Monthly Archives: July 2013

Meditation: Setting an Intention


This isn’t a meditation in and of itself, but should be a process that you go through every single time you sit down on the meditation cushion. Setting an intention isn’t just one of the most important parts of meditation practice, it’s also one of the most important parts of living a successful and meaningful life. Before you embark on any endeavor, you should examine your motivation and set an intention that you believe truly accords with this motivation. If you aren’t satisfied with your motivation, then make a conscious effort to change it so that you can direct your energies towards your goal as directly as possible.

Setting a proper motivation before practicing meditation is important because otherwise you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. Actual meditation requires a tremendous amount of focus and discipline to keep from wandering into the comfort of dullness, so setting a sufficiently strong motivation that truly accords with your inner motivation is necessary to engage with your practice as fully as possible. Otherwise, it’s easy to allow yourself to be led off into distractions. Your motivation should form the heart and soul of your practice, giving you that energy to persevere through difficult sessions and keeping you constantly striving towards deeper levels of insight.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your motivation. This is not as simple as it sounds. As with all things, there is very rarely a single motivation for engaging in meditation, but rather a complex web of reasons that bring you to the cushion. In psychological terms, this is called the principle of multiple determination. Spend some time analyzing exactly what it is you’re hoping to accomplish through practicing meditation and why this is the case. Who are you meditating for? Before any of my meditation sessions with Tibetan Buddhists, they always encourage the group to set the motivation to strive to achieve wisdom for the sake of helping lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. This is a beautiful intention for serous practitioners, but it is often unrealistic for the average layperson. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is your motivation, but unless you really embody that feeling in your practice, it’s an empty intention. There’s no shame in setting your intention a bit lower. Again, be honest with yourself! If you try and fool yourself into thinking that you’re motivated by something loftier than you truly are, it will hardly add any weight to your practice. In fact, if you set a motivation that is too high and then become aware that you aren’t actually energized by it, you might fall into a state of guilt, which is entirely unproductive for practice.

That being said, not all motivations are good. It is possible to have an unhealthy motivation for meditation. Below, I list 10 forms of unhealthy intention that are often problematic for Western practitioners, though they are hardly limited to those in the West and there are many more forms of unhealthy motivation than I list here.

1) Quest for perfection and invulnerability. This is not what meditation is for. This type of motivation is most often guided by a feeling of narcissism, a desire to be self-sufficient, and to rise above ‘worldly concerns.’
2) Fear of individuation. This form of unhealthy motivation is guided by a fear of taking responsibility for one’s own life in the belief that this can be avoided by a defensive pursuit of ‘egolessness.’
3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability. Freedom from ‘egocentric needs’ can rationalize avoidance of anxiety-producing situations (i.e. taking charge of life), causing one to retreat into meditation.
4) Fear of intimacy and closeness. Retreat into the idea of ‘no-self’ can appear to provide a way of neutralizing hurt by avoiding close relationships.
5) A substitute for grief and mourning. Similar to #4, the idea of ‘no-self’ can provide a refuge from painful emotions if misinterpreted.
6) Avoidance of feelings. This type of unhealthy motivation is guided by the belief that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of non-feeling, rather than becoming better attuned to our feelings.
7) Passivity and dependence. ‘Egolessness’ can masquerade as a way of causing one to suppress their feelings of anger and self-assertion, as well as to disguise codependency as compassionate service to a loved one
8) Self-punitive guilt. This entails using the idea of ‘non-attachment’ to act out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt (“Feelings are bad and therefore I’m bad for having them.”)
9) Devaluing reason and intellect. Belief in the idea that meditation solely promotes experience over rational thinking can reinforce avoidance of thinking as a way of blocking self-understanding.
10) Escape from intrapsychic experience. Similar to #4 and #5, this involves attempting to ‘let go of the ego’ as justification for repressing anything that produces anxiety or insecurity.

Notice that in many of the examples above, I place Buddhist terms in quotation marks. This is to highlight the fact that they refer not to the true Buddhist concept, but a misconception of it twisted to fit the psychological needs of the individual. All of these forms of unhealthy motivation reveal a misunderstanding of what meditation is designed to accomplish and, as such, cause the practitioner to engage in practice for the wrong reasons. It is important to examine our reasons for practicing so that we don’t fall into any of the pitfalls listed above. If your practice has previously been guided by one of these motivations, that’s okay. In order to change your motivation to something more healthy, you first need to recognize that your previous intention was misguided and not giving all the strength to meditate that you’re truly capable of mustering.

As time goes on, it’s inevitable that your meditations will change. Even day to day, your meditation is likely to be guided by different intentions. What is most important is to be aware of these various motivations and, whenever possible, to set an intention that you can truly believe in. It is only through setting a healthy motivation that you can fully get behind that you can dive as deeply as possible into practice and your own mind.


Meditation: Neutralizing Self-Pity and Worries


I was intending on doing my next post on meditation on setting a proper intention, but I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked and this seem to be the most fitting thing to write about after my last post. I’ve recently been working with a practice to try and help me work through my tendency to grasp onto my sad stories and use them as an excuse for inner stagnancy. It’s a Daoist qi-gong sound exercise that involves neutralizing self-pity and worry rather than bottling them or expressing them outright.

The practice begins with a round of 6-3-6-3 breathing, which is a simple form of Indian pranayama (breath control) used to condition the body to more involved breathing exercises. Sit upright with your hands on your lap and breath normally. Once your breathing has stabilized, breath in for 6 seconds, hold your breath with the lungs full for 3 seconds, breath out for 6 seconds, and hold your breath with the lungs empty for 3 seconds. 6-3-6-3. As you breath in, allow your belly to expand so your diaphragm has space to move downwards. Focus on your solar plexus as you inhale and be careful not to raise your shoulders as you breath in. As you exhale, draw your navel back in so that the diaphragm moves up, bringing your attention to your navel as you breath out. Do this 5 to 10 times, however many it takes for you to noticeably feel more relaxed and aware of the movement of your breath.

Next, sit on the edge of your chair and place your feet firmly on the ground with your legs spread. Curl your fingers and place your hands against your diaphragm. Inhale deeply and lean forward so that you’re facing the ground. During your exhalation make the sound ‘WH-O-O-O-O-O’ at a relatively high pitch, like an owl, for as long as your lung capacity allows. As you do this, visualize all of your self-pity and worries leaving your chest in the form of black smoke, exiting through the space between your eyebrows, and ejecting them deep into the earth. For those willing to adopt the potentially more questionable aspects of the practice, focus specifically on your spleen and pancreas as you release your negative emotions, as these are two of the primary organs that store self-pity and worry.

After you’ve finished exhaling, actively continue thinking that all of your worries have left your body. These can be either specific worries or just a general sense of anxiety that might pervade your life. Inhale and return to sitting upright with your hands placed on your lap, palms up. Visualizing a golden light radiating around your spleen and pancreas, think, “I am smiling on myself and all of my worries.” Continue this visualization for a few minutes, before taking another inhale and going back down to repeat. Repeat the process 3 times.

Through this practice of qi-gong, you should begin to feel a deeper sense of contentment with yourself. I personally find this practice incredibly helpful, since I am often quite hard on myself when not making the kind of personal progress I would like to be making. However, it is only through truly loving oneself and letting go of all forms of self-pity and self-hatred that we can begin to truly advance and help others. I’m hoping to post more qi-gong practices in the future, though admittedly I’ve become a bit distracted from writing on here. Nothing spurs me on to write more than positive feedback that any of this stuff might actually be helping someone!

Letting Go of Our Sad Stories


For most of us, freedom feels not only unfamiliar, but distinctly unpleasant. That’s because we’re used to our chains. They might chafe, they might make us bleed, but at least they’re familiar.
-Mingyur Rinpoche

Have you ever sat around with friends to show off scars and compare stories about broken bones? (Maybe this is a guy thing. If not, sorry for being gender normative.) I don’t think it’s uncommon for kids to pass the time by boasting about how they received this or that injury. In most cases, the grizzlier the injury, the better the story. Although the experience of acquiring the injury may be quite painful, sharing the story of that experience is often quite the opposite. For many, it’s a point of pride, something to brag about and show off. It’s a way of showing some of the difficulties we’ve been through and conquered.
I only have 2 substantial scars, neither of them coming from injuries that were especially serious (though they’re still badass.) But I love my scars. I love my sad stories. In a weird way, I love my suffering. And, in the words of Rinpoche-la, I also love my chains.
This might sound totally paradoxical. Surely we all want to be happy, to be satisfied, to be free from suffering. So why do we often take so much pride in the experiences that were the exact opposite?

The greatest danger to self-realization is self-doubt. If we’re actively working to undermine ourselves, the battle is already lost regardless of external factors. Self-doubt seizes on all of our sad stories, all of our problems, all of our sufferings, all of our excuses for not changing. Because changing is hard. Holding onto our sob stories and perceived shortcomings is easy. It’s extremely comfortable to take refuge in our sufferings  We have invested so much in our sad stories and self-pity that the idea of letting them go is extraordinarily painful. Even just thinking about letting go automatically raises serious resistance. These things define us. Think about why many people are so proud of their scars. They are physical evidence of hardships that we have had to endure. They are an outward manifestation of an experience that we believe has contributed to our character. In many ways, we are our scars and our sad stories. How could we possibly let them go?

Holding onto them, on the other hand, requires no work whatsoever and, in many cases, it even garners support from others in the form of pity. People will often support this kind of self-doubting, self-pitying behavior if it doesn’t go too far, encouraging each other to just ‘let it out’ or even go so far as to applauding someone for being brave enough to address their personal issues.

Taking refuge in suffering also feels strangely productive. It only requires a small amount of courage to look at what makes us suffer. Maybe we don’t penetrate down to the deepest causes of suffering, but it usually isn’t so difficult to get a glimpse at what causes us pain. It can often be extremely satisfying to look at what makes us suffer and be able to identify the causes.

Trouble is that this doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Just identifying the things that make us suffer very rarely causes them to just disappear. But because this task of identification can feel so immediately rewarding it also lures us into a false sense of complacency: because I know what’s wrong, I can figure out how to fix it. But knowing how to fix something doesn’t amount to actually taking the effort to fix it.

This is symptomatic of a deeper issue that I personally struggle with, and, based on conversations I’ve had with other practitioners, I believe it’s fairly common, not only to people practicing meditation, but as a general human issue. In Freudian terms, the issue is repetition compulsion: we want to change but simultaneously exert tremendous amounts of energy to keep everything exactly the same. Identifying our own psychological problems without actually doing anything about them fits perfectly into this framework. By recognizing our issues, it can appear that we are taking a big step towards changing ourselves, but, in reality, it isn’t actually moving in any direction at all. It feels like we’re changing but without exerting hardly any effort, which is why it’s so seductive and such an easy place to get caught up.

During the early stages of practicing meditation it’s common for practitioners to notice that they have a far deeper and clearer awareness of their thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, this can be somewhat terrifying. Early on, spiritual experience may actually exacerbate psychological and functional difficulties by bringing things to light that we aren’t immediately prepared to deal with.
On the other hand, this deeper insight into ourselves is incredibly exciting. By seeing our mental states so much more clearly it feels as if we’re making some sort of serious progress in remedying our issues. This is such a convincing view that it becomes very easy to get caught up at this stage of meditation without even realizing that we’ve gotten stuck.

The issue lies in becoming concerned with the content of our minds when we should be examining the processes. It’s an issue that I find myself facing very regularly when I sit down on my cushion. As Westerners, we’ve been habituated to the idea that there is something inherently beautiful about the sense of individuality that we each possess, and our thoughts and feelings are intimately related to this sense of individuality. It is easy to be lured in by the prospect of becoming more intimate with ourselves through meditation, though this is really just a diversion from the traditionally established stages of practice.

Additionally, over the past couple hundred years, especially since Freud, there has been a strong trend in Western society of using therapy centered around addressing and working through our psychological concerns. For many Western practitioners, this need to address and analyze the various components of our psyche as used by psychology has merely been given new clothing in the form of meditation. Rather than using meditation as a tool for analyzing the processes of the mind, it has become a method of analyzing the specific content. However, this is a complete misuse of the attentiveness developed through practice. As we become more familiar with our internal states, it can be very easy to grasp onto them and feel like we’re doing some sort of important inner work when, in reality, all we’re doing is hunkering down deeper into our sense of independence, individuality, and selfhood.

Psychological therapy is designed to help us live more comfortably with the various facets of ourselves by increasing the flexibility and realism of our self-representations; meditation seeks to annihilate the idea that our selves have any true existence, ultimately doing away with the true reality of self-representations entirely. This is because self-representations can be dangerous, no matter how helpful they may seem to be. There is a certain functional utility to them, but they prevent us from seeing reality as it really is by filtering all experience of ourselves through subtle, fixed lenses. Psychology aims to help us change our self-representations. Buddhism helps us to stop identifying with them at all. In this sense, getting rid of the idea of a true self entails giving up automatic, reactive, inflexible identification with and attachment to our self-representations.

There is a strong argument to be made that the idea of a true self cannot be rid of until the conventional self is well adjusted and functional. Reducing emotional problems in the short term can lead to clearer, more productive meditative practice in the long run. However, there are 2 serious problems with this approach. One, while psychological issues may arise during time spent on the meditation cushion, it is unlikely that that is the best place to deal with them if one is serious about actually meditating. Two, actively shifting the focus of meditation to dealing with emotional difficulties increases the likelihood that the greater, transcendent goal of self-realization will be completely abandoned. However, this is a far larger topic than I’m attempting to address here. I’m merely trying to point out that meditation is very frequently being assimilated into classical Western schemas to the disadvantage of both the practice and the practitioner. Rather than using meditation as it was practiced in India, Tibet, China, etc. for thousands of years, it has become warped into a tool to meet our perceived psychological needs.

Returning to the idea of loving our sad stories, it is very commonly the case that we use these tragic narratives to define who we are as a person. We may profess to hate them, to wish we could be rid of them forever, but, at the end of the day, many of us still cling to them because they help us understand who we are and there are few things more enticing than self-knowledge. After all, that’s why many people pick up meditation in the first place.

The issue with this is that our sad stories aren’t who we truly are. Again, this notion is a product of getting caught up in the content of what arises during meditation, rather than the processes that bring these things to the surface. If we’re able to look pass the content, we can see that the content is actually always changing. Over the course of a 15-minute meditation session it’s possible to experience dozens of emotions, yet it’s all happening entirely within our own heads. None of it is stable. None of it is inherently existent. It’s all a matter of perspective, but if that perspective hinges itself on our sob stories then it’s almost impossible to move forward.

Turning to my own personal experience, I’ve found that I often run into the following issue while meditating. A negative thought will arise. I’ll let it drift by. I’ll find myself sinking into a deeper state of clarity about what’s going on in my mind, which makes me feel good. Then, as a sort of test to myself, I’ll actively recall the negative thought to see how I receive it now that I’ve reached a more settled state and to see if I can work with it. I like to tell myself this is productive but, if I really look at what I’m doing, I’m simply fixating on my sad story by actively pulling it back into my mental field when I’ve already let it go. Even once these negative states of mind have come and gone, I feel the need to grasp out for them again and bring them back. This comes back to the problem of misusing meditation as a tool of conducting auto-therapy rather than letting the practice simply be what it is. Recalling and delving into negative emotions once they’ve already passed isn’t really a way of testing myself; it’s an attempt to transform them into something else rather than letting them exist comfortably as what they are.

In my next post I’ll provide a meditative practice for specifically dealing with these kinds of issues. Stay tuned!


Adventure Time!!!



I feel somewhat dishonest using ‘Adventure Time’ as the title for this post since I don’t really know if what I’m posting about qualifies as an adventure. However, considering that I spend 95% of my time circling between the same 3 small towns scattered across the mountains, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that going anyplace else is a pretty substantial adventure these days. It’s also another one of those posts where I don’t actually really have anything to say, but took a handful of pretty cool pictures so I thought a bit of text would be nice to balance it out.


Yesterday I went to Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, which is about 2 hours outside of Dharamsala. It was beautifully sunny on the drive out, which consisted almost entirely of cruising through the countryside. After having spent so much time up in the mountains constantly shrouded in the clouds, getting out into Kangra Valley was wonderful. So much green, and everything smelled like earth, growth, and sunshine. Hands down 3 of the greatest smells ever.


When we got to the nunnery it was a complete ghost town. There were a handful of Indian laborers around doing some construction work since the whole facility is relatively new, but I didn’t see a single nun. All of the buildings, including the gompa (meditation hall) were locked, which was a bummer considering that we’d come so far to take a peek inside. I’d heard that Tenzin Palmo was supposed to be in residence at the moment, but apparently she’s currently in Taiwan. Before coming to Dharamsala this summer I had never heard of Tenzin Palmo, but she has a pretty remarkable story, which is told in the biography of her life Cave in the Snow (which I’m planning on picking up soon.) She was one of the first Western women to become ordained as a member of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic order and made a strong commitment to achieving enlightenment in the female form regardless of how long/how many lifetimes that might take. She spent 12 years living in a cave pursuing freedom from cyclical existence, practicing incredibly arduous forms of self-discipline, growing her own food and sitting in a meditative pose while she slept (for only 3 hours a night!) After she came off retreat she took up the cause of securing equal rights for nuns and, in 2000, took substantial steps towards achieving this goal by founding the Dongu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. I’d heard some pretty incredible things about it so making the trip felt necessary, especially considering how comfortable I’ve become with my routine here. The idea of breaking up my ordinary schedule was pretty enticing.


It was a bit concerning that nobody was around, but we ventured into the ‘no entry’ area where all the nuns live so we could beg someone to open the gompa for us. I was incredibly thankful to have made the trip with a woman since it was pretty clear that none of the nuns were interested in talking to me. We were lucky enough to make it inside the gompa and….wow. It was relatively small and only one room, but it was certainly one of the most remarkable temples I’ve ever seen.


The gompa had only been finished in 2012 so all of the paintings were in as perfect condition as possible. Although the art was very clearly in the style of every other Tibetan Buddhist temple, there was somewhat of a different flair to it, especially in the way the backgrounds were done. There are fairly strict guidelines for how bodhisattvas and arhats (the equivalent of saints) should be depicted iconographically, so artists don’t have much leeway in that regard. However, the backgrounds are where the artists can really let their creativity shine and it was definitely clear that the painters of this gompa were remarkably talented.


However, the most remarkable thing about the gompa was that nearly every figure painted on the walls was a female. There were images of Shakyamuni (“the Buddha”), Padmasambhava (the great teacher/mystic that brought Buddhism to Tibet), Milarepa (a legendary figure that achieved enlightenment in a single lifetime), and Marpa (Milarepa’s guru and a great master in his own right), but aside from those 4 figures, every single other image was female. Dozens of female arhats, bodhisattvas, yoginis, and protector deities lined the walls. There were also two astoundingly beautiful stained glass windows, which I’d never seen in a Buddhist temple or monastery before.


I was explicitly told not to take photos, and I usually abide by that protocol since I think it’s disrespectful to take photos inside of a space that’s considered to be sacred. Additionally, there’s definitely something to be said for needing to capture an experience as fully as possible in a single moment without photos as a future aid to recollection. However, desire got the better of me and I had to get a few quick snaps. I undoubtedly picked up some bad karma by directly going against a nun’s wishes (even if she didn’t see me) and taking photos inside the gompa, but maybe someone will see one of these photos and be sparked to enlightenment, which theoretically balances the whole thing out.