The Simple Truth Of Meditation Practice

I find that many people are turned off from integrating meditation in their daily lives because they are confused about what meditation is. They see meditation as having to do with things like gurus, spiritual attitudes, right versus wrong ways of living. There seems to be this idea that to be a meditator you almost have to be a religious like person firm in your beliefs. But this is not the case at all. Many great meditation teachers have been just, if not more, troubled as you and I.

Meditation in its most fundamental form has zero to do with any belief system. If a person wants to take it in that direction, nothing wrong with that. But meditation is fundamentally about relaxing the mind. Taking a certain amount of time each day to rest the mind by paying attention to what is actually happening in the PRESENT MOMENT rather than being all tangled up in JUDGMENTS or thoughts about the FUTURE and PAST. Meditation is a practice of just letting things go and becoming silent, for a little while.

It is my belief that most psychological issues that we deal with are the result of a tired mind. In the same way that if you were to over use any muscle it would begin to give you discomfort and pain, the brain is the same way. If we over use our brains with too much thinking and doing, how can we expect to not suffer psychologically as the years go by? It is not logical to think that one can remain mentally healthy and constantly refuse to rest their brain.

So, this is all meditation really is.  No need for gurus and spiritual or religious belief systems, if one chooses not to engage in that way. Meditation can be just a practice of resting the brain in the present moment. Letting the brain just be. And unlike religious or even spiritual systems, when a person regularly engages in this type of meditation, they need no proof as to its positive benefit.

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Bizarro Land: What It Means To Be Authentic

“To be authentic, one must be will to show their contradictions.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and what it means to be authentic in everyday life.

The general definition of authentic is of undisputed origin; genuine. When applying this term to a person, I understand it to mean a person who is clear or transparent about where they are coming from, true to how they are thinking and feeling in the moment. A person who is honest about their contradictions.

In my psychotherapy practice the struggle to be authentic in relationships and at work is one of the topics that comes up most in my work with people. I work with many younger people who are resisting entering the workplace because they do not want to give up their authenticity.

It is my opinion that we are currently living in a culture which advocates for non-authenticity. We are expected to play a part, to not be authentic. If we are authentic, we worry about the harsh consequences that will occur. So many of our daily interactions seem to be built upon this unspoken expectation to not be authentic. If we are, we fear we will be harshly judged and even discarded. So, we hide who we really are and play along.

For whatever reason, authenticity has always been important to me. Maybe it is the residual effect of my more youthful punk rock values. I don’t like or respect myself if I am not being authentic and having respect for myself always trumps other people respecting me. At the end of the day I have to still live with me and if I am not practicing transparency in my life it is hard for me to like who I am. But still, it is often very challenging and even frightening to be authentic. Why? I have some ideas.

We all want to do what is right. We all want to be seen as being right and making the right decisions. We live in a culture that supports this idea that we should always do the right thing and be striving for perfection all the time. But the problem with this ideal is that it is impossible to achieve.

No one is consistent all the time. If there is a person out there who always makes the right decisions, always does the right thing, never messes up, is always on time and always says the right things and who has no contradictions- well then, good for them. But I doubt this person exists.

It is very difficult to be consistent all the time, in everything we do. There are often two parts to our brains; one part that always wants to do what is right for us (exercise, meditate, be kind, be honest, eat well, be organized, be on time) and another part of our brains that wants to do what is wrong for us (eat unhealthy, sleep too much, not do anything productive, skip exercising, skip meditating, watch mindless television shows, procrastinate, avoid and on and on).

It is very difficult for anyone to be as consistent as they want to be all the time. We often give into what is not best for us because of how we feel emotionally or physically. If we feel good it is easier to do what is right for us. But if we are not feeling well emotionally or physically it is much easier to neglect brushing our teeth or skip exercising.

The truth is that most likely everyone deals with an inability to be consistent. No one really discusses their contradictions, so this often goes unnoticed in our culture. But we all struggle to do what is right and best all the time. We all contradict ourselves much of the time, but yet we prefer to not talk about it.

Appearing to be this good and perfect person who has it all together is a false narrative that we have created as a society. This false narrative creates a constant and intense pressure in people to be always seen as perfect and doing the right thing. Especially in business. Authenticity is what gets lost as a result.

It seems difficult for people to admit their imperfections or contradictions out in public, since this stuff is not accepted by most. As a result people pretend, or play the role of having no contradictions within them. “I am not like that,” people often believe and as a result harshly judge those whose imperfections and contradictions show through. It is much easier to judge and discard others for their contradictions than it is to be transparent and authentic about our own.

Someone I know once called this “Bizarro Land.” A place where the norm has become everyone living their everyday lives where everything is seen as being great and perfect. A world where when a person’s imperfections show up they are harshly judged and even dropped. The problem with Bizarro Land is that it creates these standards of who you need to be that are so high, that we spend our entire lives (or at least until retirment) trying to achieve them. As a result we surrender our ability to feel authentic in our lives, because we are afraid of being seen as the contradictory person we really are.

Continual FEAR

Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us these days tend to live in a continual state of fear. Fear seems to be what is operating our mental and physical vehicles, determining the ways we live our lives. Some amount of fear can be a positive thing in terms of survival and motivation but too much fear makes life one long anxiety drag.

There is a long list of fears we deal with daily. Fear of being negatively judged by others, fear of not being able to sustain what we have, fear of being found out as the person we really are, fear of being discredited, fear of not being able to remain safe and secure in a world that seems to be growing more and more insecure. And then there are the fears of our own mortality, fear of illness, fear of growing old, fear of being hurt by others, fear of being the victim of a random act of violence and on and on. With all of these continual fears going on within us, it is a wonder that many of us still seem to be holding it together.

We tend to cope with our continual fear with our smartphones, eating, booze, working, inflating our egos, drugs, various forms of entertainment, ideological belief systems, shopping and more eating. But the fear always seems to be there just under the surface. We wake up with it at 3am, it finds us mid-way through the day when things slow down. We are good sometimes at hiding from the continual fear, but it never goes away.

Living a life from a place of fear is no fun at all. It is similar to being a prisoner on the run. An unpleasant way to live the one, impermanent life we currently have. So what can we do? Is there any possible way to be free of this continual fear?

Human beings are troubled and struggling in one shape or form. To struggle and be troubled by daily existence is as human as breathing. No one on this planet suffers from perfection, even if they are really good at pretending like they do. But we do not have to be troubled and struggle to the point where we are kept up at night by our worries or we are living life as a prisoner on the run.

Our brains are plastic and our nervous systems are always open to new possibilities of learning. What this means is that we are able to change things for the better if we put in the effort. Most people tend not to like this part because the effort is not easy, and will instead reach for their smartphones or something to eat. I am guilty of this myself. But we do not have to remain confined in the same way of being, day after day.

If we do want to change things within ourselves (not suffer as much) we need to learn to inhibit our old, more destructive patterns by opening up a space between our tendency to react in the same old ways to various stimuli and the potential to do something new. Opening a space is what helps us to interrupt our old and habitual reactive patterns and respond in a new way, thus tapping into our brains plasticity (ability to respond to life differently) and our nervous systems ability to learn new ways of being.

Despite continual fear being a main staple in contemporary life, mindfulness does give us the ability to be aware of when fear has taken over, when fear is running our life and then rather than reacting to this fear in the same old way (which can snowball into complete misery), opening a space within which you can acknowledge the fear and then let the fear move through (which it will do if you let it).

Without the ability to open a space, fear has no place to go, gets blocked up and remains continual fear.

Throwing Out My Smartphone

I will try not to be too self-revealing here, but it is hard when writing. For me, this is the point of writing- to reveal the self that wants to stay hidden for fear of judgement. Writing for me is a way of getting beyond this fear and living a more authentic life.

So, here I go…..

I want to throw away my smartphone. I realize that most would think that doing something like this is nuts or reactionary, but I am beginning to feel like it would be an act of sanity.

Deep down I am starting to feel like this smartphone craze is not good for anyone, but who am I to say?

I realize that having a smartphone makes communicating with people who are not in my immediate proximity easier. I can do business without having to talk to a person on the phone. I can stay connected with family members that I don’t really want to talk with. I can be updated with the various things going on in the world. I can listen to whatever music I want at the push of a button.

There are certainly many conveniences of a smartphone, but there are also many conveniences of a microwave (both of which, and there is much literature online about this, can cause cancer). Doesn’t mean it’s good because it is convenient. My brain just can’t buy into the idea that convenience equals good.

Smartphones take up large chunks of our lives that could be spent doing much more meaningful things. For example, people spend much more time locked away in their bathrooms, on the toilet while also on their smartphones. I don’t think there are any studies on this but I am certain that the vast majority of people these days are spending much more time on a toilet than ever before. Toilet time has become scrolling and texting time. This destroys the Zen idea of doing one thing at a time and keeping a strong and mindful focus on the thing being doing.

Smartphones turn people into habitual multitaskers. Multitasking just means not doing anything well. When our minds are scattered because of all the various things that we need to check or attend to on our smartphones, we lose the ability to be able to do one thing well. We also lose the ability to tend to our lives in the present moment.

I used to be a prolific reader of mainly novels and philosophy texts. I could get through a three-hundred-page book in about a week and get a lot out of that book. Now I feel like it is a continual struggle. My attention is interrupted every ten minutes by this ominous pull to check my smartphone. This makes it harder for me to keep my attention on what I am reading. And reading with no attention is like running with no legs- it just ain’t much fun. So, I don’t finish as many books these days and I am just not comfortable with this.

The idea of trading substance (which, is what I feel like I am cultivating when I read, meditate, draw, write, listen to records, talk with people, etc.…) for the things that I am doing on my smartphone just does not feel like a wise choice. It is a kind of Faustian bargain. As fun as social media may be, all it is doing is turning us into a collective hive that channels or funnels information in the form of updates, tweets, “likes,” “re-posts,” and on and on. We are not doing anything of real substance. I suppose this is why it is appealing- it’s easy and requires very little effort. But it also makes us just like everyone else.

I understand that my smartphone has a very practical use but I find it difficult to keep the practical and the other superficial stuff separate. It is like a drunk hanging out at a bar and only having one beer. Eventually he or she will be drunk again.

It takes a superhero like quality these days to keep oneself from getting completely sucked into their smartphone. They may start out with the idea of using it in a disciplined way, but before long they are on it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They are sitting with friends and loved ones while on their smartphone. They are not cooking or exercising or meditating or reading as much anymore because they are on their smartphone. They are late to work or appointments because they are on their smartphone. Doing what? It’s mostly fluff. It’s mostly time spent doing nothing of value at all (except perpetuating the hive mind). Even the conversations we have with others through text are devoid of real meaning or substance.

Smartphones are really the greatest distraction humanity has ever seen. It is distraction in its purest from. And we all know how addictive pure distraction can be. Especially when it is in the palm of your hand.

I don’t want to live a shallow life, devoid of any real attention. It does not feel good. I want to do the things that mean something to me and not spend valuable time doing things that do not matter to me but doing them anyways because I can’t interrupt the ominous pull to check my smartphone. I am concerned for those in their twenties and early thirties who are on their smartphone, most of the time. Will they be fifty and look book at their youth and think, “What did I do? I failed to live my youth!” Similar to how a person may now feel who spent most of the 1980’s in front of a TV.

I want to throw out my smartphone. I really don’t want it around anymore. I managed to get rid of my television and that freed up a lot of time to do things that have more substance. It helped to return my attention span to a state of normalcy. But now I have this smartphone to contend with. If I get rid of it, I must return to talking with people on the phone and taking ten minutes to write a three-sentence text.

Seems worth it though. In exchange, I feel like I will get back quality time (and attention) that I cannot help but feel this smartphone is stealing from me.

“Watch Your Judgments!”

I was sitting next to my meditation teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center one cold and rainy Monday night. His classes were often not that crowded, which was one reason I went to them. I would go to his meditations and talks once or twice a week to practice and study formal Zazen meditation. Everything was silent and calm. I could hear the rain coming down outside. And then he farted. Some people laughed. I noticed a feeling of revulsion and disgust arise in me for a moment, but then I let it go.

Often during his meditations, the teacher would yell out, “Watch your judgments!” “Watch your judgments!” Other times he would do things with the intention of creating strong judgments in us. He would make annoying noises by tapping the wood floor with various objects. He would yell out various things like, “Watch the breath!” or “Watch your mind!” He would even say things like, “Isn’t this boring?”

Some people found his teaching style too offensive and/or bothersome. Sometimes during his talks he would talk about offensive things. He swore a lot and he would sometimes drink whiskey during his classes. He continually pointed out that the more a person attached to judgments, the crazier they became. His teaching style was based in provoking strong judgments in his students, so that we could learn to not be as attached to all the judgments that came into our minds.

I found his teaching style helpful in dealing with my own judgmental mind. I also found him to be very entertaining, poetic and authentic in a world where people often hide behind masks.

The definition of mindfulness that I like is, “The awareness that arises, when we pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” By non-judgmentally, what is meant is not that we do not judge. The brain is a judging machine and judges all the time. To not judge is almost impossible for humans. By non-judgment what is meant is that we are aware of when we are judging. This makes a huge difference because when we are aware that we are judging we are not as defined by our judgments.

Why would we not want to be defined by our judgments? Because like my meditation teacher said, judgments make us crazy. Most of the judgments that we attach to during the day are negative and distorted perceptions of reality. When we judge we are only causing ourselves to become negative people. We end up separating ourselves from things and people as they are, and this often leads to a very unhappy, fearful and rigidified way of living.

When we can be aware of our judgments, but not be as defined or rigidified by them, we have a greater opportunity to live a freer, more mindful life because we are better able experience and accept things as they are.

What my meditation teacher meant by crazy, was living a life that was not able to be aware of and accepting of what is (this is similar to the idea of suffering, which is also the inability to accept reality as it is).

Whether it was him farting, yelling things out during meditations, drinking booze, talking about his love life or making annoying sounds during meditation- my meditation teacher’s instructions on learning how to watch judgments, rather than be defined by them, has been one of the most important teachings and practices I have come across in my life.

And I suppose I am a little less crazy as a result.

“Why Do You Do What You Do?”

It is a question that I do not ask myself enough, but the life coach I have been working with asks me this question often. She believes that if the answer to this question does not involve joy, pleasure or something similar, what you do is what is causing your unhappiness, lack of purpose, depression, anxiety, etc.

In America, I would say that the vast majority of people do what they do because they have to make a living. They are following someone else’s script of what success means and doing what most others are doing around them without any meaningful connection to why they do what they do.

We are not really taught how to follow our own intuition. Instead we are taught how to follow a path of success developed by others. But we often end up sacrificing what we really love to do.

Burnout is a condition that many working people suffer from. Burnout (and not addressing burnout) is responsible for so many illnesses. What many who are dealing with the stress of burnout forget is that instead of valuing people who can do a lot, it is important to encourage the valuing of people who are able to balance their lives. When there is a mismatch between effort and reward, one’s energy is what gets drained.

“Why do you do what you do?”

Is your behavior driven by joy or by obtaining a goal? Keep in mind that joy is exists in the pursuit much more than it does in the realization of the goal.

Through my work with a life coach (I often try and engage in work with a mental health professional of some sort, because it is important for me to stay on top of my own personal growth and well-being or else I will not) I have been made aware of some things which are easy to forget.

For example, ego-involvement versus task-involvement. Ego-involvement is when a person’s feelings of self-worth become hinged on their performance such that they do the activity to prove to themselves that they are good at the activity and thus worthy as individuals.

Task–involvement is when people are more involved with the task itself than with its own implications for a person’s feelings of worth.

This distinction is also related to the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is focused on outcomes that are separable from the activity (making money, status, recognition). Intrinsic motivation is self-determined activity; that is to say, that people engage in the activities freely, because it is already interesting and enjoyable for them.

It is extrinsic motivation that burns out one’s life, thus leading to the condition of burnout.

To get to a healthier place in our lives where we feel better and live with less stress, anxiety and depression it is important that (among other things) we find a way to make the shift from ego-involvement to task-involvement. Thus, regaining our intrinsic motivation.

As yourself that classical psychological question, “Why do you do what you do?” Then listen to the answer.

The Weight Of Obligations

At the end of a day working as a psychotherapist, I can’t help but wonder if unwanted obligations are not the main cause of so many physical and mental illnesses. On a typical day I will see between six and eight clients, most of whom have lives that are filled with things they have to attend to, but do not really want to do.

In America we tend to see this as the normal way life is. It is as natural as the sun coming up in the morning. We have all these obligations to tend to, things that we do not really want to do, but we do them anyways because in a sense we must.

For most Americans, work tends to be one of the main obligations that people would rather not spend their time tending to if they did not have to. Afterall, the definition of happiness is doing exactly what you want to be doing.

But as Americans we have been taught to remedy the unhappiness of doing what we have to do but do not really want to do by buying things. In fact, the more we are able to buy, the nicer the things we own, the more successful we are seen as being.

But I am not so sure that buying things really brings lasting happiness. Yesterday, I bought a really nice table my wife and I have wanted for some time. A few hours later we were arguing about a problem we have been having with one of our dogs. I couldn’t help but note that the happiness from buying the expensive table did not last long.

I realize that in America we see everyone working hard and then buying their way up the status ladder with the money they have earned. This is just what we do, it is how we have been taught to live and we don’t really question it, except maybe when we are in a hospital bed.

I wish that the things we bought from the money earned doing things we do not really want to be doing but are pretending like we really like doing, brought long-lasting happiness. I really do. But the truth is that this way of achieving happiness is like stacking more stuff in a garage that is already over-filled. You buy a car or a house and a dog or have a few kids and then you just have to spend more of your time doing things that you do not really want to be doing with your limited time.

Now that I own a home and have dogs and some nice things, I have to spend a lot of my time engaged in home care and dog care and organizing and paying for all the things I own. The time I spend doing the things I really want to be doing has grown exponentially shorter. If I complain about this, I feel guilty because I feel like I should be grateful for what I have. I remember having very little and I should be happy that I finally have a nice and comfortable lifestyle. But I sure spent a lot more time doing the things I liked to do when I was poor.

This is what I call a middle-class syndrome. Middle-class because day after day in my work as a psychotherapist I see people dealing with the anxiety, depression, chronic worry and stress that are symptoms of this particular syndrome.

Because happiness is having the ability to do whatever the hell it is you really want to do (and not just on the weekends), I often tell my clients that they must find balance.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of economic life in America that most people will have to work jobs that are not the ideal way that they would like to be spending their time. They will also have to do a lot of things outside their jobs that are not the ideal way they would like to be spending their time. It is just how we have set up economic life in America.

If a person goes an entire day without spending some time doing exactly what they want to be doing, this is a recipe for misery.

Everyday a person needs to try and take the power back by committing themselves to doing exactly what they want to do- even if it is on a lunch break. For me it is reading, writing, making art, meditating and listening to music. If I do not do a few of these things everyday, I will feel despair. If I neglect these things for too many days I will just start to feel like a hopeless robot going through the motions with no real purpose or interest driving my life.

If we want a shot at feeling good we must make the effort to balance out our daily lives by doing things that we want to do (and not just when we get in bed at the end of a day with a book). If this is for too long neglected the anger, stress and depression that we feel will manifest in a physical and/or mental illness.

I am not sure that there are too many people who get to do exactly what they want to do all the time. I am sure that even Donald Trump would rather not put on a suit somedays. Life in the current late-capitalist American economic system that we are living in, means spending a large majority of our time obligated to things that we do not really want to be doing.

Like I said, most see this as normal and do what they must without thinking much about it. This is what the powers system wants, a non-questioning, submissive, automaton.

But we are human beings and I believe that the point of being alive is to be able to enjoy your life as much as possible; to be able to do exactly what you want to do most of the time. I believe that we were designed to live this way and nothing we purchase is worth its exchange. It is just the current system that we are all living within that has messed this up by encouraging us to turn our lives into a never ending series of weighted obligations.

If you really want to do the things that you want to be doing in your everyday life, you are going to have to really try. Because after all, the person easiest to neglect is yourself.