Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Compassionate Approach

When painful feelings arise, we have a choice to make. We can either go towards them or away from them. We can be open or closed to them. We can feel them or reel from them. When these feelings arise, we make the choice immediately, based on our habits. It is not really a choice when we don’t make it, it is a reaction. When we notice our reaction, then we make the choice. It can take seconds, months or years to notice our reactions. We can react to a single, painful event for our whole lives. We can also start fresh, every moment, approaching our pain with compassion.

Our general habit is to go away from pain, to close off to it, to reel from it. Sometimes that works and the pain passes on its own. Usually, the pain follows us. Even though we are closed to it, we feel it. It keeps coming back to us, forcing us to deal with it. When we notice that we have to deal with our pain, we can approach it with compassion. We can see that the pain hurts, see that we don’t want to hurt, remember that we don’t deserve to hurt, and in that way, approach our suffering with compassion. When we look compassionately at our pain, with openness and awareness, we can see its source, solution and actions we can take to bring about a resolution.

To practice a compassionate approach to our suffering, we begin by noticing our suffering, acknowledging that something hurts. By doing that, we let ourselves be present. We breathe with whatever is happening. If we are reeling, that compassionate breath can stop the spinning. Then we can look at the thoughts and beliefs that prop up our emotions. When we look from a place of wisdom, openness, and non-judgment, we can see into and through some false or harmful beliefs. We notice damaging ideas and habits. By noticing those ideas we change them.

Because these ideas and beliefs are supported by habits, they may come back. As we continue to practice a compassionate approach, we can improve our response times. We can approach pain in minutes instead of months. When we develop our habits and build a compassionate approach to our suffering, our suffering will not send us reeling anymore. When that happens, we can choose to use our compassionate habits to approach other people’s pain. Choice by choice we can heal the world.


Suffering Now and Zen

When your current experience of suffering brings you to look at Zen as a way to deal with it, you have come to a good place. You bring your suffering to that place and the place accepts you and your suffering. A Zen or mindfulness practice will change your approach to suffering. Instead of trying to hold your suffering at arm’s length, you hold it in your hands, which happen to be at arm’s length anyway.

A Zen practice may not change the position of your suffering, it will change your perspective in relation to it. Instead of seeing your pain as not having what you want, you see your pain as coming from the wanting instead of the having. Wanting may seem like it comes unbidden and as soon as you want something that’s it, you want it, but that’s not the end of it. When you examine the want and see it as a passing fancy, it passes. The pain passes with it.

Without a Zen approach to suffering, we see suffering as residing in our circumstances, in fixed things outside of ourselves, which change slowly as circumstances do. With a Zen or mindful approach, we see our suffering as residing in our thoughts, which change rapidly. As we do what we can do to alter our circumstances we can find peace in our minds right now, with a peaceful thought, or with no thought at all.

Suffering will still come and go as thoughts do and circumstances change. However, when we practice a different approach, we can have a vastly different experience of the same place.


Feel Good Zen

Zen is not a warm and fuzzy practice, except when your experience is warm and fuzzy. Zen is a practice of rigorous discipline designed to help practitioners realize their True Nature. This realization may be confused with a specific state of mind. It may be idealized as enlightenment. It may be seen as a great spiritual goal. It may be a confirmation of something you have always known. It may feel good.

The goal of Zen is not personal enlightenment or realization. That is a stepping stone. That is another moment. The primary goal is the Buddhist goal of relieving suffering for all beings. The goal is not to sit on a mountaintop in eternal bliss, but to compassionately engage with the world to bring an end to suffering. That is a lofty goal. Understanding that goal, places the other lofty goal of personal realization much closer. Understanding that larger goal and our role in realizing it, produces a sense of the humility with which we approach these goals. It is a fine line between humility and futility, but it is clear that we cannot achieve that goal alone. If I can stop suffering and you are still suffering, I am only half way there, and I am nowhere at all.

A beautiful byproduct of all these practitioners throughout time and around the world, on mountaintops and on city streets, practicing pointedly to end suffering is that they have discovered  and developed techniques and skills to help people who are not interested in discovering their True Nature. Some people reach for a warm fuzzy cat to feel good, others reach for Zen. Those who immerse themselves in Zen, feel good sometimes and feel lousy sometimes, they use both feelings to help them remain present and look into how things are.

Wanting to feel good is a natural place to begin exploring Zen, mindfulness, meditation, alcoholism, drug abuse, and other feel-good practices. When we notice that desire to feel good, we notice it from a place of suffering. One thing we can learn from Zen is to meet that suffering, directly, with compassion. Whether we practice Zen in a cave for nine years, or conversationally at parties, meeting suffering with compassion, rather than hiding it under a warm and fuzzy blanket is a way to feel better. Compassion is our essence, it is a skill, and also, it feels good.


Searching For the Obvious

The solution to any problem is obvious once you see it, but when your problem is worry, self-doubt and self-loathing, it can take some time to see it. Like ancient astronomers spent eons staring at the stars before they realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe, you need to spend time watching your thoughts before it dawns on you that you are both good enough, and exceptional. You are worthy of love and don’t deserve loathing.

That is the obvious part that is not obvious. What is also obvious is that things go wrong, things have always gone wrong and new things are going wrong all the time. Excessive worrying is something that is currently going wrong, as you imagine what else might go wrong. That worry affects how you feel and it hurts. Because you don’t want to hurt, you worry about what might hurt you, or what has hurt you, instead of working with the hurt that is happening. All that hurt and worry obscures the more basic fact that you are a good, lovable, human being, trying your best to get along in a confusing world.

It takes some time to untangle the habit of worry, self doubt and self loathing. You don’t have to begin by loving yourself, that comes more naturally when you become comfortable with yourself. Comfort with yourself, begins with tolerance of yourself. Take a look at where you are now, take a deep breath, see that you are suffering, and notice your desire not to suffer. The act of doing that is the first step in creating a habit of compassion for yourself. That is a kind, loving gesture toward yourself.

Noticing worry or pain and taking a breath breaks up your normal response and confirms your goodness, your desire to feel better and to help the situation. It helps you deal with the hurt that is happening and clears your mind to better address hurts that have happened or may happen.  When you take a breath you have a moment to see what your thoughts are. See if those thoughts are judging you or others. See if they are about the past or future. Take another breath and remind yourself that they are thoughts.

Thoughts come and go. They come in waves, and they dig channels. Those channels are the opinions that you develop about things and about yourself. When you practice noticing the coming and going of thoughts, and notice how pain and hurt comes and goes with those thoughts, and practice compassion in response to pain, those channels change. Those opinions don’t seem as true anymore.

With steady practice of returning your attention to your breath, to your vision, hearing, taste or touch, you build your awareness of your thought habits and your capacity for compassion. You will still worry, doubt yourself, and maybe even hate yourself from time to time, but you will come to understand that those are just more thoughts and they will pass and you will be your fine, good, lovable self when they are gone.




It is not always obvious that the suffering that we experience is only partly caused by our circumstances. It makes perfect sense that when somebody insults us, we should get angry. It makes sense to us, because that is what we do. It makes sense that we should be afraid when somebody else gets mad, because it’s frightening to see people lose it. It makes sense that when somebody breaks up with us, we get sad, because that is how we feel. It makes sense we should be happy when somebody we love gives a hug, because that happens again and again in our experience.

It’s no wonder we spend our time and energy trying to get hugs from people we love and creating opportunities for happiness. It is reasonable to build walls to protect ourselves from the scary things in the world. It may not occur to us in the heat of anger that it is our own thoughts causing us so much pain, rather than the person poking fun at us. We may not notice that our own minds have created conditions of safety and security when we get a warm hug from a friend.

Usually, when we find ourselves suffering, we are suffering for a good reason. That reason is likely something in the external world. Rarely do we feel sad, lost and lonely and think, oh, if only I had trained my mind better to be alone with itself. We naturally think that kind of thing about playing the piano or doing math. We think, I should have taken lessons, or I should have studied more. We don’t tend to approach our emotions that way, but we can.

The counterintuitive approach to our minds is to approach the pain, rather than recoil. What does fear feel like? What does sadness mean? Why is anger my go-to response to so many little events in my day? When we start to believe that we can learn new ways to feel our feelings, we suddenly find ourselves with a degree of control over an uncontrollable world. It doesn’t always make sense to sit in sadness rather than running for a hug, but when we take the time to do the things that aren’t the first things to occur to us, we begin to break up life-long habits.

There will always be circumstances to make us sad, people who make us angry and scared, but when we remember that our own minds are the source of those feelings, we can take the time to check in with our thoughts and massage them a little to see what influence we can have in the moment. When our intuition becomes to count our breaths instead of counterpunching, then we will know our counterintuitive approach has changed our minds. We may become more prone to hugging, because that’s something happy people do.


How To Do Walking Meditation

Walking Meditation is a little bit simpler than walking. It may take more effort at first, but once you get into the habit, it is a refreshing way to do two things at once by doing only one thing at a time.

To do walking meditation, you walk. You can walk around your zendo or around your living room. You can walk indoors or outdoors. You can walk in parks or in malls. You can walk along busy city streets our secluded nature trails. The point is not where you walk, but how you walk.

As in sitting meditation, in walking meditation, focus your attention on your breath and posture. Walk with your back straight, your head level, looking slightly down to the ground about six feet in front of you. Unlike in sitting meditation, in walking meditation it is important to keep your eyes open. You need to see where you are going. Your arms and hands can be wherever it is comfortable for you. They can hang at your sides, joined together at your navel, clasped behind your back, or they can swing with you strides. Do what suits you. It’s the same with your pace. You can walk slowly or quickly. Measure your meditation either in time or distance.

The important part of walking mediation is what you do with your attention. You may count your steps or your breaths from one to ten as you walk. Let your attention move between your breath, steps and posture. If you count your steps, count one for right, two for left, three for right and so on. Feel the ground as each foot lands, rolls and leaves the ground. Feel how each leg takes on and gives up your weight. Lightly notice your breathing as you walk. When you get to ten and return back to one, check your posture to see if your back is still straight.  When you notice yourself thinking, bring your attention back to your step count. Release the thought without judging it. Bring your attention back to your feet.

Walking meditation is useful when sitting meditation is hard or when you need an interval break from a long sitting meditation. It can be done as you walk your dog, with a friend, or alone. It can be done as you get up from your desk to go to the bathroom at work. It can be used to clear your head whenever you are walking in your normal routine. It can be done completely inconspicuously in public as nobody will be able to see what you are doing with your mind as you walk. Practicing walking meditation is also a way to help your meditation practice spread through your life. When you regularly practice walking meditation, you may also notice yourself practicing eating mediation, laundry meditation, driving mediation and so on. That’s all there is to it, no thinking, just walking. Step, step, step…