Testing Your Practices in the Fire of Suffering

During her last trimester of pregnancy, my daughter was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. 

This news took me through waves of shock, denial, sadness, fear, and anger. Eventually I simply accepted her cancer as a new reality and focused on how to respond.

Today our grandson is a healthy 2-year-old. And, my daughter is cancer-free.

Reflecting on the experience, a question floats to the top of my mind. It’s especially relevant after my decades of learning about self-care and spiritual practice: What actually helps when the shit hits the fan?  

I invite you to ask the same question — especially when life backs you into a corner and brings you to your knees. 

There’s nothing like suffering to focus your attention and reveal what works.

To stimulate your thinking, I’ll share three things that work for me.

Asking better questions

When my daughter shared her diagnosis, there was only one word on my mind: Why?

WHY is this happening to my daughter when she’s so young? WHY couldn’t it happen later — at least until after her baby is born? And WHY does it have to happen at all?

When I asked why questions, I noticed two results. First, I got no answers. Second, I felt worse — sometimes much worse.

So, I gave up on why and started looking for better questions to ask. This brought relief. 

Michael Hyatt wrote a post about this. He tells a story about rushing out his house for work one morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Unfortunately he slipped on a carpeted step, fell flat on his back, and broke an ankle.

Michael was laid up for the next 10 days, coping with pain and recovering from surgery. But instead of asking Why am I so clumsy? or Why did this have to happen during such a busy time at work?, he focused on: What does this make possible? 

This is not the first question that most of us would ask in similar circumstances. Yet it turned Michael from victim into victor. He used his down time to catch up on sleep, start a blog, and slow down to “smell the roses.”  

I like Michael’s question about possibility. This is not positive thinking. This is not looking for a “silver lining.” 

This question is about gaining perspective. It’s about becoming less reactive and more responsive. It’s about turning suffering into resilience.

Michael’s question is one of many that I find useful when facing a major obstacle. Others include:

  • What’s another way of looking at this situation? 
  • How is this situation likely to change over the long-term — in six months, one year, five years or more?
  • What areas of my life are still okay — and will continue to be okay despite this setback?
  • Who can I ask for help?
  • Who’s already stepped forward to help, and how can I thank them?
  • How can I respond to this situation in a way that aligns with my values?

I also find that these questions from psychotherapist Gail Brenner can expand my mind and open my heart:

  • Where is my attention going? Is this supporting peace? 
  • What is life asking of me? 
  • What would love do? 
  • How does life want to move me right now? 
  • How can I bring ease to my experience in this moment? 

Asking such questions allowed me to notice the generosity that flowed to my daughter after her diagnosis — the loving letters, emails, conversations, and donations. I’m also grateful for her medical team, a steady source of compassionate and competent care.

Returning to the present moment

Given a situation that rocks me to my core, I can invent worst-case scenarios. I can focus on all the things that might possibly go wrong. 

This is self-defeating. Those scenarios take me into the future — an abstraction that exists only in thought. I get torn from the present moment, the only point at which I can do something constructive.

This is where yoga and meditation enter the picture. These practices gently guide my attention back to the here-and-now. They shift my attention to the present-moment physical sensations of movement (yoga) and the mental space created by silent sitting (meditation). These are places where I can take refuge.

I created some slogans to remind myself of the present moment. They are simple enough to remember even when I freak out:

  • Keep breathing. 
  • Keep moving.
  • Stay here now. 

The practice of yoga nidra — deep relaxation — also helps. A good yoga teacher can guide you through this practice with carefully worded instructions to slowly and systematically relax every muscle in your body.

You can do yoga nidra even when you’re going through tough times. The benefits of this practice do not depend on being problem-free. Yoga nidra offers a taste of unconditional serenity, which you can experience even when life falls apart.

I invite you to sample yoga nidra first hand with these guided meditations by Shar Hills-Bonczyk, one of my yoga teachers.

The Serenity Prayer

I grew up in Iowa, where both my mother and father were raised on farms. Our family was steeped in homespun wisdom, and our primary texts were the Des Moines Register and the Bible (both of which we took literally).

I have vivid memories of visiting relatives as a child and going to rural churches on Sunday mornings. There I often encountered the following words in a sermon, devotional book, or wall plaque:

Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

As a kid I saw those words and rolled my eyes. Now — with the perspective granted age and accumulated suffering — I see the Serenity Prayer as a royal road to sanity.  

This prayer makes for a great writing prompt. When faced with a problem, I list everything about the situation that I can control. As the principles of Constructive Living remind me, these boil down to 2 things: where I place my attention and what I choose to do. 

Next, I list everything about the situation that I do not control. This also boils down to 2 things: the outcome of future events and what other people choose to do. 

I’m reassured by the power of this simple practice. As I remind myself about what I cannot change, the next thing that I can change often becomes clear. 

Thomas Merton in the Snow

Tonight we drove 
Against all odds 
To the Edina Grill

Everyone at the bar was sad 
And eventually left.

It is February 
Another name for the great crushing weight of winter 
Which lasts too long 
Which lasts just long enough 
To purify us for spring.

I drank two martinis 
And ate the sacred salmon
It was like going to Mass 
With a smiling priest 
Who knows everything 
And communicates it all 
In a single glance

(He is secretly agnostic).

Joanne drove us home 
And then I shoveled our driveway

And then I thought of you, 
Thomas Merton 
And shoveled the neighbor’s driveway as well.

I want you to know that I will always remember you 
Thomas Merton 

I look at the titles of your books —
Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Raids on the Unspeakable
The Wisdom of the Desert
The Way of Chang Tzu
The Seven Story Mountain
And I miss you terribly.

How is it even possible that you died?
And in such funky circumstances?

I want you to know 
That tonight I will read you 
Deep into the night. 

I want you to know 
That snow still falls in Minnesota
The crushing cold 
Pure, unforgiving, sacrificial, holy 
And instantly sobering
Washes us clean. 

I set aside my shovel 
And stared into the full moon 
I would have gladly stood there all night 
And frozen to death

But I retreated inside 
To die into another night’s sleep 
And wake into another day. 

Three Books That Changed My Life

Every time I pick up a new book, I remind myself to be reckless: to court radical possibility. To remember that the future does not have to be a reactive and automatic extension of the past. To remember that I can think and act in new ways that make a difference in daily life.

Books are maps for doing all those things. 

So, I find it valuable to periodically to ask: What books changed my life? 

Even better is to take those books and distill their key insights in my own words. 

This is a great journaling prompt. Simply ask yourself what you want to remember from the book and what you will do differently based on what you read. 

Surprisingly, it’s often possible to reduce a 50,000- or 100,000-word book to a single page or paragraph of pure power. That’s enough to capture the essence that matters to you. 

Following are three books that matter to me.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

Often mistaken for a time management book, Getting Things Done (GTD) is really about 1) becoming aware of all the agreements you’ve made and 2) knowing how you will fulfill them.

Allen makes several distinctions that take you light years closer to that clarity. The main one is the definition of project as any outcome that takes more than one action to produce.

Agreeing with yourself to start a business is a project.

Agreeing with yourself to lose weight is also a project.

So is agreeing to spend more time with your friends.

The practice of GTD hinges on asking:

  • What are all my current projects in life?
  • What’s the very next thing I will do—a physical, visible action—to move each project forward?

If that sounds simplistic, just try filtering your calendar entries and to-do lists through those two questions. Do they immediately reveal your current projects and next actions? If not, then you can benefit from GTD. 

I immediately saw that I paid lip service to a number of ill-defined outcomes and had no idea to produce. These are the problems that GTD solves. 

As I learned in the Landmark Forum, the world works when people keep their agreements. GTD is a huge step in that direction.  

Constructive Living by David K. Reynolds

Reynolds champions an approach to mental health that is based on three core maxims:

  • Accept your feelings
  • Know your purpose
  • Do what needs to be done

The liberating message here is that we can stop trying to fix our feelings. We cannot directly control them, anyway.

On the other hand, we often control our behaviors. This means that we can take constructive action even when we feel sad, mad, or afraid.

Or as Reynolds points out, we can feel mildly depressed and still do the laundry. And, we might even feel less depressed when the laundry is done.

As soon as I truly understood this, I realized that I can always respond effectively to my circumstances—no matter what they are, or how I feel about them. This is a taste of unconditional freedom.

For more, see my posts about the principles of Constructive Living and slogans that capture the key points.

The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas

Golas admits that when life backs us into a corner and we really start suffering, we’ll find it hard to remember the contents of any book. But there is a chance that we can remember two words:

No resistance.

This helps me immensely. Resistance is what the Buddha called craving:

  • Denying unpleasant thoughts and feelings—pretending that they don’t exist or trying to push them away.
  • Clinging to pleasant thoughts and feelings—trying to make them last, even though they pass away.

The practice is to see your resistance in the present moment and drop it, or simply be willing to drop it. This allows us to experience clean discomfort (unpleasant sensations) rather than dirty discomfort (unpleasant sensations plus resistance).

A variant on no resistance is: “Love as much as you can from wherever you are.”

Nice. There’s not much I can add to that.

Alas, Thaddeus left us many years ago. But he left behind The Lazy Man’s Guide and other books — an enduring legacy. 

Cultivating Spaciousness: Ten Perspectives on a Practice

Recently I’ve been toying with ideas about the value of creating space — in our mind, our heart, and in the external circumstances of our lives.  

The more that I poke at the concept of space, in fact, the more it expands. This idea unites so many of the teachings I’ve received over the years. And the benefits just keep unfolding.

1

My first practice is to tweak my language. 

How many times have I described someone as being “spaced out” or acting like a “space cadet”? More than I care to remember.

I’m also sure that other people have applied those terms to me.

Using the words spacious and spaciousness helps me get past such negative connotations. Creating clear space also works. 

2

We join spokes together in a wheel,  
but it is the center hole  
that makes the wagon move.  
We shape clay into a pot,  
but it is the emptiness inside  
that holds whatever we want.  
We hammer wood for a house,  
but it is the inner space   
that makes it livable.  
We work with being,  
but non-being is what we use.  
— From the TAO TE CHING (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

3

One of my favorite books is The Mind and the Way: Buddhist Reflections on Life by Ajahn Sumedho. He’s got a whole chapter about noticing space.

Start by reflecting on what happens when you walk into a room. What happens to your attention? Chances are it goes to the walls and floors, along with any objects and people who are present.

But what if you did a figure-ground reversal and noticed the space in the room? You don’t have to get rid of any people or objects. Just shift your focus of attention.

The result is a subtle sense of peace, says Sumedho:

The objects in the room can excite, repel, or attract, but the space has no such quality…. When we reflect on the space in a room, we feel a sense of calm because all space is the same; the space around you and the space around me is no different. It is not mine; I can’t say “This space belongs to me” or “That space belongs to you.” 

Space, in fact, is unlimited. It contains the room you’re in, the other rooms in the building — and all the objects in the world, in fact. 

In space there is room for everything. And as objects come and go, the space remains unchanged.

Likewise is the spacious mind. Just as you can notice the space around an object, says Sumedho, you can notice the space around a thought. It does not matter whether the thought is pleasant or unpleasant. The spacious mind remains open, unharmed, and unchanged by passing mental events.

When we forget this, we suffer. We try to make less space for unpleasant thoughts. We try to close the space around pleasant thoughts so that we can hold on to them longer. 

These attempts to control our inner experience call for constant and exhausting effort. 

The sane alternative is to simply make space for whatever shows up. As Sumedho points out:

Rather than making a big problem about the obsessions and fears that go on in your mind, you can open your attention and see those obsessions and fears as mental conditions that come and go in space. This way, even an evil thought can take you to emptiness…. Devils or angels — they are all the same.

For more about this, see David Chapman on spaciousness as “freedom from fixed meanings.”

4

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain. 
As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping,
infinite space is there — open, inviting and comfortable. 
— From FREE AND EASY by Lama Gendun Rinpoche        

5

Loosening the grip of compulsive behavior means creating space between stimulus and response. 

When I forget this, life starts to break down.

My behavior is driven by urges that are barely conscious. I roll through my days like a robot on wheels, my actions largely determined by stimulus-response chains.

I see a photo of a large café mocha made with whole milk and dark chocolate, topped with whipped cream (stimulus).

I feel a desire that starts in my gut (response). I remind myself to try not to drool.

The urge to immediately act on that desire — before I even know what’s going on inside me — is strong. 

Suddenly I notice that I’m in a coffee shop. There’s a steaming mocha in my hand. I’ve just spent five dollars. I’m about to gain 500 calories and God knows how much saturated fat.

6

Or, I’m walking through an intersection and almost get hit by a driver who’s speeding and runs a red light (stimulus).

I leap back to the curb and scream at the driver (response).

This did not change the driver’s behavior, of course. But it did raise my blood pressure, strain my voice, and infect me with an emotional negativity that lingered for hours.

7

There is another option: To live like a conscious human being. To wake up. To create space between stimulus and response.

The late Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, developed a way to do this — Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). 

MBRP was created for recovering alcoholics and addicts who still feel urges to drink alcohol or use other drugs. Marlatt taught them to “surf the urge” — that is, to feel a desire and refrain from acting on it.

Suppose that a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar he used to visit. A thought arises: I could just step inside and see if anyone I know is there. That thought triggers an urge to drink alcohol, and the likely response is a relapse.

The mindful alternative is to surf that urge. This involves five simple steps that are summed up by the acronym SOBER:

  • Stop your current behavior.
  • Observe your thoughts and feelings in the present moment, without judgment.
  • Breathe deeply and notice the resulting sensations.
  • Expand your awareness to visualize the likely result of acting on the urge — in this case, entering the bar.
  • Respond with another behavior that sustains recovery, such as walking quickly away from the bar.

This is a technique that all of us can use. It’s a simple and practical way to deal with urges for self-defeating behaviors of any type. 

Stopping, breathing, breathing, expanding — they’re all ways to create a space inside yourself.

8

When you experience a little space between your thoughts and the consciousness which is the background for thought, thoughts begin to lose their power over you. With dis-identification comes choice: You can choose to act from the thought, or to release it without action. Ultimately, this kind of choice is synonymous with true freedom.

— Judith Lasater

9

Silence is another way to create space (and intimacy).

Robert Rabbin wrote about this in The Sacred Hub: Living In Your Real Self. In that book he describes his experience with the practice of intentional silence — the decision to refrain from speaking for a certain number of days. 

For Rabbin the result was insight into the mechanical nature of conversation. So often we speak automatically, he wrote. We react impulsively to what others say. And sometimes we speak simply to fill the void when a conversation lapses.

After days of silence, Rabbin felt “relaxed, still, and quiet — just like a cat sleeping in the sun.” He also noticed that his thinking slowed down, sometimes to the point where his mind was completely quiet.

Eventually that widening space between thoughts led Rabbin to a non-dual experience. “I couldn’t find ‘me’ anywhere,” he recalled. “‘I’ became ‘all’”: 

My teacher, Muktananda, had told me to meditate on the mantra hamsa…. by paying attention to the point between the incoming and outgoing breath, or to the space between thoughts, one could experience the truth of hamsa. He taught that hamsa was the pure vibration of life itself, unconditioned by form or thought, and that it pervaded everything. In my experiment with silence I must have stumbled into hamsa.

10

The spaces I’ve described so far — gaps between thoughts and behaviors — are invisible. 

We can also benefit by creating visible space. 

I will admit that I’m a fan of Marie Kondo and her methods for decluttering homes. Her work reminds me of the connection between creating space in a room and space in your heart.  

There’s also the pleasure of creating space in my schedule. This is in contrast to what I thought years ago, when I saw a full calendar as evidence of success. All those appointments seemed like proof of my personal importance: So many people needed me! 

Now I can open up my calendar app and see entire days with no scheduled events. This space in my schedule delights me. I have the luxury of stretching out meal times, lingering a little longer in conversations, and taking a daily guilt-free nap. 

Though aging occasionally scares me, I take great comfort in these things.

Having an empty calendar also makes it easier to be generous. The greatest gift I can offer to another person is my presence — my time and attention. This is easier to do now. 

Today I revel in having more space for relationship, recreation, reflection — and the kind of moments that novelist Don DeLillo described:

The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web. There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running luster on the bay. You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web. 

Letting Go of Goals: Consider These Alternatives

In previous posts I present some of the flawed assumptions behind goal setting and invite you to give up goals as a means to success and happiness.

In fact, you can do this without descending into chaos or drifting aimlessly through life.  

Systems

One option is to experiment with systems.

This is what cartoonist and entrepreneur Scott Adams recommends in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. His main points:

  • A system is something that you do every day, like exercising or writing.
  • Instead of setting a goal, put a system in place. Instead of setting a goal to write a book, for example, make it a daily habit to write 250 words every day. Instead of setting a goal to lose 20 pounds, make it a daily habit to end meals with fruit instead of dessert.
  • Systems are more rewarding than goals. “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out,” Adams notes. “Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”

Habits

I’m also a fan of the Tiny Habits program developed by BJ Fogg, a Stanford University psychologist. He defines a Tiny Habit as a behavior:

  • You do at least once a day
  • That takes you less than 30 seconds
  • That requires little effort

Tiny Habits also include a trigger that reminds you to do the behavior. For example:

  • After I brush, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

Looks simple, right? Actually, I struggled at first to choose habits that were tiny enough. If they’re too hard or time-consuming, I just avoid them.

On the other hand, I often find my tiny behaviors expand without effort. It’s easier to floss more than one tooth once you get started, for instance.

This method works. Fogg has supporting data from over 40,000 people who’ve done his Tiny Habits program. You can easily test it for yourself. And it’s free. I find Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything far more useful than most self-help books.

Projects

Setting goals can get you bogged down in a lot of fuzzy terminology. I still don’t understand the differences between long-term, mid-term, and short-term goals. Every writer offers a different set of timelines.

I also got frustrated while trying to “prioritize” goals. So many time management authors tell us to rank each one according to some complicated system of urgency and importance — A-level priority, B-level priority, and so on.

Are you kidding me?

From David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, I got something much simpler and more useful — the distinction between projects and next actions.

A project is any outcome that requires you to take more than one action. Examples of projects include:

  • Finish my book manuscript.
  • Clean out the garage.
  • Hire a new employee.

There’s no need for long to-do lists. For every project, just write down the very next action — a physical, observable behavior — that you will take to eventually complete the project. For instance:

  • Write a chapter heading for my book.
  • Toss one item from the garage.
  • Ask a coworker to recommend someone to hire.

Today I don’t think about goals and priorities. I just think about projects and next actions. It’s so much simpler.

Starting from fulfillment

The great teachings of the East also raise another possibility — unconditional fulfillment. A serenity that does not depend on external circumstances. An emotional stability that does not depend on achieving or failing to achieve any goal.

Dean Ornish, M.D., describes this in his program for reversing heart disease, which includes yoga and meditation:

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.

If you ever experience something like that on a consistent basis, you have a new possibility.

You don’t have to set and achieve goals in order to become happy.

Instead, you can already be fulfilled and then set goals or list projects — not to get happy, but just to get organized.

In other words, you can take the conventional goal-setting process and put it in reverse. You might even conclude — as I did — that the giddy goal setters just got it all backwards in the first place.

Setting goals can feel so much lighter when you do it without attachment. There’s less greediness and grasping associated with it. There’s no demand that achieving any goal will shimmer you with eternal bliss.

When you ask what you want, on what ground do you stand? In the place that the yoga teachers describe — the state of prior fulfillment with the whole cosmos supporting you? Or do you see yourself as fundamentally incomplete and needing stacks of goals and action plans in order to get happy?

These two stances generate entirely different answers to the question, What do I want?

***

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

That guy knew how to let go of goals.

Letting Go of Goals: Freedom From Flawed Assumptions

In a previous post I invite you to consider giving up on goals. It is possible to be successful and happy without setting goals. And, letting go of all the baggage that surrounds goal-setting can lighten your load. 

One source of that baggage is some sloppy thinking that plagues the self-help genre.

Linking happiness to wants

The main problem is banking our happiness on the answer to a single question: What do you want?

The definition of happiness as getting what we want dates back to the early twentieth century. It was a meme of the New Thought movement and the basis of many early best-sellers in the success genre: James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

This lineage continues to the present — Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The works of Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, and many more.

Much of this literature boils down to one assertion: Happiness means getting what you want by setting goals and taking action to achieve them.

If you buy in to the “law of attraction,” you get by with a lot less: Just visualize what you want and watch it “manifest” effortlessly in your life.

Getting what you want in life is not so easy, however. Nor is it a direct path to happiness. The goal setters and law-of-attractors simply assume that:

  • You know what you want.
  • You can get what you want.
  • Getting what you want will make you happy.
  • What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask.

Poke at these assumptions, however, and each of them crumbles.

Assumption: You can know what you want

But who, exactly, is doing the wanting? Who are you?

This is the question the Buddha started with. He didn’t ask what he wanted. He asked who he was.

After years of meditation, he concluded that all of our inner experience — thoughts, feelings, urges to act — are in constant flux. We have no permanent identity. To say that we have or are a self is ultimately untrue. Our true nature is anatta, which literally means “unselfed.”

Moreover, human beings are desire machines. Desires fuel our goals, and the mind manufactures desires endlessly. They shift from moment to moment, contradicting and warring with each other.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman reminds us of an image for this reality:

In religious literature the desires — physical as well as emotional and mental, the wishes, hopes, fears and so forth — are often symbolized by animals. It is as though within man there were a thousand animals, each seeking its own food and comfort. Some of these animals are, moreover, the very food that the other animals seek…. By identifying himself with these animals, man forfeits the possibility of inner unity and wholeness, a possibility which represents another level of existence for him.

What we gain by focusing on what we want is not happiness. It’s a direct glimpse of our inner chaos.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Someone at this level of development can truly want. But most of us are still feeding our animals.

Assumption: You can get what you want

Walking around constantly expecting life to give us everything we want is not only comically entitled and ridiculous, but would make existence a hell of perpetual frustration — ERIC BARKER

Getting what I want usually translates into I’ve got everything in place: I have the job I want, the lover I want, the friends I want, the home, the car, and all the rest.

This approach to happiness is fundamentally about control. And yet there’s so much that we don’t control: Friends and family members die. Jobs end. Lovers leave. Health fails. Money disappears. 

Seeking to get what we want can send us on a fool’s errand — trying to impose permanence on impermanent events.

Here we benefit from the Buddhist practice of reciting the Five Remembrances, which reminds us of the only thing we can hope to control — our own behavior:

  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Assumption: Getting what you want will make you happy

Human happiness is a hot topic among researchers. And, the research does not support clear links between happiness and getting what you want.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, wrote a book about this: Stumbling on Happiness. It is a joy to read — folksy and rigorous at the same time.

In this TED talk, Gilbert presents the gist of his findings:

  • We tend to assume that happiness means getting what we want.
  • However, we are notoriously poor predictors of what will actually make us happy in the future.
  • We don’t find happiness; we create it based on enjoying our existing conditions in life.
  • We can often create happiness even when we don’t get what we want.

His bottom line:

The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.

Assumption: What do I want? is the first and most important question to ask

Actually, there are many other options. For example:

  • Who am I?
  • Who do I love, and what do I care about?
  • What am I committed to creating? (courtesy of TK Coleman)
  • How will I contribute? 
  • How can I help? 
  • How can I make a difference? 
  • How will I serve?
  • Given that I will die, how shall I live?
  • Given the scope of human suffering, how will I respond?
  • What is the world asking of me? 
  • What’s missing from the world that’s valuable and that I can provide?
  • What have I received from others? What have I given to others? What difficulties have I caused others? (core questions in Naikan reflection)

Those questions nudge us toward self-transcendence — something bigger than becoming a rich rock star or using the law of attraction to manifest a new Porsche in the driveway.

Focusing on getting what we want is simply one option for a life purpose — and perhaps a superficial and ultimately uninteresting one at that. 

As Huston Smith noted in his book The World’s Religions, “The self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.”

Assumption: Getting what I want will benefit others

At times, I wonder if the authors of success literature have read beyond their genre.

Do they know Macbeth?

Have they read The Great Gatsby?

Do they understand the concept of tragedy — that sometimes our goals can corrupt us? That getting what we want might hurt other people and even destroy us?

Consider the ethical scandal that resulted when Wells Fargo imposed unrealistic quotas on employees, demanding that they sell high numbers of new accounts to customers. Employees responded by opening up thousands of fake accounts in customers’ names.

Those quotas were goals.

Reading the success literature, we get the impression that human beings live in a moral vacuum — that actions have no consequences.

Self-help writers too often ignore what Stephen Covey calls “the law of the farm”: You sow what you reap. Or: Whatever you do to others, you do to yourself.

Yes, those are clichés. And they are priceless.

It’s not enough to ask what we want. Let’s also ask if it aligns with the greater good, the Tao, and the Dharma.

Spiritual teachers are wise to remind us of moral standards: in Christianity — love, charity, and service. In Buddhism — compassion and the bodhisattva ideal. In Hinduism — ananda and karma yoga.

All of these teachings lift our eyes to the horizon beyond satisfying our isolated individual desires — beyond setting goals. 

Letting Go of Goals: An Invitation

Once upon a time I went to a workshop. 

It was led by a guy who talked about creating the life of your dreams. How? By getting what you want in every area of your life.

This guy passed out stacks of index cards to everyone in the workshop. Then he told us to write one thing we wanted on each card.

You want to get married? Write get married on a card.

You want to end world hunger? Write end world hunger on another card.

You want to change careers? That goes on another card.

You get the idea.

Don’t worry about how grand or ambitious your goals are, the leader said. Just write everything down. Don’t censor yourself.

The leader glowed when he saw those cards piling up beside participants. The more cards, the better.

It’s a lotta work

Next, the leader gave instructions on what to do with our goal-cards. Now it’s time to get real, he said — time for the the rubber to hit the road.

Our next task was to create action plans. The goals we’d written earlier were long-term goals. Now it was time to take a chainsaw to them and carve up our goals into smaller chunks. This meant:

  • Writing a series of mid-term goals that would take us one step closer to achieving each long-term goal.
  • Writing a series of short-term goals that would take us one step closer to achieving each mid-term goal.
  • Finally, writing actions that would lead us to achieving the short-term goals — items to add to our calendar and to-do list.

Wow. I thought I had a lot of cards earlier in the workshop. But after adding all those new goals and actions, my stack could be measured with a ruler.

There was more to do, of course. The leader asked us to assign a level of priority and category to each card. And some other attributes also, which I’ve long forgotten.

What I do remember: There were a lot of cards—in my case, about 200 of them.  

Choosing to let go

I will admit that there was something kind of juicy about filling up all those cards. I got a sense of possibility and a shot of adrenaline.

Those feelings lasted until the workshop ended. And then came the aftermath.

I got back to my office and noticed what was already on my plate: A full email inbox. Calls to return. And reams of additional information coming from the news, the Web, and all the people in my life. 

Great, I thought. All that plus 200 cards to do.

Still I persisted with my goal setting exercises. Surely this works, I said to myself. It sounds so reasonable. I must be doing it wrong.

One day I summoned the courage to admit the truth: 

I hated all those cards. 

I wasn’t creating the life of my dreams. 

I was crushing myself under the weight of obligation—endless lists of outcomes to produce and actions to take. Endless effort, self-discipline, and willpower. 

So, I eventually took all those index cards and hurled them into the recycling bin. 

I remember that moment. 

I tossed those cards and then stood there and felt waves of pleasure. It was a moment to savor.

Goal-less and competent

The moment that I tossed my cards finally realized something: None of the wonderful things in my life emerged from writing long lists of goals and action plans arranged in vast deductive chains.

All those things — such as learning to play guitar, becoming a writer, getting married, having children — happened organically. They emerged from keeping my nose close to the ground, discovering something that delighted me, and following where it led.

And I did those things all with no particular goal in mind.

I notice this about other people as well. I ask them if they have lists of prioritized goals arranged in strict temporal categories and fleshed out into finely-honed action plans.

What I often get in response is a raised eyebrow and a question: Why would you do something like that?

These people are my friends and family. They are competent and compassionate people. They live wonderful lives. They’re not just aimless slackers.

So…how about you?

Are you a goal setter?

And is it working for you?

If so, great.

If not, I invite you to let go of goals.

Returning to the Roots of Mindfulness: The Four Noble Truths

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

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

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

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

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

The First Noble Truth: Dukkha

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that dukkha exists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Noble Truth: How Dukkha Arises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Noble Truth — How Dukkha Passes Away

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path

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

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

Please note a few things:

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

Distortions of the Four Noble Truths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Happiness: Buddha and Yuval Noah Harari on Nirvana

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

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

For a long time I thought this was a problem. 

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

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

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

Lessons from a historian

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

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

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

First comes dharma

But first: Who was the Buddha? 

A man, says Harari, not a god. 

And what did the Buddha teach? 

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

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

As Harari notes:

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

Suffering is an inside job

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

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

As Harari observes:

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

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

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

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

What nirvana means

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

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

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

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

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

In short, to stop craving.

A new relationship to feeling

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

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

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

Four findings from happiness research

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few qualifications to keep in mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond happiness — a stable serenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nirvana as subtraction

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

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

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

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

Keeping it real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly, about 80 percent of the time I forget all this stuff. But every moment that I do remember gives me another dose of sanity.   

Creating Space Between Stimulus and Response: Insights From Goenka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the cycle

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

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

If enlightenment means anything, it includes releasing negativity. 

Conscious distraction

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

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

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

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

Going deeper

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

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

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

Avoid suppression and expression

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

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

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

The lightning speed of negativity

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

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

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

Fortunately there is a better way.

Body and breath as early warning system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benefits of the practice

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

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

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

Giving it time

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

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

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

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

Non-reactivity as a superpower

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

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

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

Finding a stillpoint

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

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

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

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

Keeping the practice in perspective

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional detox

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

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

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

Whatever happens, the pain stops with me.