Although mindfulness meditation is simple in concept, it provides practice on many different skills at the same time. We can think of it like riding a bicycle – there are many different things that we do almost effortlessly while riding a bicycle, each of them is happening and can be influenced by the others. Similarly, mindfulness of breath relies on six skills that are not specific to meditation only. Each of these skills is beneficial for functioning well in the “real” world, but people tend to be stronger at some of them than others. We can use mindfulness meditation as a way to become strong at all of them.
Intention-setting is important in Buddhist practice, both for formal meditation practices and also off the cushion as we go about our lives. It is said that intention is 90% of karma. We’ll discuss karma in a later lecture, but it doesn’t mean what most think it does. It’s not a bank account of retribution. Karma simply means action, and actions have reactions and consequences. Therefore, this saying means that our intentions help to direct our actions. If you need ingredients for dinner tonight, you are much more likely to make the dinner you desire if you set an intention to go to the store and purchase them than if you just wander out your front door with no plan or stay home. The intention helps us to move in a direction we want to go, and can help to bring us back on track if we get distracted. It is useful, however, to examine the differences between intentions and goals and resolutions.
We live in a goal-oriented culture. We teach children that they should set a goal for their careers and then take incremental steps toward that goal, even though we know that this is a lie. Careers tend to be non-linear. Very few people ended up in their jobs because they took this direct stepwise path. Despite knowing this, we still pretend that it’s true. We ask youth when they enter college what they are going to major in, and they feel like they’re supposed to have the answer. When they change majors, and most (80%) of them do, they feel like failures. In fact, they have just succeeded – they’ve found something they’re excited about. But the goal-oriented focus can cause harm and stress, even though it’s is supposed to help.
About two-thirds of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and two-thirds of them make resolutions about potentially life-threatening health behaviors such as smoking and obesity.[2, 3] These people should therefore be highly motivated. Yet, only 8% of them are successful in achieving their resolutions. Are intentions different from goals or resolutions?
Intentions tend to be flexible. They don’t usually dictate exactly how or when something should be accomplished. Setting an intention to be more honest, to be kinder, or to procrastinate less allows for flexibility to adapt to the needs of the situation. Honesty isn’t always the best policy, and an intention to be honest is different from a resolution to be rigidly honest in all circumstances.
Intentions are flexible in another important way – when they’re violated. If I am a generally angry person, I might set an intention to be kinder and not let anger get the best of me. But because anger is a habit I’ve practiced a lot, I will still get caught up in it sometimes. This does not break my intention, however. I can maintain the intention, because it isn’t an all-or-none mentality. In fact, violating my intention can make the intention stronger, because I can see clearly how it is needed. In contrast, if I set a resolution to quit smoking, when I give in to the habit, it is relatively easy to give up because I’ve already broken the resolution. The flexibility of intentions ironically makes them stronger than resolutions.
Goals, from a Buddhist perspective, are problematic. To understand why, it is useful to examine what are known as the Three Poisons. These are the three basic ways we react to anything – an idea, a person walking toward us, or the taste of food. As soon as we perceive something, a feeling tone arises of either liking, disliking, or not-caring. To use the traditional language, these are attachment, aggression, and ignorance. The next time you are walking on a sidewalk or in the mall, try this little experiment. Anyone you see, whether you know them or not, notice how quickly you feel either a little attraction, a little aversion, or neutral toward them. It is somewhat amazing how quickly we can feel pulled toward people and things, as well as how quickly we can feel we want to avoid them. There is nothing wrong with having these feelings, but we don’t typically allow ourselves to just feel them. Instead, we usually act differently toward people and things because of them. Even worse, we often don’t even notice we’re feeling them. This lack of insight into what we’re feeling and how we’re acting is one of the causes of suffering.
Goals tend to be inflexible. Rather than setting a goal of being more active, people usually set a target weight as a goal, and a date by which they feel they “should” have achieved it. If we don’t make the progress we want, we begin to feel like a failure. If we make a mistake, we feel guilt or shame, which is self-aggression (one of the three poisons). Furthermore, the guilt colors the feelings we have about the goal we want, making it more difficult to maintain momentum toward it.
The larger problem, however, is that goals are future-oriented. They rely on believing that some imagined future will be better than the actual present. In Buddhist terms, they are based on the poison of attachment. We are grasping after something that isn’t, always focused on the future. This leaves us feeling dissatisfied with what is. If you practice feeling dissatisfied with what is, how do you expect you will feel once you achieve your goal? Will you be able to be happy with the present then, or will you just find new things to be dissatisfied with and feel like you should set a new goal for a happier future?
In contrast, setting intentions help to focus on the present and to act mindfully in ways that support our intentions. Intentions can be aspirational. You may aspire to be more content or to become enlightened, but the aspiration tends to be somewhat fluid. It is harder to solidify what the steps are to achieve the aspiration, although aspiring to achieve it suggests actions are needed. Intentions are not about an imagined future, but are a practice – aligning your beliefs and values with your actual experiences as they unfold and change. As we practice acting skillfully in accordance with our intentions, we will get better at it and will feel happier.
Zen Buddhists traditionally take the following vows:
- Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.
- Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to end them.
- The Dharma [teachings and path] are boundless. I vow to master them.
- The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable. I vow to attain it.
They vow to do the impossible! That is, anyone who takes these aspirational vows knows that he must fail. Repeatedly. Therefore, the striving is what is important, as is the learning afforded when failure occurs. These aren’t goals to be achieved, but a view to be practiced, and this is the real distinction: Goals are designed to be reached, whereas intentions are designed to be used and broken.
Working with intentions is a recognition of the multiple options available to us. Furthermore, it is not necessarily rejecting of any of them. Instead, we can acknowledge and validate our experience of being embedded in a complex system. We shouldn’t reject even the bad, selfish, or harmful options, because fighting them simply reinforces the habit of fighting (the poison of aggression) and ironically strengthens our negative tendencies. We should instead set an intention toward something positive, which undermines the negative tendencies without rejecting them.
Entering meditation with an intention, even a simple one like “I am going to try to follow my breath” or “I want to feel calm,” helps to focus your actions. It establishes how you begin. Every time you become distracted and remember the intention and return to following your breath is one more practice repetition. Your ability to set intentions and connect them with your actions will become more habitual.
A lot of attention has been paid to attention in the past 25 years. Attention predicts performance in many domains, most notably in school performance. Drug companies have done a magnificent job convincing schools and parents that attention problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, should be medicated. These drugs have had at least two effects. The good effect is that they have helped many children who have attention problems perform better in school. The bad effect is that they have made parents feel helpless. When the teacher calls and says that Johnny can’t pay attention in class, parents feel stuck – they don’t know what to do other than to medicate. Although medication can be valuable, it shouldn’t be the only option. Part of the reason it feels like the only option is that the concept of “attention” gets discussed as if it is a mysterious genetic or biological trait – you either have it or you don’t, and the only way to get more of it is to take a pill (or Monster energy drink). Attention is not just one thing – it has many facets, two of which are critical for mindfulness: focused attention and sustained attention.
Focusing attention can be either an automatic or an intentional process. Evolution has programmed into our lower brains an orienting response. When there is a change in our environments, such as a sound, we turn to look at it. If the light dims or flickers, we turn to look. There is great survival value to this – the snap of the twig or a shadow may signal a predator about to attack. This quick focusing is an automatic process designed for our safety and survival. Focusing is not solely automatic, however. Humans are very good at intentionally directing their attention. Practice can modify both the automatic and intentional aspects.
Similarly, maintaining attention can be supported by automatic and intentional processes. If the object of attention is highly engaging, such as a good movie, it helps to support sustained attention. Of course, every change in camera angle causes a shift in lighting, which re-engages our orienting response. Every sound effect or change in volume re-engages our orienting response. This is why TV advertisements tend to start loud – it makes you look. When something isn’t constantly triggering our orienting responses, however, sustaining attention is much harder and takes intentional effort. In a sense, this is what is meant by saying we “pay” attention. It is a resource that we give. We can increase our capacity – the amount we have to pay – through practice.
How we practice matters, however. Many parents have told me that video games are the only thing their child with ADHD can pay attention to for two hours. I’ve always wondered whether that was good. It could be if it is truly helping their children to practice attending. Unfortunately, we found the opposite in several studies we conducted to test this. For example in a study where we measured over 1300 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade children across 13 months, we found that those children who spent the most time with television and video games actually ended up with more attention problems as rated by their classroom teachers. My current hypothesis about this is that we could conceive of attention as a muscle. Video games, television, and movies all trigger orienting responses through sound effects, edits, changes of angle, and many other technical tricks. These are like crutches for attention. This is why watching a 2-hour movie is much easier than paying attention to a 2-hour lecture. The movie uses these tricks to support your attention; basically it draws the attention out of you without you having to use much effort. This is why we think it’s relaxing to sit in front of the TV or video game in a way we don’t think sitting in a class is. If you spend too many weeks walking with crutches your leg muscles will atrophy. Similarly, spending a lot of time with media appears to support your attention so much that the attentional “muscle” atrophies.
This line of reasoning is supported by recent research in multi-tasking (e.g., watching TV and doing homework, working in multiple computers windows at once, etc.). A set of studies conducted at Stanford University found surprising results with smart college students. They were asked about how much they multi-tasked and how good they thought they were at it. Then they were given a task that required them to multi-task to perform successfully. The students who thought they were good at multi-tasking were actually poorer at it, and the students who did the most multi-tasking were the worst. We might expect that practicing multi-tasking should make people better at it, but what it appears to do is to train distractibility. We are in fact undermining our ability to intentionally focus our intention or to maintain it.
Mindfulness meditation (as well as other forms of meditation) gives practice to both focusing and maintaining attention. We place (focus) our attention on an object – the breath, the arising and passing of experiences, a candle, etc. The breath is often used as an object because it is always with us, but more importantly, because it isn’t exciting. It does not trigger an orienting response. It requires intention to focus on it, and then it requires effort to maintain attention to it. This is why we don’t call watching TV meditation – it requires no effort since it relies highly on automatic attention processes. Meditating on “boring” objects provides practice for focusing and maintaining attention. Together, these lead to the increase in the tranquility and stability of mind, two of the traditional benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Each of the other five skills practiced in mindfulness meditation is necessary – that is, there is almost no way not to practice them no matter how new or “bad” a meditator you think you are. This one, however, is not necessary in the same way. Some people may almost never do it (at least for the first several years of practice) whereas others may do it fairly easily. What is it? Again, it’s nothing magical – it’s a typical human experience, but it’s not necessarily one that is easy to will oneself into.
Most people have had the experience that is called “flow” in psychological and communications sciences. It is a feeling of complete engrossment within the task, where one loses the sense of inner and outer as well as a sense of time. Modern audiences have probably had the most experience of flow while watching movies or playing video games. People often also experience it during sports and physical tasks that take concentration to perform well. As anyone who has had their seat kicked while watching a movie in a theater knows, however, it is easy to drop out of flow and often hard to get back into. When one is in a flow state, there is only the doing – there isn’t a sense of separateness from the activity in the environment. We become completely absorbed in the ongoing activity.
In my experience, there is typically a progression for activities that can engage a flow state, including meditation. At first we are caught up entirely with our own thoughts, such that we don’t even realize that we are thinking. We believe that the thoughts are the same as ourselves. With practice meditating, we start to see that thoughts are something the mind does. They’re useful, but we can watch them happen the same way we can watch our feelings arise and pass or hear a sound come and go. We can be aware that we are experiencing thinking. Some people call this the “watcher.” We realize that there is a part of us that can watch ourselves think, feel, and react without being entirely caught up in the drama. Getting to this place is an intermediate step. Beyond it we can let go of the watcher and join with the ongoing flow of the activity. Sometimes this is called identification, or becoming one with the situation.
“Identification should be open identification, centerless identification, in other words, without a watcher. That is the whole point. If there is no watcher, then identification becomes real identification, really making a connection with things as they are. Whereas if you identify inwardly then you are identifying in accordance with some concept, in accordance with your own categories” (p. 261)
With regard to mindful breathing, when we first try meditating we easily get lost and captured by our thoughts. If we use a practice such as labeling thoughts “thinking” when we notice them, then we are playing the role of watcher, noticing the thoughts arising and passing. If we simply just feel the breathing, how even one simple in-breath has hundreds of parts and feelings and textures, we are moving toward joining with the breath. We become breathing. Similarly, if we are playing a sport or a musical instrument, we first start out planning and thinking and directing everything we’re doing. As we practice, we start to notice the doing and the thinking about doing aren’t the same. Once we join with the activity, we just do. Thinking may still occur, but it is peripheral. We embody the activity, we stop being a noun and begin to be a verb. We are the doing.
Although this may sound fairly recondite, it is something almost everyone has experienced. We may get “lost” in books. We may feel so connected to our partners during sex that we no longer feel like separate people. We get so absorbed in a movie that when a scary thing happens we jump, even though we should know that there is no reason to. It is an ability that can be practiced and improved, and meditation is designed specifically to improve it. That said, in any given meditation session, joining with the object of meditation may or may not happen. Each of the other steps, however, must happen at least once.
A distinction is sometimes made between mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is the ability to focus and sustain attention – to collect your attention on an object. Awareness is the broader mind-space in which mindfulness occurs. As you focus on your breath, you can still be aware of the sounds arising, of your posture, and of your environment. This distinction is important because awareness is the faculty you are using when you recognize that your attention has wandered. It can see the bigger picture and know what you are being mindful of.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described the distinction this way:
Mindfulness is the process of relating with individual situations directly, precisely, definitely. You communicate or connect with problematic situations or irritating situations in a simple way. There is ignorance, there is restlessness, there is passion, there is aggression. They need not be praised or condemned…Mindfulness is like a microscope; it is neither an offensive nor a defensive weapon in relation to the germs we observe through it. The function of the microscope is just to clearly present what is there. Mindfulness need not refer to the past or the future; it is fully in the now…
Awareness is seeing the discovery of mindfulness. We do not have to dispose of or keep the contents of mind. The precision of mindfulness could be left as it is because it has its own environment, its own space… Mindfulness provides the topic or the terms or the words, and awareness is the grammar which goes around and correctly locates the terms. Having experienced the precision of mindfulness, we might ask the question of ourselves, “What should I do with that? What can I do next?” And awareness reassures us that we do not really have to do anything with it but can leave it in its own natural place… So awareness is the willingness not to cling to the discoveries of mindfulness, and mindfulness is just precision; things are what they are… So mindfulness and awareness work together to bring acceptance of living situations as they are. (pp. 64-65)
The Sanskrit term that is usually translated into English as mindfulness is smṛti (sati in Pali), but it is also correctly translated as recollection, such as in memory. This word fits well with modern neuroscience. We used to believe that there was a part of the brain in which memories were stored, and then when we wanted to remember them, we just had to go find it and replay it like a recorded video. Memory is nothing like this.
There are many types of memory, and they can be grouped into short-term or working memory compared to long-term memory, but even this deceives. To over-simplify more correctly, your whole brain is involved in everything you do, and therefore your whole brain is involved in remembering whatever you experienced. We typically experience our experience as unified. Our language betrays this belief – we call it “an experience,” not a set of experiences or processes. We consider all of the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, spatial relations, thoughts, timing, motivations, and interactions as being one singular experience. In fact, however, we are having multiple experiences at once. We get information in from all of our senses separately and these are being further dismembered by our brains, because specific groups of neurons have specialized jobs. For example, when looking at something, different parts of the brain find edges, corners, motion in one direction, motion in other directions, colors, etc. These separate parts come together in other regions of the brain, but we “see” them as one experience. When we remember the experience, we pull the parts together again from the different regions of the brain. Visual aspects are stored in visual brain regions, sounds in auditory regions, feelings in emotion regions, etc. We re-member the experience that had been dismembered. We collect (or re-collect) the parts and put them back together again. The problem is that every time we put the pieces together, we can change them and our memory begins to change without knowing it. Perhaps we call to mind an incorrect detail, or we don’t remember one – by remembering it this way, we have now reinforced an incorrect memory – a process called reconsolidation. Furthermore, we are reminded by the present, and then our current experiences get connected to the remembered ones, and this can also shift our memories. Albert Einstein recognized this when he said, “Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.” In contrast, Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, misunderstood memory when he quipped, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Each retelling of the story changes the memory, so memory works forwards too.
Retelling is only part of the problem, however. Memory has many different flaws. One has been called the “soap opera” effect, based on a classic study conducted initially at Stanford University. In this study, college students read the following story that is full of details and yet is still fairly vague:
Nancy went into the kitchen. She took the pot out of the cabinet and also got out the mix. After she put water in the coffee pot, she put the coffee pot on the stove. Next she took a coffee cup and put it on the table. The water in the pot started to boll, so she put some instant coffee into the cup. Nancy looked at the beverage in the cup and decided to add some milk and sugar.
Nancy went to the doctor. She arrived at the office and checked in with the receptionist. She went to see the nurse who went through the usual procedures. Then Nancy stepped on the sca1e and the nurse recorded her weight. The doctor entered the room and examined the results. He smiled at Nancy and said, “Well, it seems my expectations have been confirmed.” When the examination was finished, Nancy left the office.
Nancy decided to buy some milk so she went to the store. She looked around and found the right section. She noticed the date on the carton - 9/14. She looked at the price and compared it to the money she had to spend. She decided that she should buy the milk. Nancy paid for the item and left the grocery store.
Nancy arrived at the lecture hall and decided to sit in the front row. She walked down the aisle and sat down in the seat. The professor went to the podium and began the lecture immediately. All through the talk Nancy couldn't concentrate on what was being said. The talk seemed especially long, but finally the speaker finished. The professor was surrounded with people so Nancy quickly left the building.
Nancy arrived at the cocktail party. She looked around the room to see who was there. She went to talk with her professor. She felt she had to talk to him but was a little nervous about just what to say. A group of people started to play charades. Nancy went over and had some refreshments. The hors d'oeuvres were good but she wasn't interested in talking to the rest of the people at the party. After a while she decided she'd had enough and left the party.
This seems simple enough to remember, doesn’t it? Participants in the study were split into four groups. One group read the story above exactly as it is. Another read it with the name Jack substituted for “Nancy.” These were the two control groups. The experimental groups read three more sentences added to the beginning that set up a potential problem. Nancy’s were: “Nancy woke up feeling sick again and wondered if she were really were pregnant. How would she tell the professor she had been seeing? And the money was another problem.” Jack’s problem was whether he had gained enough weight and gotten a passing grade on his chemistry test to be allowed to start in the football game. Participants were told to read very carefully and were given 2.5 minutes to study the stories. They were later asked to recall all the details, some shortly after reading the story and some a day later. The three additional sentences that described a problem changed everything.
Participants in the problem condition recalled more details than the control condition. They also remembered the story in the order in which it happened, with 83% recalling the elements in the correct order, compared to 38% of the control participants. This all sounds great – knowing something about someone’s likely motives helps to structure the information about them. This accuracy ironically comes at the cost of increased inaccuracy. Participants in the problem condition also remembered many things that did not occur in the story, such as the doctor telling Nancy she was pregnant. The “intrusions” were thematically related to the inferred motive and problem of the main character. That is, thinking you know something about someone else’s motivations increased errors in memory 116%.
Unfortunately, that is the best case scenario - trying to remember something that you just read a few minutes ago. The participants who waited a day before trying to remember the stories recalled 45% more correct details, but 324% more incorrect details! These errors were not random. Participants in the problem and control conditions did not differ in errors of inferences that were certainly possible but neutral with respect to Nancy’s problem (e.g., “Nancy read a magazine while waiting to see the doctor.”). Instead, they differed when the inference was either compatible or incompatible with the inferred motivations. Participants in the problem condition made many more errors of inclusion when it supported the pregnant Nancy story, and made fewer errors when it was at odds with that story (e.g., Nancy did not know the professor at the party well enough to talk to him).
What we pay attention to, believe we see, and remember is greatly colored by what we think the motivations of the actors are. We infer details that haven’t happened and remember them as if they occurred, and we also ignore other things that don’t fit with our assumptions. This level of error is shocking when one realizes that this is a really simple task - remembering a couple of short paragraphs. This is much simpler than understanding and remembering what happens in the complexity of our daily lives. If we think we understand someone’s motivations, we must be making many mistakes in what we learn - some mistakes occur because we fail to see what doesn’t fit well with our assumptions, and some because we infer feelings, motivations, and actions based on what we assume. Memory is inherently deeply flawed.
This is both bad news and good news. The bad news isn’t that all of our memories are wrong. It’s that we believe them to be accurate and have no way of knowing what parts are inaccurate. Neuroscientists Kolb and Whishaw say, “One way to think of this process is to see consolidation of memories as never-ending: new information is constantly being integrated into existing memory networks. After all, we frequently recall memories, rehash them, and integrate them with new events.” Remembering, therefore, is actually new and repeated learning. They conclude with the good news: “One implication of reconsolidation is that it ought to be possible to erase negative memories” (p. 499). “Erase” is probably too strong a word, but we certainly can change the memories. Sometimes by retelling a story, it gets worse. Usually it’s because we’re telling it in a way to make it seem more extreme to get sympathy from listeners – we turn it into a soap opera, full of drama and assumed motivations. In contrast, we could actually help ourselves reduce our stress if we started retelling the stories in more forgiving, more balanced, or more compassionate ways. We can also change what is learned and remembered right from the start – by practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the process of collecting your attention and then re-collecting it, balancing focused attention within the broader perspective of awareness. It is trying to attend to what is actually occurring at this moment, without coloring it based on your beliefs, your assumptions, your inferences, or your judgments. If we just focus on what is, without the filters of what we think it “means,” we will learn and remember more accurately. Unfortunately, this is not easy to do and takes a lot of practice.
I sometimes hear people say that they tried to meditate and found that they couldn’t stop thinking and so they gave up. One friend told me how badly he had failed, because he noticed that it “got worse” the more he tried to meditate – he found he was thinking even more. This illuminates two common errors. First, the goal of meditation is not to stop thinking. Trying to stop thinking is a form of aggression against the self. Trying to achieve some different state is a form of clinging attachment to something that is in some imaginary future. Chögyam Trungpa said, “Meditation practice is not a matter of trying to produce a hypnotic state of mind or create a sense of restfulness. Trying to achieve a restful state of mind reflects a mentality of poverty. Seeking a restful state of mind, one is on guard against restlessness. There is a constant sense of paranoia and limitation” (p. 63). Instead, the goal in mindfulness mediation is to become precise to see what is occurring in the mind and to allow it space to arise and pass.
The second error my friend made was that this was a failure – in actuality it showed that meditation was working. Becoming aware of how much the mind jumps around and distracts itself is a success of awareness. Usually our discursive thoughts dominate us like the engine on a train, and we follow along blindly because we remain hitched to them. As we practice, we are able to uncouple from the engine from time to time and to see a broader perspective - the awareness aspect of smṛti. In terms of basic learning, we are practicing sensitization and discrimination learning. We learn to discriminate better when thoughts and feelings are occurring (mindfulness), and we become sensitized to noticing when we get captured by them (awareness). What happens as you get “better” at meditation is that you notice yourself getting distracted more! This isn’t because you actually think more – it’s because you get captured by it less and learn to notice it in finer and finer detail. Awareness gets better and stronger, which ironically feels like mindfulness is getting worse.
Once awareness has detected that our mindfulness has been lost, that we’ve re-hitched our awareness to our discursive thoughts and are no longer present with our breath, we have to make a decision to let go of the thought. The thought was obviously more interesting than the breath, otherwise we wouldn’t have lost our mindfulness. So it takes some effort to let the thinking go and to return to our intention and refocus our attention. By practicing letting go in this small way, we are strengthening our abilities to recognize when what we’re doing is not serving us well and to let go of continuing to do it. As we practice this minor letting go, we will get better at doing it in our daily lives.
Letting go is described as an important practice in psychotherapy and in all religions. For example, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39). The soundtrack to the Disney film Frozen dominated record sales in 2014, largely on the success of its hit single Let it Go. Yet for all of this emphasis in both religious and popular culture, letting go seems grossly under-rated and misunderstood.
Sometimes people think letting go is allowing yourself to be martyred – you “turn the other cheek” and just allow yourself to get beaten. Sometimes people think letting go is giving up – you stop trying. Sometimes people think letting go is not caring – allowing yourself to become comfortably numb. Letting go, at least within a Buddhist context, is none of these. Each of these perpetuates suffering. Each of these harms your relationships with others. In contrast, letting go in a healthy way should reduce suffering and improve your relationships.
Letting go is a form of love. It is trusting that things will unfold in a way that is ok, even if it isn’t the way you initially think would be best (for you). For example, as my daughter finished high school, began a job, and moved out, there were many choices she made that would not have been mine. Clinging to my preconceptions about what would be the “right” choices would not have made either of us happier, and it could have driven a wedge between us. If I let go in one of the three ways described above, would it have helped?
If I thought of it as playing the martyr, I would have continued to believe that my way was right and that I would allow myself to be damaged by her way. I likely would have made snippy comments from time to time, either because I could not hold them in or so that she would see how her decisions affected me. I might have tried to make her feel guilty for making the best decision she could.
If I gave up and stopped trying to provide some guidance, she might initially think this was freedom, but ultimately would feel betrayed. I would have to stop caring about her to truly give up.
If I didn’t give up totally, but just said “Whatever” like a teenager and stopped caring about the issue, this might also initially feel good for us both. Ultimately, however, I would have to check out of the conversation any time something relevant to the issue came up – I would have to actively put distance between us.
Any of these three approaches to letting go would be likely to cause more suffering for us rather than to alleviate it. This is the litmus test for any action in Buddhism – does doing it increase or reduce suffering? This is how we know whether our actions are skillful, although sometimes we can’t know until we’ve already taken action and found it to be a poor approach.
From my perspective, letting go has two critical aspects: not doing, and not needing one specific outcome. Both of these aspects help to reduce suffering and usually lead to more skillful actions.
When one is caught up in a story or emotion of some type, it usually makes us feel like we should “do” something. This might be to leave, to try to discuss and convince, to stand up for ourselves and fight, or any of thousands of other actions. In any of these cases, the motivation to act comes from trying to make ourselves feel better, not to do what is necessarily right. In fact, it’s really hard to know what is “right.” It’s difficult to know what’s right for ourselves in any situation, and it’s probably impossible to know what would be right for someone else. It becomes even more difficult when we think we understand the situation. Remember how believing they understood Nancy’s motivations changed what people learned and how it increased errors by over 100%. If we are telling ourselves a story about what is going on, what we want, what we want for the other person, how the other person feels or is making a mistake, we are fitting everything that happens into that storyline and will therefore miss things that don’t fit what we expect to see and will also distort other things because they do fit what we expect sufficiently. One trick that we begin to learn from mindfulness meditation is that we begin to see each of these thoughts and feelings as they happen. Seeing them helps us to be less captured by them and to believe them a little less as capital-T “Truth.” A second trick is that we broaden our awareness, which allows us to start seeing beyond what we expect to see. We may begin to notice details that don’t fit our storyline. This doubt is perhaps the best thing that we could learn. Recognizing that the situation is complex, that every actor has multiple motivations and goals, and that you are just one set of opinions within that constantly shifting matrix can help us to feel less compelled to have to do something to force all of those energies to go in one particular direction. Often the best thing to “do” is to just be present, paying focused attention to as much as you can while maintaining a broader awareness that includes both how you are reacting as well as other situational characteristics. This attention is clearly not withdrawing, nor is it giving up. If your intention is to help the other person come to a good decision, listening may be the best help. It may become clear that something needs to be said or done, but then you are acting from clarity, not reacting from within your story. So letting go of the need to do something, the reactionary energy, the motivations that seem helpful on their surface but really are just designed to help you feel safer, this is skillful letting go.
The second critical aspect of letting go is related, but focuses instead on examining your goals. Can you think of a time when you thought you wanted some specific outcome and you were sure that once you got it that then you would finally be happy? Once you got it, was it as expected? If you got something else instead, did you find that it was equally good or maybe even better? We are often so sure that we think we know what we like, what we need, and how we want things to be, but even when things go that way, it doesn’t usually turn out as we had expected. Letting go of specific goals or needing the outcome to be one way usually reduces suffering greatly, and often allows you to find unexpected joy.
After my divorce, I examined my romantic history to look for patterns. I found that I am attracted to a very specific set of features in a romantic partner. The number one thing I look for is eye color – I greatly prefer blue or green eyes, and am not attracted to brown-eyed women. I also tend to prefer brunettes to blondes, but that’s less important. I am highly attracted to intelligent, educated women; a surprising number of my romantic partners have had law degrees or PhDs. I like these educated women to be opinionated and even bossy. The more of these criteria any individual woman had, the greater the visceral reaction I would have toward her. I had always trusted this feeling all my life. When I had such a strong reaction to someone, that meant something important, didn’t it?
I met and began dating a woman who fit none of these criteria, except hair color. I could not believe that our relationship had any future. For two years of dating, I kept feeling that we shouldn’t be together. The visceral feeling that I trusted wasn’t there. This was my storyline. I know what I’m attracted to and the type of woman I should be with, right? Yet, the aspects of mindfulness and awareness pierced through my confusion.
If I mindfully examined how I felt when I was with her, it was exactly how I would like to feel with a partner. It was warm, accepting, and supportive. I felt adored. It was true that she hit basically none of the attributes on what I called my “A-list.” But if I created a list based on the question “How would I like to be treated in a relationship,” then she checked off all of those attributes. Focusing on what was actually occurring in our relationship helped me to get out of my story about relationships and be present.
Broader awareness made me question not just what I felt within the relationship, but to examine the context within which it was occurring. I had this list of attributes that I was attracted to and always trusted the reactions I had when someone fit the list. Yet, how had those relationships worked out? Just because I’m attracted to powerful, opinionated, and bossy women doesn’t mean that a good, mutually supportive relationship is guaranteed.
If I had continued to believe my own story, that the only road to matrimonial happiness is with a blue-eyed argumentative litigator, then I would have not been able to be open to any other option. Letting go of the specific goal gave me more paths to happiness, and likely even truer happiness.
We hinder our happiness when we think that there is a particular outcome we need. We hinder both our own and others’ happiness when we think that there is a particular outcome they need. Although I can believe that father knows best, my daughters have to make their own choices and mistakes in order to find the path to happiness. Holding onto my goal of a particular outcome makes me anxious and annoying – it increases suffering. If instead I say what I need to say but then allow things to take the course they need to, three things happen. First, everyone is happier. Second, it usually turns out ok – maybe not exactly as well as I imagine it should have, but fine enough. Third, our relationship feels stronger, rather than strained.
Remember, the Buddhist approach is not to believe anything without trying it for yourself. If you can let go of needing to do something and of needing a specific outcome, does suffering increase or decrease? If you wait and simply pay attention, can you act more skillfully?
Notice where letting go fits into the cycle of mindfulness – it is after one has gotten distracted and is no longer doing the most skillful thing. It is right before reconnecting to our intention to try again. This is instructive. This is what keeps letting go from becoming not caring or giving up. This is what separates letting go from being a doormat. We have an intention – to support our friends, to be less stressed, to raise our children to be successful and happy, whatever it is – and we keep coming back to it. We are not checking out or giving up. So we engage, and perhaps we act. If we are being mindful, the odds of acting skillfully in the situation go up. If we get distracted by our own goals or feelings, we are more likely to make a mistake, but even then we can return to our intention and start over again. Each trip through the cycle teaches us more, helps us to see more, and to be distracted by our blinders less. We remain engaged without the constant pressure to have to always be directing everyone else, but to live with a basic trust that everyone generally wants things to work out well, even if our definitions of that might vary.
Letting go when we are in the middle of our daily dramas is difficult. For years we have practiced letting our thoughts and feelings lead us. The engine of the train, therefore, has tremendous momentum and pull. It is unreasonable to assume that it can be changed quickly, no matter how much we might want to. Therefore, we do not set a resolution to change it – we set an intention which can be returned to regularly and begin to guide gently. This is also why we practice letting go on the meditation cushion. Practicing letting go of a thought and returning to the breath is easier, but it is still one more repetition – the letting go muscle gets stronger.
The five skills that can be trained by mindfulness meditation are not mystical. They are normal psychological skills of focusing and sustaining attention, maintaining cognitive control, (sometimes called executive functioning in psychology), and emotion regulation. Meditation is not some new age magical mystery tour – it is a set of practices that help us to develop skills and psychological strengths that are inherent in humans.
Some people enter meditation because they are suffering and they hope that these practices can help them. They know that they are a mess, and they want meditation to “fix” it. Yet, as they sit on the cushion, they are confronted very directly with all the ways in which they are a mess. This can be disheartening. They wanted to get better, but it seems like it’s getting worse. If they keep going, then they may confront more problems. There’s a seeming contradiction in the practice: I want to be one of those joyful people who handle things with ease, but I’m an anxious, controlling, neurotic mess. How can I become what I’m not? The answer to this contradiction is that it’s a false problem. You aren’t only a mess – you have all of the other aspects of ease, trust, and compassion already in you – you just haven’t practiced them as much as the anxiety. So we practice in a simple but effective way in meditation, using the time on the cushion as a safe place to focus on these skills of setting intentions, focusing and sustaining mindful attention, broadening our awareness, and letting go so that we can be less reactive. Every time we go through this cycle, each of these aspects gets stronger. If you know that you are weakest on one of them – perhaps letting go is the hardest for you – then you can focus some attention on that part of the cycle to emphasize and reinforce it more. Ultimately, your grandmother was a great neuroscientist. She told you “practice makes perfect.” She was right.
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