Say Something

If my friends and loved ones know anything about me, it’s that I always have a lot to say. There are many situations in which I feel comfortable to share my views and give advice, regardless of whether or not someone listens to or agrees with me.

And yet…

When it comes to creative or entrepreneurial endeavors, I am much more shy. There’s something about putting my ideas wide out into the open that brings up feelings of insecurity and doubt. Chief among those feelings is the fear of not saying anything original or groundbreaking. What if I put up a YouTube channel with ideas for improving the viewers’ mental health, but everything I say has already been said (and thus, heard) by everyone else? What can I say or do that could possibly draw an audience any better than the next guy? And why would any of that even matter?…

That last question is perhaps the most revealing.

If I don’t have anything novel or exciting to say, I fear the project will fail. My less rational, more fearful side tells me that if I fail, who I am will be invalidated. After all, I fancy myself to be an intelligent man, a good father, and a skillful therapist and coach. If others don’t agree, will it change how I view myself? As much as I would like to think it would be better to say, “No, because my opinion of myself is all that matters,” I think that response is too immature and simplistic. If there is anything to remember about change, it is that it is not always bad. The wiser part of me knows that shaking loose from unhelpful and inaccurate ideas about myself is a tremendous opportunity for further growth.

The wiser part of me is reminding the fearful part that what matters most is growth.

To grow, I need feedback. To get feedback, I need to either succeed for fail. To either succeed or fail, I need to just say something.

So here I am, saying something; and encouraging you, dear reader, to do the same.

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Filed under Personal Development, Psychology, Reflections

To Strive Or Not To Strive: Reflecting on Mark Manson’s “The Disease of More.”

A friend of mine from graduate school recently shared a blog post by Mark Manson titled, The Disease of More. I’ve enjoyed Manson in the past, so I gave it a read. As much as I feel it is generally more valuable to create new material to share, I think it might be beneficial for others to share my reactions to this piece (which are largely positive).

The article starts out with the following:

“Success is often the first step toward disaster. The idea of progress is often the enemy of progress.”

I immediately had a gut level reaction to the concept he was pointing to, and that has a lot to do with my experience participating in various online forums dedicated to the practice of different forms contemplative spiritual practice. Among contemplative types, there is a perennial argument between the developmental camp and the always-already-THAT camp. (I suppose it isn’t much different than the “salvation through works” vs “salvation through faith” camps within Christian traditions.) I have generally leaned more toward the developmental camp, given that there appears to be an undeniable progression of both skills development AND consciousness development that occurs over the lifespan, sometimes with or without deliberate effort. The idea that the only thing getting in one’s way is the drive to be better has at times created a near insurmountable roadblock to progress for many an aspiring yogi.

At the same time, I’ve also witnessed countless individuals discover, through practice, profound decreases in psychological suffering resulting from practice, which only briefly quells the powerful drive to suffer even LESS. From the perspective of the always-already-THAT camp, the drive to suffer less is itself a form of suffering. If the point of all this is to suffer less, why not abandon the drive to improve one’s self and simply be who you are already. “You are already enlightened. Just stop trying to get enlightened, and you’ll realize your true Self.”

As you’re reading this, I hope you’re starting to see how both of these concepts, or rather stances (as David Chapman would describe them in his online book, Meaningness), are incomplete. In both cases, what is being treated as a truth about reality would be better viewed as a way of looking, or a seeing that freesViews such as these can be an instruction, or method, which can be used to ever deepen (development camp) the experiential knowledge of how things truly are (always-already-THAT camp). In other words, I don’t believe it’s helpful to view either stance as being ontologically true, but that sometimes it may be helpful to view either or both as pragmatically true. When taken up as a way of seeing one’s self, life, or experience, either can lead to life transforming insight.

Without diving fully into the remaining contents of Manson’s article, it does appear he is using his chosen stance as a kind of method with regard to the man with whom he worked on this issue:

“What if there is no ‘next level?’ What if it’s just an idea you made up in your head? What if you’re already there and not only are you not recognizing it, but by constantly pursuing something more, you’re preventing yourself from appreciating it and enjoying where you are now?”

I don’t know if Mark understands his view as a being more of a method than a truth (I’d love the opportunity to ask him someday). If he does, I’d love it if he came out and said so. And maybe he has. My favorite professor in graduate school (R.I.P.), while education me and my fellow therapists-to-be, often told us he didn’t believe in magic. He believed in science, and for him that meant if something works, there should be a way to explain how and why it works. He took this a step further with his therapy clients, and made every effort to explain what he was doing with them and why, at every step. I was deeply inspired by his way of working with clients, and I do the same for the clients with whom I have the privilege to work. My insistence on both transparency and a pragmatic truth criterion is what inspired me to base much of my therapeutic approach on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). But I digress…

I suppose the point of this long and rambling post is the ideas I read in Mark’s post are only helpful in context. There are times when “stop trying so hard” is helpful, and times when it stunts growth. The development of wisdom requires the ability to determine which approach is more helpful at any given moment. So go, and be wiser. (Or perhaps you’re already wise enough. Stop trying… Just kidding.)

What is your experience of striving to grow? What happens for you when you relax that drive? Does it work in some conditions but not in others? I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially those which differ from mine.

P.S. I mentioned a few posts back that I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing. I consider my writing skills to be pretty rusty lately, and I’m open to feedback in that area as well. In the interests of becoming evermore comfortable stepping into vulnerability, please feel free to share whatever constructive criticism you may have. Thank you!

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Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Personal Development, Psychology, Reflections, Religion & Philosophy

Affirmations: More Than Ego-stroking

This week I started doing an adapted version of the Five Minute Journal, which has been around for quite some time. (A Google search will quickly provide lots of templates you can use.) The one I’m using includes a few blank lines on which it asks me to write down daily affirmations, starting with “I am…” I’ve always found affirmations a bit cheesy, bringing to mind those SNL sketches with the Stewart Smalley character…


“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

I’ve also always thought self affirmations have a narcissistic flavor to them, given the focus on talking up one’s qualities in a way that can lead to pathological over-inflation. “I am the best, strongest, most beautiful being in all the cosmos!”… or something like that. They are perhaps one of the most recognizable parts of the self-esteem movement that has produced paradoxical and unfortunate results. It turns out that if you tell someone they are special, without their having demonstrated mastery of any particular skill or quality, it can lead to confusion, depression, and in some cases a reduced willingness to practice difficult tasks (for fear of not performing well and losing the artificially high status imputed up on them). That is generally what comes to mind when I see the word “affirmations.”

At the same time, I appreciate a good challenge, and I value psychological and behavioral flexibility very highly. I’m willing to try new things to see if I can get results that are outside my expectations. So I did the damn affirmations for the last two days. Fortunately for me, my partner, and my children, it didn’t turn me into a narcissistic jerk (yet).

This morning, after writing in my Five Minute Journal (which included affirmations), I sent a text to my soon-to-be-wife. I planned for it to be the usual, “Good morning, I love you, have a good day,” sort of text, and those thoughts were included. However, I found that I was softly compelled to write affirmations to her as well. I reminded her she is capable, skillful, and worthy of the time and space she needs to learn her new job (among other things). Not that this is totally out of the ordinary, as I tend to be a pretty supportive and affirming person in general. Though, it occurred to me that practicing affirmations may not just be about pumping up one’s self esteem. It also makes it feel more natural and effortless to provide the same kind of love and support to others, which is the opposite of self-centered egotism.

Upon further reflection, this doesn’t surprise me at all. There is evidence to suggest that the more one is able to label, share, and accept their emotions, the better they are at recognizing and caring for the feelings of others. Likewise, self-compassion tends to lead toward greater compassion for others. In other words, it is difficult to see in someone else something one is unable to see in themselves.

Take the time to remind yourself of your accomplishments, your strengths, and your values. See if it helps you see the same in others. I think you’ll find, like I have, that it will be a wise use of five minutes each day.

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Doing Makes You Better

I remember reading a psychology textbook in college that described an experiment where one group of participants was asked to spend a period of time (several days or weeks, I think) trying to make one really great vase. Another group of participants was asked to produce as many vases as possible during the same period of time. At the end of the study, the vase made by the one-really-great-vase team was compared to one of the late state production vases of the other team, to determine which one was objectively better. The study found that the group who spent their time producing as many vases as possible produced a better quality vase than the other team.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Imagine you wanted to be able to shoot the perfect free throw. It seems like common sense that your time would be better spent shooting as many free throws and possible, rather than theorizing the perfect approach and then giving it one try. “Practice makes perfect,” as they say. (Though, I’d think it’s more accurate to say practice makes proficient, but nit picking is unattractive, so…)

I promise I’ll get to my point…

In my last post, I shared that I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time, and that I wasn’t sure I really had anything important to say anymore. This morning, the thought crossed my mind, “Maybe you should write another post today.” My mind didn’t think of an interesting topic within a split second, and then that familiar sense of aversion arose. “You have nothing to say. No one will find it interesting unless it’s awesome, so you better plan something first.” So, instead of writing, I went straight to reading a popular self-improvement blog I used to read frequently. And while I was reading it, I recognized – again – that I was avoiding the very action that will lead to me being a better writer; the process that will allow me to actually have something important to say. And then I remembered the damn vase study…

Now here I am, again, producing another vase. It isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it’s a damn good start.

I’m finding that motivation is a lot like the classical virtues – courage, benevolence, loyalty, honesty, etc. The thing about the classical virtues is that the only way to develop them is to do them. To develop honesty, tell the truth. To develop courage, do something courageous. Motivation is no different. To develop motivation, do the thing for which you desire to develop motivation. To do otherwise (as my realtor friends use to say) is just “getting ready to get ready.”

On this very day, I encourage anyone who read this to do as I have done. If you are avoiding something because you’re afraid of not doing it perfect, or because you fear rejection, or you’re afraid to look stupid – do it anyway. If what you fear is failure, than you must practice, or you perpetually will fail by default (and I’m pretty sure that condition is fertile ground for depression and worry, which we could all do without).


P.S. If you hate this post, post a comment and tell me why. As I’ve heard Tim Ferris put it, failure is feedback.


Filed under Personal Development, Psychology, Reflections

What comes next?

It has been a very long time since I’ve written any posts for this blog. I’ve been working full-time as a mental health counselor for the last two and a half years, and I’ve been using my free time to prioritize family life over creative projects. I’m not exactly sure what is motivating me to write this post. I used to always have a lot to say, mostly because I was a compulsive consumer of self-help literature for most of my twenties. Perhaps the reason I’m back on the blog is to see if, by pounding away at my keyboard, I discover whether or not I still have something to say outside of my personal and professional settings.

I  have been feeling a slight internal pressure to further develop my ability to help and influence others, and thereby also continue my growth as a human being. I’m occupying a strange and vulnerable place – knowing I want need to grow, and not knowing which direction to take. Allowing space for uncertainty and accepting the reality of risk is something I encourage my therapy clients to practice on a daily basis, so I’m not surprised to see that this move into vulnerability (and the aversion that comes with it) is a struggle for me as well.

There’s an inner voice that says, “Jackson, this is the most boring, unhelpful blog post ever written.” There may be some truth to that. However, I also know from experience that judgments hardly ever reflect a full picture of reality. Clinging to harsh evaluations rarely leads to anything helpful. Buying into negative judgments tends to move me out of vulnerability and into shame – the deeply felt belief that I’m not good enough to do this, that I have no right to want this, and that I should probably just fall in line and settle for what I know I deserve.

When I started writing this, I was not clear about the intention. The good news is that I seem to have found a reason through the writing process. This seemingly insignificant piece of writing is a clear rejection of the status quo of fitting in. It is a way to practice once again stepping into a life stance where my ideas are exposed and open to scrutiny. Whether or not I will be brave enough to continue this exploration is yet undetermined. I guess the record will speak for itself.

Here’s to the rejection of fear and the willingness to grow, despite the uncertainty of success and the risk of commitment.

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When the Tool Becomes the Master

Last night in class my professor brought up some interesting ideas about the way new technology (i.e. new tools) changes our minds – the ways we think and act. Without getting deep into the context of the lecture (which was more of a discussion, really), he said that sometimes what is meant to be a tool for us to master for our own sake often becomes the master itself. The very tools we master can begin mastering us when we would be better off ruling them. He said this is true of both physical tools AND conceptual tools.

And that got me thinking…

I think there are conceptual tools that were designed as an aid to meditation practice. One such tool, which is perhaps one of the most common tools used in Buddhist meditation, is no-self or not-self. When used as one tool among many, it’s a wonderful thing. It helps us to let go limited self-concepts that do not fit our current situation and move on.

But not-self can quickly become the Master. It can be a nagging voice that drops into our practice when we are doing something that would usually be considered harmless, such as reflecting on a time when we felt hurt or scared, or even happy or proud. It can creep in and say, “What’s wrong with you? There’s no self, remember? This is an illusion. You know that already.” And in that sense it can be a tool unconsciously used to shoot down confidence, avoid certain experiences that should probably be attended to, or cause one to feel guilty or shameful around a “self-centered” emotion.

And that’s just one case of the way a concept can quickly go from being a useful tool to a tool-that-uses-you.

I’m not prepared to give some kind of ready-made solution to this conundrum, as though it can be overcome by yet another conceptual tool. But there is tremendous value in simply being aware of the possibility of our tools becoming our masters. Maybe then we won’t blindly accept the spiritual-sounding voice that tends to pull us away from the freshness of experience in any given moment. It may also inspire us to try using tools more consciously, perhaps in response to the more tools that arise and express themselves more automatically, and often inappropriately.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

Doing Spiritual Work Alone-Together

It is a truism that ultimately, spiritual work is the work of one. When it comes down to it, each of us is responsible for putting in the time and effort required to grow, because no one can do the work in our place. No one can meditate for you. No one can serve in your place, or make your choices for you. Your freedom of expression may be restrained by means of aggression, but how you respond to any given set of circumstances always rest squarely on your shoulders (Philosophy of Existence 101).

Though ultimately the work of one, any individual spiritual practice that does not consciously include both the feedback and participation of others is bound to seem incomplete. While no one can do your work for you, the role of others on the spiritual path is integral in the deepest sense of the word. Our spiritual lives are embedded in social contexts that may be repressed or consciously ignored, but never truly escaped.

Including others is messy. Fellow travelers may provide helpful support and guidance when we need it most, which I’m sure we would all agree is beneficial to our respective practices. We also find ourselves having to deal with disagreements, setbacks, and other frustrations that arise in relationship and seem to get in the way of the things we would rather be doing for the sake of our own path. It can be difficult to find the motivation to help our neighbor work through their shit when we have enough of our own shit to work through.


Here’s the funny thing about shit: it’s fertilizer. The very stuff that we don’t care to mix into our lives is the stuff that helps each of us grow and mature spiritually. The moments of our lives which you might regard as a waste (pun intended) of your precious time and energy are some of the most useful for your development. Difficulties can become the sustenance you need to make the journey; the fuel that powers your vessel onward.

In this day and age, when and where intimate involvement with others is nearly unavoidable by most, it makes practical sense to include others in our spiritual work in a conscious and intentional way. The responsibility to engage in your work is still yours and yours alone. Given the circumstances, don’t sell yourself short by going it alone. Instead, I suggest going it alone-together. This doesn’t mean that you simply need to learn to tolerate others enough to get by. It means that there is a potent well-spring of energy waiting for those who learn to consciously and deliberately tap into it. What better way is there to mobilize your efforts in a pragmatic and responsible way? These days, I’d say there isn’t one.

Regardless, of course, the choice is yours.

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Filed under Existentialism, Meditation, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

Yoga, Stress, and Learning to Drop It.

I’ve been practicing meditation for several years now. But, do to my body’s longstanding inflexibility, I have avoided practicing yoga as a compliment to my meditation and overall spiritual practice. I recently decided to give yoga the old college try.

Rather than flipping through the local Yellow Pages for nearby yoga studios, I did what any other late-twenties, moderately tech-savvy, do-it-yourselfer would do: search for a decent YouTube channel. It didn’t take long to find a few videos that appeared to match my skill-level (aka, complete beginner). So, for the last four weeks or so, I’ve been fumbling my way through 10-20 minute sequences 2-4 times per week. (Hey, I had to start somewhere.)

Each of the videos I’ve learned from end with a relaxation exercise in the savasana (“corpse”) pose. It’s basically a form of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which involves tensing the muscles in some area of the body for a few seconds and then relaxing them. It goes something like this:

“Lift up your right leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your left leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your hips, contract your buttocks… drop.”

“Lift up your arms, make fists… drop.”

“Lift up your chest, contract your upper-back… drop.”

… and so on, and so forth.

I assume that – as is the case with PMR – the purpose of contracting the muscles prior to relaxing them is to become aware of their location in the body, and also how they feel when contracted or relaxed. With awareness comes the potential for greater influence over these muscles, which means that one can learn to contract or relax muscles that they never knew they had. The result of this training in everyday life becomes quite clear when situations arise which we’ve learned to react with muscle tension rather than relaxation. In other words, it teaches us a lot about stress.

For example, during my commute home from work a few days ago, I looked into my rear-view mirror and noticed that the man driving behind me was driving close enough to my car to count the dust particles on my trunk. Being that this is a particularly dangerous situation to encounter, due to the risk of physical injury or property damage, I immediately tensed up. However, as soon as I noticed the tension in my body  – and thus, my mind – I was able to respond with a mental note to simply, “Drop it.” You know what? It worked.

A similar situation arose while I was entering my office building one morning last week. In the reflection of the glass doors ahead of me, I saw a woman walking toward the building fairly close behind me. Reflexively, I stopped as I opened the door in order to hold it for the oncoming pedestrian out of common courtesy. However, the woman slowed her pace as she neared the stairs, coming almost to a dead halt. Feeling kind of silly for stopping, I thought, “Whatever,” and allowed the door to close as I walked into the building. Yet again, along with the thought, “Whatever,” I felt my body tense up at the shoulders and in my gut. To my surprise, without any prior intentional planning for this particular scenario, the thought came – “Drop it.” And so, I dropped it. What a relief!

How often do we carry our stress around unnecessarily?  It reminds me of this story told in the tradition of Zen Buddhism:

“Two zen monks were travelling. They came to a ford of a stream that was running high, and the current was strong and frightening looking. An attractive young lady was standing at the ford, looking nervous. She clearly was afraid to cross, but had an important reason to go. Without a word, the older of the two monks lifted her in his arms and waded across the stream, and placed her safely on the far bank. The younger monk looked shocked at this action, but kept his silence for quite some number of miles as they continued their journey. Finally, he blurted out “You know that it is against the rules of our order to have any contact with women. How could you do that?”.

The older monk replied “I put her down when I reached the other side of the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her this whole way.”[1]

Driving home last week, even after the man in the red truck turned down a different street, I could have carried him all the way home, into my living room, or to my dining room table during dinner. Or, this I could have carried the woman at the door into my office building and to my desk, where she would stand motionless in my mind’s eye, making me wonder, “Why didn’t she just keep walking? Didn’t she see me holding the door?” I could be working with this frustrating woman all day! Of course, the man driving the red truck and the woman outside my office building were not the cause of my stress. The stress was a reaction produced by this very body and mind (aka, “Jackson”). From this perspective, guided by the insights arising from a very simple yoga practice, stress is quite simply, and most fundamentally, a bad habit. We carry stress around not because we have to, but because we’ve learned to.

That said, I think it’s true that there are innate human reflex-responses to stimuli perceived as threatening. This is built into the earliest, most basic structures of our brains.  We can’t help but react with fear in certain situations, and this is actually VERY helpful for us as a species. The sympathetic nervous system is a blessing when there is an actual threat.[2] But, how useful is this kind of response to, say, being stuck in traffic on the way to work, or when someone cuts in front of you in the check-out line at the grocery store? Probably not that useful.

When it comes to learning how to release stress and the reactive emotions that come along with it, it pays to pay attention to your body. Pay attention not just when you’re stressed, but also when you’re relaxed. Try alternating between the two within a few minutes, and notice the way the qualities of your mind (thinking, perception) in both states. This simple exercise can bring a rather unfortunate habitual pattern into light. This first step is crucial, for you can’t release something you don’t know is happening. In other words, you must know before you can let go.

[1] “Carrying the Woman” story borrowed from Taoist & Zen stories and Ramblings.

[2] One of my professors describes threats as, “lions, tigers, bears, muggers, buses, etc.” – situations that can actually harm you or someone you care about, but that we don’t run into everyday… save for buses, perhaps.


Filed under Meditation, Mindfulness, Personal Development, Psychology, Reflections

Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

“Mara returns” is a phrase commonly used in Dharma talks given by instructors belonging to the Insight Meditation tradition (Jack Kornfield in particular). Mara is the name given to the satanic figure of pre-modern Indian mythology, who is depicted as the author of illusion leading to clinging; perpetuating the round of rebirth and suffering for all non-liberated beings. What is this illusion that leads to clinging? In simple terms, it is the illusion of self-identification – that is, the belief that experiential phenomena of any kind (mind or body, private or public, internal or external) can be accurately categorized as inherently-existing in the form of I, me, or mine. At the moment of his full awakening (or total unbinding), the Buddha is said to have successfully conquered the armies of Mara, liberating himself from clinging to anything as I, me, or mine; thus, becoming free from the round of perpetual rebirth and, most importantly, suffering.

However, although the Buddha had successfully conquered Mara, there are a number of stories in the Buddhist scriptures where Mara comes back to visit him. Being that Mara represents the illusion of inherently-existing selfhood, it would seem that the Buddha’s awakening did not entail a complete eradication of the privately experienced phenomena that was previously interpreted as a “self.” And yet, when Mara returns to visit the Buddha, the Buddha’s reaction is quite jovial and friendly. “Ah, my good friend Mara has come back to see me. Let’s have a visit!” So then, if the illusion itself was not permanently eradicated from the Buddha’s experience, what changed? More specifically, what processes are responsible for the reduction in suffering that is reported by so many meditation practitioners, both ancient and modern?

One possible explanation of why suffering can be alleviated through practicing certain types of meditation can be found by applying certain core concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a purely psychological theory of human language and cognition based on a philosophy of Functional Contextualism. One such core concept of RFT is that the functions of stimulus relations are contextually controlled. To explain what this means, consider the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the zoo and visit the snakes exhibit. You may then peer through a clear glass cage into the eyes of a massive anaconda. This huge snake may even hiss at you, or snap its jaws in your direction (Yikes!). And while this may be startling to experience, consider the context: you’re standing on the other side of cage designed to keep the snake from being able to sink its teeth into your neck, or perhaps swallow you whole. In fact, there’s a good chance you would not have approached the snake at all had you thought you were in any real danger.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say you come home from work and head straight for the bathroom. You open the door and flip on the lights, and you see that on the floor directly in front of you is the same massive anaconda! How different do you think your emotional reaction would be from when you saw this same snake behind protective glass at the zoo? VERY different, right? In the simplest terms, the change in your emotional response to the snake is not due to the snake, but rather the context in which you encounter and experience the snake. This is an example of how the transformation of stimulus functions is contextually controlled. In other words, your response (i.e. function) to the snake (i.e. stimulus) was transformed when the context was changed (i.e. from the zoo to your bathroom).

How does this relate to meditation and liberating insight? Prior to beginning a meditation practice we grow up perceiving and engaging with the world in a particular way, and relating ourselves to it as if we were inherently-existing entities. There are many benefits to this kind of self-referencing. Without having a clear idea of who we are in relation to others, our ability to survive as an organism in our environment would be seriously impeded. Our physical bodies have specific needs, and we humans behave and speak in ways that aid us in manipulating our environment in order to get those needs met. Identifying as a self is an integral part of this process. Without the ability to develop self-referencing behaviors, I don’t think human beings would have survived – let alone thrived – as we have as a species on this planet. We are social animals, and socializing requires relationships. Relationships between humans require individuals – that is, separate selves.

However, this self-referencing behavior has a dark side; or, we could even say a Mara-side. For, this illusion of self could theoretically generate an infinite number of ways in which we can needlessly suffer. Of course, physical pain is a variety of suffering that is a common experience for all human beings, as it is necessary for survival. As far as I know, meditation cannot permanently alleviate all forms of physical pain. But, a huge amount of psychological suffering is brought into being through verbal and physical behaviors within a self-referential context. This psychological suffering is largely due to one’s attempt to control their unwanted inner experiences (i.e. private events) through grasping at something one thinks is better, resisting what one doesn’t like, and/or ignoring those aspects of experience that one considers neutral (those things that don’t stand out, or that are not seen as being important).

What I think the Buddha discovered, and I believe many people continue to discover today, is that by engaging in the skillful practice of meditation one can effectively make changes to the context of present experiencing in way that reveals features about experiential phenomena (i.e. stimuli) that is not otherwise directly perceived. This direct apprehension of phenomenal experience in a previously unknown way further alters one’s context, which can have the effect of transforming the functions of stimuli related to self-referencing. When self-referencing is perceived clearly just as it is – which is totally arbitrary, transient, inconstant – it becomes much less distressing over time. Some might even say that it is possible to completely alleviate the distressing function of stimuli related to self-referencing, which would be akin to the total unbinding (nibbana) purportedly attained by the historical Buddha. Whether or not this level of attainment is actually possible, there is a growing body of clinical literature that suggests it is possible to significantly reduce this form of distress.

What I want to make clear, though, is that it is not necessary for self-referencing stimuli to eradicated from one’s experience forever. Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated. I think this is what some meditation teachers mean when they say “Mara returns.” The illusion remains accessible to one’s experience, but it can be understood as being like a mirage rather than a concrete reality. No one would chase after a mirage if they knew, by direct experience, that it was truly a mirage. It doesn’t matter how many times the mirage returns to one’s experience – it’s still not an oasis that can quench our thirst. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to eradicate self-referential thoughts and perceptions from one’s experience. The activity of trying to eliminate phenomenal appearances is itself an aversive act, and thus a potential cause for further suffering. But, we can use contextual controls to transform the functions of self-referencing-related stimuli. That is, we can get to a place where Mara returns, but no longer bothers us.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

Psychological Mechanisms of Clinging and Release

[This is an adapted version of an email I sent to some of the other members of the Dharma Forum Refugee Camp community prior to its founding.]

Hey guys. I just finished up a sit and thought I’d share some of the things that I reflected upon afterward. It could make for an interesting discussion. If not, that’s OK.

In a message I sent you all not long ago, I wrote:

“This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that… [m]odels suck most of the time. It’s always better to approach this moment with openness and curiosity, and to ask, “Am I suffering? If so, how? What’s causing it?” When you notice the cause, and stick with it, the mind will eventually let it go. I think it’s much the same way as when your brain tells you to move your hand of the hot stove that is burning you. There’s isn’t much you need to actually do other than to let the wisdom of the dharma speak for itself.” (emphasis added)

There seem to be impersonal processes at work that lie beyond the reach of “doing.” “Doing” is what gets us into the mess we’re in (i.e. suffering). And yet, meditation is itself an activity of sorts; a “doing.” But it is a very special variety of activity. The only activity of its kind. It is the activity of engaging with phenomena in a way which reveals a deeper truth. And when that deeper truth is revealed and comprehended (which we can’t do by choice), the impersonal processes – the psychological ‘mechanisms’ of clinging and release – do something. Or rather, they stop doing something. They stop clinging. They release their grip.

This is fascinating to me. It’s such a paradox. There are intentional actions which will lead to a release that is totally beyond intention. Neither you nor I can simply decide to wake up, and then just do it. Nor can we simply decide to stop doing anything. For, it takes some degree of intention to set up the conditions that will eventually result in awakening/release.

In practice, this is exactly how it works. You practice noting, or choiceless awareness, or any other effective meditative technology. You recognize the deep features of present experiencing. You stop doing by allowing the context you’ve intended to create perpetuate itself with no further intention (which culminates in the Equanimity ñana, or “non-fashioning,” etc.). It hums along until awakening – be it cessation or realization of Emptiness – happens of its own accord.

I know this is just one way describe the process of what happens in meditation. But once again, I am struck by the notion that the Middle Path must include both doing and non-doing, effort and non-effort, intention and non-intention. It’s easy to see how classical Buddhist teachings like “non-attachment” can be so misunderstood in the present day, particularly in Western culture. On one level, non-attachment can be practiced on purpose. But at another, deeper level, non-attachment occurs through the result of practice, though of its own accord. To suggest that one should refrain from practice because they are “too attached,” is bad advice most of the time. If one does not utilize their free will as a human being to cultivate the appropriate setting, how and when will awakening occur?

I guess I’m saying that intention plays an important role on the path to awakening. But, awakening itself is not achieved through conscious intention alone. The mechanisms of awakening are impersonal, transcending the reach of human action. And yet, somehow what we choose to do right now can aid in cracking the code; or rather, the code cracking itself. Paradox at its best.


Filed under Buddhism, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy