Mindfulness Matters

IMG_4321I was recently in Southern California and saw this message plastered on a car. I thought to myself, “this is not the best metaphor.” I didn’t realize at the time that it is a quote from the Bible.

Now that I know its ecclesiastical credibility, I still don’t think it is the best metaphor.

We can think of metaphors broadly as the process of understanding one thing in terms of another. The other thing is more familiar and creates associated commonplaces between the known and the less known, unknown, or something we wish to know more deeply.

In this Biblical metaphor, the associated commonplace is the furtiveness of both thieves and salvation, a kind of criminal soteriology, if you will.

Metaphors both highlight and hide different aspects of experience. A good metaphor will illuminate things that had not been considered before or create new possibilities or a sense of connection.

I once heard a metaphor that compassion was like lotion for the heart. Yuck! While this image (really a simile) conveys the sense that compassion is soothing, the image is disgusting. It just doesn’t work for me because lotion does not belong in or on our internal organs.

Cover_108MetaphorsAs the title suggests, my book 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness is a compendium of classical and contemporary metaphors for understanding mind, self, our quirkiness, acceptance, and practicing mindfulness. It was recently re-released from Wisdom Publications.

These metaphors range from complex images and stories to simple comparisons. One of my favorites is the DVD commentary, a metaphor that was very au currant in 2007 when I wrote this book but getting a bit dated now with the popularity of streaming media.

If you still watch DVDs and watch the “director’s commentary” that mode is very much like how we conduct our mental lives. The “movie” of our life is there in the background and we talk over it, rendering opinion after opinion, meanwhile missing out on the richness of the movie.

The entirety of our lives is a metaphoric process as we are always understanding one thing in terms of another. In fact, this is the way that our brains work. We never experience something completely new and always from what we have already learned, experienced, and remembered.

The key is to keep our categories flexible, not being so beholden to what we already think we know and opening to the possibilities of each moment. Look for a new metaphor today as you move about the world. Write and tell me what you discover!





Brittany Wong, Divorce editor at the Huffington Post recently asked me about mixed introvert and extrovert couples. You can read her interesting article here.

If you are an introvert in relationship with an extrovert or an extrovert in partnership with an introvert, there is no need to despair. There are ways that you can make your differences work for you to enrich your lives.

Of course, mindfulness can be a helpful adjunct.

Here are some more of my thoughts on the topic:

  • Avoid blame: No one is right, no one is wrong.

Introversion and extroversion are basic personality traits. They are integral to the way that we inhabit the world. If your partner is a strong extrovert and you are a strong introvert (or vice versa) it’s easy to get caught up in blaming, ridiculing, and deriding your partner because her or she is not like you. Your partner is not this way to annoy you. Understanding that two people can be very different can empower you to appreciate the other rather than seeing him or her as trying to frustrate you

  • Educate: Don’t Fall into the trap of mind reading.

Even when you recognize that your partner’s differences are legitimate, it is often still necessary to educate him or her on what it means to be an introvert or extrovert for you. Your unique needs. Your way of seeing things. Your way of feeling, especially for introverts when it comes to social activities, stimulation, and quiet time. Your partner can’t know what these needs are unless you tell them. While it may be perfectly apparent, it’s not transparent until you make it so.

  • Negotiate: You can’t get your needs met 100 percent of the time.

Being with an introvert/extrovert opposite can enrich your life. Extroverts draw out introverts and open them to new adventures. Introverts bring a measure of calm, quiet, steadiness to a relationship with an appreciation of interior things like thoughts, feelings, and creativity. Even with this enrichment, there will be times when you can’t meet each other’s expectations. Here, you negotiate. To get the best deal, you’ve got to know what your needs are, which as we saw, also helps with education. For introverts in particular, when you overextend your energy to meet high demand social situations, you’ll need to negotiate recovery time. “I’ll go to that office party with you but then I am not leaving the house for the next two days …”

  • Meditate together

Mindfulness meditation practice can provide a common ground of quiet, introspection, and peace that both introverts and extroverts need in the hectic, loud, fast-pace of life. Doing something together—especially learning something together—is a great way for couples with different personalities to connect. In addition to slowing things down and having some respite in your days, the benefits of the practice can help you to be better listeners and to know yourselves better.

IMG_4195I awoke at 4:30 this morning to darkness and silence. The dogs reluctantly got up too, although they would have preferred to sleep in. My journey over the next seven hours would not include them and they would quickly re-establish themselves in deep sleep on the couch.

At 5:00 after coffee, I began meditating. My intention was to sit seven 45-minute periods separated by 15-minute intervals for qigong, yoga, and feeding all the animals, including myself. This is what I did this morning.

Following this mini-intensive, I continued to practice in “real life,” taking the dogs for a walk in the woods, mowing the lawn, eating lunch, vacuuming, and doing laundry. Throughout these activities, I tried to keep my attention fully with the activity, not letting my storytelling mind carry me away. After seven hours of meditation, it was easier to do this, my mind more pliable and less compulsive.

Why would I want to spend my Saturday morning in this fashion? Why have I devoted my life over the past  34 years to meditation practice? Why do I continue to write about it and teach it? To answer these questions, I offer the Four C’s: control, composure, clarity, and compassion.

  • Control: This type of control should not be construed to mean that I can control what pops up in my mind. That is not possible. I can, however, if I am paying careful enough attention, exert some control over what happens next. I can engage with whatever pops up or I can redirect my attention to, let’s say, my breathing body. That type of control leads to composure.
  • Composure: By not engaging with whatever my mind generates (fantasies, worries, stories) then I will be less reactive and more at peace, even if what I am experiencing is unpleasant. Composure could be synonym for equanimity–that capacity to be with whatever is happening without freaking out and also not checking out. With composed equanimity, I am right there with the experience in a way that helps me to be more present and clear about what is happening.
  • Clarity: Seeing the mind’s process more clearly, feeling feelings more vividly, seeing and hearing more. These are all benefits of clarity. Having creative insights is another benefit. Clarity results in a more accurate picture of what is happening and with that better information presumably I can make better responses in the moment.
  • Compassion: When I can set aside all my self-referential thinking for a while, compassion naturally arises–compassion for myself and my imperfections, compassion for others and how difficult life can be, and also empathy for how joyous life can be, as well.

The Four C’s help me–and will help you too if you meditate–to enjoy the sweet, ripe fruits that life has to offer. Meditation helps us to get out of our own way and to prepare the mind to meet the abundance that is present, whether this abundance is material, relational, or experiential.


IMG_3821Some notion of non-harmfulness is a key feature of religious, ethical, and philosophical systems. In Buddhism, it is called ahimsa. 

Summer in Northern Vermont is a battle between human and insect. The Deer Flies are especially active this time of year. If you are not familiar, deer flies are a triangle shape (very similar to a stealth bomber) and when they bite (or sting), I get a nice itchy welt. Admittedly, these welts don’t persist long yet there is a clear sense that these creatures are feeding upon me.

While I am honored to play my part in the food chain, receiving their attention is hard to do with equanimity.

To practice ahimsa would require not killing these flies before they inflict damage upon my flesh. That is, I would have to let them munch away as I walk or run through the woods. Or I could spray myself with chemicals that might deter them.

There isn’t a real threat to me. These aren’t West Nile Virus carrying mosquitos (still better to deter them than to vigilantly scan and kill them manually), so why does it feel like a battle? The answer to this questions boils down to the notion of self that we carry around.

This self is a thing (like that fly) and it needs to be protected. Thus a battle emerges between man and fly. As I mentioned already, there is no mortal threat, so the treat is to my comfort level and my ego.

The hovering buzzing frenetic action of the files triggers archaic defense strategies that served our ancestors well eons ago but is of dubious value to me now. My battle with the flies requires energy (attention resources of vigilance, trying to catch them on the back of my neck before they bite, etc) and only serves to reinforce this solid notion of self.

Then there is the issue of harming other beings. Is it possible to live one’s life without harming others? The Jains were (and are still) contemporaries of the Buddha. You might see them today wearing masks so they don’t inadvertently swallow a bug.

The great saint Mahavira took their non harmfulness ideal to its logical conclusion and starved himself to death for to eat requires harming other living things, be they plant or animal.

Centuries ago, the microscopic world was not known yet we know today that we are occupied by about a couple of pounds of microorganisms in our microbiome. It is not possible to live without killing. Where do we draw the line?

Kurt Cobain wondered if eating fish was okay since they weren’t supposed to have any feelings. That notions is coming into question now as a compelling and chilling episode of Fresh Air made clear.

In his fascinating book, The Mindful Carnivore, Tovar Ceruli an avowed vegan realized “I wasn’t eating animals, but my vegetables were.” This is the case because animals must be destroyed in the production of food, whether it is the ground hog in the garden or deer that feed on farm fields.

We tend to forgot that life is food. This is the natural way of things in the world. We are the only ones who can make choices based on ethical consciousness.

If, for example, birds and other predators didn’t eat insects and all the insects of the world’s offspring survived and reproduced, all of which survived, in a few generations the earth would be covered in several feet of insects!

This fact is not license for me to kill the deer flies. Each time I do, I perpetuate this illusory battle, that there is some one on my end to engage in that conflict.

The illusory, metaphorical nature of self is the subject of my next book project. I’m gathering a lot of field data every time I am in the woods. There are some days that awakening seems far away as I relish in the struggle. The flies can bite skin but they cannot bite “me” because that self is a fluid, unfolding, process of energy not some thing standing outside of experience.

Life presents this basic dilemma with almost every breath. Be fully present in the flow of experience or identify with this notion of self as some abstracted disembodied entity. It is only this latter notion of self that can suffer the slings and arrows of life.