In order to use Zen ideas to get at the heart of your suffering, it is important to look at yourself. You don’t have to spend all day looking in a mirror. You have to spend your whole life looking at a mirror. That’s how important self is. According to Buddhism, the main cause of suffering is ignorance. Ignorance, in Buddhism is different from regular ignorance. Regular ignorance is a general lack of knowledge or understanding. If you suspect that you are ignorant in a regular sense, then you will suffer because you find yourself lacking important qualities. Ignorance in Buddhism is specifically a wrong understanding that your self exists as an independent entity. There is no shame in Buddhist ignorance because it is the basic human condition. It leads to all other suffering like the suffering of regular ignorance, loneliness, disconnectedness, shame, anxiety and/or depression. That is why the idea of self is so important.
It is completely impractical to spend your life looking in a mirror. As you inquire into your self, you have to be ready to challenge the very idea of self. You can also challenge the idea of mirror. Your self is so important that the whole world is a reflection of you. With that kind of mirror, you have no choice but to spend your whole life looking at it. Anywhere you look, you encounter a reflection of yourself. Even if you close your eyes and look at your thoughts you see yourself there. Your parents, friends, children, and pets, as you experience them, are reflections of you. When you see your image in a mirror, that is also you. Wherever you look, if you like what you see, you are liking yourself. If you hate what you see, you are hating yourself. If you are suffering, you can look to yourself to see why you are suffering.
When your idea of self expands beyond the image in the mirror to include the mirror, the frame, the wall, your family, and the world, you will gain a better appreciation of how important you are. You will see your self as an integral part of all that is happening around you. Experiencing your connectedness to everything brings with it a sense of humility. That humility is your important self getting out of the way. The suffering goes with it.
Living with a broken heart is a special kind of insanity. From a Zen practice perspective it provides a unique opportunity to kick your ego while its down. You can dive into the abyss of sadness and suffering and look intensely for its cause. You can explore attachment and self. You can immerse yourself in meditation like nothing else matters. For most people though, the sadness and depression that follows the end of a significant relationship is a normal and expected part of the grieving process. It is not classified as insanity, because it is a reasonable response to a major life change.
Without shaving your head and joining a monastery, you can use your broken heart to grow through the suffering and come to a better understanding of love and yourself. You can use a mindfulness practice of compassionate breathing to help you through the hardest hours. You can salvage the love from the wreckage of the relationship and use it like a bandage to dress your wounds. You can even meditate like nothing else matters.
If you want to heal your immediate suffering, but not all the suffering of all time, you don’t have to do anything as extreme as meditating. You can just watch your thoughts and practice compassion. You can think about the stages of grieving to categorize your thoughts and remind yourself that your thoughts are reasonable thoughts. The stages of grieving are denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. In grief you generally jump around theses stages rather than progress through them. If you think about getting back together, that is a mix of bargaining and denial. If you think about how you could have done something differently, that is bargaining again. If you just cry, that is depression. If you make lists of what the other person did wrong, that is anger. When you stop thinking these kinds of things, that is acceptance. When you notice yourself thinking, you can see what your thoughts are and let them go. Remember you are grieving and take a breath of the pure love that inspired your suffering. Remind yourself that you can love and be loved. Breathe out love for the other person who is suffering too.
Whether you are a Zen practitioner or not, a broken heart is a unique time of growth. You are forced into a process of reorganizing yourself. If you organize yourself with kindness and compassion, your heart will mend beautifully.
Being comfortable with who you are involves embracing what you don’t know. In a knowledge based society it can be difficult to admit that you don’t know something. It can be even more difficult to admit that you don’t know much at all. There can be great shame in ignorance. There can be great pride in knowing things. However, when searching for the truth, knowing things that are wrong is worse than not knowing anything at all. If you were to compare what you know with what you don’t know, what you know might fill up a small cup of tea and what you don’t know could fill the entire universe. What you think you know may fill a whole teapot.
When we were children, we were comfortable with who we were because we understood that we didn’t know much. We hadn’t learned to be uncomfortable with ourselves. In school, children can be fascinated to hear their teachers, who seem to know things, explain the world to them. Children go to school to learn. They show up in the morning declaring how little they know and open themselves up to discover the world. They go home at the end of the day knowing a little bit more, but still nothing compared to what they don’t know. This continues throughout our lives. We learn and learn and learn and don’t scratch the surface of what we don’t know.
When we find ourselves uncomfortable with ourselves, we have to unlearn those ways of thinking that make us uncomfortable. We have to remember that we don’t even know who or what we really are. Recognizing that we don’t know what we are can be frightening, because we’re so used to pretending that we know something we don’t. Even if we’re not comfortable being ourselves, it’s all we know. Recognizing that we don’t know all we know can be liberating because we can stop pretending to be what we aren’t. We can just be, discovering the world. The tea is warm.
There is a reason for everything. If you are feeling fine, you will have a good reason to feel that way. If you are feeling miserable, you will have a good reason to feel that way too. When you are suffering from anxiety or depression, your moods and your reasons are so mixed up that it becomes difficult to trust your reasoning. Even though you can’t trust your reason, you can trust your mood. You can trust that you feel miserable, but the reason why you feel miserable is open to debate. If you have managed to think yourself into a miserable situation, you can think your way out or you can unthink your way out.
To think your way out of a mood, you look at your reasons for your mood and you refute them. To convince yourself that you can refute very believable reasons, you have to look at yourself. Remind yourself that you are capable of feeling better and deserve to feel better. Place full blame for your mood on the faulty reasoning, then go about dismantling the reasons. You can do this in your head, on a piece of paper, with a friend or with a therapist. Understand that there is always another way of looking at your circumstances.
To unthink your way out of your mood, you still have to look at yourself. Remind yourself that you are capable of feeling better and deserve to feel better. Then, focus on your breathing. Breathe in peace and compassion and breathe out misery. When your reasons try to interfere with your breathing, just breathe them out with your misery. Don’t rush your mood away, but experience the world through the mood. Hear the sounds around you. Smell the scents in the air. Taste the food and drink. As your mood tries to carry you away again with all its good reasons, don’t believe them, just breathe through them.
When your mood passes, you can check in with your reason again. If the reasons feel wrong, check in with your breath again. That’s reasonable.
If you want to tap into the power of mindfulness and meditation to help you through your difficult moods, you should begin your practice at a time when your breath is available to you. If you wait until you are in the middle of an anxiety attack, you may find it difficult to take a deep breath. You may not have the wherewithal to slowly breathe out all the air in your lungs. When you are in the middle of the most difficult emotions you wont have the luxury of perspective to recognize that your thoughts are immediately more threatening than your circumstances. You won’t be able to throw out your mind on an out-breath.
Athletes and actors practice and practice and practice before it comes time to perform. For an athlete, life has a simple divide, there is game time and not game time. For performers there is showtime and not show time. When it is not game or showtime there is practice time. All those games and shows happen in their lives. We know that their lives are more important than the game or the show, but that changes as soon as the puck drops or the curtain rises. During the game or the show their outside lives are forgotten and all of their energy is poured into the performance. You can practice mindfulness and meditation to prepare yourself for difficult emotions, you can learn to separate yourself from your emotions so that when it is showtime you are ready to perform.
For a meditation practice, it is good to turn things around. Meditation is not the practice. It becomes the game or the show. To sit in meditation you forget about your life and just focus on your breathing. The rest of your life makes space for your meditation practice. You are no longer preparing for anything, you are just sitting with all the difficult emotions that the rest of your life has ever produced. As the difficult emotions come, you just breath them out. Let your thoughts go and return to your breath. Check your posture and return to your breath. In the rest of your life, you practice for meditation. You keep checking in with your breathing, watch your thoughts, and pay attention to your difficult emotions so that they will no longer disturb your meditation.
For a mindfulness practice, there is no separation at all. It is all practice, performance and life. It is all happening in the present. If you are meditating, you are meditating. If you are having a panic attack, you are having a panic attack. Through it all, you are breathing. When your life includes a mindfulness practice, you will see that you are something apart from your circumstances. You will see that you can influence the rotation of emotions by continually returning to the present through awareness of your breath. If you can process your difficult emotions while you are able to breathe through them, you will find them becoming less difficult. Through regular practice, you will find yourself well prepared for the performance of your life.
Freedom is contextual. To be free, you have to be free from something. If you are in prison, then freedom means getting out of the building. If you suffer from a mental health disorder, freedom is getting out of your mind. To the Buddha, freedom was getting out of the cycle of life and death. A Buddhist, in prison, struggling with metal health, would have all three of those layers of obstacles to freedom. Facing that daunting task could be pretty depressing. If you are looking for things to be grateful for, be glad you are not a crazy Buddhist in prison. Unfortunately, from a buddhist perspective, we are all imprisoned Buddhas, struggling with mental health. Fortunately, from a Buddhist perspective, we are all Buddhas.
Buddhists understand that not everybody is a Buddhist. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to be a Buddha, you only have to be. Recognizing that you are a Buddha is liberating. Even if you are in prison, or struggling with mental health, if you recognize that you are a Buddha, you will be free. It is just one step to freedom. If you are not a Buddhist and you recognize that you are a Buddha, you probably won’t call what you are Buddha. You might call it being one with everything, You might call it salvation. You might call it being free.
It is not important what you call it. As soon as you call it anything, it is not the same as what it is anyway. The important thing is to experience it. The idea that you are fundamentally free can help you to experience that freedom. That idea can act like a great ball of fire that burns up all other ideas. You don’t have to concern yourself with being good or bad, fat or thin, smart or dumb. You are all of those things and none of those things. Those things burn up in the fire. You are a Buddha. Be free.
If you want to create the life you’ve always dreamed of, all you have to do is change your mind. Changing your mind is simple, you do it all the time. If you don’t change your mind, then your mind changes itself. Your choice in relating to your mind is whether you want to participate in the change process or not. If you’re happy to just let your mind flip through its normal routine, then you may choose not to participate. If that choice leads you to an uncomfortable place, you can always change your mind later and participate more actively.
Choosing not to participate can be a difficult choice, if you are not actively engaged in your mind’s changes, then you follow along in your current routines. As your mind gathers new information and experiences it creates your life for you. If you trust your mind to take you to interesting places and to associate with interesting people and it regularly provides you with fulfilling experiences, then you are fortunate. You can sit back and enjoy the ride. If your mind seeks out things to worry about, generating fear and anger on a regular basis, then not participating in the change can be painful.
Choosing to participate in the change process can also be difficult. To change your mind you make the choice to hold your mind accountable for your experiences. That eliminates the convenient outsourcing of accountability to your circumstances. You can no longer blame other people or the system for necessitating your reactions. Whenever you notice yourself experiencing an emotion, you need to ask your mind why it is creating such an experience. When you notice an unpleasant emotion, you call on your mind to release it and allow space for a more desirable emotion to take its place.
Changing your mind happens in big leaps and small steps. It happens in time so it is always moving forward. Once you change your mind you cannot change it back, but you can always change it again, and again, and again.
Because life can be complicated, it is important to have a reliable tool that you can use to simplify things when you need to. Turning to your breath is a powerful practice that is always there for you. The mechanism of turning to your breath is so simple that you have probably already done it. Simply breathe. Turn your attention to your breath as it comes in and then goes out. Because the act of returning to your breath is so simple, it is necessary to complicate things a little to unleash the power of the practice.
Life is usually complicated because of an emotional reaction to something or other. Emotions, like your breath are both voluntary and involuntary. Unlike your breath, emotions can run away with your attention. Your breath continues, whether you are paying attention or not. Emotions are complicated, they can be all over the place. Your breath is simple. In and out. If you find yourself in the grip of an emotional reaction, you may feel overwhelmed or spiraling out of control, at that moment you need something simple to bring you back to yourself.
In order for your breath to work for you, you have to have faith in its transformative power. The best way to develop faith is through direct experience. Try this. Take a deep breath in, inhaling as much air as you can. Hold it for a few seconds. Let it out and blow out everything that you can. See how you feel. If you feel a sense of peace and release, you can use that as a basis for your faith. Then you can try the technique on your more complicated emotions.
If you are caught up in an emotional reaction it may take several breaths to experience the sense of self-confidence and well being. That first breath though, the moment of returning to your breath, is an act of tremendous courage and resiliency. It is an act of faith and love. Even if you develop a strong faith in the effectiveness of returning to your breath, you still need to test it often. The power increases with practice.
One of our under appreciated natural powers is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. If we see somebody being happy, we feel their happiness. If we see somebody suffering, we feel their suffering. We have this ability to various degrees and we use it, to the best of our abilities all the time. Like most of our unappreciated super powers, being able to read each other’s feelings doesn’t mean that we know how to use that ability to save the world. You might think that a planet full of empathic beings would gravitate toward pervasive happiness. Hopefully we will. In order to make the best use of our powers of empathy, we have to practice compassion, to relate to another person’s suffering, to care, and to do what we can to ease the suffering. Our abilities to know our own feelings and our own suffering and to practice compassion for ourselves helps us to relate to how others feel and practice compassion for them.
Empathy lets us know what another person is feeling. Compassion lets us care. Without compassion we can be glad for another person’s suffering. With compassion, that is impossible. If we want to use our powers to save the world, we need to practice both empathy and compassion.
Saving the world generally begins with saving your own world. You can build your powers of empathy and compassion by paying attention to your feelings. When you feel yourself suffering from sadness or anxiety, notice the feeling and use it to generate compassion for yourself. Understanding your own feelings increases your ability to understand others’. Feeling compassion for yourself, increases your ability to draw on that when it is time to help others.
When you are not consumed with your own feelings, you can use your powers of empathy to focus on others. Notice how they look, listen to what they say, and imagine what they are feeling. Noticing and guessing what another person is feeling and adding a little compassion when they seem to suffer can go a long way toward making things better for both of you, and for the world.