Category: Meditation

The Suffering of Everyday Life

During the time that I was married, I subjected my wife to a litany of jokes involving obscure references to my various interests. I am fairly (but not entirely) certain that this was not what caused our marriage to deteriorate. Over the last year or so of our marriage, one of my go-to comments was to utter the phrase, “this is dukkha” in annoying or unpleasant situations, which would invariably elicit a roll of the eyes. Although I employed it as humor, it was always in a situation where I actually recognized the workings of dukkha in a mundane situation.

four noble truths

The first of the Noble Truths is often translated as, “Life is suffering.” The Pali word “dukkha” is somewhat problematically translated as “suffering” in many places. There isn’t really a perfect translation in English for the word dukkha, but I have seen it translated as “stress”, “unsatisfactoriness”, and “anxiety”, as well as the common, “suffering.” All of these definitions seem to have an element of truth to them, but the full sense of the word is complex, and plays out in our daily lives in several different ways. It is also closely tied to another Pali concept, “tanha,” which is often translated as “craving”, “desire”, or “thirst.”

Everybody Hurts

Some things just hurt. Pain and discomfort of all kinds are just part of the package deal that we get with the gift of human existence. We stub our toe and it causes physical pain. Someone treats us unkindly and it makes us feel bad emotionally. We lose someone we care about or watch an important relationship deteriorate, and we feel sorrow. These kinds of experiences are inevitable, and in the moment we will feel a kind of pain or suffering when we are confronted with them. There is no avoiding this kind of pain.

Where we really begin to feel suffering is through our desire that things be other than they are. We crave pleasant experiences, and we feel aversion toward unpleasant ones. When my wife told me that she was unhappy in our marriage, I naturally felt sorrow and pain. This pain was unavoidable. It was when I wallowed in my desire for things to be different than they were or when I chose to try to avoid the reality of my situation through heavy drinking that I really experienced dukkha. When I reached the point of being able to be mindful of my grief, and accept it, that was when I began to see my suffering diminish somewhat.

The Things That Happen (and the Stories We Tell About Those Things)

Another form that dukkha takes – probably my personal poison of choice – is through the stories that we build on top of our lived experiences. The unpleasant experience that we have had just isn’t bad enough, so we pile onto it with self-recriminations, self-pity, and various other forms of self-torture.

Personally, I have long specialized in a form of this that involves feelings of guilt and shame. I do or say something that I regret, and then proceed to replay the incident in my head over and over, telling myself what a fuck up I am, or that I’m a bad person. I have generally liked to mix in obsessions about what other people are thinking about me, despite the fact that nobody is spending as much time thinking about me as I am.

There are a number of different ways that these mental formations can manifest themselves. Thoughts of anxiety, inadequacy, and judgment all add suffering to our daily lives. We relive uncomfortable events that are sometimes years in the past, or build out anxiety laden scenarios set in the future.

As we practice mindfulness, we can learn to recognize these mental formations for what they are, mere illusions created by our minds. Through that recognition, we can learn to observe the arising of the thoughts, let them play out and pass away, rather than giving them energy to run on a constant loop.

reaching out
Photo freely given by David Monje on Unsplash

You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On

Sometimes our suffering isn’t produced by negative experiences, but by our relationship to pleasant ones.

Everything in and around us is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. This can become a cause of dissatisfaction when we experience something that we like, and try to cling to that experience. I’ve written about this a little bit previously.

On some level, we know the experience won’t last, but we try to keep it going anyway, and we suffer when it goes away. Not only that, we generally don’t actually enjoy the experience as much while we are in it, because we are so stressed out about the prospect of it disappearing.

This expression of dukkha can show in both insignificant and more meaningful situations. Sometimes it might be something as mundane as enjoying the warmth of the sun on a fall day, then becoming frustrated when clouds move in. Other situations might be more impactful, such as being in the middle of the euphoria of a romantic relationship, only to suffer as you watch that relationship come to an end.

If we can learn to be present in these situations, we can enjoy them while they last, without clinging to them as they pass away. I can say from personal experience that this isn’t easy, but my meditation practice has definitely helped me be more present moment-to-moment, and to cling less. It also helps me to be aware of the suffering that I experience when I do cling, and to pull out of the nose dive more quickly when I do indulge that clinging.

This is Dukkha

Although I am still very much a baby meditator and mindfulness practitioner, I have seen that there is a path out of the suffering that we experience every day. The most important step for me has been learning to identify dukkha as early as possible. Although I have joked about it, that moment of saying, “this is dukkha” is the important one. Recognizing that we have moved beyond the normal pain of an experience, and have entered into clinging, aversion, or harmful story telling; that is the moment when we have the ability to respond skillfully, rather than simply reacting mindlessly.

Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more aware of our internal temperature. We can see when we are starting to feel things going sideways with our disposition and can examine what is going on. Are we desiring something we don’t have or experiencing something we don’t want? Are we clinging to something that is going away? Are we creating movies in our head that are exacerbating an unpleasant situation? Once we’ve recognized the situation, we can accept things for what they really are and let go of the mental baggage that we are bringing into our experience.

This is all part of a growth process. I am more often able to recognize when I am causing myself unnecessary suffering than I was when I started on this journey, but I still find myself often succumbing to it. The more time I spend practicing the Dharma, the more skillful I become. The important thing is to keep practicing, and when I experience periods that feel like failure, accept those as a part of the path and begin again.

Changing My Relationship With My Mind

I am not my thoughts. It might sound dramatic, but this simple combination of words might have saved my life.

There is a voice that speaks to each of us from within our own minds. This voice speaks with authority and certainty, often building superficial edifices atop the foundations of our lived experience. These stories that the voice crafts can take on a variety of tenors, but for many of us, they tend toward rumination on our inadequacies and mistakes. This is the voice of our inner critic, and for most of my life I have believed that this voice was me.

Early in my life I was taught to neatly divide the world into dualistic categories. Things were either right or wrong; righteous or sinful. I first noticed my inner critic as the voice that would let me know what a worthless sinner I was. “Man, you are a horrible person,” the voice would tell me. “I can’t believe you are thinking about that.” My inner critic extended beyond my moral failings, however. The voice would churn over whether something I had said had caused someone to dislike me. It would criticize me for my appearance, and for not being “cool” enough. It even paralyzed me from taking certain positive actions, because I would craft some long chain of events that my action could set into motion.

There have been a couple of times in my life when my relationship with this voice has taken me into a dark place. Once, in my early 20s, I was struggling with loneliness and some really difficult circumstances, including a brief period of homelessness. Into the void in which I felt trapped came the voice, telling me that I was a fuck up who had ruined his life, and that I would never escape from this hole. It told me that all of my friends had left me because they couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I believed every word that the voice spoke to me. Thankfully, things did get better, and I came out of the experience without harming myself too much.

A couple of years ago, when I first started having real problems in my marriage, the voice took me to a dark place again. I had built so much of my identity on this relationship, that I began to lose myself when things began to crumble. The voice began to tell me that I was going to live the rest of my life alone. It told me that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love. I heard the phrase, “I hate myself,” repeated on a nearly constant loop. This time, I began to think that everyone’s life would be better without me in it. Again, I believed every word that this voice spoke to me.

This was my state of mind when I first discovered meditation. I want to be clear from the beginning, I don’t believe that meditation is a panacea that will solve all your problems. The truth is that I should have pursued help during this period of my life. I wallowed in this state for nearly a year, when I probably could have eased some of my suffering by going into therapy, or at very least opening up to some of the people around me. That being said, one of the first things that I learned as I began to meditate did completely change my life. In fact, given the trajectory that I was on, it might very well have saved my life. 

When I first heard the phrase “you are not your thoughts,” I felt like I had come into shelter from standing in the middle of a tornado. I broke down in tears. The realization that this voice that had plagued me my entire life was just a thought, and that I could just acknowledge its presence and watch the words fade away without accepting them as truth, was liberating in a way that I had never experienced. I didn’t create these thoughts, they just sort of happened to me. Why did I take ownership of them? Why did I believe these thoughts?

I began to practice noticing when the voice started to speak to me. I worked on not trying to fight the voice, but just to notice it, watching it live out its half-life and slowly fade away. By not pushing it away or latching onto it, I noticed that the voice seemed to lose a lot of its power over time. The thoughts didn’t completely go away, but I didn’t feel owned by them as often. 

Whenever people ask me about how meditation has benefitted me, it can be hard to know what changes to attribute to my practice. My life has changed in a lot of positive ways over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I can specifically pinpoint what things have caused my growth in different areas. I have read a number of really great books from a variety of perspectives that have informed my thoughts recently. I’m also just a little older and have benefited from lessons that experience has taught me. The one thing that I can definitely attribute to meditation, however, is the relationship that I have with my inner critic. The ability to less frequently attach to this voice has helped me be more compassionate with myself. I don’t really catch myself descending the downward spiral like I used to. When I do start to listen to that voice berating me, I tend to catch myself before I get too far along the path of self-judgement and recrimination.

The Practice

I am not an expert on meditation, so this is just me sharing what my personal experience has been. This is the basic practice that helped me initially. I’m happy to discuss this further with anyone, so please feel free to comment below, email or tweet me if you have questions or comments.

I have found that having a regular meditation practice is a key component to strengthening the ability to notice the thoughts as they arise. The basic concentration practice that I used was simply to focus on the feeling of the breath going in an out. I start of with a soft mental note of “in” on the in breath, and “out” on the out breath. Eventually (sometimes within a single breath, sometimes longer), you will become distracted by a thought popping into your head. This might take the form of thinking about a situation at work, fantasizing about that person you have been thinking about asking out, or thinking about how uncomfortable you are on your cushion; it can be any of the countless thoughts that come into our minds throughout the day. When you notice that the thought has arisen, note it softly as, “thinking.” Then return your focus to the feeling of your breath. Repeat as often as necessary. No need to judge yourself or get frustrated. This is how meditation works for all of us, so no reason to beat yourself up, no matter how often you get distracted.

After establishing this practice, I started to apply the same technique off of the cushion. Throughout the day I might notice that my inner critic has made an appearance. When I noticed that old voice chiming in again, I just noted that I was “thinking,” took a beat to watch the thoughts play out and disappear, and then moved on with my life.

My hope is that my experience can help someone else who might be experiencing the same thing I did. May you have peace and live with ease!

31 Day Precept Project Wrap-up

This month didn’t exactly go according to script (whatever that means,) so I didn’t end up posting very often about my month-long project of focusing more intensely on the Five Precepts. To be honest, I wasn’t as active in examining some of the precepts as I had intended to be either. My practice turned out to be a little more focused on some stuff that I had going on in my personal life, so some of the energy that I had originally planned to spend on this project got somewhat diverted. That being said, I did want to do a wrap-up on the project, and what I will be taking away from the experience.

First Precept

The First Precept is focused on abstaining from killing, and I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle as a part of my work with this precept. There were some accidental lapses in this effort early in the month, but I managed to be more consistent after the first week or so. I found that taking this step felt really good. I experienced a lot of joy in knowing that I was eating in a way that caused less suffering and did less damage to our planet than I have at various points in my life. In regard to my practice, I can say that adhering to this commitment generated more mindfulness about the choices that I made in regard to my diet. I intend to continue to eat in a similar way, but have decided to ditch the label of vegan. I haven’t felt that it was useful to build this layer of identity on my food and other purchasing choices. I will eat a plant based diet and prioritize purchasing goods that involve as little suffering as possible, but I don’t think I need the vegan label.

Second Precept

This was one of the Precepts that didn’t get as much focus as I had planned on. I did spend some time working with it, especially in regard to thinking of less obvious ways that we take what isn’t freely given in our everyday life. I found that I could include diet in this Precept as well, as it seems pretty clear that animals are not freely giving us milk, cheese, honey, etc. I also considered the fact that there are several ways that sexuality can be tied into this Precept. The #metoo movement demonstrated the long history in our culture of women having their agency, dignity, and emotional and physical safety taken by men.

Although I spent a little time working with this one, I feel like I would like to continue to dig deeper.

Third Precept

The Precept involving sexual misconduct was another one that didn’t get as much attention as I had planned. Other than thinking about how this also tied into the Second Precept, I didn’t really make it much further than I had in my original post about it. This is definitely one that I feel needs to be explored by all of us, given what has been going on in the world. I plan to spend more time working with this Precept as well.

Fourth Precept

The tough one – abstaining from false and malicious speech. This one was a bit of a mixed bag. I did actually spend some time working with this Precept throughout the month. It’s a difficult one to undertake, but is also one of the most accessible, due to the fact that we all speak quite a bit everyday.

Over the last month, I’ve observed how much I talk about other people. I haven’t ever really considered myself to be a gossip or someone who talks about other people behind their back, but in watching my speech more closely, I noticed that I do actually talk about others quite a bit. Sometimes it’s joining in a conversation about someone, and sometimes I initiate it. This is especially problematic in cases where it involves people I work with. I manage a team of people, and I realized that even off-handed comments about my staff can be damaging. I am beginning to more often take a moment before speaking to examine whether what I am about to say is appropriate, but I know this will be a longterm project.

Fifth Precept

I probably spent more time working with the Fifth Precept than any other. This Precept involves abstaining from intoxicants. From a surface perspective, I did not drink or use marijuana during the last month. This was actually a powerful experience, especially as I was dealing with some difficult emotions. I found that removing the option to numb myself with substances greatly impacted how present I was with my emotions. Additionally, I slept better and felt more clear headed, which made my morning meditation a much more focused experience.

I also explored the idea of using my meditation practice as an intoxicant, and practiced mindfulness in this area. I also recognized early on that I can often use technology as an intoxicant by spending hours watching Netflix or playing video games, as well as by allowing myself to get sucked into mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. I actually found staying away from alcohol to be far easier than remaining mindful with my social media use.

I have decided that I intend to keep my use of alcohol and marijuana to a minimum moving forward, although I am not completely eliminating them at this point. I plan to only drink when I am with other people, and to limit myself to one or two drinks in those situations. I want to keep a close eye on this, however, to see how this fits on me. If even small amounts of drinking are going to inhibit my practice, I don’t find that a worthwhile trade.


I don’t consider the end of this project to really be an end at all. I plan to continue to explore and practice with all five of the Precepts, but in a more organic way. I feel like this project was a good way for me to launch a more serious practice in this area, and I can honestly say that I experienced a great deal of insight over the last month. I look forward to continuing to follow this path and seeing where it leads.

Mindfulness Moment: Sullivan Lake

sullivan lake still waters
The tranquil waters of Sullivan Lake

This spring I spent a weekend camping at Sullivan Lake, a beautiful and peaceful spot about two hours drive from Spokane, WA. I set out on the trip with the intention to practice mindfulness throughout the trip. This effort was aided by the fact that I would be spending 3+ days without any cell phone coverage.

I had been spending my time on the cushion practicing the Anapanasati Sutta around that time, and had been specifically focusing on impermanence. Every morning during my ad hoc self retreat, I would go down to the lake and sit on the beach and meditate before the other campers were stirring. The wind had been blowing pretty hard most of the first couple of days, but I was delighted to discover that all was calm when I went to sit on the third day. I generally meditate with my eyes closed, but I had decided to practice that day with my eyes open, incorporating vision into my field of awareness. After a while, I felt a slight breeze blowing across the hair on my arms and legs. Shortly thereafter I saw slight ripples disturbing the surface, traveling from one side of the lake to the other, and then the water gradually subsiding back into it’s previous serenity.

Still morning waters
Hills reflect on the surface
Ripple with movement

My Sullivan Lake Haiku

As I sat taking in this scene, I realized that my mind was similar to this lake. I have within me a stillness that I hadn’t recognized until about a year ago, when I was constantly being helplessly blown about by various thoughts, desires, and aversions. In my practice, I have found moments of stillness, but I still experience the winds blowing across my surface. These winds arise and they pass, and as they do I am more often able to observe them mindfully. I am by no means free of their push and pull, but I have seen the stillness and know that it is there.

Using Meditation as a Drug

I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.

As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.

meditating by a lake
Photo freely given by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.

In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.

Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.

Beginning Again

For the last year or so I have been trying to start and end each day with a little journaling. Consistency in this endeavor has been spotty, but I do the best I can. As a part of this habit, I have a gratitude list that I write in the morning. Most mornings I start with a simple phrase that has become a bit of a mantra for me; “Beginning again.”

I first started incorporating this phrase into my life shortly after I began meditating. I noticed that several of the people who I was reading would describe the basic meditation practice as some variation of, “Sit with your back straight, focus on the feel of your breath going in and out, then notice whenever you get distracted, gently return your attention to your breath, and begin again.” The idea that I could begin again at any moment was so at odds with the way that I was raised, and I found the concept liberating in a way that I hadn’t expected.

begin coffee mug
Photo freely given by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

It is not uncommon to hear about “Catholic guilt,” but the guilt of those of us who grew up as Evangelical Christians hasn’t gotten as much press. I learned early on that I was a sinner, and that every sin that I committed was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. That’s a lot for a kid to deal with, and as I went through life, I accumulated a collection of sins that weighed on me like an anchor. The guilt really got out of control around puberty, as I discovered a minefield of sexuality that had me spending countless wakeful nights lamenting the lustful thoughts that I had experienced during the day, fearful that I couldn’t be forgiven for such persistent sin.

I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t have a voice in my head that loudly and constantly told me I was a horrible person. I know the voice was there by the time I was 12 or so, because I can remember specific incidents where I would cuss out the kid down the street or lie to my parents, and would spend hours thinking about what a bad person I was, and that I was probably going to hell. As I grew older, the voice only got louder, and had begun to berate me for various other inadequacies, and not just my sins. I felt hopelessly caught in a loop of the same mistakes, and I had begun to genuinely hate myself.

We all have this type of voice in our head, although the contents and severity of this inner critic varies from person to person. This voice will tell us that we aren’t good enough, or that we are a fuck-up. It might compare what we have to what someone else has, or cast judgmental aspersions on someone we pass on the street. The thing is, we are not our thoughts.

you are not your thoughts
Bad photo by Ben 😉

I was thoroughly convinced throughout my whole life that this voice in my head was me, stating the facts about who I was. The very first lesson that I learned from my meditation practice was that those thoughts aren’t me. They are just thoughts, and I can notice when they are arising, watch them float by, and begin again. Not only that, I can apply the same practice off of the cushion. For instance, as a part of my 31 Day Precept Project, I have committed to eating a vegan diet. Somehow, when I ordered a butterscotch latte at the coffee shop yesterday (with oat milk, by the way,) it didn’t occur to me that butterscotch was not vegan. It has BUTTER in the name for crying out loud! In the old days, I would have beat myself up for failing in my quest for dietary perfection. Instead, I accepted that it was an honest mistake, and that this is only my fifth day of veganism, and today I can begin again.

In my practice it can be easy for me to get caught up in “succeeding” at meditating. I have days where my concentration isn’t what I would like it to be, or when I can’t shake a feeling of grogginess, and I can have moments of frustration with my perceived lack of progress. At times where I am more mindful, I observe that frustration arise and watch it pass away, and then I thankfully remind myself that I can always return to my breath and begin again.

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