Tag Archives: thoughts

I Can’t Meditate, It Doesn’t Work for Me

“I can’t meditate, it doesn’t work for me,” is a phrase I’ve heard so many times in the past 10 years. Not wishing to be impolite, I don’t push back on this, but I do wonder, “What part of meditation is broken?”

One possibility is sitting still. That can be hard for some of us (me!) to accept, at least, at first. But there is an easy solution: notice when you get antsy and stop. Who said 90 seconds of meditation ‘doesn’t count’? (I don’t think we give prizes to the person who sits the longest.) Anyway, once you can sit quietly for 90 seconds without feeling that you’re being punished, add another 90. Sit for 3 minutes.

Then there’s the Mind Game.  Continue reading

This Troublesome Mind of Mine

It seems one cannot meditate without confronting one’s mind, thoughts, and experience. This may be sad news for some. Once, after asking visitors to my beginning meditation class to share what they hoped to get out meditation, one young woman looked away from all of us, and said in a low, urgent voice, “I want to stop thinking!

I suspect that few of us would want to enter a thought-free state for all time, but the notion that meditation might offer a temporary refuge from thought, or at least, certain types of thought, is certainly appealing. So, naturally, we tell ourselves stories about how meditation will accomplish this for us: how sitting still, being quiet, and following the breath, will create a zone of mental peace and quiet.

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Clear away the clouds

“The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” by Haemin Sunim has been a best-selling book in South Korea since it appeared in 2012 (41 weeks atop the best-sellers list, 3 million copies sold in 3 years). It has now appeared in an English translation by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin, 2017).

Here’s some advice from the book, Chapter 2 – Mindfulness (When You Are Feeling Low):

If you wish to clear away the clouds of your thoughts,
simply keep your mind in the present.

The clouds of thought linger only in the
past or the future.
Bring your mind to the present,
and your thoughts will rest.

Rather than repeating,
“It is awful! It is awful!”
stare straight into the awful feeling.


Examine the feeling.
Can you see its impermanent nature?
Let the feeling leave when it says it wants to go.

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There Are No Stupid Questions

I’m “coming out” today. Here’s what I want you to know about me,

  1. I meditate regularly. Often alone. Often with others.
  2. I think a lot about meditation, especially while I’m meditating.
  3. I nap during meditation sometimes. I haven’t found an answer to this “problem” except to stop treating it as a problem.
  4. Meditation feels special, but I try not to fool myself into thinking that it makes me special.
  5. I tend not to talk about my meditation practice (#1) or what it’s like (#2-4), even though its an extremely interesting topic to me and I think I’d be happy to share.

I had a lot of questions about meditation when I first started. Some have been answered. Others persist. If unanswered questions are keeping you from trying, or being satisfied with, meditation, send them my way. Start out, “Hi Alan,” and then follow wherever your fingers take you. alan@reed.edu

STOP-ping Power

I’m looking out the window at the busy street that runs in front of my house. It has been covered by snow for the past 48 hours, but now it’s melting and traffic has picked up. A smart driver knows, however, that a small ice patch could be lurking anywhere so it’s important not to follow the driver in front too closely. Your car may lose its “stopping power” if it skids on that patch of ice.

Following an upsetting conversation, or an email thread, or a news feed, too closely presents some of the same problems. Instead of leaving some space around these provocative stimuli, I attend to them closely, vigilant, ready to take offense, already constructing the words that will win a debate or cut an opponent down to size. And then I have my say and craashh! What happened to my “stopping power”?

Meditation is a practice of learning to make space and give ourselves more stopping power. In fact, the word STOP also serves as a handy acronym for a basic meditation practice. Read what Dr. Elisha Goldstein has to say about it here (Mindful.org), and listen to this online lesson. Increasing our stopping power can save us all kinds of heartache.

Silent Illumination – The Method of No-Method

‘Silent illumination’ is a meditation practice from the Zen school of meditation.* The practice is described in ways that often sound impossible and contradictory to the Western ear: just sit, the method of no-method, and so on. So how does one attempt to do something that is ‘not doing’?

Lion’s Roar has published an eminently practical description of silent illumination from Master Sheng-yen [1930-2009], the founder of Dharma Drum Retreat Center (“There is No ‘I’ Who is Sitting,” 1 Sept. 2003). Some bits and pieces from his teaching:

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The Science of Meditation

The Shambhala Mountain Center is convening top researchers and meditation teachers this week (Oct. 19-23) for a free, online summit on The Science of Meditation. Follow the link to learn more and register. Remember, it’s online and free!

Update: I just registered (takes 2 sec) and learned that some (maybe all?) of the materials will be available after the ‘live’ sessions so you don’t have to worry about being in the right time zone, or work-summit conflicts.

Creating Space with Stable Awareness

We all know the phrase, “lost in thought.” Expressed this way “thought” sounds like a place we visit, and a place we might leave whenever we choose. But how do we do that? What bus or train can take us away from our thoughts?

One answer might seem counterintuitive: pay attention to your thoughts. According to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (“The Aim of Attention,” Tricycle, Summer 2009), when you pay attention, that is, you become aware of your thoughts as thoughts, space naturally opens up around them and you are no longer “lost” inside them.

Awareness comes naturally to you. It is always available. By practicing attention meditation, sitting still and doing nothing more than just paying attention to the rising and falling of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, you learn to access awareness more easily and bring stability to your awareness. As you do this, the space around your thoughts will increase and stabilize as well.

Facing imperfection

It’s hard to go through a full day without wishing for something. A sample: I often wish that my body was more fit, healthy, that my mind was a kinder, more stable companion, and that I might find something entertaining or meaningful to fill my time. Even when I stop to meditate, I am not above hoping that something great will happen: I will become calm, maybe I’ll bliss out.

Wishing isn’t a bad thing, but it would be sad if we accepted it as the complete story of our life. Meditation offers a chance to step out of the wishing story. By sitting still and paying attention, we can discover that most of our storytelling (“I’m sick, unhappy, bored, … so I wish …”) is just a story, a passing cloud in our mental atmosphere, and that there are aspects of our seemingly imperfect lives that, in fact, are perfect and gratifying just as they are.  Kevin Kling’s beautiful fable of The Cracked Pot (On Being, 19 May 2016) shows how it is possible to appreciate life by looking at it from a new perspective:

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Independence Day

On this day in 1776 our ancestors declared their independence from the King of England. Beginning meditators often tell me that they are seeking a similar kind of independence from obsessive, habitual, and distracting thoughts. Their desire to be ‘thought-free’ is widely shared. Read what a long-time meditation teacher and author, Martine Batchelor, has to say about ‘freedom from thought’:
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