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Wake Up to Sleeping Well Print
Shambhala Sun | November 2001

Wake Up to Sleeping Well

By: It's going to be a long, tough night. It's one a.m. and my four-year-old son is inexplicably standing on his bed. "Go to sleep!" he yells, pointing at me. Drawing on the depths of my parental wisdom, I counter, "You go to sleep!"  "No!" he bellows.

The next morning I'm low on patience. Connor is behaving like a malevolent, manic imp and presents a clear and present danger to his younger sister. This is one of those times when my medical knowledge is pointedly unhelpful. Knowing that sleep deprivation has raised my blood sugar and blood pressure levels higher than normal just adds to my aggravation. To top it off, the flagship of stress hormones, cortisol, is running amok through my veins, putting my body on yellow alert for the day.
It's also scant comfort to know that I'm not alone in my misery. On any given day, one in every seven people experiences serious daytime drowsiness that interferes with their quality of life, and in some professions, that ratio is undoubtedly much higher. Poor sleep habits and tiredness are epidemic in today's brightly-lit, busy, time-pressured environment. We now average one and a half hours less sleep than we did a century ago, yet we need the sleep no less than our forebears. One in ten of us has long-standing, serious sleep problems and lots of the rest of us are just plain sleepy much of the time.

Sleep deprivation and fatigue are major causes of errors and accidents in our society. Sleep experts love to cite the contribution of fatigue to well-known disasters such as the Exxon Valdez, the space shuttle Challenger, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Every year traffic accidents temporarily increase following the switch to daylight saving time, when people in affected regions lose just one hour of sleep, so even a modest amount of sleep loss affects the next day's performance. Research has shown that driving low on sleep can be equivalent to driving under the influence of alcohol. If you're deprived, don't drive.

Insomnia-which doctors define as dissatisfaction with the quantity, quality or timing of sleep for at least one month-is a common complaint and is strongly associated with poor health. People who consistently sleep less than six or seven hours a night have a higher death rate than those who get adequate sleep, and that's generally not because they already have a serious medical condition that interferes with sleep. Poor sleep habits eventually increase the chances of developing heart, lung or kidney disease and also impair immune function, leaving us more likely to suffer colds and flu. Individuals who report insomnia lasting for one year are forty times more likely than normal to develop clinical depression.

So how much sleep do we need? The average amount is seven to eight hours a night, but everyone is different. The key, as with many things, is awareness. Do you feel refreshed most mornings? If the answer is no, you may need more or better-quality sleep. Conversely, if you are sleeping more than nine hours and are still tired, consider getting checked out, as there are also health problems associated with sleeping too much.

If you are chronically tired or sleep-deprived, the obvious solution is to make sleep a priority, which of course is easier said than done. Parents of small children or those whose jobs demand long hours or around-the-clock shifts start with a substantial handicap in terms of flexibility and opportunity to change. Still, it's usually not impossible to carve out a bit more sleep time. People often come up with creative ways to adapt. One patient of mine who works long hours negotiated with his employer for a telecommute day in the middle of the week. He invests the two hours saved traveling every Wednesday toward sleep and feels far less tired by the end of the work week as a result.

I'm delighted when people come to me with sleep complaints because they are often easily treated. Sadly, many people don't bring such complaints to their doctor's attention. Sometimes patients tell me they just can't sleep even if they have the chance. Typically they are busy, driven folks who may just want the quick fix of a sleeping pill. I usually deflect that request gently and first try to rule out any common correctable medical factors that could be contributing to their sleep problem-pain, depression, asthma, obesity, or drug or alcohol abuse. Next I check out their lifestyle habits. Smoking, lack of exercise and stress can all interfere with our natural capacity to sleep well. The same is true for drinking caffeine or alcohol excessively or late in the day.

There are simple common sense suggestions to improve sleep quality that I usually discuss with patients. These include getting up at the same time every day and not napping during the day. I stress the need for quiet time one hour before sleep, during which you should avoid stimulants such as bright lights, TV, or work-related reading. (Everyone asks same question; yes, sex is O.K.) If these strategies don't work, there are more structured treatments such as relaxation techniques that work well, although they may take a few weeks to show results.

Sleeping pills will prolong sleep by about one hour on average for the rare patient for whom I prescribe them. Sleeping medications have their downside, though. It's generally recommended that you use them only for temporary relief and stop after two weeks to reduce the chances of becoming dependent on the medication. These drugs also have potential side effects such as morning drowsiness, dizziness and light-headedness. Paradoxically, one of the problems associated with using sleeping pills nightly is that sleep temporarily worsens for a few days when people stop using them.

All said, it usually doesn't take much to motivate us to improve our sleep habits. We all know how lousy life can be when we are deprived of sleep, and most people have experienced the feeling of vitality and energy that can follow a good night's sleep. The great thing about making positive changes to your sleep habits is the immediacy of the payoff the next morning.

The biggest problem with sleep loss is that it's not often recognized as a problem. Those under its influence can be prone to ignore the real source of their problems. Those of us who become converts to the benefits of sleep choose to guard our sleep with the same commitment that some apply to eating right and exercising. My hope is that many more of us will treasure sleep and realize its power. Given the pace and pressure of our world, this may be a while in coming. So for the time being, we can just dream of the day when everyone is walking around under the influence of a good night's rest.

Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D. is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.

Wake Up to Sleeping Well, Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D., Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

Resistance is Futile Print
Shambhala Sun | November 2001

Resistance is Futile

By: What do the following things have in common? Meditation practice, doing taxes, getting up in the morning, going to bed, making the bed, exercising, admitting I'm wrong, understanding my computer, working more, working less.

The answer is: I never feel like doing them. In fact, I never feel like doing anything, except lying on the couch with a cappuccino and a murder mystery. Anything I'm supposed to do, I never want to do. As it turns out, this is fairly common and there's a name for it: resistance.

Resistance manifests in many ways. One friend told me she was very inspired to begin a workout program. She bought the clothing and cute new sneakers, drove to the gym, walked up to the door, in the door, right back out the door, and drove home. That's an open and shut case of resistance.
But sometimes resistance is more insidious. It tricks you by making you think you really would be more productive doing something else. A regular, fairly hard-core yoga student of mine recently walked out of class about ten minutes after it had begun. I was concerned and later called to see if he was okay. He said, "Oh, yes, I'm fine. It's just that at the very moment you asked us to begin sun salutations, I realized I really needed to do some shopping at Old Navy, and so I did."

There seems to be a ratio between the what's-good-for-you quotient and the level of resistance. It might seem that discipline is the only answer, but according to renowned yoga teacher Judith Lasater, exercising "discipline" can actually create resistance. Discipline is an external notion we try to impose on ourselves, and the chafing that results is resistance.

Lasater uses the example of brushing your teeth to demonstrate the difference between discipline and commitment. You would certainly never skip brushing your teeth for a day-it's simply an unquestioned commitment. She says that once you make a commitment you stop having that internal dialogue-the angel on one shoulder saying, "Do it, you'll feel so good about yourself" and the devil on the other saying, "It's okay to skip your practice just this once"-and you begin to ride the rhythms of your commitment.

The system of ethics and disciplines found within Patanjali's yoga sutras includes tapas, which means fire and refers to the passionate commitment to practice. But even this can be something that creates rigidity both in the approach to practice and the practice itself. Yogis can not only lose the freshness and wakefulness of each moment on the mat, but their bodies can get hard, their muscles tight, and their expressions harsh. Tapas transforms into the burden of spiritual arrogance.

How can we learn to recognize our own forms of resistance and use them to wake up? Yoga asanas can help us. I recently gave a friend a short program similar to the one below. We discovered that his hips, inner thighs, hamstring and entire back were very tight. He said, "I don't like this and don't want to do it anymore." I reassured him that this tightness was common, especially for men, and that if he approached the poses with gentleness and deep breathing, his body would open up over time. So he gave it another try.

Interestingly, when his good friend was given the same poses, he had the opposite response. No matter how I tried to get him to stop straining and pulling on his body, he refused to relax the tug-of-war with himself. Working this way eventually led to a weight-lifting injury, and his recovery period was so lengthy that he had a choice: to cultivate patience or become angry and frustrated. Now he approaches his body in an intelligent, balanced manner.
Rather than ignoring or avoiding resistance, we can simply notice that it is there. With curiosity we can then explore the taste, texture and quality of the resistance. Instead of letting it be a solid boundary that always evokes the same response, we can contact the resistance directly when it comes up. At that very moment, we can enter it and then do whatever activity has generated the whole process-washing the dishes, jogging, or doing our practice.

The following sequence of poses will provide a deep opening in the shoulders, hips and lower back. Because these areas are so active, they can become tense. The solution is to create activity specifically designed to free those areas, eventually leading to healthy and highly functional joints. Because you might already feel blocked and fatigued in those areas, you may not feel like doing these exercises. That's resistance. Do it anyway.

1. Downward Dog This pose will open your shoulders, the back of your legs and your lower back. Press your weight toward your legs by creating resistance to the floor with your hands and arms. Stay in this pose, breathing deeply, for 3 minutes. If that's too long, stay for as long as you can manage, then stay for 2 more breaths, and go to the next pose.

2. Pigeon (8-10 breaths) From downward dog, bring your left knee into your chest, point it toward the left, shift your weight forward and come into this position. If your left hip is not touching the ground, place a cushion under it so you can have a sense of being grounded here. The right leg should be pointing straight back and both hips and nipples pointing forward. With your hands by your hips, reach down into the earth with your fingertips as you lift up through your spine and the crown of your head. If you like, you can walk your hands forward and fold over your front leg.

3. Ankle to Knee (8-10 breaths) Swing your right leg around and place the right ankle on the left knee with the left ankle directly below the right knee. Be precise. This pose is intense for everybody, and it took me years to be able to do it. It taught me patience. If your top knee is way up high, place a pillow under that thigh to support it. You can also try straightening the bottom leg. If it is impossible to sit up tall, sit on a cushion. You can walk your hands forward, eventually folding all the way over your legs.

4. Cow's Head (8-10 breaths) I don't think this looks like a cow's head, but that's what it's called. Place your right knee directly on top of your left knee and pretending that your calves are the cow's ears, make them be the same distance away from your body. Take your arms behind your back, right arm under, left arm up and try to interlace your fingers. It is quite likely that you will not be able to reach, so hold on to a belt or towel instead. Gently release your arms and do a few shoulder circles.

5. Twist (5-8 breaths) Try to keep length in your spine as you twist. Press the top palm down and try to bring your prayer hands to the center of your chest. You can't breathe into your lower belly here, so feel the fullness of your breath in your ribs and lungs.

6. Boat (3-5 breaths) I don't think this looks like a boat either, but so be it. This is a great abdominal and lower back strengthener. If this is easy for you, try it with your legs straight. Keep your chest lifted.

Now do the whole routine with the other side. Don't try to stretch or improve. Set yourself up in the correct alignment, breathe deeply and watch your mind and body change. It's only ego that makes you stretch it.
Okay, that's done. Now where's my cappuccino?

Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of OM Yoga in a Box, available at

Resistance is Futile, Cyndi Lee, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

What's the Use of Suffering? Print

What's the Use of Suffering?


According to Reginald Ray, it is only when we feel there is no escape from suffering that our perceptions and our intelligence really come alive.

The biggest mistake we can make, according to the Buddha, is to discount or minimize our suffering. Why? Because it is the fiery gate through which we must pass to engage the spiritual path.

In this respect, literally, there is no getting around it. Ayya Khema, the late Theravadin meditation teacher, reported an incident that occurred early on in her practice in which she experienced a moment of vivid recollection of herself in hell in a completely helpless situation of extreme torment. Weird, very thin, stick-like creatures were repeatedly dipping her in boiling hot tar. As they did so, they were shrieking in high-pitched voices, "This is the way to enlightenment, this is the way to enlightenment." Yes, intense suffering can be experienced, but what can it possibly have to do with spirituality and enlightenment?

It can be a very distressing realization that while we may be able to eliminate any particular form of pain, we will never be free from suffering as such. It is like trying to scale a steep cliff and suddenly finding out that the cliff goes on forever, without end. Yet this is, according to the Buddha, our actual human condition. Suffering can never be entirely banished from our life, nor even from one moment of it.

But the Buddha is saying more: it is not enough to assent intellectually to the all-pervasiveness of suffering in our lives. We must "get it" on an emotional level. We must feel, for ourselves, how our discomfort goes on and on, now taking one form, now another. We must feel the unending fire of suffering so fully that we give up hope of escape, and we surrender. When we do so, the way is open for discovery of the third noble truth: that ultimately suffering may not be the terrifying specter we have imagined it to be.

The Fourth Noble Truth: Suffering as a Resource

In explaining the power of meditation, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche makes the interesting observation that as long as we feel we can escape from the present situation, we won't notice very much about it. Only when we feel that "this is it," and that there is no escape will our perceptions, our feelings, and our intelligence really come alive.

In the case of suffering, as long as we feel that there is some fundamental way out, we will not see what it actually is or notice its possibilities. When we become sensitive and aware enough to see that there really is no way out and we surrender to that fact, then we can begin to make some interesting discoveries. We see first that our resistance has been based on our expectations about ourselves and our lives. We see that our ego ideal-our image of who we should or could be, and what life could or should be-is not as solid or necessary as we thought. We see that all of this is our own self-maintained drama and we see its ultimate nonexistence. And in that moment, we let go.

In doing so, we discover, with some amazement, that we do not just cease to be, as we had so greatly feared. Instead, we have crossed over some threshold and entered into a different kind of existence. We find ourselves softer, fuller, more complete. Suddenly, we are no longer in a hostile and threatening environment where we are constantly fighting for our lives, our safety, our dignity, and our nourishment. Our fear is gone and we find, at that moment, that the universe is a place of blessing.

Tenzin Palmo, an English woman who was in retreat in a tiny cave high up in the mountains of Ladakh for many years, shows what this kind of realization can mean. One May, when the undersoil had ceased to be frozen, it was raining and the entire inside of her cave, including her bedding and her clothes, was soaking wet. In this environment, her health was poor and seemed to be going downhill. She found herself yearning to feel better and became quite depressed. She reports:

Then I thought, "But didn't the Buddha say something about duhkha [Sanskrit: suffering] in samsara? Why are you still looking for happiness in samsara?" and my mind just changed round. It was like, "That's right. Samsara is duhkha. It's OK that it's raining. It's OK that I'm sick because that's the nature of samsara. There's nothing to worry about. If it goes well that's nice. If it doesn't go well that's also nice. It doesn't make any difference." Although it sounds quite elementary, at the time it was quite a breakthrough. Since then I have honestly never really cared about external circumstances. In that way the cave was a great teaching.

With this understanding, we can make sense of the Buddha's injunction in the fourth noble truth not only to realize the inevitability of our suffering, but to make use of it. We see that by risking everything, by taking our suffering seriously, by looking at it and contemplating it, by entering our awareness into it and experiencing it fully, some fundamental, surprising, even shocking transformation can occur.

This, of course, is hardly a one-shot deal. It certainly does not mean we have become fully enlightened. But it does open up for us a new kind of relationship to our suffering. We begin to see that it is an essential, powerful resource in our lives. We understand its appearance still as a threat-of course, how could it not be?-but a threat that is also an opportunity. In fact, the deeper the threat, the more opportunity we dare to find in it. When suffering arises, we can look at it, experience it and surrender to it, with dignity and confidence, and let it work its magic. We know it holds something for us. Here is where meditation comes in, because it provides the tools to bring this about. We sit and open, resisting the temptation to run away, coming back to our suffering moment after moment.

Interestingly, this kind of approach does not lessen the impact of suffering. In a way, it frees us to face and experience our pain in a much fuller and more direct way. But we have confidence in that process and repeatedly find genuine transformation in it. For this reason, duhkha is called the "first noble truth." It is the truth that is primary and ever-deepening, that continually gives birth to wisdom.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddha makes the comment that we, as human beings, have been given suffering so that we can have a spiritual path. Without it, we would be forever caught in the "self," our image of ourselves, a straitjacket of our own making. Suffering is the Buddha's greatest gift, so the text says, because it continually frees us from small and limited selves and makes possible the unending journey toward our own totality.

Suffering as Enlightenment

Suffering shows us our boundary-the boundary of our desire to be something specific, definitive, secure and solid. It represents the pressure of reality. The more we give in to it, the more we are touching the very being of the universe itself.

Ayya Khema comments that in realization, "It is not suffering that ceases, but rather the one who suffers." What is left? Dogen remarks, "To lose the self is to be enlightened by all things." These things that caused us suffering are now seen as the very illumination of the universe itself. When we surrender to our suffering, we are giving over our own being to the very being of the world. We are letting our own limited understanding go, and letting our awareness join with the dharmakaya, the sacredness of what is. At this point, as Ayya Khema says, it is not that duhkha is transformed but rather we who are transformed, so that we have a different understanding, appreciation and relationship with it.

The Buddhist teaching on suffering thus possesses extraordinary power for the individual. It also affects our relationship to others: in acknowledging our suffering we understand something fundamental about the experience of other people, in times and places both near and far, and this leads to empathy and a sense of connection with them.

This teaching also has social and economic implications on a global scale. Imagine what an understanding of the first noble truth could do to this world of increasing consumerism, where entire societies are premised on the belief that pain can be eliminated through ever greater accumulation of money, possessions and power. What would be the impact of a recognition that all of this is a losing battle, that no matter what lengths we go to, we can never really solve the basic human dilemma of suffering? Might this not provide room for a shift of values away from the depredation of people, cultures and the environment and toward a recognition of the bittersweet nature of our common lot? Could it not lead to greater sympathy and compassion, and to working with others rather than against them to address our problems?

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. His new book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

What's the Use of Suffering?, Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

Don't Be So Sure Print

Don't Be So Sure


In a changing world, certainty doesn't give us stability; it just creates more chaos. "Now," says Margaret Wheatley, "is the time for far less certainty and far more curiousity."

Most people I meet want to develop more harmonious and satisfying relationships. But we may not realize that this can only be achieved by partnering with two new and strange allies: uncertainty and confusion.

Most of us weren't trained to like confusion or to admit when we feel hesitant and uncertain. In our schools and organizations, we place value on sounding assured and confident. People are rewarded for stating opinions as if they're facts. Quick answers abound; pensive questions have disappeared. Confusion has yet to emerge as a higher order value or behavior that organizations eagerly reward.

As life continues to speed up (adding to our confusion), we don't have time to be uncertain. We don't have time to listen to anyone who expresses a new or different position. In meetings and in the media, often we listen to others just long enough to determine whether we agree with them. We rush from opinion to opinion, listening for those tidbits and sound bites that confirm our position. Gradually, we have become more certain but less informed, and far less thoughtful.

We can't continue on this path if we want to act more intelligently, if we want to find approaches and solutions to the problems that plague us. We no longer live in those sweet, slow days when life felt predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. In this increasingly complex world, it's impossible to see for ourselves most of what's going on. The only way to see more of the complexity is to ask many others for their perspectives and experiences. Yet if we open ourselves to their differing perceptions, we find ourselves inhabiting the uncomfortable space of not knowing.

It is very difficult to give up certainty: these positions, beliefs and explanations define us and lie at the core of our personal identity. Certainty is our lens to interpret what's going on, and, as long as our explanations work, we feel a sense of stability and security. But in a changing world, certainty doesn't give us stability; it actually creates more chaos. As we stay locked in our position and refuse to adapt, the things we'd hoped would stay together fall apart. It's a traditional paradox expressed in many spiritual traditions: by holding on, we destroy what we hope to preserve; by letting go, we feel secure in accepting what is.

I believe this changing world requires less certainty and far more curiosity. I'm not suggesting we let go of our beliefs altogether, only that we become curious about what someone else believes. As we open to the disturbing differences, sometimes we discover that another's way of interpreting the world actually is essential to our survival.

For me, the first step to becoming curious is to admit that I'm not succeeding in figuring things out by myself. If my solutions don't work as well as I'd like, if my explanations for what's happening feel insufficient, I take these as signs that it's time to begin asking others what they think. I try to move past the superficial conversations in which I pretend to agree with someone else, rather than inquiring seriously into their perspective. I try to become a conscious listener, actively listening for differences.

There are many ways to sit and listen for the differences. Lately, I've been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn't easy-I'm accustomed to sitting there nodding my head as someone voices opinions I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I'm able to see my own views more clearly, including my assumptions.

Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a useful way to see invisible beliefs. If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something to the contrary. My shock at your position exposes my own position. When I hear myself saying, "How could anyone believe something like that?" a light comes on for me to examine my own beliefs. These moments are great gifts. If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.

If you're willing to be disturbed and confused, I recommend you begin a conversation with someone who thinks differently from you. Listen for what's different, for what surprises you. Try to stop the voice of judgment or opinion and just listen. At the end, notice whether you learned anything new. Notice whether you developed a better relationship with the person you talked with. If you try this with several people, you might find yourself delighted to realize how many unique ways there are to be human.

We have the opportunity many times a day to be the one who listens to others, the one who is curious rather than certain. The greatest benefit that comes to those who listen is that we develop closer relationships with those we thought we couldn't understand. When we listen with less judgment, we always develop better relationships with each other. It's not differences that divide us; it's our judgments that do. Curiosity and good listening bring us back together.

We can't be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course, it's scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives. If we move through the fear and enter the abyss, we rediscover we're creative.

As the world becomes more perplexing and difficult, I don't believe most of us want to keep struggling through it alone. I can't know what to do from my own narrow perspective. I know I need a better understanding of what's going on. I want to sit down with you and talk about all the frightening and hopeful things I observe, and listen to what frightens you and gives you hope. I need new ideas and solutions for the problems I care about, and I know I need to talk to you to discover them. I need to learn to value your perspective, and I want you to value mine. I expect to be disturbed, even jarred, by what I hear from you. I expect to feel confused and displaced-my world won't feel as stable or familiar to me once we talk.

As I explore partnering with confusion and uncertainty, I'm learning that we don't have to agree with each other in order to think well together. There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are already joined by our human hearts.

Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., is president of The Berkana Institute. She is author of Leadership and the New Science, and co-author with Myron Kellner-Rogers of A Simpler Way.

Don't Be So Sure, Margaret Wheatley, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

Using the Power of Thought Print

Using the Power of Thought


In my last column, I talked about how hearing, contemplating and meditating are natural activities, things that we do all the time. We learn new information through hearing, we understand the information by holding our mind to it (contemplating), and we then use our knowledge of it as a constant reference point (meditating).

When we use our ability to hear, at a basic level we take in information, but truly hearing something means that we understand it, or as the phrase goes, we "get it." Further, when we truly hear something, we also remember it. Because truly hearing enables us to have an object to hold in mind, we can explore the next step, contemplation.

The good news is that it is easy to do contemplation practice because we only need the power of our thoughts. The mind is always alive with thoughts; the mind is always moving with its natural energy. Fortunately, we are in no danger of using up that particular natural resource.

To contemplate, in our sense of the term, means both to hold your mind to something and to relax. If you want to understand something more deeply, you focus your attention on it. But for it to really penetrate, you need to relax, which gives it a chance to permeate your conceptual thought process.

It's important to feel inspired by the object of contemplation. If you are reading teachings, you need to take time to study and think about what you've read. It can be very helpful to pick a section that's thought-provoking, close the book, and reflect on the meaning of that one thing. When we hold our mind to a particular object, our understanding of it gets deeper and deeper, as if we were an explorer becoming immersed in a new environment. Our thoughts go through a transformation. As our understanding deepens, we give birth to prajna, or wisdom. We access this natural wisdom by investigating and analyzing; then our understanding becomes more precise and refined.

The mental objects available for contemplation are not limited to those we find when we are reading teachings. We can also engage in guided and structured contemplation about many different kinds of mental events that influence our actions.

Normally we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves, but we could take a break from that habit and direct our energy toward thinking about others. As a bonus, when we direct our thoughts in a positive way, we lay the ground for positive action.

As an example of contemplative meditation, here is a traditional guided contemplation for arousing loving-kindness:

    1. Think of someone you love very much, and contemplate how that feels for a couple of minutes. Think of how you wish the best for that person, how you want them to be healthy and content, and that you don't want them to suffer.

    2. Then think of people you don't know as well, or people toward whom you feel neutral. Extend those same feelings of love, warmth and kindness toward them for a few minutes.

    3. Think of a person who gives you trouble, someone you really don't like to be around, and try to extend feelings of loving-kindness toward that person.

    4. Expand your feelings of warmth and kindness to include all the people you like and have good wishes for. Extend those good feelings to people toward whom you feel neutral. Think about someone you know who is sick or having a rough time, or visualize someone who is suffering with poverty or homelessness. Hold the image of that person in your mind, imagining that their suffering is alleviated. Gradually enlarge the group you're imagining to include more and more people, eventually including all beings in your good wishes.

    5. Extend compassion to all beings. Imagine they could be completely free of suffering and wish that for all of them.

This is a complete guided exercise, which could be done over an extended period of time. We could also isolate a single element and contemplate that. For example, what is "compassion" anyway? Who are "all beings"? What is "suffering," and how would it be to feel free of it? Engaging in such contemplation of details stretches your mind beyond its often limited borders. For example, most of us think we want to develop compassion, but are vague about how we actually do it. Sitting down and thinking about it is a good start.

Likewise, we would also like to develop wisdom, but just as with compassion, we have to ask, "What is 'wisdom' and how we develop that?" Wisdom means recognizing the true nature of things. To do so, we need to sit and think about some basic truths: all of us suffer, we age, we get sick, and we die. When we accept these basic facts of life instead of denying them, that's when we start to develop some wisdom.

Here is a contemplative exercise to deepen our appreciation of these basic truths:

    1. Think about the inevitability of death. You yourself are going to die.

    2. Say to yourself, "I am going to die. My parents are going to die. All of my friends will die. My partner will die. We are all going to die eventually, and someone is going to die tomorrow. It could be me or someone I love."

    3. Contemplate the phrase, "Death comes without warning."

Sooner or later, we all experience the shock of losing someone close. This grief brings home the reality of death, and it can be a very liberating experience. Learning to let go is the most important lesson. But we could learn it through contemplating the reality of death; we don't have to wait until we have an accident.

The shock of realizing that we are actually going to die scatters our concepts about ourselves and shakes our belief in permanence. That's a good thing, because as the Buddha taught, the suffering of beings is caused by their ignorance of reality. We want things we can't get, we get things we don't want, and if we do get what we want, we lose it. We seek pleasure and we end up in pain.

You can also contemplate that. Considering the things you do every day, you can ask, "Is this painful or pleasurable?" According to the Buddhist teachings, we are in a state of confusion and bewilderment about whether we are actually experiencing pleasure or pain. Say, for example, you crave something sweet. You go to the freezer and have some ice cream. That's pleasurable. But what happens when you run out of ice cream and you still crave it? That's painful. This same back-and-forth occurs with love, power, sex, fame and wealth.

Going after the pleasures of samsara is the wrong end of the stick, but to really know that you need to figure it out for yourself. You could start by contemplating the basic motivations of your life: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Do I want to change? Once you truly hear the message of the Buddha, contemplating these subjects can plant the seed of conviction in your mind-stream, and that seed may be watered by meditation practice, which we'll examine in the next column.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Using the Power of Thought, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.

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