2020 Reflections

A meditation for middle-of-the-night stress

I wanted to share a few thoughts about the practice of meditation.

To discuss techniques for turning worry and stress into nourishing mind matter, like compassion. For moments, in the middle of the night, where maybe we start to feel ourselves going under the quick sands of stress.

Because let’s face it, 2020 has been an astonishingly disruptive and stressful year. Where all concepts of normality were shredded. Where all routines that previously nourished us, evaporated. Where practices like meditation have taken on a new, urgent power.

Meditation as a tool for transformation

Alongside my day job as a content marketer, I have spent the past 20 years deeply studying meditation in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. I've found it to be remarkably helpful in building balance and reducing stress in my work and home life. And it's a skill and science that anyone can learn, from any background.

Meditation is a discipline in which we sit and watch the mind. We learn to recognize the waves of turbulence that arise in the mind. We learn to not get sucked into those waves. We learn their origins, how they arise. And then we learn how to apply the opponents: states of mind that lead to inner peace. In Tibetan this is known as lojong.

Or perhaps in LinkedIn talk, we might say, new agile mind responses that lead to creativity/resilience/spaciousness rather than stress.

As one of my teachers once said to me, "meditation basically means familiarizing our mind with positivity." Meditation is a mind science. We learn not just how to calm the mind, but also how to transform the mind. In the face of disruption, a practice like this becomes protective.

A meditation on taking and giving

So if you don't mind, I'm going to share here one specific meditation technique. It's the one that came in to help me the other night when I found myself lying in bed at night, starting to mildly freak out.

It’s an ancient Buddhist meditation called Taking and Giving, which I learned from my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and which many Buddhists have practiced for thousands of years. But frankly this is something anyone can practice; it's simply a mind training exercise where we turn worry into compassion. (If you want to learn it properly, I would highly recommend you download this free eBook. It's in the chapter called ‘Taking and Giving'. The book, by the way, is my favorite book of all time.)

So here goes:

What you do is you sit (or lie) there when the worry hits and you start to expand your mind.

You start by thinking about your particular suffering experience (work stress in my case) and then ask:

How many others are experiencing the same, or far worse?

It didn’t take long for me to imagine them all — the doctors and nurses and medical workers. I’m feeling stressed? How on earth are they feeling right now? How many of them are lying in bed right now with crippling anxiety?

Then I thought of the parents who are working jobs and trying to look after their kids at home, and desperately trying to keep it together.

And then I thought of all those who have lost jobs, who are feeling their lives crumble around them.

We sit for a while, and allow our mind to encompass them all.

The healing effect of shifting the mind away from self

At this point, the mind starts to tangibly shift.

Instead of being so utterly focused on ourself, the mind starts to loosen and grow. It starts to encompass the actual state of reality, and the fact we are surrounded by countless others. The fact that we are “we” more than “me”.

This shift away from self to others has a powerful effect. It allows compassion to start to emerge, a warm feeling in the heart. Compassion is the mind’s natural impulse when we see others in pain, and the mental exercise of shifting the mind to others allows it to arise.

At this point, we develop a wish:

May all these beings be freed from this suffering that I know so well. May I be able to take away their suffering.

We sit and hold this compassionate wish for a little while.

Harnessing the power of the imagination

At this point, we start to draw on the mind’s capacity for imagination.

Worry, when you think about it, is basically imagination gone wrong. In meditation, instead of allowing the mind to charge about its exaggerated problems and increase them with a frantic hyper-focus, we step in and wield our imagination as a force for good.

At this point in the meditation, we imagine that the suffering of all these people now takes the form of dark smoke. We imagine this dark smoke wafts towards us. We mentally draw it out of them and towards us, so that it enters our heart center.

And we imagine that two wonderful things happen:

  1. The smoke completely dissolves and purifies our mind of all our own suffering. (It’s not like we’re absorbing a ton of suffering at this point, rather the act of wanting to actively help others is now almost cleansing our mind.)

  2. We imagine all these people are now freed from the weight of their pain.

We hold this belief for a little while.

Giving happiness

After a while of sitting with this, we think:

May all these beings experience deep, lasting peace. May I be able to give them that peace.

We then imagine that our body and mind transforms into radiant light, the nature of love. We imagine this light radiates, like the sun, touching all these people and melting away their suffering. It fills them with peace.

We imagine they experience deep authentic joy.

And as our final meditation object, we just sit there, minute after minute, imagining that all these people around us are perfectly at peace.

We meditate on the joy of witnessing their peace.

From victim to protector

I did this practice last week. It came to me as a tool in the dark of the night. Not only did it help to diffuse the stress very quickly so that I could sleep, it also lifted me up the following day. Because a day spent with a loving heart is a lot more fun than a day with a stressed out heart.

And this is why meditation is so awesome, and what compels me to sit and document this story as we come to the end of 2020.

Meditation is nutritious. It is mental health familiarity. We learn how to create new mental habits. We learn new coping mechanisms informed by the study and data and practice of humans over 2,500 years of humans trying this stuff out in monasteries and caves and more recently yoga studios and corporate offices. And over time, and a lot of patience and practice, we start to notice that the habit itself now comes in to help us. So that all those years of practice, now have created a structure of support in the mind.

Earlier this week, I was driving through Portland on the way to see a dentist. I haven’t seen Portland in months (I've been lucky to work from home in the woods) and to see that sparkling city by the sea was a joy. It reminded me, for the past ten years, I spent every Sunday morning here, sitting in a yoga studio, teaching meditation practices like this for the Kadampa Meditation Center Boston, for which I am a voluntary teacher.

I deeply hope those classes can arise again in 2021. We all need communities where tools for calming the mind are shared, practiced, discussed and grown.