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Before we begin, a quick warning:
Do NOT simply read this post and think “Oh, this is interesting,” and store the information in your brain without taking action.
If you want to have a meditation practice that is consistent, enjoyable, and energizing, then read this post carefully, and be thoughtful about how it applies to your own life and practice.
Here we go… the 3 reasons why your meditation practice is failing:
1) PRESSURING yourself to sit for too long
People tend to think that in order to “really" meditate, you need to sit for at least 20 or 30 mins, or maybe an hour.
Fortunately, it’s just not true. You DON'T have to sit for 20 minutes every morning to be a "good" meditator.
Even 1 minute counts as meditation (actually, just a single moment of awareness is all it takes). That means your daily meditation sits can be as long or as short as you like.
It’s much better to choose an amount of time that you can be consistent with, rather than picking a time that’s too long and that you’re not able to commit to.
Solution: Start with 5 minutes every day. If that’s too hard, move it down to 3 minutes. Too easy? Move it up to 10 minutes. And if you ever miss 2 days in a row, drop your goal down to 1 minute per day, until you can be consistent.
2) Thinking you need to “CLEAR YOUR MIND”
When most people try meditation, they sit down, focus on the breath, and INEVITABLY, a thought pops into the mind, and they start thinking.
If it’s your first time meditating, you might think you’ve failed. That you were supposed to stop yourself from thinking and just be in a state of absorptive bliss where you are completely focused in the present, and one with the universe.
Fortunately, that’s not true either. Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts, or clearing your mind, it’s just about seeing what your mind is doing.
Let me repeat that: there is NOTHING wrong with thinking during meditation. The key is to be aware of thoughts when they happen.
Solution: When a thought comes into the mind, just let it come. No need to push it away or cling to it. Just watch it come, say hello to it, and then let it be there. It’s only a problem if you make it one.
If this was news to you, you may need to take my course, Mindfulness Made Easy!, which will teach you everything you need to know about practicing mindfulness meditation.
3) Trying to do it all ON YOUR OWN
Most people fail to keep up a consistent meditation practice. It’s difficult to meditate every day.
It’s very easy to skip your practice. "I’ll do it later," you say, and then later never comes.
No one is there to call you out on it. One skipped day turns into two, which turns into three.
Time flies, and then it’s been month since you’ve actually sat down to meditate.
Solution: Seek out support from a meditation group, a friend, or a teacher. Find accountability from someone who’s done it before, and knows what you’re going through. Successful people know how to get help from others.
By the way, if you’re looking for help in meditation, or just with your mind in general, have a chat with me about where you’re getting stuck, and I’ll point you in the right direction.
And if you're getting stuck with something else in meditation, let me know in the comments below, and I'll see if I can help!
I'm too lazy, I'm not focused enough, I'm too shy, I'm too egotistical, I'm too fat, I don't know what I'm doing in life, I'm just not good enough... I should be doing more. I should have it figured out by now... If people REALLY knew me, they would see right through me.
Some days my self-judgement is NON-STOP. I've found that the only thing that helps me find relief from my own torment is self-compassion, treating myself with kindness, as I would treat a close friend.
Kristin Neff, one of the pioneers of Self-Compassion research and training, says that self-compassion has 3 components to it:
1. Treating yourself with kindness as opposed to self-judgement. For example, saying to yourself, "It's OK, I'm here for you..."
2. Being actively motivated to help yourself. Asking what you need in the present moment, and then trying to give that to yourself.
3. Connecting with the common humanity of your situation. Understanding that everyone is imperfect and you are not alone in your suffering.
I've found these to be useful steps for calling up self-compassion. Next time you hear the voice of the inner critic, try going through these 3 steps.
And if that doesn't help, send me a message and I will send you a hug through the airwaves. 🤗
And if you have another strategy that helps you deal with self-judgement, I'd love to hear it! Leave a note in the comments below!
It’s OK to worry.
It’s OK to space out.
It’s OK to be lonely.
It’s OK to get upset.
It’s OK to be unsure of yourself.
It’s even OK to crave another cookie even when you’re completely stuffed full from the first 6 cookies and just eating your emotions (this one hits a little close to home).
In other words, you don’t have to be perfect.
You can feel and experience any of these things, and still be a whole human, worthy of love and respect.
In fact, giving yourself the permission to feel and be all these things is what forms the foundation of genuine inner peace and well-being.
I’m bringing this up because I keep coming across this idea that being “mindful” means being joyful and cheery all the time. Or that it means being perfectly concentrated, never getting lost in thought or distracted.
It’s this idea you should somehow be better than all that. That you should rise above any difficulties or negative emotions in a state of spiritual transcendence and glowing radiance (cue the sunshine, butterflies, and angelic voices singing).
To that I say Horse-Rubbish!
Being able to make space for your flaws is what actually helps you move toward a greater sense of well-being.
And that the converse is true as well: when you don’t make space for what’s arising, in that very moment you are suffering, fighting against reality. Like trying to punch a 20-foot ocean wave coming at you. You will always lose.
It is impossible to be in a state of resistance and simultaneously be in a state of happiness or peace. The two mind states cannot co-exist.
If your highest aim is lasting wellbeing, and freedom from suffering, then it comes through first learning to be at peace with what is.
Mindfulness is about finding peace right where you are, no matter the circumstances.
Put it into practice:
So try this out: If your mind is full of stress, worry, and anger, see if you can make space for those feelings. Being honest with yourself about what’s actually going in. Because, that’s what’s true for you in the present moment.
One way that I like to do this is to use a short phrase to acknowledge the feeling. “Oh, right now I’m feeling _____.” Or, “Right now _____ is arising.” And then, see if you can feel it in the body. Notice what physical sensations are you experiencing.
You can do this in your formal meditation practice, or in your daily life.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
"I'm too ugly. I don't like this photo. I look fat. My face is too round. My beard looks dirty and gross. I'm not attractive. I will never be good enough. No one will ever love me." These are the thoughts the went through my head when I saw this photo, taken by my friend this morning over breakfast. I have these kinds of self-criticizing thoughts quite often, particularly when I see photos of myself. In elementary school I was teased for being fat. I was picked on by people who I thought were my friends. The emotional scars from those days haven't left me, and likely I will carry that baggage for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, my friend (the one who took the photo) and I had just come from the morning mindfulness meditation group in Chiang Mai, and I had enough mindful awareness to see those thoughts of self-criticism and self-judgment as they were arising. Just seeing the thoughts as they arose allowed me to not get sucked so deeply into their negativity. I didn't identify with the self-hatred. Instead, I just noticed it as a passing thought, and was able to redirect my attention to more positive qualities of myself and feel a little more appreciation for my body. It was a powerful moment of choosing self-love over self-loathing.
Today, I want to share a few quotes on self-love. For all of you out there who struggle, or have ever struggled, with body image issues or low self-esteem, these quotes are for you.
5 quotes on self-love and self-esteem:
1. “Most of the shadows of this life are caused by standing in one’s own sunshine.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
2. “You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” – Louise L. Hay
3. “There are days I drop words of comfort on myself like falling leaves and remember that it is enough to be taken care of by myself.” – Brian Andreas
4. “Your problem is you’re… too busy holding onto your unworthiness.” – Ram Dass
5. “When I loved myself enough, I began leaving whatever wasn’t healthy. This meant people, jobs, my own beliefs and habits – anything that kept me small. My judgement called it disloyal. Now I see it as self-loving.” – Kim McMillen
In just a few hours I’ll be heading up to Spirit Rock meditation center in the hills of northern California, where I’ll be going into a 20-day silent meditation retreat. I’ll be away from email and internet (and all forms of communication) until August, so I wanted to drop a quick note before I go. This time, I’ll just leave you with some words of wisdom from the wonderful and wise Pema Chodron, who has the lovely skill of cutting through the BS to tell us what we need to hear, rather than what we want to hear. Here’s Pema:
Instead of asking ourselves, ‘How can I find security and happiness?’ we could ask ourselves, ‘Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace-disappointment in all its many forms-and let it open me?’
So often, particularly in our society, with our quick fixes and instant gratification, we think that we shouldn’t be feeling pain, we shouldn’t be feeling discomfort or loss or disappointment. That if we are experiencing something unpleasant, it must mean we’re doing something wrong.
Here Pema reminds us to go against the stream of our evolved and conditioned reactions – grasping after what’s pleasant and running from what’s unpleasant – and to instead see if we can make room for it all, allowing everything to arise, with a compassionate and kind awareness.
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Can we stay present for our pain, as well as our joy? Can we simply be compassionate to ourselves and to others for the suffering that exists, rather than spending all our energy wishing it weren’t this way? Of course, this doesn’t mean being complacent, or letting people walk all over us (click here for an article I wrote on how to be more accepting without becoming a pushover).. It just means acknowledging the truth of the present moment, with kindness and equanimity.
Finally, Pema offers up a humorous take on what it’s like to be human:
We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.
May you enjoy your days fully, and also have the grace and wisdom to let go when the tide comes.
A few days ago I was listening to a talk by Vinny Ferraro, a San Francisco-based Insight meditation teacher. In the talk, Vinny reflects on the practice of mindfulness and its often-forgotten component of kindness. I found his words beautiful, inspiring, and relevant, not just to meditation, but to every aspect of life. Speaking about mindfulness, Vinny says:
This practice, it involves two components: kind awareness... And if you have to let one of them go, let it be awareness. I know enough JERKS that can meditate really good. I don’t really care how long you can sit for – I want to know how you treat the people in your life, I want to know how gentle you are when you fuck up. Just keep your eyes on what you’re cultivating...
What’s most important in mindfulness, as Vinny so beautifully reminds us here, is how we’re relating to our experience. It’s not about how concentrated we can become, or how long we’re able to sit without moving.
What truly matters in this practice is that we nurture qualities of the heart and mind that lead to more joy, happiness, compassion, and understanding.
When we practice mindfulness, we can ask ourselves in every moment, are we being kind? Are we being patient? Or are we simply cultivating more aversion, greed, or delusion? As Vinny reminds us, “Just keep your eyes on what you’re cultivating...”
And if you're wondering why we should be kind, Vinny has an answer for that as well. He shares what he calls an “amazing secret” that took him 35 years to figure out:
It turns out… being nice, feels really fucking cool. That’s like, super profound for me…
The next time you mess up, check to see how you’re relating to the experience, how you're treating yourself. Are you being kind, as you would to a friend? Or are you treating yourself harshly, with judgement and self-criticism? Think about experimenting with kindness toward yourself, even if for no other reason than the fact that it simply feels better than being judgemental.
Or, in the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
If you're looking to get started with a meditation practice, check out my new online course, Mindfulness Made Easy! | A Practical Guide to Mindfulness.
I still remember the day I entered my first silent meditation retreat. I had recently graduated from the University of California, Davis, and had capped off a stellar academic career with a less-than stellar existential crisis. Why? I was anxious all the time and felt like my brain would just never shut off.I couldn't stop planning for the future, or replaying the past.
I wondered if I was ever going to be truly happy.
That existential crisis turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. It led me to the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India and to my first silent meditation retreat. That retreat changed my life and sent me down a path of well-being that I am still on today.
If you've ever been interested in going on a silent retreat yourself, but you're not sure how to get started, then this post is for you. I'll recommend a few of the places I've been to personally, as well as a few that I know of that have good reputations. These recommendations are all are in the vipassana style, which I find most appealing for its rationality and secularity. If you're into science and rational thinking, chances are you'll like these places too.
Of course, there are many other styles of meditation out there. If you feel I've missed your favorite retreat center, please feel free to recommend it in the comments below!
If you're looking for a more detailed description of some of the emotional aspects of going on a retreat, you may want to check out another post I wrote, What I Learned From 10 Days of Silence.
Without further ado, here are 5 places to get started on your meditation retreat journey.
Spirit Rock & the Insight Meditation Society
The first two places I'll recommend are so similar, that it makes more sense to write about them together. These are the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California (seen in the feature photo at the heading of this post), and the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachussetts. Both of these centers focus primarily on "insight meditation", or vipassana.
But what makes these "Western vipassana" centers so great is the exceptional quality of the teachers, who skillfully blend ancient wisdom teachings with modern understandings of science, social justice, and environmentalism. In any given retreat you might hear a Sufi poem followed by the latest research findings in neuroscience. You will meet teachers with deep understanding of issues related to social justice and gender equality.
On top of that, at these centers there is much more emphasis on kindness and self-compassion, which can be lacking in some of the Asian vipassana centers.
Another positive aspect of these centers is the accommodation. I've slept in some retreat centers around the world where you have to deal with giant spiders and poisonous house centipedes the size of your face. But Spirit Rock and IMS are clean as a whistle! And don't even get me started on the food! Healthy, vegetarian meals that are tastier than grandma's home cooking.
So, what's the downside? Maybe you already guessed, it's the price. A 7-day retreat can cost you anywhere from $500-$800. And the longer retreats can be more than $1,000. That being said, when it comes to something as profound and life-changing as silent meditation retreat, it's honestly worth every penny.
Besides, you're paying for world-class teachers with decades of teaching experience (not to mention the delicious food!). If cost is an issue, they also have a number of different scholarships available.
Conclusion: Spirit Rock and IMS are two of the best retreat centers in the world. If you can afford it, it's worth every single penny.
Goenka vipassana retreat centers
One of the most famous retreat courses in the world is the Goenka-style vipassana retreat. If you hear someone saying they did a "10-day vipassana retreat", there's a good chance they're talking about Goenka. My own first silent retreat in India was at a Goenka center, as well as the one I did last year in Thailand.
Is the Goenka retreat right for you? Well, it depends…
What's great about the Goenka course is that it's entirely free. It is a donation-based center that runs on volunteer support. At the end of the retreat you can choose to donate if you wish.
Another great aspect is location, or rather, locations – there are hundreds of Goenka centers all over the world, so it's easy to find one near you.
But what I appreciate most of all about the Goenka tradition is that it is secular and highly systematic. This is not a Buddhist center, where you need to believe in reincarnation, or chant mantras (although you will have to listen to a recording of Goenka-ji chanting in Pali… but that's as bad as it gets). Instead, the teachings at this center focus on understanding your mind and developing an awareness of your body.
So what's the downside of the Goenka retreat? I can sum it up in one word: Bootcamp. The Goenka retreat is very intense, particularly if you are new to meditation. It's all sitting meditation (no walking meditation periods) from about 4am until 9pm, with some of the sitting periods lasting an hour and a half or more.
To add on to that intensity, towards the middle of the retreat, they start implementing the "sittings of strong determination," where you try your best to sit without adjusting your posture. This can be a skillful practice, if you know how to sit with difficulty, and are intent on cultivating patience, self-compassion, and equanimity… but if you are just starting, it can be tough to work with pain in that way.
Conclusion: Goenka is great for the budget-conscious backpackers or those seeking a intense meditation bootcamp. But if you're looking for a kind and gentle approach, you may want to consider elsewhere!
Vipassana Hawaii retreats around the world
If IMS and Spirit Rock sounded good to you, but you find it hard to make it to either California or Massachusetts, you can check out the retreats on the Vipassana Hawaii website.
Founded by Michelle MacDonald and Steven Smith in the 1980's, Vipassana Hawaii offers retreats in very much the same style as both Spirit Rock and IMS. While the center is based in Hawaii, the teachers actually travel all over the world, and you can find retreat offerings in places like Canada, New Mexico, Australia, Thailand, and even Myanmar.
Rather than trying to describe all the various retreats they offer, I will point out one in particular that is great for a first retreat. The "Lake Retreat" is located in the middle of a lake in a national park in Thailand. The teachers are incredible, and the scenery is breathtaking. What's more, you will also have time throughout the day to go for a mindful swim in the lake, or get a Thai massage.
Conclusion: Try the Lake Retreat if you like the sound of the Western vipassana style, but you feel like practicing in a more exotic location.
Wat Marp Jan in Thailand
If you're interested in having a bit more of a rustic experience, and you don't mind staying at a traditional Buddhist temple, then you should check out Wat Marp Jan in Thailand.
Wat Marp Jan is a Buddhist temple in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah, meaning it is of the less-superstitious variety of Buddhism (that's my own opinion at least, not the official description!). In the Thai Forest tradition you will still hear some references to ideas like karma and rebirth, but in general it's more focused on the practice of meditation and understanding your mind.
Located just northeast of a small fishing village called Ban Phe, Wat Marp Jan is a little over 2 hours drive from Bangkok by bus. It's nestled up in the hills, far away from the city lights and bustling traffic noise. It's truly one of the most peaceful places I've visited in Thailand.
Somewhat surprisingly, Wat Marp Jan has a large number of western monks, meaning you can get great meditation instructions by chatting with the monk. However, at this temple there are no actual retreat courses (e.g. no 10-day programs). Instead, if you want to stay and practice on retreat at Wat Marp Jan, it will be as a self-retreat. You simply contact the temple and tell them how long you want to stay.
Another thing to understand is that a self-retreat at Wat Marp Jan won't be an entirely silent retreat. You will be required to do chores, sweep the grounds, clean up after the meals, etc. And this sometimes involves communicating with the other yogis and monks. Additionally, if you want to bring meditation books, you are allowed to read in your spare time (just meditation books though, no novels). Depending on what you're looking for, this can be either a pro or a con.
If you're interested in staying at Wat Marp Jan, you can find more information on their website here. You'll have to send an email before showing up, as they don't allow drop-in guests.
Conclusion: Wat Marp Jan is a semi-silent retreat, and more geared towards those who are interested in Buddhist philosophy and what monastic life is like in Thailand. Still, it's a great way to take a break from technology for a week or two!
There you have it. My recommendations for the 5 best places to go for your first silent meditation retreat. In the next post, I'll be sharing tips from experienced meditators on how to prepare for your first retreat – don't miss it! Sign up for the newsletter if you want the blogs delivered straight to your inbox!
At 3:30 AM, the morning bell rang just outside my kuti.
Dtongg!!... Dtongg!!... Dtonnngggg!!!.....
Somewhat reluctantly, I opened my eyes and listened as the sound of the bell faded away into the cold, mountain air. It was still dark out, and would be for another few hours. I definitely didn’t feel like getting out of bed just yet.
As I lay there, cursing the cold, and trying to get the courage to climb out from under my blanket, I wondered just what I had gotten myself into.
I was in a Buddhist monastery in the Sagaing Hills of Myanmar (formerly Burma), on the banks of the Irawaddy river. Far from home, far from comfort.
My kuti (essentially a small wooden hut with a bed) was just one of many other kutis sprinkled throughout the hillside, each one home to a single monk, or nun, or lay person. Each of us had come here for the same reason: to undertake a 21-day silent meditation retreat.
While we all arrived in Myanmar as lay people, we were given the option of ordaining for the duration of the retreat if we wished to do so. Seven of us, four men and three women, chose to ordain. Of course, to become a monk or nun, you have to shave your head. Luckily I had beat them to it. But not everyone is so blessed in the hair department as I am!
In the rest of this post, I'll be sharing with you some brief notes of what it was like on this retreat.
A (modified) monk’s life
It's important to understand that my time as a monk was not necessarily typical of a monk's life in Myanmar. Monks don’t usually spend all their time sitting in silence. In fact, monasteries in Asia can be quite noisy and bustling places.
Monks typically have many chores to do around the monastery. They sweep, they clean, they fix broken things. It can actually be quite physically demanding at times. Monks also typically are required to go on alms rounds each day – walking through the surrounding towns and villages with an alms bowl, collecting food donations.
However, when a monk chooses to go on a silent retreat (or perhaps is instructed to do so by the head monk) they are excused from their duties, so that they can instead focus their energy on meditation.
As I was going into a period of silent retreat, I was given permission by the abbot of the monastery to be exempt from the daily tasks such as sweeping and cleaning. Instead of going out for alms rounds each morning, I was able to partake in the food that was offered directly to the monastery.
A temporary ordination
In some religions, when you become a monastic, it’s meant to be for the rest of your life. In Myanmar, however, it’s a different story. You can do what’s called a “temporary ordination,” becoming a monk for as short as just a few weeks or months.
The reason you can do this is that, for the people of Myanmar, every moment you spend practicing meditation and living ethically is bringing good merit into the world. So, in their eyes, if you want to spend a few weeks as a monk or a nun, why not? It will make the world a happier place.
In Myanmar, most young men will ordain for at least a while at some point in their lives. It is almost a rite of passage for young men. I may not be so young any more, but I did indeed feel as though I were going through a rite a passage, at least personally.
The "rules" of a silent retreat
As a lay practitioner (meaning, a meditator who is neither a monk nor a nun), one has to undertake eight precepts when going on retreat. These are
To refrain from harming other living beings
To refrain from taking what is not freely offered
To refrain from sexual misconduct (on retreat this gets upgraded to complete celibacy)
To refrain from false speech (on retreat this gets upgraded to not speaking altogether)
To refrain from taking intoxicants that lead to carelessness
To refrain from eating past noon each day
To refrain from adorning the body, and listening to or playing music
To refrain from using high and luxurious beds
When you ordain, the number of precepts increases. If you are a monk, you undertake 227 precepts, while nuns have a whopping 311. And if your inner social-justice warrior is starting to get a little fired up by the fact that women have extra precepts, then I don't blame you.
My personal feeling is that there are still many ways in which Buddhism has still lagged behind the west when it comes to understanding of issues related to gender equality and social justice. In another post I'll have to tell you about how I taught the word "patriarchy" to the head monk during one of my interviews!
Fortunately, I was informed that I didn't have to worry too much about the extra 219 precepts, as there's almost no way I could break those rules while on silent retreat.
Aside from an occasional check-in with the head monk or one of the meditation teachers, I was to remain in “noble silence” for the full 21 days, not speaking to anyone. Many people think this is one of the hardest parts of going on retreat, but honestly once you do it, you realize it's not only easy, but also it’s one of the things you look forward to the most about going on retreat.
Committing to “noble silence” is not just about not speaking, but about cutting off all forms of communication. Obviously, checking CNN, or logging in to Facebook to check your messages is completely off-limits! I had given up all my possessions when I ordained anyway, so that wouldn't have been possible, even if I wanted to (which at times I desperately did!).
Instead, I spent all my time, roughly 18 hours a day, practicing a style of meditation called vipassana, or insight meditation. Vipassana is the main practice of Theravada Buddhism, and has mindfulness meditation at its core. Vipassana literally means "seeing clearly into the nature of things," particularly, into the nature of body and mind.
This act of clear seeing leads to insight into what Buddhists call the three marks of existence: impermanence, dissatisfaction (or suffering), and non-self. Insight into these three marks of existence is what leads to liberation and freedom.
The daily schedule
As we had gotten rid of all our regular distractions (like phones, computers, books, snacks, etc), there wasn't much to do except meditate. It was a grueling schedule, and not for the faint of heart!
We woke each day at 3:30 AM, and, after getting dressed, headed out for a period of walking meditation in the freezing-cold, morning air. The rest of the day alternated between an hour of sitting meditation and an hour of walking meditation. We wouldn't finish until close to 11pm each night.
The monotony of the schedule was broken up by our two meals of the day, breakfast at 5:45 AM, and lunch at 10:30 AM. Being on the 8 precepts, we were not allowed to eat past midday, and so lunch was our final meal of the day.
Most evenings we also got to listen to a short talk by one of the meditation teachers or the head monk. This would usually be on some aspect of the practice that was meant to help or inspire us. Aside from the meals, this was our only real form of "entertainment", so it was usually looked forward to with much anticipation!
My favorite time of day
Each morning around 6:30 AM, after eating breakfast, we had a short break before the next sitting period started. My favorite thing to do at this time was to walk up along a small path, to a place overlooking the river. From here I could hear the birds chirping in their nests, and I could see fishermen gearing up their boats for the day ahead. And most beautiful of all, I could sit and watch the sunrise.
Was it difficult?
Of course it was! It was excruciatingly painful at times!
But would I do it again? Heck yes! And in fact, I hope to go again next year.
Going on silent retreat is always difficult for me. I always have anxiety before going in, hoping it will go "well" and worrying about what if it doesn't. And during the retreat, I always go through massive mood swings, emotional ups and downs, and self-judgemental temper-tantrums. But honestly, that's kind of the point.
All of that happens in my day-to-day life anyway, and being on a meditation retreat is simply a chance to observe it (hopefully with a little bit of patience and kindness).
I've found for myself that being present for my emotional distress (which is exactly what we are asked to do on retreat) is the only way to find true relief from the suffering it causes. It's a deep kind of relief, because it comes from learning how to be OK with discomfort.. rather than trying to find ways to avoid discomfort (which we all know never lasts).
And if you're reading this and feel like you might be interested in doing a retreat, but you're not sure where to start, just send me a message and I'll help you find a good one!
Of course, there's so much more that I could tell you about becoming a monk, and what the retreat was like. This is by no means be a comprehensive review of monastic life, or of what a meditation retreat is like. Rather, consider this just a basic overview, something to whet your appetite.
If there's something you'd like to hear more about, just ask! I'd be happy to answer your questions in the next blog post.
Until then, take care.
Greetings from Chiang Mai, Thailand! A few days ago, I found myself standing under a sea of lanterns drifting up into the night sky.
It felt like I was at the bottom of the ocean, watching thousands of fluorescent jellyfish floating up above me.
It was New Years Eve, and I was in the main plaza in Chiang Mai’s old town. Each year, locals and tourists gather together there to release the lanterns throughout the evening, sending thoughts of well-wishes into the air.As I watched the lanterns drift away, and as the clock ticked over to the new year, I asked myself, if I only had one year left to live, what would I do differently?
For a number of reasons, I have been thinking a lot about how I’m spending my days, and my life. Over the past year I have witnessed a number of close friends and family members deal with sickness, cancer, aging, disappointment, and loss. I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating my life, and the inevitability of my own death.
As the poet Mary Oliver so beautifully wrote,
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?Tell me, what is it you plan to dowith your one wild and precious life?
It’s been a while since I’ve posted on the blog, so I wanted to send a quick update to let you know what's been going on in my life in the past year or so, and also give a little glimpse of what I have planned for the future.
A year and a half ago, I packed my bags and moved to Thailand to start working as a Mindfulness Specialist at the American School of Bangkok. I enjoyed my time in Thailand, and learned a great deal from my coworkers and friends, but ultimately, I felt that in order to continue growing emotionally and spiritually I had to find a different path. I decided to leave Bangkok after one year and returned home to California. Back in the US, I started working at a meditation app tech startup in San Francisco and got to experience the "tech culture” first-hand. It was during that time that I stopped writing blog posts on Untangling the Mind. This was mostly due to the fact that I was too busy with work (a common symptom of the techie lifestyle), but also because I decided to put my mindfulness blogging on hold while I devoted myself to the company.
After 4-5 months of working at the startup, I realized that my strengths were not being put to good use at the company (nor were they really needed there), and so I decided to leave the company. During those few months in SF, I realized how much I missed the culture in Southeast Asia, particularly the kindness, generosity, and gentleness of the Thai people. And so it wasn't long after I left the company in SF that I had booked a one-way ticket back to Asia, with the intention to get back to doing what I love most: reading, writing, photographing, and most of all, meditating.
My first stop was back in Thailand, where I headed down to a monastery just south of Bangkok, to spend some time in retreat. The monastery is called Wat Marp Jan, and is in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. I had a lovely time there, and plan to return again soon for a longer retreat.
I’m now in Chiang Mai, a city in the northwest of Thailand, where I spent NYE. In a few days I will be heading off to Myanmar (Burma) for a 3-week silent meditation retreat led by Michelle MacDonald, Steven Smith, and Sayadaw U Pannananda. This will be my longest retreat yet, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with you after after I get out.
In the coming months you can expect to see a lot more on the blog (although there may be long stretches of time where I’m tucked away inside a remote monastery with no access to email). I hope to continue writing about mindfulness and meditation, and many of the wonderful teachings of the Buddha, as seen through western, secular, and scientific eyes.
As always, I would love to hear how things are going in your world. If you just want to say hi, that would be great. Or, if you have a question about meditation or mindfulness that has been bugging you, feel free to reply to this email and let me know. I might devote a blog post to it.
Wishing you a lot of peace and happiness as we embark on a new year.
Have you ever hurt someone you care about? I’m not talking about an accidental step on the toe. I mean causing some real pain and suffering in another person. The kind that doesn’t heal overnight.
She was one of my closest friends, and I abandoned her when she was going through a difficult time. I was going through big changes in my life at the time as well – selling my business and moving to a new city – and felt that I didn’t have the energy to deal with anyone else’s problems. So when she started reaching out for support, I disappeared, leaving her to deal with her problems by herself.
All she needed was a kind ear and a shoulder to lean on, and I couldn’t give even that.
Months later, she confronted me, and told me how much it hurt her that I had disappeared. Instead of owning up to my mistake and apologizing, I got defensive. My ego got in the way. I made excuses and tried to put the blame elsewhere.
But she was right. What I had done was selfish and unsympathetic. I wasn’t able to admit my mistake at the time, perhaps because of how bad I actually felt about what I had done.
For a long time after, I beat myself up for how I’d acted, for being unable to own up to mistake right away, and for what it said about me.
If you can relate, this post is for you. I’m going to share three steps you can take when you have a hard time forgiving yourself for a mistake you’ve made in life. Of course, some mistakes are more costly than others, and these tips might not work for you.
But before we get to the part where you forgive yourself, it’s important to apologize to the person you’ve hurt. It might sound obvious, but it can be a hard thing to do (and probably deserves its own “how to” post). If you haven’t apologized yet, stop reading this, and give that person an apology. Even if it’s just a one-sentence email saying you were thinking about them, and wanted to apologize.
Here are three things I’ve found to help when practicing self-forgiveness. There are many other strategies out there, but these are the three that have helped me most in my own life.
1. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes
In other words, you don’t need to be perfect.
I’m bringing this up because there is this idea that is deeply ingrained in many of us, that in order to be loved, we need to be perfect. This feeling is most likely a result of our evolutionary history, living in small tribal societies, where social standing could make or break your ability to survive.
I’ll admit, I get lost in the “perfect-trap” too. But the truth is, no one is perfect, and you don’t need to hold yourself to those standards.
Try it out: Put your hand on your heart, and say, “I’ve made a mistake, and that’s ok. I’m not perfect, and I don’t need to be.”
2. Learn from your mistake
Wisdom is gained not by being perfect, but by learning from your mistakes.
If there is anything worse than making the mistake in the first place, it is not learning from it. Furthermore, whatever happened in the past is done, and there’s no changing it. But you can change the future. Let the mistake be a reminder for how to act with more wisdom and compassion in similar situations down the road.
Try it out: Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this mistake?” Then, promise to the universe that whatever pain was caused by your actions was not in vain. You will be wiser next time.
3. Practice forgiveness meditation
Forgiveness meditation is related to the practice of metta, or lovingkindness meditation. However, instead of wishing for the wellbeing of a person, as we do with metta, we send out forgiveness for any harm that has been caused.
Here’s what a forgiveness practice looks like:
May I forgive myself for any harm I have caused another, either intentionally or unintentionally. May I forgive myself for any harm I have caused myself, either intentionally or unintentionally.
As you can see, this involves setting the intention to forgive ourselves not just for the harm we have caused others, but also for any harm we have caused ourselves with our actions.
We can also modify this practice in order to forgive others:
May I forgive others for any harm they have caused me, either intentionally or unintentionally.
A last note about this forgiveness practice, is that you can change the words around to suit your liking. For example, you can drop the “May I…” at the beginning, and simply go with “I forgive myself for…”. You can also simply bring someone (such as yourself) to mind, and say “I forgive you“. See which way of phrasing and visualization works best for you.
The most important thing here is setting the intention to forgive, keeping in mind that no one is perfect.
Try it out: Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, paying attention to the feeling of your breath in your abdomen as you breathe in and out. When you feel settled, try repeating the forgiveness phrases silently in your mind. You can try also putting your hand on your heart as you say the phrases.
This is my twin sister, Aviva, in her newly decked out 2004 Toyota Sienna. If you’re wondering why she looks so happy (and why there’s a wooden platform in the back of her van), let me explain.
At the beginning of the month, my sister was working as software engineer at a tech company in San Francisco. The work was engaging, and the job paid well. But her lifestyle was demanding. She felt exhausted – trying to give 100% to work, and musical projects, and friendships, and all her other interests. She had no energy left to take care of herself – to do things like cook for herself, stay active, sleep, and meditate on a regular basis.
So why is she so happy in the photo? Last fall, she decided to quit her job and instead travel the country, doing what she loves most - playing music, visiting friends, and sitting in nature. This van will be her home as she leaps into that adventure.
And I’ll tell you, I could not be more proud of her for doing this. She listened to her gut and realized she needed to make a change in her life.
Even though she feels scared of what the future will hold, she’s taking responsibility for her happiness, and doing what she can to live a life that brings out the best in her.
Of course I’m not recommending that you quit your job, become a musician, and move into a van. You might have a family to care for, or perhaps you're passionate about your work, despite the non-ideal work environment. Here’s what I am recommending: That you keep fighting to build a life you love, in whatever way you can.
In my last post I wrote about how the number one regret of dying people was that they didn’t live a life true to themselves, that instead they lived a life that others expected of them. So my question for you is, are you focused on what makes you happy?
Or... are you living a life that others want you to live?
If you want to live a life that is true to yourself, then learning how to say “no” is essential. Here's what Toni Morrison has to say:
“Want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
What keeps many of us from living our dream life is not a lack of direction, or priorities, or resources, rather it’s that we have trouble letting go of all the crap that is holding us back. It’s like trying to row a boat across a river without first untying it from the dock. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make any progress.
This “junk" that we have trouble letting go of can show up in our lives in a number of ways:
careers that we are afraid to leave despite feeling unfulfilled
social activities that leave us feeling drained and depleted
our own self-limiting beliefs
a fear of trying new things
It’s easy to search outside of ourselves for what’s holding us back in life, but it's important to notice that our own thoughts and mental habit patterns can weigh us down too.
In this post, I’ll be giving you my top 3 strategies on how you can say “no" to what's holding you back, so you can start creating the life you love.
How to say “no” to what's holding you back
Choose your words wisely
We’re going to look to our old friend science for a little help once again. A recent behavioral study found that particular words you say when trying to stick to a diet affect how likely you are to be successful. They found that using a sentence like “I don’t eat cookies”, is more effective than “I can’t eat cookies” or “I don’t want to eat cookies”.
When we use the “I don’t” wording, we are telling ourselves that we are the type of person that doesn’t do these things. For whatever reason, it boosts our ability to follow through with our goals.
Realize that you can say “no” to a mental habit just like you would say “no” to a dinner invitation or a slice of pizza. For example, if you want to stop comparing yourself to others, then notice whenever it happens, and say in your mind, “No thank you. I don’t compare myself to others.” Do this just as if you were turning down that slice of pizza!
Don’t forget WHY you’re saying no
Remember that the purpose of saying “no” is to free up more time, energy, and mental space, so you can focus on doing things that you truly love. We say “no” to what weighs us down, so that we can say “yes” to what really matters.
Every time you have the inclination to say “no”, see if you can keep that greater purpose in mind. For example, if you say no to a dinner invitation, it’s not because you don’t care about the person who invited you, it’s because you are trying to make space for the priorities in your life. Simply thank the person for their invitation, and tell them you’re sorry that you can’t make it.
Flex your mental muscles
Saying “no” takes willpower, and if you want to say “no” to difficult aspects of your life, you need a strong mind. How do we get a strong mind? With mindfulness of course! You can strengthen your mind in the same way you strengthen your muscles – through training. Every time you sit down to practice mindful breathing (or any mindfulness activity), it’s like doing a bicep curl for your mind.
This last step is not a quick-fix, unfortunately. It takes time and dedication to train your mind. But, most quick-fixes don’t provide long-lasting solutions. If you want lasting change, it takes hard work and dedication.
Now it's time to put your money where your mind is:
Identifying your junk and taking out the trash
Take a moment and write down things that might be weighing you down in life. Activities, career goals, habits, people, whatever. Try to be open and honest with yourself. This is a brainstorm, so don’t worry about picking the most important items. Just sit down and write anything that comes to mind.
If you’re having some trouble coming up with ideas, try identifying
activities do you do on a regular basis that leave you feeling depleted (e.g. happy hour after work)
behaviors that you wish you could change (e.g. midnight cookie-binges, or browsing Facebook for hours when you should be getting ready for bed).
stories you tell yourself that keep you stuck in negativity (e.g. “I’m not a good parent or spouse”, “I’m not smart enough to start my own business”, or “I can never stick with a healthy diet”).
people in your life that trigger difficult emotions or lead you to behaviors you’re not proud of (e.g., Negative Nancies at work, or friends who complain all the time or like to gossip about others)
high standards you hold yourself to, which you know are unrealistic (e.g., work out 7 times a week, don't let people see you get angry or sad, never eat dessert, etc).
This list will look completely different for everyone, so don’t worry about whether your list is “right". Trust your gut. Deep inside you already know what you need to let go of. Next, choose 3 things that you would feel comfortable saying “no" to this week, and then make the resolution to actually say “no” to them, at least once.
If it’s helpful, send me an email and let me know what you’re going to say “no” to this week! And if you’re still having trouble, let me know what you’re struggling with.
What would you do in this situation? A colleague asks if you want to go out with her and a few friends for drinks to celebrate her birthday on Friday night. You’re not really all that interested in going, thinking you’d rather lounge around at home in your jammies and catch up on sleep.
Problem is, this is the 2nd time this week she has invited you. You worry she’ll be hurt if you say no, and you struggle to think of an excuse that doesn’t sound like a cop-out:
I’ve got a lot of laundry to do that night…
Sorry, I feel a bit sick, better stay at home and rest…
I already have plans, I’m meeting a friend for dinner…
What you really mean:
I don’t like going to noisy bars…
Cheap cocktails make me sick…
Going out with you doesn’t sound fun. I think I’ll pass…
So what do you end up doing? If you’re like I was in my twenties, you might just give in and say yes. Accepting their invitation feels easier than trying to come up with an excuse that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
So Friday night rolls around and you head to the bar. The place is noisy and you have to practically yell across the table to talk to anyone. Everyone except for you is getting drunk on cheap cocktails and gorging on greasy bar snacks. You look around and wonder why you decided to come.
After a couple of hours you excuse yourself, head home, and get back just after midnight. You feel completely drained and exhausted… You wish you had just stayed home in the first place.
You wish you knew how to just say “no” without feeling guilty about it.
This type of interaction would happen to me all the time back in college. I remember that I often cared more about making someone else feel comfortable, than making myself feel comfortable.
I would avoid conflict at all costs, do anything to avoid letting someone down. I would even change my opinions mid-sentence if I noticed a friend starting to get uncomfortable.
Does that ever happen to you? You might be thinking… “Sure, sometimes I say ‘yes’ just to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. What’s the big deal?”
Here’s the big deal: Our time is the most precious thing we have! And yet we waste so much of it doing things that don’t bring us joy, that don’t make us come alive. Saying “yes” to things you’re not actually interested in doing is holding you back from creating the life that YOU truly love. It might seem selfish at first to put your own needs and happiness ahead of others, but it’s the kind of selfishness that is desperately needed in this world – one that is full of self-compassion, love, and clear seeing.
And let’s get this straight: I’m not talking about going out of your way to hurt other people (honestly… when you turn someone down, it doesn’t affect them as much as you think it will), and I’m also not talking about not helping others in need. I’m talking about no longer being OK with hurting yourself.
In her study of terminally ill patients in hospice care, Bronnie Ware found that most common regret of dying people was wishing they had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.
And yet, living a life true to our own dreams remains difficult.
This post is the first in a series of posts about how to take command of where your time and energy goes, so you can stop doing things that don’t actually bring you joy and start creating a life that you love.
In today’s post I’ll talk about how to take the first step in the right direction – it’s a step called Define Your Priorities. Here’s one of my favorite quotes about this topic, from Iain Thomas:
And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
There is almost no end to the possible things you could focus on in life. And if you are not intentional about where your energy goes, someone else will choose for you.
I know how easy it is to get bogged down with the day-to-day demands, and lose sight of our larger goals in life. So the first step is about clearly defining your priorities.
Ask yourself right now: What is it that you hope to accomplish in life? What do you want to spend your time working towards? (Note: This will help us figure out where we can start saying “NO” in life, and what deserves a “HECK YES.”)
For example, if your current goals are to make more friends and practice your social skills, then going out to the bar with your colleague might be the right choice for you. But if you’re trying to spend more time with your family, work on your startup, write a novel, eat healthier, or stick with a daily meditation practice, then going to the bar every Friday night is probably not going to get you there.
Take some time to write down what your dreams and priorities are in life. What’s important to you? Just brainstorm anything and everything that comes to mind. Actually write it all down on a piece of paper or word doc on your computer. Don’t leave anything out. Be bold and courageous.
The more specific you can be, the better. Instead of just saying “family” or “friends”, you might say “call my family on the phone each week” or “spend more quality time with close friends without checking my phone.”
If you’re still having trouble getting started, here are some questions that can get you thinking:
What creative projects are you working on that you feel are important?
What new skills do you want to learn?
Who do you want to be spending your time with?
What qualities or traits do you admire in others?
Once you have your own list, see if you can determine your top 5. For example, here are some of my top priorities in life right now:
Blog once a week so I can improve my writing
Spend more time catching up with old friends through email and skype
Get super-goodat yoga (currently working on my handstand skills)
Be as goofy and lighthearted as the Dalai Lama
Work on checking social media and news sites less often throughout the day
This step of Defining Your Priorities is critical for creating the life you love, because it’s going to help when we start looking at what we can actually start saying “no” to in our lives.
Here’s the next important step: Once you have your top 5 list, let the world know! Tell a friend about what you’re focusing on, announce it on social media, get a buddy that’s interested in doing the same thing. Just make sure you vocalize it. It makes a huge difference having something or someone holding you accountable.
I know sometimes the hardest part is actually getting off your butt to tell someone… And that’s why I’m here to help! Send me your list, and I’ll be a welcome ear for your priorities. Really, I want to hear from you!
Tune in next week for part 2 of this series, where we’ll be looking at how to let go of what’s holding you back (including tips on how to say “no” without feeling guilty).