He described enlightenment as “don’t know” mind:

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know…. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.

The primary distinction that seems to recede during the experience of enlightenment is the separation between subject and object, or self and other.

Deepka Chopra described this to Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, the PBS television series. In an episode titled What is Enlightenment?, Chopra says:

Enlightenment is the experience where there’s the dissolution of every boundary….The air is your breath. The earth is recycling as your body. The rivers and waters in the ocean are your circulation…. I in fact am the universe localized in space and time as this particular impermanent object.

Coming to your senses

In the same episode, Gino Yu, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, describes enlightenment as presence.

By this he means immersion in sense impressions, which cannot take place if you’re thinking: “It turns out you’re either present or you’re in thought, but you can’t be in both places at the same time.”

Buddhist psychology expands on this insight. For example, Zen teacher Steve Hagen  describes four levels of mental experience:

  • Perception — awareness of our moment-to-moment experience without any effort to describe it or change it
  • Sensation — seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching, on a continuum from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant
  • Conception — the realm of thinking and language, which divides perceptions and sensations into distinct categories
  • Intention — the realm of motivation, moving toward pleasant sensations and away from unpleasant sensations, which hardens into longing and loathing, greed and hatred

Enlightenment is returning to the levels of bare perception and sensation —  before thinking takes over during conception and intention. 

At the level of pure perception, there is just one unbroken stream of sensory experience that we meet with unconditional acceptance.

Present-moment completeness

In an academic paper about the est Training, Werner Erhard and Victor Gioscia point to another aspect of enlightenment — a sense of fulfillment that does not depend on time or external conditions:

Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive — when we know — without thinking — that life is exactly as it is in this moment. In such moments, we have no wish for it to be different, or better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge — and have no desire to hold on — to store up — or to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete.

Dean Ornish, M.D., echoes this idea in his book about reversing heart disease:

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.

This is something I’ve experienced many times during savasana, the foundational pose of hatha yoga. And all it took was the patience to lie still, relax, close my eyes, and come to my senses.

What enlightenment is not

Given all of the above, I once concluded that enlightenment is a panacea — a final solution for human suffering.

Alas, it is not. Fairness demands that we add some significant caveats.

Enlightenment is not necessary. People can live rich and meaningful lives without any interest in enlightenment. You could, for example, dig in to the robust scientific literature about happiness and positive psychology and find many beneficial practices. 

This literature does not necessarily contradict teachings about enlightenment. It does, however, proceed in a different direction.

Enlightenment cannot be proved. This experience falls outside logic and conventional standards for evidence. 

We might look to a person’s behavior for clues to enlightenment. It seems only logical that an enlightened person would be calm, kind, and wise, right?

And yet enlightenment has many stages. It is not a linear process. At any moment, a person described as enlightened might regress into immature behaviors.

Do you think you’re enlightened? Then notice how you behave when you go home to visit your parents.

Also notice how gurus respond when they get stuck in a traffic jam. 

Enlightenment does not guarantee ethical behavior. This is a key point. The number of examples that I can offer makes my heart ache.

Consider the sheer number of spiritual teachers who engaged in sexual misconduct, including sex with students. A partial list of those who most affected me includes:

If meditation is such a liberating and powerful practice, then how are these stories possible?

That question is more than I can answer in this post. For now I will refer you to Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do by my friend Scott Edelstein.

Above all, remember: Genuine insight, decades of spiritual practice, and unethical behavior can coexist in the same person.

Be discerning. Don’t put any teacher on a pedestal. And keep your clothes on. 

Meditating on Fear and Anxiety: Insights from Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young is a vipassana meditation teacher and towering figure in the American Buddhist community. 

One of Shinzen’s most powerful and practical teachings is about how to meditate on fear and anxiety. Instead of passively suffering through these emotions, he says, we can turn them into grist for the mill of enlightenment. 

This post is my summary of Shinzen’s teachings on this topic. It’s based on many talks that I’ve heard him give over the years. 

To access Shinzen’s most recent insights, read his book The Science of Enlightenment. I highly recommend it.

Four key premises

Shinzen’s teachings on this topic start from the following premises. 

Fear is universal. Fear is an experience that crosses religious, cultural, ethnic, and political boundaries. Every one of us will experience fear at many points during our lifetime.

Anxiety is a type of fear. In this article I use the word fear to include anxiety as well. Anxiety is often defined as chronic fear that interferes with our ability to carry out the activities of daily life. 

Anxiety calls for professional treatment. This can include mindfulness techniques such as those described below.

We can change our response to fear. Most of us are not taught how to deal skillfully with fear. Many people find that fear is just as gripping, painful, and perplexing at age 60 as at age 6. 

Fortunately, says Shinzen, it is possible to overcome this problem. Meditating on fear is a skill. And like other skills — such as playing the piano or learning to type — meditation includes sub-skills that you can practice and learn.  

Meditation on fear allows for appropriate action. Meditation involves a specific set of self-observation skills. These can deepen your awareness of fear and insight into how it happens.

At the same time, you can do whatever it takes to protect yourself from the things that you fear. If you’re being stalked by a mugger in a dark alley, for example, the appropriate response to run away or call for help. 

Meditation is not a substitute for taking appropriate action. It’s simply a way to change your experience of fear.

Two meanings of fear

Fear can exist in many degrees — anything from mild apprehension to stark terror. We casually use the word fear when referring to any point on that continuum. As a result, we lose precision. 

To gain clarity, distinguish between two meanings of fear. 

Suppose someone were to ask you: What is your greatest fear? You might mention things such as illness, injury, aging, or death. In each case you are referring to fear of a specific object.  

However, there is also fear as an experience — a subjective event, a psychological response. This response can be more or less the same regardless of the specific object or event involved. 

This second meaning of fear raises the possibility of gaining a new skill. We can analyze the experience of fear into a just few a basic elements and then learn how to work with them in meditation. 

If you can learn to work skillfully with the core experience of fear, then you can start to release your fears of many objects.

Three elements of emotion

Shinzen says that emotions are a combination of:

  • Thoughts — words and images in the mind
  • Sensations — feelings that can be located in the body
  • Craving — clinging to or resisting those thoughts and sensations 

Meditation on fear — or any other emotion — boils down to observing these elements. 

Consider an example. Suppose you’re walking down an inner city street late at night. All of a sudden you hear footsteps behind you. 

Immediately thoughts arise in your mind: It’s a mugger who wants to rob me…. I’m in danger…. I might get hurt…. This is terrible!

Along with such thoughts come an avalanche of bodily sensations: pounding in your heart. Weakness in your knees. A crawling feeling over your scalp. A fluttering sensation in your stomach. Sweat breaking out on your forehead. 

In response to those thoughts and sensations, you immediately tense your muscles. You might also say to yourself This can’t be happening or I cannot allow myself to feel this. This is your resistance to fear — a craving for the fear to disappear immediately. 

Thoughts and sensations as distinct events

Thoughts are one thing. Sensations are another. 

Can you see the distinction?

Untangling these two basic elements is one way to stand back from an emotion — to start observing it rather than being overwhelmed by it. 

If you think this is easy to do, however, then just try it the next time that you feel afraid.

That’s the reason for taking time to practice meditation every day. The goal is to gain so much skill at observing emotional states that you can do it even in the most challenging circumstances.

Separating thoughts and sensations

Shinzen assigns rough numbers for describing the quantity of thoughts and sensations that we experience. 

Your experience of fear, for example, might include 10 “units” of thought — 10 distinct words or images racing through your mind. You might also feel 20 “units” of sensation — feelings that register at 20 different points in your body.

Most of us find that thoughts and sensations just blend together. It’s as if those units get multiplied by each other: 20 units of sensation times 10 units of thought equals 200 units of fear.

But what if you keep thoughts and sensations separate as you observe them? According Shinzen, this reduces the impact of fear. It’s like taking those 20 units of body sensation and 10 units of fear and simply adding them instead of multiplying them. The result is 30 units of fear rather than 200. 

Don’t get too attached the numbers mentioned here. They simply offer an analogy. The point is to see whether separating thoughts from sensations reduces the intensity of fear.  

Observe the tempo of thoughts and sensations

Thoughts and sensations “hit” your mind and body at different rates.

Consider a relaxing massage, for example. This experience can produce long, slow waves of pleasant sensation over your entire body. You may also find that fewer words and images pop into your mind. You might even stop thinking altogether.

Compare that to the experience of fear. With this emotion, you might notice dozens of negative thoughts and unpleasant sensations that  “fire” on you at incredible speed. Fear has a much different emotional tempo than pleasure.

Observe with precision and equanimity

Meditation is most effective when your self-observation has two qualities.

First is precision. Instead of simply saying I feel fear, collect data points. See if you can notice specific words and mental images. 

Also see if you can pinpoint the exact location of body sensations. Do you sense them in your shoulders, stomach, hands, chest, arms, legs, feet, face, or somewhere else?

The second quality is equanimity. This means observing thoughts and sensations without judging them as good or bad. 

Instead of resisting thoughts and sensations, accept them. Instead of repressing them, open up to them. Instead of tensing up, relax. This becomes easier as you pour more mental energy into collecting data points.  

Allow the experience of any emotion

When some people hear about meditation, they fear becoming emotional zombies. They interpret the principles of precision and equanimity as commands to become cold, detached observers — or even to get rid of emotions altogether.

This is not the point, says Shinzen. As meditators, our job is welcome any emotion into our body and mind. The goal is not to stop feeling emotions. It is to stop suffering around emotions. 

After all, the elements of emotion are inherently impermanent. Unpleasant emotions will simply arise and pass away if we allow them to do so. And, we are free to enjoy pleasant emotions for as long they last.

Meditation allows us to make deeper contact with emotions through detailed self-awareness. This gives “getting in touch with your feelings” a whole new meaning. 

We get a lifetime to practice

Skill at meditating on fear depends on daily practice. It takes time, and the results come at a gradual pace. 

Even small gains, however, can reduce your suffering.

The wonderful thing about meditation practice is that you get an almost infinite number of times “at bat.” Unlike baseball, it’s not “three strikes and you’re out.” 

Rather, life is pitching you another “ball” every minute — a whole range of emotions. Hitting the ball simply means observing them with a little more precision and equanimity each time.  

Even if you make only one hit out of every 100 pitches, Shinzen says, you’re a world-class athlete in the meditation leagues. 

And there’s no better way to play the game than with familiar challenger—fear.