Author Archives: Bill Scheinman

Meditation Is An Act of Caring

There are many things you can say about what meditation is. A technique for clearing and calming the mind, a spiritual discipline, a method of stress reduction, a type of prayer, a way of coming into alignment with reality, to name just a few. One way of thinking about meditation that I’ve been contemplating recently is that it is an expression of care.

When we sit with ourselves and try to be present in each moment, we are saying, “I care about this moment. I care about how things are in my experience.” Most of the time we are going about the tasks of daily living, completing the items on our to-do lists, or chasing the shiny objects of our desires and fears, whether that’s doomscrolling on social media or browsing for cool artisanal chocolate at the local specialty store, or fantasizing about what’s next. And in each moment that we let go of those things and return to our present moment experience of body, mind, and heart, we are returning to that expression of care.

With all the focus on external things, on doing and achieving and caring for others, it’s easy to lose touch with how things are internally for ourselves, in our direct experience of body and mind. In meditation, we just sit with ourselves as we are. This gives us a chance to focus on what’s essential – the fact that we are living, breathing, feeling and aware beings. Shiny objects might arise for us, but in meditation they are only mental experiences; when we think about that great artisanal chocolate during meditation we don’t leap off the cushion and head to the store to buy some. (Well, we could if we wanted to. But usually that doesn’t happen!) Instead we observe the desire, feel it, experience it. But we don’t get lost in it. We do, however, care about it. We care that this is our mental experience right now; this is where the heart and mind is. Without judging ourselves, we can reflect on why that might be right now. Every moment we are being present with our desires or fears or confusions instead of getting lost in them is a moment we are expressing care about what’s happening in the mind. And if we observe the desires or fears or confusions long enough, our relationship with them can begin to change. We don’t believe them so much, we are not so caught up in their trance, and the stress they can cause us lessens. This is the beauty and promise of meditation. It shows us how caring about our experience is also a path to healing.

Think about the body in meditation and consider the idea of feedback. When things go wrong in a system a working feedback loop reports data back to the control center so that adjustments can be made and equilibrium is maintained. Human beings are systems too, but we often have broken feedback loops. Our minds go astray, tension builds up in the body, and stress can become toxic. We are conditioned to think externally, to grasp after those shiny objects rather than paying attention to ourselves. This is why when we’re stressed it may take us a long time to realize it. And that can have negative, even disastrous, consequences. But meditation helps us close the feedback loop. When we notice that the breath is tight in the chest, we mindfully acknowledge it and stay with it, even though it’s hard to stay with the breath when it’s uncomfortable. In the next moment, we come back to the breath and notice the discomfort again. Moment by moment we build a steady, gentle, caring awareness of our tight breathing. We may get distracted because it’s hard to be with the discomfort. But we return to the breath over and over because we care. And of course this applies to any other difficulties we may be having in our lives. What’s important to remember is that it’s the choice to care about the difficult experience, to be present for it, to return to it, that makes all the difference. Many times in my life I stayed with my breathing when it was difficult, and many times the breath became softer and easier as a result, leading to my own healing.

Meditation is an essential way of resisting the daily habit of avoiding ourselves. We are indoctrinated to stay busy, to “be productive,” to avoid paying attention to ourselves because it’s considered selfish. That notion is the exact opposite of caring for ourselves – to make sure we rest when we need to, turn inward, and close the feedback loop to notice how we are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, helping us do what we need to do to heal. With this self care established as a foundation, we can more sustainably serve others.

To meditate is to care, and caring is something we can choose to do in any moment.

Practicing When You’re a Mess

After the shelter in place orders came down in March, the committee inside my mind – composed of pretty rational, staid types – joined hands and collectively dove into an abyss. After having been a daily meditator for more than 25 years and having spent those years touting to others the power of mindfulness to help us navigate the challenging moments of life, I decided to run away. Nothing in my life or my practice had prepared me to deal with a lethal pandemic that seemed to have swooped down on my reality like a COVID-shaped meteor heading straight for me. I went through the full gamut of painful emotions – my mind routinely immersed in feelings of loss, grief, panic, impatience, anger. I was a complete mess.

An inveterate news junkie all my life, I suddenly shunned all outside input, dreading the next shocking headline from CNN. I obsessively washed my hands, spritzed bleach solution on doorknobs and handles, got into arguments with my partner about the right kind of mask to wear, insisted on cooking all our meals during the week, and with relentless focus shopped online for toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, and dish soap. I meditated every day, but my practice didn’t seem to help at all. A week went by. I was still a mess. My partner and I worked from home and frequently got in each other’s way, and my emotional brittleness made things more tense. When she would come in from a walk and begin to share the latest shocking news about the pandemic, I put my hand up and told her that I didn’t want to hear about it. That in itself was a huge role reversal for us; usually, I was the one who gave her news updates, and she was the one who said it was too much. Then, as a way to combat the anxiety of not knowing what the latest headlines revealed or the current progress of pandemic curve charts, I began reading potboiler detective novels so that my mind could find a place to escape. I literally read nothing else for weeks.

Another week went by of more fear, horror, cooking, remote work, seemingly ineffective meditation sessions, online shopping, and detective novels. I was still a mess. It seemed as though my meditation practice had completely let me down, that I was incapable of cultivating any redeeming awareness at all. Instead, I sought refuge in distraction, avoidance, fantasy, things we mindfulness practitioners are encouraged not to do. Move toward the difficult, we are told by our sage teachers. But I was having none of that. I relished my comfort food, my novels, my avoidance.

Some time around week three, I noticed that I appeared to be a little less of a mess. Don’t get me wrong. I was still a mess, but what I noticed is that the part of my mind that was aware I was a mess was somehow more aligned with my sense of self. All of a sudden, my window of tolerance was more open, and I experienced more space – more awareness – for being with things the way they were, and for seeing the fact that “I was a mess.” Somehow, without my noticing, the freaked out committee members in my mind had slowly, gingerly, crawled up from that oozy abyss and had begun to look around to see if it was safe. More days passed, and while I still washed my hands frantically, I was generally able to relax more as well. Little by little, I began taking in some news, and I was able to talk to people about what was happening. I was still a mess, but also not a mess. Maybe a 50-50 mess. It almost felt normal.

After three weeks or so, the idea that “I am a mess” seemed to have retreated. While I had assumed my meditation practice – of being with things the way they are, with mindful awareness – had abandoned me during those incredibly stressful early days of the pandemic, in actuality, I discovered, my practice had been working all that time. It was actually serving me, even though it didn’t look pretty, even though it was downright ugly at times. I realized that just because things are really hard and we’re responding in a less than perfect way, it doesn’t mean that we’re not practicing with it. It just means that things are really hard and we are doing the best we can. With this understanding, I realized that my practice had held me in this challenging time, even if I didn’t know it. Like others, I am a work in progress, navigating this crisis with the tools and the conditioning I have. In retrospect, avoiding the news and reading potboilers was skillful means to calming my nervous system. While meditating every day, which had seemed so ineffective for weeks, nevertheless kept me at least partially connected to the realm of awareness, so that when my nervous system did begin to calm down, I was able to notice the thought “I am a mess” not with judgment but with self-compassion and interest.

More than ever I realize that our practice doesn’t need to look “good” in order for it to be working. We don’t need to have radiant smiles like blissed-out people on magazine covers. Our practice doesn’t need to be perfect, and above all, we don’t need to be perfect. We just need to commit ourselves to practice itself, whether good, bad, or ugly, and do the best we can. With that commitment, the fruits of practice reveal themselves in their own way for each of us.

Beginning. Again.

Mindfulness is a very forgiving practice. Whether we lose track of our thoughts during a meditation or forget to notice our body and breathing during our work day or completely fall out of the habit of practicing mindfulness altogether – in any moment, at any time, we can simply begin again. This is especially relevant as we begin a new year. Just as, during the new year’s reflections, we assess how our life has gone over the last 12 months and begin to orient ourselves to the positive changes we wish to make in our lives in the next 12 months – with mindfulness we are always coming back to the present moment and the choice we can make in it.

At the beginning of the year we can make resolutions for bettering ourselves, for being healthier, happier, more generous, or whatever. With mindfulness practice we make a new resolution each moment we come back to awareness. Every time we interrupt the trance of our fantasies, projections, and stories, and return to the fragile aliveness of our body breathing, we are making a resolution that being present is what’s important and how we want to live our lives; that this moment, as it actually is, with its joys and sorrows both, is worthy of our attention and care. Every time we come back to this moment, we are making the resolution that we wish to be awake for our lives, not asleep, that we are willing to open to the mystery of our lives even as we make plans to pay the rent. It all begins with noticing this breath….


Acknowledging how things are is a key to reducing stress. When we experience difficulties in our lives, so often our default mode is to say NO, NO, NO! to them. We decide that our difficulties shouldn’t be happening, look for someone to blame (often ourselves or people we dislike), and find any way we can to distract ourselves from our problem. Yet denial only leads to stress and dis-ease. However, when we say YES to our experience, honestly acknowledging what’s here without judging ourselves, our difficulties often lose their power to overwhelm us, and we can start to breathe easier. Often enough, saying yes to our challenges is the first step to resolving them.

We spend so much of our time during our daily lives on automatic pilot. We race around getting things done, forgetting to tune in to the felt sense of what’s actually happening inside of us. But while you’re pumping gas or waiting on line at a store or cooking a meal for your children, how often do you ask yourself, How does my breathing feel right now? Does it feel good, or is it uncomfortable? And how often do you ask yourself, How does my body feel right now? So often we don’t have a clue about how our breath or body feels, about whether we’re holding tension or discomfort. What sensations are present as you cook for your children? Are the sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? And how’s your state of mind? Is the mind clear and still, or is it agitated and cloudy? And what emotions are present? Sadness, happiness, anger, calm, fear, joy, anxiety, jealousy? And what thoughts may have accompanied the emotions?

Sometimes we can spend days, weeks, months, or even years in a state of denial about what’s really happening inside our hearts and minds. Without this simple ability to acknowledge what’s true, our moments become a blur, we lose touch with our bodies and minds, and our challenges and sorrows stay submerged. We lose contact with our own suffering. But we also lose contact with our joy. In a sense, we are only half-alive. The forces and compulsions that drive so much of our behavior sink beneath the surface of awareness. Unknown and unacknowledged, these forces have their way with us — we allow ourselves to become manipulated by their unexamined agenda. Since our unacknowledged thoughts and emotions are hidden beneath the surface of our awareness, they exert remarkable control over our lives. Because these painful things inside us need to be recognized, they will do everything they can to make themselves known to us — but they’ll do so unconsciously. And this is why they are dangerous.

Instead of acknowledging our fear that we don’t have enough money to make a living, we get a panic attack and wonder why it’s happening to us. Instead of allowing ourselves to grieve over a departed lover, we go to the corner bar or spend hours online. Instead of recognizing that we are jealous of a colleague, we find ourselves bad-mouthing him and alienating others. These are all ways that we hurt ourselves by refusing to recognize what is actually here in our own direct experience.

The good news is that we can transform these negative patterns of thought and action. When these challenging experiences are denied, they have a destructive effect on us. When they are acknowledged, the truth they reveal begins to have a healing effect on us. When we hold strong emotions, judgments or mind-states in awareness, we can investigate their nature with a kind attention and see that they do not define us. If we observe them long enough, we’ll also see that they are impermanent. That they often wax and wane depending upon external triggers in our environment. When we have trained ourselves to step back from these difficult experiences, we realize that we are less identified with them, and that there is a larger dimension of our experience — our awareness — which isn’t touched by them at all.

Single-Task: Tea Pot, Cup, Water Bottle

I am in my apartment, cleaning up. I’m feeling rushed, so I lift my tea pot, my lacquered Japanese cup, and my water bottle from a table and begin taking them over to the kitchen sink for washing. Because I’m carrying three things I needed to thread the pinky of my right hand through the eye of the water bottle lid while holding the cup in my palm, and at the same time hold the tea pot in my left hand. Halfway to the kitchen sink, I stop. I notice that my chest has tensed up, that my breathing has become subtly squeezed and uncomfortable. I realize that 1) I am feeling stressed out, and 2) I’m feeling stressed out because I’ve got too many things in my hands. I ask myself, What’s the rush? The truth is that there is no rush. I’ve got plenty of time. But if I’ve got lots of time, then why do I have so many things in my hands? The answer: habit. I’m used to multi-tasking, to juggling the complexities of life, to being “efficient.” These reflections all happen in a moment. I turn , head back to the living room, and carefully set down my tea pot, my water bottle, and my cup. Then I take the tea pot over to the sink, walking and knowing that I’m walking. I wash the tea pot out, feeling my body and breath and the sensations of water, soap, hot and cold, as I work. When I’m done with the pot I take separate trips for the cup and the water bottle. But not before noticing that my chest is now feeling relaxed and my breathing is normal again.

Mindful Dental Cleaning

I’m in the dentist’s chair for my semi-annual cleaning. The sound of the dental hygienist’s tool is loud as she moves it into my mouth to start in on my teeth. As the shrieking object is applied to my teeth, a sensation similar to hearing fingernails scratching a blackboard occurs. Then the hygienist moves her tool to those teeth where the nerves are really sensitive. As the tool makes contact with a sensitive spot, I feel my body start to clench even before I feel any unpleasant sensation. A moment later, I do start to feel unpleasant sensations. Little lightning flashes of pain shoot through my mouth.

I think about crying out, or at least emitting a little whimper, to let the hygienist know that I’m experiencing discomfort. But of course it’s not like I’m being dismembered, tortured or killed. The sensations are just difficult to be with. Luckily, I finally remember to notice my breath — noticing it first in my belly to relax me, and then expanding my awareness of the breath throughout my whole body. I breathe in and feel the breath sensations spread throughout my whole body. My mind is now aware of my whole body and not just my mouth. My field of awareness has gotten much bigger. It’s easier now to let those painful sensations just do their thing, shooting and stabbing here and there, because I have the wider perspective of breathing with my whole body — and the awareness that knows it — to ground me.

The pain, when it comes, occupies a smaller space in my mind and seems far less intense. Instantly, I begin to relax. The hygienist does her thing, her tool does its thing, the pain jabs and stabs here and there, but I get more and more relaxed as I keep breathing with the whole body. By the time the cleaning is over a half hour later, I discover that I almost regret having to leave the dentist’s chair because I’m so relaxed.

Letting Go of Your Story

We tell ourselves stories all the time about the way life is treating us or about the ways we plan on conquering life. Because we’ve been retelling versions of these stories for years, they are extremely compelling. We tend to believe our stories because they have become so familiar. Haven’t you noticed that? There is something comfortable in telling ourselves that the reason we didn’t get that job is the same reason our last relationship broke up or that or we never have enough money. Here are some sample narratives and decide for yourself if any of them seem familiar:

I never got the love I needed when I was a kid…
I never got that advanced degree…
I’m not tall enough…
I’m not attractive enough…
I’ve always been a few years behind everyone else…
I should be treated with respect. If you don’t treat me with respect, you are a bad person…
My sister was always mom’s favorite…

Etc, etc.

These narratives are ways of making sense of a mysterious and often uncooperative world. In conjuring these narratives the mind is trying to take care of us. That’s because when we understand what’s really happening we feel safer and more in control. So the mind really tries to figure things out because it wants us to stay safe. We all have versions of these stories, and so deeply embedded are they in our psyches that we often don’t even realize how much they control us.

When we bring awareness to these stories we can see how destructive they can be, how limiting and distorting. We can see that these narratives are actually mental prisons that incarcerate our imaginations and hearts. The problem, of course, is that unless the mind is trained we will tend not to see these stories with awareness. Instead, we embody the stories in the way we act in the world, towards ourselves or others. These narratives become the water we swim in – we don’t notice them.

Once many years ago my girlfriend and I went backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur. We camped by a river and, after having a nice dinner, I collected all our food in a bag and went off to hang it from a high branch of a tree to protect it from bears. I connected a piece of rope to the food bag and tied the other end of the rope around a rock. The plan was to hurl the rock over the high branch, and then pull on the rope until the food bag got lifted to the branch. I hurled the rock and missed the branch. I tried again and missed again. I tried again. Same result. I started getting angry. Over the next half hour I tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly. I became furious, seething with rage. With each failure to get that rock over the branch my sense of being an inferior person deepened. The basic storyline was: I am not a competent and skilled man. In fact, I am not much of a man AT ALL.

Ouch! What a harsh inner critic I had! After half an hour, I suddenly stopped, and saw my girlfriend placidly tossing stones into the burbling stream. Her calmness made me realize how crazy I had been acting. It was as if I had been spinning in a furious vortex at a thousand miles an hour and had suddenly been stilled. I relaxed, checked in with her, and then, calmer and clearer, I managed to get the rock over the branch and hung our food.

I include that story only to point out how rare indeed it is to see our stories with such clarity. Usually we are living our stories, not seeing them as stories.

One of the powerful and really miraculous things about mindfulness practice is that when we just sit and focus on the breath for 10 minutes, we will become intimately familiar with our habitual narrative arcs – whether we like it or not. The act of sitting and focusing on your breathing inevitably forces you to confront the ruts and ruins of the mind. So to train yourself to focus on your breath is also to develop real skill with noticing your thoughts and whether they are helpful or harmful. And just as coming back to your breath again and again helps you develop greater focus, clarity, and ease, noticing your thoughts and obsessive narratives over and over again makes it much more likely that you will notice them in daily life, when you are faced with a challenge, and not let them control your response.

Recently someone cut me off at the entrance to a freeway, veering in front of me in a dangerous manner. My first reaction was to get angry, to label the driver in my mind as “an idiot.” It was the “If you don’t respect me you’re a bad person” narrative. Then I remembered to hold that story in awareness. Instantly, instead of believing the story about being disrespected by “an idiot,” I realized that I was feeling stressed out because I was running late and needed to be somewhere. Understanding my own stress, I was able to let go of the story that had prevented me from seeing the situation with calm clarity. Something that for sure I would not have done if I hadn’t been practicing mindfulness.

If I was in the woods at some point and having trouble hanging my food, I know that I would be a lot kinder to myself than I was many years ago. And while it is true that my stories still return again and again, I don’t believe them so much anymore.

5 Meditation Challenges

If you were to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis of your meditation practice, under “weaknesses” and “threats” you might include five basic challenges that every meditator has to deal with. In fact, failure to deal successfully with these five challenges often leads people to abandon their meditation practice entirely, never to meditate again.

It’s important to know that when one of these states arises in your meditation, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are just a human being experiencing what it means to be alive. Often called hindrances, these challenging states can be worked with in different ways. But the key thing to know is that they are a part of every meditator’s practice, are perfectly normal, and can teach you a lot about yourself.

They are:

1) Desire. As you try to focus on your breath, you constantly find yourself thinking about your upcoming vacation, a new restaurant you want to try, a new car you want to buy. Acknowledge that you are experiencing desire. Notice what kinds of desires keep coming to the surface. Don’t judge yourself for having certain desires. Be curious about them. Where do you feel the desire in your body? What’s it like? Is it a pleasant sensation, or does it make you feel restless or discontented? When we start building a more conscious and objective relationship to our desires, we aren’t as controlled by them as before.

2. Ill Will. Anger is a frequent experience during meditation. In addition to outright rage, there are more subtle types of aversion that can manifest. Judgments about people, displeasure about certain scenarios that are happening at work or at home. Notice where the anger tends to be directed. Watch for the patterns to your anger. Again, bring your body into your investigation. Where do you feel the anger? What’s the texture, the weight, the temperature of the anger? Is the sensation of anger pleasant or unpleasant? In being mindful of anger, you will learn a lot about your heart and the places where you may be wounded. It’s also a useful rule of thumb to dis-identify with the experience – it’s an event taking place within awareness as an observable experience. Think “anger is arising, and it’s like this” rather than “MY anger is like this.”

3. Restlessness and anxiety. I used to meditate after my breakfast and found that I was constantly restless. It took me a while to realize that I was restless because I had had caffeine in the morning. As a result, I stopped meditating with caffeine in my system, grabbing my morning coffee or tea after my session. Pay attention to what conditions in your life may contribute to you being restless. Restlessness and anxiety are very difficult mind-body states to be with. And while it’s not a lot of fun to be with them, allowing them space in your awareness will give you important insight into what might be driving you, and even if you don’t think you feel any better after your meditation, you probably are feeling better than you realize, just because you were patient enough to ride it out with your anxiety and stay present. If you can sit with your restlessness for 20 minutes without needing to change or fix it, you will learn a great deal.

4. Sleepiness/laziness. There are two types of sleepiness. The type that comes from a sort of mental laziness or lack of focus, often called “sloth.” And physical tiredness that can come because of the time of day it is or because we haven’t gotten enough sleep. A great way of working with sleepiness is to stand up and do your breathing. I’ve never known anyone to fall asleep while standing and meditating! Sleepiness is sometimes a sign that you need to get more sleep; and sometimes it’s a sign that you are resisting being present with yourself and your mind has withdrawn into dullness as a defense. It just depends on what’s going on. Being curious about your sleepiness, as well as about any of these other states, is very helpful.

5. Doubt. “Why am I even doing this practice? What good is it for me? I don’t seem to be making much progress. I’m not really sure how to proceed.” These are all expressions one might encounter when one experiences the hindrance of doubt. Doubt in meditation is a form of confusion. The key here is to not believe your doubt. If you do, you may walk away from the mat and never practice again. Be curious about your doubt. Is it possible to sit with this doubt and see what happens? One thing’s for sure: if you sit with your doubt for long enough, it will change. When doubt changes, it often gives way to a greater clarity.

The word hindrance is actually not a very good one in some ways. It implies that these challenges hinder the arising of positive states of mind, like concentration, joy, and so on. That is one way of looking at them, certainly. The other way of looking at them is that when a hindrance arises, it becomes your practice to be with it. So if you are practicing focusing on the breath but your body is terribly restless and in distress, then what you become aware of is the restlessness and distress – rather than pushing those states away, you open to them, allow them, and be curious about them. When a hindrance keeps arising, there’s a lot it can teach us.

Ironically as we open to these difficult states they often even out, soften, or disappear entirely. Sometimes the reverse happens and anxiety, say, gets worse as we bring our attention to it. This is why it’s so important to keep using your breath as a home base for your attention. We don’t have to abandon the breath to be aware of a hindrance. It’s more like a foreground and background thing. As a hindrance becomes our object of focus, the breath eases into the background of our attention. As the hindrance becomes too difficult to be with in that moment, we bring the breath back into the foreground of our attention, letting the hindrance recede a bit into the background as we collect and stabilize the mind. A flexible approach is best when determining how to work with a hindrance. With practice, you learn to trust your intuition about how best to respond.

Ultimately, I have found it very helpful to have a welcoming attitude towards hindrances when they show up, knowing that they can teach me much about my heart and mind. Or, as an old saw goes: If it’s in the way, it IS the way.

The Breath: Our Unsung Ally

Perhaps the most fundamental fact of our aliveness is that from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death, we are breathing. Yet strangely enough, we routinely take the breath for granted and forget about it. Our attention instead is gripped by our to-do lists, our racing thoughts of gain and loss, our interactions with the world. Many people I’ve worked with over the years, when describing a stressful situation, cannot recall at all how their breath felt during the event. The fact is, the breath is a vital ally in the practice of mindfulness. Because it is always available, and because its shifting nature reflects our moment to moment state of being, the breath is our portal to understanding, healing and well-being.

When the breath is relaxed and comfortable, flowing easily, there’s a good chance that we are feeling relaxed and comfortable as well. When the breath is uncomfortable, there’s usually a reason, and just by acknowledging when the breath doesn’t feel right we can learn a lot about ourselves. Shunryu Suzuki said that in meditation, sometimes the bad horse is best — meaning that those who struggle often learn more about themselves than those who don’t. So when the breath becomes a “bad horse” pay attention because there’s something to be learned from it. In my own life I’ve had a lot of trouble with my breathing — but my breath has been a bad horse that has taught me how to breathe in a better way and how to respond to the signals my breath is giving me.

The breath tells us much about our current state. When we tune in to the breath, we also tune in to our emotional state, to our state of mind, to how our body feels, and to what thoughts may be present. This means that the breath teaches us a lot about suffering and stress. When we tune in to the breath, we’re also in touch with the truth of change — the fact that nothing is static or fixed, that everything is in a state of motion. The breath comes in, rolls over, and goes out, over and over. It’s constantly moving, and so are we. And the breath teaches us about the impersonal or selfless nature of life: breathing is a process without a breather — it’s just happening whether we want it to or not.

So by focusing on our breathing we’re actually getting in touch with the truth of how things are. Right here, right now. And when we are aligned with the truth of how things are, we begin to gain insight into cause and effect within our experience. When we become intimate with our breathing, we discover both the places where we are suffering and our potential for freedom.

Here’s an example of how tuning into the breath might work in daily life. I’ve experienced countless such examples in my own life.

Let’s say you’re having a bad day. Ever since the morning you’ve had a sense of things being not quite right. Your mood is a bit sour, but you don’t know why. Yet, driven by all the things you need to accomplish, you essentially ignore this underlying sense of unease. Even when you have poor communications with people, make mistakes, and anger easily, you carry on as if nothing is wrong.

Then, at some point, you remember to stop and take a moment to pay attention to your breathing. You’ve gotten into the habit of doing that because recently you’ve started a daily meditation practice and so noticing your breath is something you do more than you used to.

As soon as you tune in to your breathing you notice that your chest is feeling tight, that your breathing is strained. As you acknowledge this strain in your breathing you simultaneously recognize it as a sign of anxiety. And now you realize that this strained breathing and chest tightness have been with you since the morning, when you rushed while getting dressed, then rushed to catch your bus for work.

You realize that you’ve been rushing all day, in fact, and haven’t been tending to your inner experience. As a result, you’ve lost touch with your body, your emotions, and your thoughts, and stress has gained a foothold in your being. Perhaps you also become aware of the insight that your habitual fear of being late — a fear you’ve had since childhood — has driven you to rush today and to get out of touch with yourself. You say to yourself, “Oh, yeah, that’s my old fear of being late rearing it’s ugly head. God, that fear is still with me.”

So, within moments of starting to notice your breath, you’ve gained valuable information about your current state of mind and its cause. Even better, as you’ve taken a few moments to focus on your breath, your breathing has started to become more relaxed. So you’ve gained insight and you’ve started to heal. And it all began by simply paying attention to the breath and then seeing where the resulting awareness took you.

So much can be known just by the simple act of tuning in to the breath and relaxing into the knowing which is always here.

Ultimately, aligning with the breath aligns us with awareness. The more we rest in this awareness, the more our unhealthy patterns begin to unravel and new ways of working with our challenges begin to emerge. And only when we are aware do we have a chance to learn and to heal. Awareness is a feedback loop in which we become cognizant of unskillful patterns of thinking and doing. When we recognize something unhealthy and hold it in awareness without grasping it or pushing it away, its power over us often weakens. Even if it doesn’t weaken, if we stay with it long enough it will dissolve or change its shape. Seeing the impermanence of the unhealthy habit is by itself a valuable lesson and makes us less caught.

Spending as much time in this awareness as we can is the task of mindfulness. And that task begins with the simple act of noticing the breath and making it your friend.

The Importance of Truth In An Age of Alternative Facts

Since the presidential election, it seems as though the very idea of truth is under assault. In an ever more volatile and uncertain world, many people choose to live in media bubbles that reflect their biases and the mental habits that keep them in their comfort zones. Resisting complexity, many curate their realities by focusing on certain viewpoints while ignoring others. Fictional news stories take on the status of facts and are weaponized across social media, while actual facts are ignored or labeled false. Across vast swaths of the U.S. population, in fact, expertise is routinely downgraded and demeaned, so much so that the ability for Americans to agree on a consensus reality seems more and more difficult to achieve. This of course has tragic consequences for our civic and political lives. If we no longer value facts, it means that both the rule of law and democracy itself are in grave danger. So truth becomes an especially important topic for us now – because the possibility of justice in our country, and our world, depends on it.

Upon reflection, this assault on truth has been slowly building for years. But it took the election of Donald Trump to make frighteningly clear the civic consequences of living in a world in which the truth is not respected. But a community denial of truth — which is what we can call it when millions of people, on the political left and right, choose to believe patent falsehoods — this community denial of truth can only happen if we, as individuals, are also denying the simple, basic truths of our own lives. So I’d like to explore the idea of the importance of holding to the truth by linking a mass denial of truth with the personal tendency we all have to value or follow that which is not true.

In this context I’ll reference a famous expression from Jesus – ‘the truth will set you free’. Such a timeless and profound expression that directly connects to the practice of mindfulness. Because when it comes to mindfulness, it’s all about becoming free by seeing the truth. One of the things we can say about the teachings and practices of mindfulness is that they are designed to help us live in alignment with the truth, and by doing so, awakening us to that truth at ever deeper levels.

So if you think about awakening as the realization of truth, then abiding by what is not true, worshipping “alternative facts,” is the opposite of awakening, or unawakening. So to the extent that we value what is false, is the extent to which we are moving in the direction of darkness, unconsciousness, and suffering.

As individuals there are many ways that we value illusion over truth. These are the very common tendencies that we all have as fallible human beings. Tendencies that may keep us from awakening to reality – whether that’s the reality of global warming or the reality of our own mortality.

Years ago when my hair started to turn gray I resisted the fact. I wasn’t ready to have gray hair! So I dyed it. I loved what I saw in the mirror. Suddenly I looked like my old self. My friends told me they liked my new dark hair. It was great. I was in denial about the natural aging of my body and I was loving it! Then one day my girlfriend told me, “Bill, your dyed hair looks really fake.” I was outraged that she felt that way. I objected vigorously, pointing out that all my friends had told me my hair looked good. And she replied, “They’re just lying to make you feel good.” Suddenly it hit me: she was right. My hair did look bad. Gradually over time I let go of the need to maintain dark hair.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with dying one’s hair. But for me, I saw the way in which I wasn’t living in alignment with the truth of my own aging, the truth of my body’s changes….and there was suffering in that denial. My desire to maintain dark hair revealed a tension in my psyche about needing to appear another way…a tension that fell away when I allowed my hair to be just as it was. When I let my hair turn gray, that was a moment of freedom. That was a moment of living in alignment with truth.

Then there are the ways that we curate experience to promote an idea, a product, or ourselves, by highlighting certain facts and withholding others. In this regard I think of the way the term mindfulness is now being used in our world. Especially in the corporate world. Although mindfulness is essentially about recognizing the truth of reality with clear comprehension and wisdom, in the corporate world those lofty goals are pretty much sidelined in favor of a key management deliverable: greater focus and productivity. Yes, mindfulness can help you achieve greater focus, but the purpose of that focus has always been intended for the work of awakening, not for the bottom line. Also, mindfulness cannot even really take place unless there is a baseline of ethical conduct on the part of the practitioner of mindfulness. Yet how often do secular mindfulness programs talk about the importance of ethical conduct? Will you ever get a discussion of, say, sexual misconduct in a corporate mindfulness class focused on performance? Probably not.

The problem with the selective editing of mindfulness is that when it is divorced from ethics and wisdom it quickly loses its context and its meaning as a powerful tool for personal transformation and becomes just another useful training technique.

Getting even more granular about the ways we live apart from the truth is the idea of lack of presence. Lack of presence is a common ailment in our hyper-connected 24/7 media-obsessed world. Being so preoccupied by blinking notifications on your phone that when you descend a flight of stairs or walk down a street you’re not really experiencing it. The truth of the situation, the physical sensations, the way your hand reaches out for a door knob…the simple, basic aliveness of a routine moment…We’re not present for those moments so much of the time. And not just because of social media. But mostly because of the storms inside our own minds. So in a sense by not being present for the routine moments of our lives, we’re predisposing ourselves to living in a virtual reality composed of our habitual thoughts and deep-seated tendencies. Living in a world of our own personal alternative facts. And you could say that to the extent that we’re present, landed in the actuality of the here and now, is the extent to which we are living truthfully.

In fact, I’m convinced that if everyone could open a door or descend a flight of stairs with complete presence, we would have a totally transformed world politically and in all other ways.

When there is so much pressure in our world to chase after what isn’t true, to mesmerize ourselves with alternative facts, or myths that are self-serving – from what our politicians embody to the urgency of getting ahead in our corporate worlds to our routine lapses of presence  with everyday reality – how do we resist this powerful tendency to step away from the truth?

Resistance is what it’s all about. Collectively, there is a beautiful resistance that’s been happening throughout our country to the regime that took power in January. A beautiful resistance consisting of marches, calls, donations, organizing, lawsuits, and judges reasserting the primacy of the constitution and the rule of law. Private citizens and some great people in Congress are actively resisting. These are all examples of honoring the truth, of resisting alternative facts. As individuals, our daily mindfulness practice is critical in resisting the denial of daily experience by losing our presence. By practicing every day, we are more likely to be present for what it feels like to grab a door handle, walk down a flight of stairs, or have an engaged conversation with a friend. Our mindfulness practice helps us live in alignment with the truth of our bodies, minds, and hearts, moment by moment, so that the possibility of awakening is never far behind.

Waking up with the truth is not a static event that happens on Monday and can then be ignored the rest of the week. Waking up is an activity, and it’s an intention. It’s something that we need to keep doing…until we’re completely woke.

Why Mindfulness Really Sucks Sometimes

There are literally thousands of ways of meditating. There are many traditions and many paths. But perhaps the most fashionable form of meditation these days is the practice of mindfulness and the industry of mindfulness spawned by it. This is a trend that began more than a decade ago and is still very much current. We’ve all seen the magazine covers of stories on mindfulness featuring a blissed out meditator – often a young, white woman – in a perfect lotus pose, looking calm and transcendent. As if this is a typical outcome when meditating (or that young, white women represent the kind of people meditation is for).

Then of course we hear about the latest findings from science. The studies that show how mindfulness can decrease stress, delay aging in the brain, increase the immune response or strengthen the ability to focus and be productive at work. In our age of collapsing spiritual traditions, science is often viewed as a secular religion, and when secularists hear about the positive science surrounding mindfulness they get downright giddy. And interested.

With so many blissed out people on glossy magazine covers and so much edifying hard data about benefits, it seems like you’d be crazy not to practice mindfulness!

The truth, though, is more complex. The goal of mindfulness, when properly understood, practiced and taught, is not, ultimately, about achieving some alpha state of mental performance, or about feeling blissed out or radiantly calm (although these states can and do result from regular intensive practice). Another way of saying this is that mindfulness is not supposed to be fun, easy, or calming. It is not about having no pain. In fact, mindfulness – when it is practiced with even a small amount of depth – is all about meeting pain – raw, human, everyday pain – with honesty, openheartedness, and clarity.

I got up early one morning and began my routine of sitting in meditation. All things seemed normal as I settled onto my bench. But within a minute I noticed that my stomach was feeling unsettled. Soon that feeling in my stomach intensified and became queasiness. After a few more minutes I noticed that my shoulders were hot and my face felt flushed. I became overheated all at once, which then intensified my stomach distress. I took off my sweatshirt in response and soon felt the morning air from the window start to cool me down and provide relief.

After about 10 minutes, I began to yawn frequently. I had not gotten a great sleep that night, but the yawning – deep, loud yawning – seemed not connected to being tired. Then I remembered that frequent yawning is often a sign of anxiety. This was an odd realization for me, because I didn’t feel particularly anxious when I woke up. Am I anxious? I asked myself. As I sat there over the next few minutes I found an answer to that question by sensing into my chest, slowing down my thought processes, and noticing what I noticed. I soon realized that I was, in fact, feeling quite anxious. About 20 minutes into my sit and after repeatedly yawning, I began moving my hands along my thighs in a sign of restlessness. Another aspect of anxiety. At 25 minutes in I started to fidget constantly, scratching itches on my head or face and yawning every few seconds, my body amped up and charged, as I realized ever more immediately the extent of my anxiety. My distress had been hidden, embedded in my body, and was now unfolding as a result of practice. My whole body felt uncomfortable now, my focus was totally shot, and yet I continued to sit on my bench, simply being with my discomfort, acknowledging it without judging myself for it. By the 45 minute mark I recalled saying to myself, “This really sucks. I don’t like it. Ugh!” I sat with my dislike of the discomfort and continued noticing my reactions. I spent an hour feeling like crap, but without resisting it.

When I stood up from my bench after an hour of very un-calm, un-blissful practice, I was feeling far more alive, far more connected to myself, and far more in touch with my own doubt and pain. But I was also far more connected to my own resilience and strength for being with it all. My Yawning Meditation had not been fun at all, nor did I ever feel a sense of pleasure or wisdom the whole time I was doing it. Yet wisdom was manifesting itself simply by my being willing to experience my reality exactly as it was revealing itself without feeling like I should have been having more fun or being more “productive.”

Mindfulness, above all, is about being with the truth and seeing it clearly. Not the cliched, superficial magazine cover truth – but the very messy truth of our lives.

What You Learn in a Mindfulness Class

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is probably the best known mainstream mindfulness program out there. It was created in 1979 by the pioneering work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMASS Medical Center. The MBSR curriculum has been extensively investigated and is the subject of many research studies verifying the great benefits that mindfulness practice has on health and well-being. But what exactly are the things you learn in an 8-week MBSR course?

Here are a few of them.

1. You learn how to approach people and situations with beginner’s mind and greater openness. The most important thing we learn to experience with beginner’s mind is our own experience of being alive. We don’t take anything for granted – not our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, or impulses. Everything we think and feel and imagine can be held, with kindness and curiosity, in our awareness. We open ourselves to experiencing our lives in a less habitual, unconscious way.

2. You learn the importance of questioning the accuracy of your perceptions and seeing things more creatively. How we perceive the challenges in our lives has a lot to do with how we will ultimately respond to them. If we think the traffic jam we’re stuck in, or the relationship problem we’re facing, is all our fault or all someone else’s – it sets us up for either hating ourselves or hating someone else, thus causing us stress and dis-ease. When we free up our perceptions and see the multiple perspectives of any issue, we’re not so caught up in the blame game and have greater freedom to find a solution.

3. You learn to stop and enjoy the pleasurable moments in your life and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Human beings are hardwired to focus on threats – but that hard-wiring means that we will tend to miss much that is already good, pleasurable, and wholesome about our lives. If all we see is what we don’t have, or what might threaten us, then life becomes pretty stressful and not much fun. The good news is that we can train ourselves to really take in all the joyful and pleasurable moments in our lives – even the little ones! – and feel more resilient towards stress as a result.

4. You learn ways to be more responsive to stressful situations and not act on your autopilot reactions. When stressful situations arise, it is quite normal to be at the mercy of our reactive fight or flight tendencies. Arguments, road rage incidents on the one hand, or avoidance and shutting down emotionally on the other. Mindfulness practice helps us stay aware of the unpleasant body sensations, catastrophizing thoughts and painful emotions of stressful situations as they are happening instead of freaking out and losing it. While we can’t get rid of stressful events, we can learn to respond to them with wisdom.

5. You learn to see your thoughts and emotions as events in consciousness, not facts. We tend to believe our thoughts and emotions are always true without questioning them or where they come from. Mindfulness reveals the transitory and insubstantial nature of thoughts and emotions. The greater clarity that comes with mindfulness practice helps us to, not ignore thoughts and emotions, but to see them as highly conditioned and temporary experiences which we can choose to follow, investigate, or let go of.

6. You learn to communicate more effectively with others by practicing presence, empathy, and kindness. By staying connected to body, mind, and heart during a conversation, we establish a greater presence which can help us really understand what someone is telling us – which also helps us communicate more intuitively, authentically, and with greater kindness than a default autopilot conversation does.

7. You learn mindful consuming by noticing your intentions and when ingesting something like food or media becomes too much. We are all consumers: consumers of food, drink, media, time, environments, people, and so on. Everything we consume has an effect on our body, mind and nervous system. Mindful consuming means we pay attention to what we take in and to what effects it has on us. Harmful effects are something we can begin to notice,  so that we can make wiser and more sustainable consuming decisions.

8.  An 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction is just the beginning. Our practice deepens over time as we cultivate our own inner resources for health, healing, and wisdom. There are many ways to continue a mindfulness practice, and we share practical strategies and resources for continuing to practice mindfulness in your everyday life.

You can sign up for the next MBSR class in Berkeley CA on June 5 by clicking this link: