Meditation

Meditation

An Analogy to Make Your Meditation Sessions Easier -It’s like a rocket’s journey into space.

I’ve been meditating regularly for ten years. For me, that means fifteen minutes in the morning and, just this year, a short session in the afternoon.

I’ve read several books and listened to umpteen talks about meditation from the likes of Jon Kabat Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Mickey Singer, Adyashanti, Joseph Goldstein, Peter Russell, and many others whose names escape me presently.

I also took the course in Kriya meditation offered by Ananda, the organization affiliated with the great 20th-century Indian saint Yogananda; and also the well-known Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course created by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The importance of regular practice

My objective in learning from these myriad sources was to give myself the best chance at starting and maintaining a regular meditation practice. Why a regular practice? Because most scientific studies show that the profound benefits bestowed by meditation come only through regular, sustained practice. Once a week is better than nothing but doesn’t do nearly as much as a daily practice.

I learned lots of other helpful tidbits in my studies. But one of the most important is something I had to piece together myself. It was a pattern I saw in most of the teachings I studied. A pattern that was never spelled out and stated clearly by the vaunted teachers I studied.

What was that pattern?

Most meditations have a beginning, middle, and end structure.

Why is that important and helpful to know? Because structure makes it easier to relax. To know where things are going. To help us not get lost.

What Hollywood taught me about the structure

I was a writer in Hollywood for 18 years and if there is one word that the greats preached to us mere mortal writers it was structure, structure, structure. Know your beginning, middle, and end. Otherwise, your story meanders and the audience loses interest.

What is that structure common to most meditation techniques? The beginning consists of simply getting acclimated. Quieting down. Feeling your feet on the floor or cushion, your legs pressing on the chair. For me, this is typically the first five minutes of my session.

Athletes would call this the warmup. When I first get on the tennis court, I’m not ready to go 100%. Why? Because my body is tight, especially now that I’m 135 years old!

The beginning, middle, and end of a meditation

The same holds true for the beginning of a meditation session. The equivalent of physical tightness in an athlete is an unsettled mind pumping thoughts around like a pinball machine. So we “warm up” our minds by easing into the session.

The middle of the session, the next five minutes, involves pushing the envelope a bit. For me, that means doing a body scan where I place attention for two breaths each on my hands, back, neck, jaw, mouth, nose, cheeks, eyes, third eye, forehead, top of my head, head, and full body. Sometimes I add and subtract body parts/areas. This middle part slowly strengthens my focus.

The last part, also five minutes, is where I go full “mindfulness meditation.” That is, I’ve reached a point where I’m pretty calm and quiet so that I can then just be. I feel my breath. I hear distant sounds. And for at least part of that final five minutes I inhale, then on the exhale say the word “still.” Saying still has the effect of enhancing the stillness inside me.

So that’s my beginning, middle, and end. In Ananda/Kriya, the beginning was getting settled, and then doing some breathing exercises to calm the body. The middle was doing something called Hong-Sau breathing and the end was simply enjoying the stillness we had cultivated.

The rocket analogy

Here’s an analogy I came up with that conceptualizes what I mean. Think of your meditation sessions as the journey of a rocket ship.

Huh?

Here’s the deal. There are three main phases of a rocket journey. The beginning, getting off the launchpad, is violent, loud, and hot. All this is necessary to get the rocket to…

The middle part is where the rocket calms down a bit and slowly makes its way up and out of Earth’s atmosphere.

The end part comes once the rocket has made it into space…the capsule comes off and the rest of the rocket fades away.

The rest of the ride is quiet and peaceful as the capsule glides through space…

So that’s a meditation session. Loud and active. Then settling into a focused rhythm. Then finally, being with the stillness.

Hope that helps. Over and out from mission control…

Meditation

Getting Comfortable With Your Inner Maniac – It’s critical to our mental and spiritual health.

Most of humanity walks around all day, every day, a slave to their inner maniac. What do I mean by inner maniac? I’ll explain it but I don’t think I need to. Most of you know exactly what I mean.

We could call this many things. Inner neurotic. Inner lunatic. Inner Sensitive Sally. Ego. I heard Mickey Singer use inner maniac in a recent talk and laughed when I heard it so I’m going with that.

Our inner maniac is our personal self. Our ego. Our inner critic who criticizes ourselves and everyone else. It says things like,

“I mean how big a bitch does someone have to be to say something like that? Seriously.”

“I’m not talking to that jerk until he apologizes.”

“I can’t ask her out. I’m not good enough for her.”

I’ve written a bunch about the fact that we are not our inner maniac, we are the consciousness that is aware of that inner maniac. That idea is at the heart of Eckhart Tolle’s, Michael Singer’s and most spiritual leaders’ teachings.

People think their inner maniac is all they are

The biggest problem in our world is that most people think they are their inner maniac. They aren’t aware that there’s anything else to them. Just that voice in the head babbling on and on all day long, every day.

Since you’re reading this, I assume that you are one of the fortunate few who is at least aware that there is a deeper dimension to you than just the inner maniac. That in itself is a profoundly important step forward on the spiritual path. How is that?

A two-step life journey

One way to boil down the entire spiritual awakening journey is to reduce it to two steps. Step one would be simply becoming aware that you are not your inner maniac, as I wrote above.

Step one doesn’t take a huge amount of work, but it’s essential. Why? Because there is no step two unless we complete step one.

What is step two? It’s the work involved with dealing with our inner maniac. Who performs that work? Our conscious, aware self; i.e., the self that most people don’t know exists.

The work of quieting the maniac

I’m sure you have some idea of what that work involves. It’s practicing meditation, mindfulness and other techniques that facilitate the quieting of our inner maniac.

The more we quiet the maniac, the more distance we create between it and our conscious selves. One could say that step two is simply about creating more and more distance between our two selves.

Awakening comes when that inner maniac is so far away that it becomes a faint whisper in the background with little say in our lives. Wouldn’t that be great?

The work of step two

Yes, it would. But back to the work of step two. Because yes, part of it is the meditating, etc. But a significant chunk of work lies in how we relate to the inner maniac when it acts up.

The truth is that I, and many of you, aren’t there yet. Not even close.

What do I mean by that? While we are aware that we are the consciousness and not the maniac, we still allow the maniac to smother our consciousness and take over the steering wheel. A lot.

So what do we do to change that? That’s the crux of this piece. What we do is practice relating to our inner maniac in a different way.

Uptight on the highway

Here’s a minor example to illustrate. You’re driving along and the person in front of you is going 25 MPH in a 40 MPH zone. You’re not late. You don’t have to be anywhere in the next few minutes. And yet…your inner maniac gets its panties in a bunch because you’re going 15 MPH below the speed limit.

Because you’re one of the fortunate few who is developed enough to become aware that your inner maniac has acted up, you do just that: You become aware of it.

But here’s the rub. You probably get annoyed that your inner maniac acted up over this mole hill of a situation.

“Who cares? It’s probably some old lady taking her time getting home. Why do I have to get all worked up over this stupid crap?”

Don’t get mad at the maniac

Getting mad and frustrated that we have to deal with the maniac doesn’t help. It provides fuel to the maniac. It empowers him/her. It’s better than becoming completely consumed by the maniac and losing all awareness which is how most of humanity lives.

But there’s a better way. That way is something that if we work hard at and give proper attention can make a big difference in our awakening.

What is that way?

We get comfortable with our maniac.

We don’t get mad at him/her. We don’t get frustrated or annoyed or impatient. We relax with it.

In the driving example, here’s how it would play out. Your maniac acts up because you’re going slowly. Once you notice this has happened, you say to yourself,

“Okay, there he goes. Getting all bent out of shape because we’re going 25 in a 40. It’s alright. That’s what he does. Just ignore him…”

The more we do that, the more distance we create between us and the maniac and the weaker the maniac becomes.

Treat your maniac like it’s a five-year-old kid having a tantrum. Yes, it’s annoying when a kid melts down, but guess what? That’s what five-year-olds do!

And getting spun up over all kinds of self-destructive situations is what inner maniacs do. Accept that reality. Just watch the tantrums your maniac has and stay calm and comfortable. Relax.

The takeaway

I hope this is sinking in. Why? Because it truly is a game-changer if we put in the work.

It’s not enough to simply know that we are the egoic self and the conscious self. The work of our lifetimes comes in creating space between those two, a process that eventually leads to the defanging of our egos.

So work on becoming comfortable and patient with your inner maniac. It will take you, the real you, far.

Meditation

Ramana Maharshi’s Technique for Becoming our True Nature

Ramana Maharshi was a 20th-century Indian saint who was revered by Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, and Michael Singer, my favorite spiritual teachers.

His story is simple and fascinating. The short version is that at age 16 he experienced a force inside himself that he identified as his true self. Six weeks later, in 1896, he left home and traveled to the holy mountain of Arunachala in southern India. He spent the final 54 years of his life in and around the city of Tiruvannamalai, which lies at the base of Arunachala, as a renunciant and spiritual teacher.

The focus of Ramana Maharshi’s teaching did not involve much in the way of Hindu dogma. He never even read the Bhagavad Gitaarguably the most important text in all of Hinduism. His teachings related almost solely to his experiences with his inner world.

A previous piece of mine (link here) focused on the simple meditation he taught wherein the question “Who am I?” is continually asked. Instead of attempting to answer the question, the meditator just keeps asking it.

The teaching, in detail

Today’s piece is about Ramana Maharshi’s meditation that extends the “Who am I?” self-inquiry. It’s laid out in detail by Ram Dass in his classic book Be Here Nowwhich, if you haven’t read it, you absolutely should. It’s a mind-blower, in a good way.

The thrust of the meditation is to ask yourself if you (the real you, your true nature) are any of a number of body parts and parts of your psyche. After answering no to all of these, all we’re left with, if we follow the meditation all the way through, is our true nature, as Ramana Maharshi refers to it.

Here’s how it works. After a proper meditation “warm-up,” of a few minutes, ask “Who am I?”

Body part by body part

That is followed by saying to yourself, “I am not my feet.” We direct attention to our feet as we say this. As you say this, experience your “I” as separate from your feet.

And it’s true. We are not our feet!

Then do the same for your legs. “I am not my legs.” And place attention on your legs. Experience your “I” as separate from your legs.

Then repeat this for:

“I am not my hands…or arms…”

“I am not my genitals.”

“I am not my eyes…ears…nose…mouth…throat…skin…” Focus on each and imagine each as separate from the real you.

“I am not my lungs…liver…kidneys…spleen…heart…intestines…” Again, imagine each of these organs inside you and then experience the real you as separate from that organ.

Once you’re done doing this with the physical parts of your body, the only thing left is your thoughts. So you say, “I am not these thoughts.”

Ram Dass and Ramana Maharshi take this one step further by saying “I am not the thought ‘I am not my thoughts.’” Once we do that, there should be nothing left but the real “I,” which is the purpose of the meditation.

Get rid of the meditator

Once we’ve reached this state, I suggest adding one final step. Try saying to yourself, “Let’s get rid of the meditator.” So instead of observing or knowing this true “I,” we get rid of the meditator and become it. This is something Adyashanti teaches in his meditations.

Some people look at this final merging of the observer with the observed as being the essence of Yoga. Why? Because in Sanskrit Yoga means union. That final union of observer with the observed creates the fully realized, awakened being. Our former dual nature transforms into singular, pure consciousness.

The takeaway

This technique takes some patience, but the end result, isolating our true nature, or true “I,” is of incalculable benefit. Why? Realizing who we are, and who we aren’t, could be said to be the entirety of the spiritual ballgame.

Do yourself a favor and devote attention to this.

Meditation

Marcus Aurelius’ Quote About Happiness Is Only Partly Right

Marcus Aurelius gets his share of ink on Medium, and for good reason. A case can be made that he is the wisest ruler in all of history.

Who was Marcus Aurelius? He was the emperor of the Roman Empire for twenty years in the second century AD during the latter stage of the Pax Romana, a period marked by peace, prosperity and territorial growth.

More important for our purposes, Marcus Aurelius was a genuine philosopher and an exponent of stoicism. His book of writings, Meditationsis considered a classic and is one of the principal works of Stoic philosophy.

Meditations contains myriad views on how best to live life. One such view is contained in the following famous quote:

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

Yes. And no.

How is this quote true? I’ll state the obvious. The person who spends much of their day, every day, with thoughts like…

“I can’t believe how fortunate I am. I have a wonderful wife, three of the best kids ever, a roof over my head and plenty of food to eat every single day.”

“Sure, I got fired. But I’ll find another job. Things always seem to work out in life.”

“That has to be the most beautiful sunset God ever created.”

…Is going to be far happier than a person with thoughts like…

“I have this massive yacht that cost me a ton, but every time I take it out the weather seems to suck.”

“Why do I always seem to get the short end of the stick in life?”

“My kid got all A’s and a B in math. Why the B? Because the night before his final exam he spent two hours gaming with his idiotic friends!”

No question. The first person will be far happier than the second. Positive thinking trumps negative thinking every time.

So I’m not down on positive thinking. It’s one of the many arrows we carry in our spiritual quiver.

My problem is with thinking that thinking can get us to our highest place. It can’t.

Why? Because we reach our highest place, the awakened state, when we transcend thinking.

The state of no-thought is where the soul lives. Where the deepest beauty that exists lives.

Yogananda’s river of joy

It’s the state that allows us access to that “river of joy running through us” that the great Indian saint Yogananda spoke of.

Let’s take but one of zillions of examples how this is so. That positive person above who is effusive in his thoughts about the beautiful sunset.

I know many people like this. They experience something sublime and they want to voice it, whether to themselves or someone around them.

Well, that person is far better off than someone who says, “That’s the first decent sunset we’ve had in three months. Finally…”

Experiencing with a still mind

But even better off is the person who looks at that sunset and thinks nothing. In doing so they truly experience that sunset. They internalize it. They become one with it, one manifestation of nature (the human being) communing with another, the sunset. The experience then touches the deepest core of that person.

The example of Eckhart Tolle is instructive. I haven’t seen many people who are more content and peaceful than Eckhart. He exudes equanimity. When the ultra-serene Eckhart was asked what his greatest achievement in life was, this was what he said:

My greatest achievement is that I don’t think when I don’t want to.”

For most of us, getting to that place is a lifetime of hard work. Meditating regularly, practicing mindfulness and other practices that quiet our minds from thinking. But doing so gives us our best shot at experiencing the highest that life has to offer.

The takeaway

So here’s how I would edit Marcus Aurelius’ quote:

The happiness of your life depends upon keeping your thoughts to the minimum necessary, and when you have them, make them quality thoughts.”

Meditation

Eckhart Tolle’s Teaching on Our Two Identities

I often write that some spiritual concept is “the whole ballgame.” Living in the moment. Nonresistance. Observing ourselves without judgment…

Today’s topic could also be called “the whole ballgame.” It’s about what we identify as.

Most people on the planet would scrunch their eyes at this and say,

“What do you mean, ‘what do I identify as?’? I’m me. Cathy Johnson. Forty-four years old. Five feet, four inches tall. Mother of three. Residential real estate broker. Hot-tempered. Loyal friend. Big fan of pinot noir. Pickleball fanatic…”

Unfortunately for Cathy, and most Earthlings, that isn’t accurate. Those facets comprise only a small fraction of who she really is.

Eckhart and the two identities

Which brings us to how Eckhart Tolle describes our two main identities. According to Eckhart, we all have a form identity and an essence identity.

Our form identity comprises the list Cathy gave us. It’s our physical form — our arms, legs, hearts, hair (except for cue ball heads like me), spleens, etc.

It’s also our emotional/feeling form — sensitive/not sensitive, jealous/not jealous, hot-tempered/even-tempered…

Then there’s this big one: Our forms are also the roles we identify as — mom-dad, daughter-son, wife-husband, biology teacher, Toyota factory worker, Episcopalian minister…

We’re all ripples in the ocean

But again, these forms only skim the surface of our fundamental identity. In fact, Eckhart uses a brilliant analogy using that concept of surface.

Most humans think of themselves as a single ripple traveling on the surface of the ocean. They see the other ripples as separate from them. As such, they feel alone and vulnerable.

The truth is that they, and every other ripple, are part of a vast, powerful ocean. Each individual ripple carries within itself that vast power…If only the ripples knew that.

Essence and the deep ‘I

Which brings us to our essence identity. That’s the deep ‘I’ within every one of us. It’s that part of us that has the power of the entire ocean.

The Hindus call this the Atman. Westerners call it everything from the soul to spirit to consciousness to God.

Continuing with the ripple/ocean analogy, ripples eventually peter out and dissolve into the ocean. But the vastness of the ocean is always there. Ripples form. Ripples peter out. The ocean remains.

Same with our forms which are born, live then die. But the deep essence inside us lives on. It’s timeless.

It’s about what we identify as

The key concept here is identity. What do we identify as? Again, most of us identify as the ripple/form and consequently feel alone and vulnerable, dog-paddling solo in the vast sea of humanity.

The spiritual path is about facilitating the shift from identifying as form to identifying as essence. Step one on that path involves simply realizing that we are more than our form identity.

Most people go from cradle to grave thinking they are nothing but the various aspects of their form. Which is tragic. The good news is that more and more of us, you included, are becoming aware of this deeper dimension within.

How to feel the essence within

But if I was you reading this article, my question would be: Awareness is fine and dandy, but how do I actually feel as if I’m that deeper essence? In other words, it’s one thing to know that that deeper essence is within me, but quite another to actually feel identified as that.

The answer to this question goes to the very heart of spirituality. As such, every teacher has their own way of expressing what that answer is.

A description I love is that of the great 20th century Indian saint, Ramana Maharshi. He put it this way:

Any form or shape is the cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so.’All that is required to realize the self is to be stillThe knowledge of oneself will be revealed only to the consciousness which is silent, clear and free from the activity of the agitated and suffering mind.

Beautiful. What he’s saying is that all we need to do in order to become/merge with/identify with our deeper essence is to become still.

Becoming still

How do we become still? We meditate. We practice mindfulness. We take long walks in nature. Do yoga. Chant. Pray. Anything that facilitates inner stillness.The quieter we get inside, the more we shift from identifying with form to essence. And with that shift comes greater power in everything we do. Jobs. Relationships. Everything.

Time for humanity to get its “shift” together…

Meditation

Peter Russell: A Spiritual Teacher to Check Out

I’ve written several articles about the teachings of Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle and Mickey Singer. Also a few about Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Adyashanti and a smattering of others.

So I was surprised this morning when I did a Medium search on my articles and realized I hadn’t written anything about Peter Russell. Why am I surprised? Because I absolutely love Peter Russell and his teachings.

A quick bio

Who is he? Peter studied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University. After studying meditation and eastern philosophy in India, he changed his focus to studying the mind, pyschology and consciousness.

His work the past forty years has been an eclectic mix of pioneering work in computer science (in the 1970s), corporate consulting on stress management, creativity and personal development, and multiple books on spiritual subjects.

An interview with Eckhart Tolle

My introduction to Peter Russell came around ten years ago when I saw him interviewed by Eckhart Tolle. What came out of that?

First, I was taken by his overall vibe. What do I mean by that? I just liked him. He seemed like a genuine, decent human being. How could I tell? That’s why I used the word vibe to describe my reaction. It was simply the vibe I got.

They don’t all have a great vibe

One might think that all spiritual teachers exude a positive vibe. That’s not the case, for me at least. Some might be fantastic teachers with loads to offer, but we don’t get that sense of genuine decency. Peter and Eckhart exude those qualities the most for me.

As for his teachings on consciousness and the like, that’s where Russell’s theoretical physicist/mathematician side comes out. I’ve read a few of his books on these subjects and they’re a bit too thinky/analytical for me. I’m not big on trying to think my way through these weighty metaphysical matters.

The best meditation teacher

But Peter’s teachings on meditation are the reason he is one of my favorites of the spiritual luminaries. In fact, he comes out number one when it comes to meditation.

This manifested mostly in my early years of meditation when I used his guided meditations. As you may know, there are tons of these on the internet and I tried many of them. But I always came back to Peter’s.

Why? First is the aforementioned vibe thing. I find his voice, affect and bearing highly relaxing and effective in effectuating a meditative state.

Relaxation is key

Second, and just as important, is what he emphasizes in meditation. That can be summed up in one word: Relaxation. He stresses “letting our attention relax into the moment.”

He also said something in a guided meditation that I first listened to around ten years ago that I still use to this day, both in my sessions and in classes I teach.

It was in the first minute of the session. He said something to the effect of,

“…You’re not trying to get anywhere special. Or achieve some high spiritual state…You’re just sitting here quietly, watching your breath…”

This stuck with me because I, like many meditators, had the tendency to get stuck trying to get to some otherworldly state, which resulted in tightness and frustration. His teaching is exactly what meditators need to hear: Meditation is not about getting anywhere; it’s about allowing everything to be exactly as it is in the present moment.

Enjoying meditation

Peter also teaches something that I haven’t heard from anyone else. He encourages people to enjoy their meditations. Wow, what a concept!

By continually relaxing into the moment, we can actually enjoy meditation. I try to remind myself of that as much as possible during my sessions. It doesn’t have to be all drudgery and tight concentration.

The takeaway

So check him out if he sounds like your cup o’ tea. He has a fantastic website with all kinds of free resources. The site is peterrussell.com.

Again, I find his guided meditations to be the best. Especially if you are new to meditation, I highly recommend going on his site and giving those a try.

Meditation

Ask Yourself This Question to Get Your Spiritual Work Properly Focused

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re at least somewhat interested in the spiritual side of things. That’s mostly what I write about.

You may meditate. Practice mindfulness. Do yoga. Chant. Listen to Eckhart Tolle talks. Read Eckhart’s books. Same with Ram Dass, Mickey Singer and many other higher beings.

You probably think, as I do, that this spiritual stuff is incredibly important to your inner well-being. And yet…

There’s a good chance that in your daily life, this spiritual stuff is not actually front and center. And the kicker is, you actually think it is front and center.

How can we tell? By asking ourselves one key question:

What do I expend my mental energy on during a typical day?

For most spiritual seekers, the answer will comprise a few of the following:

-Worrying about my finances with the stock market going crazy, the destabilizing war in Ukraine and recession on the horizon.

-Worrying about my kids or other loved ones.

-Ruminating day in and day out about my job and whether it’s the career path I want to be on; i.e., should I make a change?

-Obsessing about my goal of making $XXX thousands (millions?) of dollars this year.

-Obsessing about what I’m eating and whether I’m too fat.

While expending mental energy on these things every day we are, of course, also meditating daily, listening to talks, reading spiritual books, etc.

How are you expending mental energy?

So the question becomes: What to do? First is what I already wrote. Ask yourself where you’re spending your mental energy. Be as honest as possible.

Second, now that you’re armed with that knowledge, think about how you might be able to reallocate that energy. How?

This is where mindfulness comes in. Instead of getting lost in spending energy on obsessing, ruminating and worrying about the above areas, we redirect our energy toward noticing when we’re doing those things.

This is a good time to bring up, again, my favorite quote of Eckhart Tolle:

“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.”

We need to expend mental energy on becoming aware of all those things because if we don’t, we’re toast. And this does take energy. And will. And commitment.

Putting our energy in the right places

Which is the point of this piece. If we are to be effective trekkers on the spiritual path, we need to allocate our finite energies to the right areas.

But becoming aware that we’re obsessing, etc., is only the first step. The second step is the indispensable act of letting go.

Something comes up in our head, let it go. It happens again, let it go. Just keep letting go. All day long, every day.

Mickey and the machine

As Mickey Singer describes it, we become a letting go machine.

How does this work? To take one of thousands of examples, you’re sitting in your car at a red light. You notice that your mind has drifted to ruminating about whether you should start looking around for a new job.

After noticing this, you relax. Completely. In your head, shoulders, chest, belly. Then you lean away from the job thoughts…and let them pass.

Again, that takes energy. But it’s the most valuable, efficient use of energy there is.

The expending of that energy takes us closer to where we want to be. Ruminating and obsessing takes us further away.

Nothing wrong with attacking our challenges

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with contemplating a career change or thinking about how to help your kids in whatever they’re struggling with. But if you’re going to do those things, do them!

How? Sit down with a yellow legal pad and devote some focused attention to tackling the challenge at hand. Then set it aside and come back to it when necessary. What we don’t want to do is drift into thought on these things, on and off, all day long, day after day.

The takeaway

Becoming a letting go machine isn’t easy. It takes a significant amount of energy and determination.

But the rewards are profound. Not only for you, but for those around you.

Meditation

A Two Word Mantra to Save You in Confrontational Situations

We heap a ton of suffering on ourselves not from the substance of the fights we have, but from how we do the fighting. Does the following scene sound at all familiar?

Significant Other: “Honey, I’d appreciate if you’d put your plate in the dishwasher and not leave it on the counter.”

You: “Oh, just shut the f&%k up! I’m so tired of your bulls*&t!”

This is followed by a couple of slammed doors and an icy evening had by all. Hopefully, it’s just an evening and doesn’t bleed into the next morning, day, week, month or an appearance in divorce court.

Whatever the case, we all know that these kinds of explosions are all harm, no good. We also know that most of them are avoidable.

Respond, don’t react

Most of you are familiar with how they’re avoidable. It’s the old ‘respond, don’t react’ strategy. Which really boils down to, do your best to take at least a few seconds to get your boiling cauldron of anger that’s just been poked to simmer down to an acceptable temperature.

And therein lies the rub. So much needless pain and suffering comes from our not being able to catch ourselves in those few seconds before the volcano erupts.

I’ve found a two-word phrase that goes a long way in tempering my anger and upset. Here it is:

Heart open.

That’s it. Just those two words.

It’s about not letting your heart close

The meaning of that phrase is self-evident, but let’s expound a tad. Keeping our hearts open is really about preventing its opposite: Closing our hearts.

I wrote an entire article about this, which would be helpful to read to get when I’m writing about here. Here’s the link.

How do we use this ‘heart open’ for maximum benefit? There are three main situations/areas where it works best.

1. Situations with lead time

First would be situations where we have sufficient lead time in knowing a confrontation/fight is possible.

A colleague at work wronged you in some way. You thought about it that night and have decided to confront them the next morning. Or your spouse did something to really anger you in the morning before you both headed off to work and you’re going to bring it up when you get home.

In these cases, you gird yourself for the possibility of becoming upset so that when/if that happens, you can go straight to saying in your head, “Heart open. Heart open. Heart open.” Which, again, has the effect of not letting your heart close. Which has the effect of not blowing up.

I also suggest that when doing this, you say it quickly and repeatedly. At least three times. And that while saying it, you place your attention on your heart and imagine it staying open.

You might be wondering why this mantra isn’t “Keep your heart open.” To me, the shorter the better. In the heat of the moment, the fewer words we need to remember, the better. Heart open.

2. Situations that arise in the moment

Second are situations like the one at the beginning about the plate in the kitchen. That’s one where we didn’t see it coming.

These can obviously be harder. Why? Because we’re all dealing with the vicissitudes of life — work stress, family stress, existential stress…you name it. So that when something gets lobbed our way at the wrong time, no matter how trivial, it can ignite our inner bomb.

But here again, ‘heart open’ can be a huge help. For it to work, we need to instill it in our heads. As a cause/effect dynamic.

“When I get poked, I go straight to ‘Heart open. Heart open. Heart open.’”

We need that phrase to be at the ready. At all times.

3. Situations where we’re alone and about to ruminate

third area where this works is something you may not think about but is incredibly helpful. Because we don’t only become upset when people are in our presence.

What do I mean? The idea for this article came to me this morning when I was dealing with a perfect example to use for this.

Suffice to say that I’m trying to help a friend with a serious medical problem and have not made any headway with the people I approached who might be able to help.

Obviously, in a life and death situation one can get emotional and angry in a case like this. But each time I’ve found myself going down that path of anger, I’ve stopped myself and said, “Heart open,” over and over. I’ve had to do this several times this morning.

What I’m doing here is simply saving myself from the negative effects of ruminating over a situation like this. We all know what that’s like.

Also, by not ruminating and spinning some sinister story in my head about these people, I’m far less likely to explode if I ever do talk with them about it. It’s a winner all around.

The takeaway

I’m not sure why this two-word phrase ‘heart open’ works so well, but I know it does. There’s something about the heart that people just seem to ‘get’ at a deep level.

To recap: When you feel provoked and about to explode, simply say in your head, “Heart open. Heart open. Heart open,” as you place attention on your heart staying open.

So much pain is brought into this world from people blowing up in ways far disproportionate to the situation. Try this ‘heart open’ mantra to prevent that pain from befalling you and the people around you.

Meditation

Ram Dass’s Spot-On Take of How to View Our Thinking Minds: The master vs. the servant.

A key part of my daily spiritual practice is watching video talks of my favorite teachers. Most days that means Mickey Singer, Eckhart Tolle or Ram Dass.

I highly recommend this to any of you traveling the path. It’s so easy. Just go to YouTube, search up your favorite teachers and watch. And listen. It’ll help ground you in your day.

Lately I’ve been watching Ram Dass talks from the 1980s. This is the period after his hippy-dippy, long beard in long white robe phase of the 1970s and before his stroke in the mid 1990s. These talks are deep, eloquent and achingly honest.

In last week’s talk, Ram Dass expounded on the particulars of the mind. Here’s what he said:

The thinking mind is a beautiful servant, but a lousy master.

So true.

A common question I’m asked

When I was teaching online meditation classes, I would talk about how thinking unwanted thoughts was at the root of much of our suffering. And that many spiritual traditions, Buddhism and Hinduism chief among them, directed the lion’s share of their teachings toward reducing and slowing down our thought factory minds.

This inevitably elicited the question: “But wait. Are you saying that thinking is bad for us? That’s crazy.”

The brilliant thinker, Dr. Dan Fisher

Who asked this question among my students? People like my roommate and best friend at Princeton, Dr. Danny Fisher, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a 3.9 GPA. In other words, a guy with a high-performing noggin who did a shit ton of thinking. Bottom line, when you tell a guy who has a Ferrari that he shouldn’t drive much, you’re going to get push back.

But that’s not what Ram Dass is saying, nor am I. Because thinking can be our servant. Our friend.

But here’s the key word: Intentional. When Danny was studying for final exams in medical school (by the way, he got into Harvard Medical School but chose the University of Michigan because he got a full scholarship — sorry, I like to brag about my friends), he directed his thinking to learning the material at hand. No daydreaming. No perseverating. Just focused, intentional thinking.

Likewise, when we sit down to write a memo at work or stroll down the aisles at the grocery store straining to remember what we need, that is intentional thinking.

That is when the thinking mind is a beautiful servant. When we, our conscious selves, are sitting in the proverbial director’s chair, asking our thinking minds to serve our interests.

Our minds are lousy masters

Now for the second clause of the sentence: “…but a lousy master.” In other words, when our minds occupy the director’s chair, all hell breaks loose and we suffer.

Brooding about the snide, passive-aggressive comment that snotty mom lobbed your way at school drop-off this morning. Worry-thinking so much about your finances on the drive home from work that you can’t even remember the drive. Waking up in the middle of the night and just thinking…about everything under the sun, your thoughts completely out of control.

That, my friends, is the mind acting as a lousy master.

The takeaway

The key to spiritual growth and awakening is doing the work necessary to keep our conscious self in the driver’s seat of our life. Our thinking minds are going to kick us out of that seat and become the master of the car. A lot.

But we just keep working on noticing when that happens. And we gently tap that egoic thinking machine on the shoulder and say, “Sorry, pal. Get in the backseat.” Over and over and over.

Gradually, over time, our minds shift from master to servant. That’s the path…

Meditation

Say Your Name to Aid in Letting Go of Your Ego

I’ve written extensively about how indispensable it is to let go of our egoic attachments. We can meditate all day long, chant, practice mindfulness and qi gong, but we’ll still be stuck unless we let go.

It isn’t easy. Most of the “stuff” stuck in our lower selves has been there for a long, long time so releasing it takes a boatload of intention and a boatload of effort. But as I’ve written multiple times, that effort and exertion is worth its weight in spiritual gold.

Hence, I’m always on the lookout for tips and techniques to aid in letting go. One such aid comes from something I’ve heard some prominent spiritual teachers do, Mickey Singer foremost among them.

Before I get to what that is, let me tell you why I’m writing about this today. The idea came to me during a trip to Washington, D.C., over the weekend.

Mr. Gerken flails in Washington

The subject was that seemingly trivial, but vexing to me, subject of tennis. For those of you who haven’t had to endure my tennis BS before, the short story is that I played a bunch as a kid then in college for four years at Princeton, followed by a brief and disastrous attempt at the pros.

Bottom line: I still have issues with it, though not so much of the thinking, psychological type. I played in the finals of a club championship in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on Saturday (can you think of anything less consequential in the grand scheme of war in Ukraine, civil unrest in America and a fraught economy?).

I know, intellectually, that rinky-dink tennis tournaments are not the be-all, end-all for me. But that’s what is so fascinating about this. Because despite knowing this, I get strong feelings of anxiety and nervousness when I play in these things. That’s when you know it’s old baggage.

I know it in my head, but not in my gut

This match, in particular, had my stomach in knots the morning of. I purposely did not use my rational mind to quash those feelings by saying something like, “This is so stupid. Who cares? You’re 58 years old wigging out because of a ridiculous tennis match!” Doing that would definitely have helped calm my nerves.

Why didn’t I allow myself to do that? Because I wanted to go deeper than that by actually letting those feelings go. How? By repeatedly relaxing and leaning away from the feeling to give it room to release upward. In other words, I wanted to use this opportunity to let go of some of this trapped, deep-seated energy. It was hard. And painful.

Anyway, the match rolls around and we have a 2 ½ hour slugfest that is best described, from my end, as a Murphy’s Law bout — whatever could go wrong did go wrong. Needless to say, I lost.

A mostly miserable match

I pulled a hamstring muscle early in the first set, got incredibly tired as the match wore on and frankly was a miserable mess most of the time. Looking back on it, there was only one great thing that happened during the match, which is going to sound odd, but is a direct consequence of all the spiritual work I’ve done these past several years.

It was this. We played indoors so the spectators were upstairs behind a glass. The fantastic thing that happened was when I’d look up at the spectators, usually after a good point for me, I’d see my friend, Janie, smiling and giving me a thumbs up.

A quick digression for some background. We met in 1986 when I was a college intern for Senator George Mitchell of Maine for whom Janie was the office receptionist and liaison with visiting constituents. Senator Mitchell loved Janie and viewed her as his secret weapon because all those visiting Mainers (AKA voters) loved her.

Sunny Janie

Janie is one of those people who has been blessed with beautiful, positive energy that lights up those around her. For the past 36 years she has been part close friend, part sister and even part mom at times.

And that was why I kept looking up at her during the match. Seeing that big smile and knowing that she loved and cared about me made my heart swell when the rest of my body felt like it had been in a car accident.

So what does all this have to do with letting go? At the airport later that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the match I’d lost. To a guy I should have beaten. To a guy I had on the ropes almost the whole match.

I kept trying to let it go, but it kept creeping back. Again and again.

Epiphany at National Airport

Then it occurred to me that the best part of the match, and the entire day, was looking up and seeing Janie. And I thought, why am I not thinking about that? That’s when I finally had the thought that inspired this article, which was: “Man, I wish I could get rid of David Gerken.”

Why? Because David Gerken, who is the amalgamation of experiences that I’ve held onto for decades, is the one who gets pissed off and spun up about losing a tennis match and who has all kinds of other nutty foibles. And I would love nothing more than to let him go.

I’ve heard Mickey Singer do this for years, both in his books and talks. He’ll say, “Oh, I never listen to Mickey. I learned a long time ago that he’s always wrong!”

Mickey letting go of Mickey

The more profound example came from his book The Surrender Experiment. Mickey was an enormously successful businessman who’d created a medical software company with north of 2,000 employees.

In order to save his own skin from a crime he’d committed, one of Mickey’s employees made up a story that Mickey and other higher-ups had been cooking the books. It took several years before Mickey was cleared.

But what did he take from that brutal experience? He said it provided a valuable opportunity to get rid of any remaining remnants of “Mickey.” Any ego that had built up due to his massive success he targeted for letting go.

He let go of Mickey. I’m trying to let go of David Gerken.

The takeaway

It clicked with me when I used my name while stewing at the airport. There’s my conscious, true self and there’s David Gerken. I love the stark contrast it sets up.

That contrast helps me to better identify and then let go of David Gerken when he arises. I hope this resonates with you. If so, give it a try.