Thursday, October 20, 2016

Emotional Intelligence and the U.S. Election

Just two hours before the third Presidential debate, I published this article at The Huffington Post. My article looks at the important role played by emotional intelligence (and the lack thereof) in our national political discourse.

After all, as a nation, we are all sort of married to each other in this great social experiment we call the United States. And our marriage is not going well at the moment. Many of the problems we see in our current state of the union can be attributed to a shocking lack of emotional intelligence and maturity.

Click here to read the article at HuffPo. Comments are welcome.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Intuition: Navigating Life and the Spiritual Path by Trusting Your Innate Wisdom

Intuition is one of our most powerful ways of knowing, but it remains mysterious and somewhat devalued in our culture, and many of us are out of touch with this innate form of wisdom. What to do?

This talk was recorded on Facebook Live on October 13, 2016.

If you're on Facebook, you can also watch the video and follow my new page there.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Slouching Towards Human Dystopia

The other day I saw a news segment about pressure-sensitive devices that detect the presence of a small child in a car's child seat and alert you if you might accidentally be locking your baby in the back seat of a hot car.

BEEEEP!!! "Oh, I forgot! I have a baby, and she's sitting right behind me! I'd better bring her with me!"

Hey, saving babies is a good thing. I understand that the intentions of the people who invented these devices, and the people who buy them, are good. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A while back, I started seeing ads in my Facebook feed for a wearable device, sort of a FitBit for emotions, that alerts you when you are experiencing signs of anger or stress, and tells you to pause and take a few deep breaths. Again, good intentions. I’m happy if this device helps someone who actually needs it. But it saddens me that there might be anyone who actually needs it.

I feel a gnawing sense of despair about the increasing dependence of human beings on electronic devices to perform for us the most basic functions of survival and caring for ourselves and our loved ones — functions that used to be performed by common sense. Soon there will be no aspect of our lives that is not mediated by machines and managed by algorithms and big data.

People don’t own, or know how to read, traditional maps anymore, and map-makers have stopped printing them due to lack of demand. Who needs 15th-century navigation technology when you’ve got Google Earth at your fingertips? And people don’t remember phone numbers anymore, either; just tell Siri who you want to call. “Okay. I have eight phone numbers for Doug Sanchez. Which number would you like to call? You can say things like, ‘Mobile, Home, Office, Other’.”

I still remember the phone number of the house I grew up in, 40 years ago. Back then, I could have made a call from that phone even if Russians hacked the power grid and took down all the cell phone networks and Google Maps and Facebook and the whole damned Internet went dark, because it was a copper phone line that didn’t require a separate power source or any data towers. Well, okay, back then we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet or data towers — cable TV was still a new invention — but you get my point. Actually, allow me to date myself still further: I remember when the Powers That Be finally required that all telephones be upgraded from rotary dial (look it up, kids) to touch tone phones, to facilitate wordless, touch-tone communication between human fingers and the machines on the other end of the line. Perhaps THAT was the defining moment, the start of all this. And look at us now.

INCOMING TEXT: "Hi, this is your GE Smart Refrigerator. You’re running low on milk. Based on your location settings, you're at Wal-Mart now. Perhaps you could pick up a carton while you're there. The milk is in aisle 12. Reply ‘1’ for walking directions to aisle 12. Reply ‘2’ for brand recommendations. Reply ‘3’ for easy 5-minute recipes using dairy products"

ALERT: "Hi, this is your Range Rover. It looks like you left a human child weighing 14.3 lbs in the back seat of the vehicle. I've started the engine and turned on the AC as a cautionary measure. Press 'OK' to dismiss or 'PANIC' to activate the vehicle’s alarm system."

REMINDER: "At Facebook we cherish your significant moments. Today’s your 10th wedding anniversary! Why don’t you post something about your spouse to let your friends know how much he/she/they mean(s) to you?"

Another new technology called Magic Leap is being cooked up for you right now, behind a veil of corporate secrecy so thick that it rivals anything the military might be working on. Magic Leap, from what we are told, will project virtual reality images not onto a screen in front of you (like all previous VR technologies) but directly into your eyeball, tricking your brain so you will find it difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s unreal. But why would you want to? Magic Leap is pretty damn cool, to be honest. The new reality that’s being created for you is so much more comfortable, so much more convenient, so much prettier. There’s less to think about, and more to enjoy.

Slowly, one device, one technology at a time, we are becoming the humans depicted in the film Wall-E, who float like blobs through shopping malls on their self-driving hover-chairs, no longer able to walk on their own legs, hooked into VR screens and automatically fed snacks and sodas, video-chatting with the person next to them because it’s too much effort — and frankly it would just look weird — to turn their heads away from the screen and engage in actual conversation with another human.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Busted! Three Myths About Meditation, Debunked



You know this one. Fill in the blank with your favorite excuse:

“I can’t meditate because…”
  • “…it’s hard for me to sit still.”
  • “…I have a lot of thoughts.”
  • “…I get sleepy.”
  • “…I’ve had a difficult life.” 
  • “…I don't have time.”
  • “…Yadda yadda yadda.”

I literally hear some version of this, from at least one student, almost every time I teach meditation. The funny thing is, the people who say this always seem to actually believe that they are different from other people, uniquely challenged in the practice of meditation because __________.

Here’s the thing. You are not different. Your challenges are not unique. Everyone has had a difficult life. Everyone finds it hard to sit still. Everyone is busy. Everyone has a lot of thoughts. Everyone gets sleepy. Everyone in the history of the world who has ever meditated finds it challenging in one way or another. If it wasn’t challenging, it wouldn’t be a practice.

Imagine going to a cycling class, and telling the instructor, “I can’t cycle because my heart rate increases.” “I can’t cycle because I get sweaty.” “I can’t cycle because I’m not in shape.”

The real reason you think you can’t meditate is because you’re not used to meditating.



This myth is closely related to the first one, and it’s usually the main reason people think they are so bad at meditation. Chances are, you plopped down for your very first meditation session and you were surprised to discover how wild and untamed your mind really is. You have thoughts! A lot of them! Perhaps you spent the majority of the meditation session thinking, and realizing you were thinking, and beating yourself up for thinking, and thinking about your thinking.

My standard reply to this is: “Welcome to the human race.”

Here’s the thing. You can’t actually stop thoughts. A Tibetan aphorism says, “Trying to meditate without thoughts is like trying to have tea without leaves.” What you can do, over time, with practice, is learn to stop taking your thoughts quite so seriously. You can learn to stop being hooked by every thought that comes along, and simply observe thoughts as they come and go. Meditation creates a larger sense of space in the mind, so there’s more room to accommodate everything. When thoughts are allowed to come and go – that is, when you neither follow them nor try to suppress them – they lose their power to define you or control you.

Thoughts are like stray animals: if you stop feeding them, they don’t come around as much.



You’d be surprised at how many people stay away from meditation because they believe this myth.

At the beginning of a meditation class, I usually check to see who’s brand new to meditation. If I’m feeling mischievous, I say something like, “Okay, we’re going to chant ‘Hare Krishna’ for 30 minutes.” I watch their faces go pale for a few seconds before telling them, “Just kidding!”

Sure, plenty of people meditate in a religious way – following gurus, wearing special clothing, burning incense, chanting in foreign languages. Most meditation practices originated from religious traditions like Buddhism, if you trace them back to their historical roots. And you certainly won’t find any shortage of New Agey teachers and spiritual woo-woo when you look around at the meditation scene.

However, the same could be said of yoga. If you want to make meditation or yoga religious or self-consciously spiritual, you certainly can. But at heart, the practice is really very simple and ordinary. Meditation lets you relate more openly, more honestly, and more compassionately with your mind, your body, and your life. Step One in that process is slowing down enough to actually *see* what’s going on in your mind, your body and your life. And that begins with putting your butt down on the cushion, chair, or floor and engaging in a simple practice that grounds you in presence. Then you can let those qualities of presence, openness, and compassion transform your life, your relationships, and your actions.

If you find that to be a spiritual experience, then you have grokked the true meaning of spirituality, which has nothing to do with gurus, special clothing, incense, crystals, or mystical experiences. But that’s a topic for another time.

Enjoy your practice.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Capote's Law

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck,” says the Dalai Lama.

Of course it doesn’t feel that way when it happens. I can’t count the number of times in life that I’ve cried and wailed with disappointment when something I wanted failed to materialize, or slipped out of my grasp.

But with time and perspective, I see that in many cases it would have been disastrous for me if things had gone “my way.”

I’m thinking of the college lover whose dream was for us to move to Lagos, Nigeria to teach English. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable life plan when I was a sophomore. I even spent time in the university library teaching myself basic phrases from an Igbo language primer, preparing for life in Nigeria. But it wasn’t meant to be. That relationship soon dissolved, and with it went the dream of moving to Lagos.

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” wrote Truman Capote. It isn’t difficult to imagine how Capote’s law could apply here. Just look at the kidnapping and murder rates in Lagos, and Nigeria’s attitudes towards gay men, and you start to get a sense of the myriad ways our plans might have gone wrong.

This perspective only came later. At the time, I mourned the loss of that relationship, put away the Igbo language primer, and scrambled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Not having things work out the way I wanted was a slap in the face, and it stung. But in hindsight, I’m grateful for it. That wasn’t the right relationship for me to be in, and moving to Nigeria to teach English was not in my star chart. Sometimes we need life to give us a compassionate slap in the face to wake us up.

There’s a famous story about an old man who lived on a small farm with his son and a horse. One day the horse ran away and the neighbors came to express their sympathy, telling the farmer, “Oh, that’s so terrible.” The farmer replied, “Maybe.” A couple of days later the horse came back, bringing another wild horse with it. This time the neighbors exclaimed the farmer’s great good luck at getting a new horse. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next day, the farmer’s son fell and broke his leg while trying to tame the new horse. The neighbors came again to express their sympathy, but the farmer brushed it off with another “Maybe.” A couple of weeks later, the army came through the village, looking to conscript any able-bodied young men for a new war. The farmer’s son was passed over because of his broken leg, which prompted the neighbors to exclaim the farmer’s great good fortune. “Maybe.”

You get the point. We never really know. What looks at first like good fortune may be setting us up for a disaster, and what looks like bad fortune may be saving us from something even worse. Life brings us to a fork in the road and then forces us down a path we didn’t choose. We shed tears over the road not taken, but later come to see that the path we wanted to take would have led us off a cliff. We can appreciate this lesson because hindsight is 20/20, and time heals old wounds — but in the moment, when we don’t get what we want, we are blinded by disappointment.

Every now and then, it’s good to look back at our disappointments, our misplaced hopes, the dreams that didn’t pan out, and consider the possibility that life was actually trying to bring us something better than what we wanted. “Maybe we even find redemptive value in our apparent lapses,” says philosopher Rob Brezsny. “We come to see that they saved us from some painful experience or helped us avoid getting a supposed treasure that would have turned out to be a booby prize.”

Here’s to booby prizes, to disappointments, to the dashing of misplaced hopes, to the roads not taken, and to the eventual triumphs that come to us only through failure.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Infographic: 3 Levels of Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is trending these days, and is practiced everywhere from the yoga studio to the board room. But the great meditative traditions tell us that mindfulness is only a starting point. Once the mind has been tamed and trained through mindfulness, only then can true meditation and self-inquiry actually begin.

What does meditation look like beyond mindfulness? I created this infographic to provide a quick overview of what I refer to as the three levels of meditation: Presence, Stillness, and Inquiry. Feel free to share the graphic if you like it.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

¡Viva Cuba!

When Adrian and I agreed to lead a group of almost 30 Americans on a yoga and meditation retreat to Cuba, I don’t think we quite understood what that would mean, or how profoundly we would be transformed by the experience. After months of anticipation, the trip to Cuba finally took place last week. Our heads and hearts are still spinning with the things we saw and felt.

Everything in Cuba moves more slowly, takes more effort, and involves more risk. As a functioning society, it is not a well oiled machine. Certain things about life there seemed to freeze in 1959 and have remained unchanged since then. So many things are broken, or patched together. People find ingenious ways to make things work, even if it’s with the most humble solutions and materials at hand — but they are always proud of whatever they have. The moment is always now. Whatever they lack in terms of comfort, amenities, infrastructure is compensated in their smiles, cheerfulness, humanity, and a sincere desire to live the best life they can. It is mind-blowing.

Chickens designated for sacrifice in an Abakuá religious ritual.
Callejón de Hamel, Havana.

Less than six months ago, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Cuba, and the U.S. flag was raised again alongside other countries’ flags for the first time in over half a century. In the news yesterday, the U.S. and Cuba announced that they will resume a full schedule of commercial flights, and in the news today President Obama announced that he will visit Cuba next month. This will be the first visit to Cuba from a U.S. president in 88 years. The last U.S. president to visit was Calvin Coolidge. The winds of change are blowing.

We asked some locals what they and their friends thought of the lifting of the embargo and the new influx of American tourists and investments. For the most part they welcome it, because it brings much-needed economic relief. But they also fear how the sudden rush of American influence may change the island and its culture.

Havana seen from a high floor of the Habana Libre hotel.

We saw stunningly beautiful things in Cuba—not only in the places we went, but more importantly in the people we met. And we saw heartbreaking things too: crumbling buildings, shocking poverty, and a society of men and women forced to piece together a life out of almost nothing. We saw people’s cheerfulness and dignity, their pride in whatever little they have. But beneath the smiles, beneath the dignity, were things we could not see because our eyes are not Cuban eyes. As one Cuban-American friend said to me:

“There's plenty of beauty on that island. There always was. And of its resources, it is its people by far that make it the special place it is. But they are my people. I know them too well. I know of the pain behind their laughter. I know of the shame behind their dignity. I know what it's like to feel lesser than any visitor from the outside — “de afuera.” Because most Cubans are serving a life sentence on an island they can't wait to get out of, isolated from the rest of the world, their only contact with the outside from hearsay, pictures and movies.”

Woman on street in Old Havana.

After the initial thrill of stepping into a time capsule wears off and you have taken a hundred or more pretty photos of old 1950s American cars driving on picturesque streets filled with decaying colonial-era buildings, you start to get a sense of what lies beneath the exterior: the daily struggle to survive in a third-world country that has been politically and economically isolated from its giant neighbor to the north. Those American cars have been kept running for half a century with makeshift Soviet parts, because after 1959 no more American parts could be obtained to fix them. They spew black fumes that choke the air of Havana’s streets.

Taking old American cars for a night out on the town.

The pride of most Cubans for what they have—even if it seems to us like so little, coming from the lap of luxury that we live in—and their humble, kind demeanor left an indelible impression on us.

One day we had some free time in Havana away from our group, and Adrian and I wandered through back streets where our tour guide would never have taken us. A woman beckoned to me, offering to sell something, and I followed her through a narrow alley into her home. Suddenly there I was, standing in front of her family, as she took her merchandise from a duffle bag and laid it out on the bed. Above the bed was an unsupported concrete staircase to the second floor, crumbling. I negotiated the transaction with her in my broken Spanish, my face flushing with awareness of my appearance as the “extranjero,” the foreigner, radiating money and privilege.

Lost in Havana.

Later that day, we took a bicycle taxi back to our hotel. We didn’t realize the hotel was about 70 blocks away, but the driver was happy to accommodate us anyway. When we told him where we were going and asked him what the fare would be, he said, “Whatever you would like to pay.” As he pedaled us through pothole-filled streets, dodging traffic, he told us about his life. He’s been driving a bicycle cab since he was a kid, to support his family, and now he has a two-month old newborn. When the streets became very steep and it was hard for him to pedal two grown men uphill, we got out and walked with him.

Our bicycle cab ride through Havana's back streets.

Our group also spent a couple of days in the countryside, which gave us a glimpse of another Cuba. We stayed overnight in the Viñales area in the province of Pinar del Rio, one of the most beautiful places on earth. As the main tobacco-growing region for Cuba’s cigars (one of the country’s biggest exports), the Viñales valley is studded with “mogotes”—a type of sharp, vertical mountain that rises straight up out of the land, found nowhere else but in Cuba and in a certain part of China. And we dined at an organic farm-to-table restaurant that provided one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life.

The stunning beauty of Viñales.

During our trip we practiced yoga and meditation in exotic locations: in the beautiful Hotel Raquel in Old Havana, on top of a Spanish-era stone fortress with cannons aimed at the port, at the lookout point over Viñales valley with its breathtaking mountains. We met with a Cuban yoga teacher in Havana, and learned about the challenges and minor triumphs of establishing yoga in Cuba. At the end of the trip we donated our folding travel yoga mats for yogis in Cuba.

But some of our most meaningful experiences in Cuba were not planned activities. We brought with us a suitcase full of small items to donate, because we knew that people in Cuba are in need of everything: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, medicines, toys, pretty much anything you can think of. During our group’s walking tour of Old Havana, we passed a building where Adrian casually stopped to take photos of some floor tiles that caught his attention. An old man beckoned him inside, and they began to talk. The building turned out to be a preschool for disadvantaged children of single mothers, run by nuns, and supported entirely by donation.

The children at the preschool.

On our last day in Cuba, before going to the airport, about 10 members of our tour group returned to the preschool and donated everything we’d brought with us. The nuns gave us a tour of the school and let us play with the children and take photos. The nuns provide everything for about 160 kids in different age groups from 2 to 5 years: education, clothing, food, even assistance to some of their families. Their mothers drop them off in the morning before work and the nuns stay with them until the last mother returns to pick up her child.

Children dancing and singing at the preschool.

We kept it together while we were with the kids, but outside in the street after we left, we all cried. A special bond was forged that day between the school and several members of our tour group; we found a way to give something back to Cuba in appreciation for all that it had given us during our short stay. A group of us will be keeping in touch with the nuns at the school and organizing some efforts to provide further assistance to the children there. Stay tuned for ways you can participate if you feel inspired.

We are back in the U.S. now, and re-adjusting to the familiar American comforts that we took so much for granted before our trip to Cuba: Internet access, mobile phones, credit cards, clean water from the tap, a car with seat belts and a muffler, stores overflowing with tens of thousands of food and clothing options to choose from. But a piece of our hearts is still back in Cuba—celebrating and aching at the same time—and we will have no choice but to go back soon to find it again.

Outside the door of the preschool.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie and the Resurrection of Lazarus

A couple of months ago—November 19th, to be exact—when I saw the video for David Bowie’s eponymous single from his new album “Black Star,” I remember being shocked and thrilled and puzzled. The video and its music were inexplicably creepy and dark in a sort of American Horror Story way. I emailed a couple of friends and fellow Bowie fans to remark on how amazing it was that the artist—nearly 70 years old now—was still capable of surprising us and making such interesting, challenging, unconventional works.

“Bowie hasn't lost his edge, he keeps reinventing his image and his characters,” I remarked. “This one has a dark passenger. I think there might be a Major Tom riff in there too, with the space suit containing the bejeweled but long-dead skull.”

Yesterday, with the sad and shocking news of David Bowie’s death—and the release of his new video, “Lazarus,” on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death—the dark and unsettling aspects of "Black Star" that puzzled me when I first saw it suddenly made a whole lot of sense. For a year and a half, David Bowie had been struggling with cancer—something he kept private from the world—and knew he was dying. His last album was a carefully planned meditation on death—and life—in all its mystery, glory, pain, pleasure, and wretchedness.

In the new video for “Lazarus,” Bowie’s ailing character—blindfolded, with buttons where his sightless eyes should be—lies in a hospital bed, singing:
Look up here, I’m in Heaven
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me

For half a century, David Bowie constantly reinvented himself, his music and his career by creating and inhabiting characters and stage personas, and using these characters to comment on the absurdities and challenges of human life and society. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Pierrot the sad clown. Jareth the Goblin King from the film Labyrinth. The nameless, suit-wearing hipster who toured the world filling stadiums and brought us a series of funk-inspired pop hits throughout the last two decades of the 20th century.

Bowie’s characters were rarely, if ever, easy pills to swallow. They were fiercely crafted commentaries on addiction, fame, greed, fashion, vanity, sexuality and gender, the absurdity of human behavior, and the suffocating nature of society’s norms. Bowie’s characters were much more than the passing fashion statements of a pop star (though he also remained a fashion icon for half a century, as well). They were carefully constructed, always defiantly weird and unconventional and creative, and he embodied them so deeply that David Bowie the man sometimes became indistinguishable from his character.

One of the most common themes I heard yesterday from friends around the world—aside from the profound grief they felt at his loss—was how David Bowie had always made them feel it was "okay to be weird," okay to be yourself, okay not to fit into society’s cookie-cutter molds. Another common theme expressed by many friends yesterday was the feeling of shock at being suddenly reminded that David Bowie was, in fact, a mortal human being just like us—not some kind of god or space oddity.

And now, as his parting gift, he leaves us with Lazarus. Lazarus is Bowie’s final character, and a fitting one to articulate the supreme questions of life and death that we now know he was wrestling with in his last year. Lazarus is an unsettling vision, a man at the mercy of ultimate forces beyond his control, helpless and blindfolded, surrounded by symbols of death and reminders of the ephemerality of all his creations. But Lazarus is also a character who—to borrow a famous line from Dylan Thomas—refuses to go quietly into that good night, but rages against the dying of the light. Lazarus twitches and levitates above his hospital bed; in his lyrics and his vocal performance, he alternates between anger, fear, gratitude, peace, and transcendence. Lazarus sees his life and his creations slipping from his hands, and refuses to stop creating. In the video, as Lazarus lies in his hospital bed, another version of Bowie—Bowie the performer, Bowie the ambitious artist—emerges like a wraith from a dark wardrobe closet, frantically scribbles his inspirations onto paper, delighting in his own creations, and then retreats with a puzzled expression back into the darkened wardrobe at the end of the video.

This too, Lazarus tells us, is part of the experience, part of the performance. It may not be pretty, it may even be frightening and creepy at times, but it’s an essential part of the dance of life and death. We mustn’t look away from it. In fact, if we look at it carefully, it may even reveal treasures that we didn’t know were there. “Look up here,” he foretold, “I’m in Heaven.”

Those who know the story of Lazarus from the Bible know that Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus four days after his burial. We now know that David Bowie’s entire last album was carefully planned and its release apparently timed to coincide with his 69th birthday and his death two days later. In playing out the theme of Lazarus and his resurrection, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if David Bowie has more messages in store for us in the coming months.

Thank you, David Bowie. It was a fantastic gift to have you on this planet. You will be greatly missed and never forgotten.

One of the last known photographs of David Bowie, released on January 8th—his 69th birthday and the day he released his 25th studio album, Black Star—and taken by his longtime photographer Jimmy King. Bowie passed on January 10th after an 18-month battle with cancer.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Psychobiology of the Breath

As far back as we can trace in history, humans have always associated breath with life and spirit. The Latin words animus (spirit) and anima (soul) are related to the Greek animos (wind), and the Greek word pneuma (as in pneumatic or pneumonia, or the French word for a car’s inflatable tire, pneumatique) also meant spirit or wind. Our ancestors associated the breath with the soul or spirit or life force that “animates” all living beings.

On a strictly biological level, breath is the source of life. It maintains the body’s strength and vitality by enabling gas exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide at a cellular level. The overall health and well-being of our bodies and minds are influenced by how we breathe.

The breath is an autonomic body function, meaning it happens automatically whether we think about it or not—on average, 15 times per minute, 900 times per hour, and 21,000 times per day. But breath is the only autonomic body function that is also subject to voluntary control; you can hold your breath at will, or breathe consciously in any number of ways. Thus, breath is a unique bridge between body and mind, between our outer and inner worlds. Through breathing, we literally take substances from the outside world into the body, and we eliminate other substances back into the outside world.

Metabolically, breathing facilitates the accumulation and elimination of certain chemicals. For this reason, heart rate and breathing are intimately linked. As our body senses the need for more oxygen, the heart rate increases, sending oxygenated blood where it’s needed, and the breathing rate increases in proportion to support the heart. When fear strikes in a dangerous situation, the body responds by ramping up these systems quickly with a spike of adrenaline and stress hormones that facilitate fast reactions.

Our breath conditions our psychological and emotional state, and vice versa. How we breathe shapes our experience, and our emotional temperament shapes how we breathe. The rate, depth and quality of our breath change in response to our emotional and psychological outlook. Thus we can develop dysfunctional patterns of breathing as a result of psychological, habitual ways of responding to situations and stresses in our lives.

In the most simplistic terms, we have two major types of breathing: abdominal and thoracic. Abdominal breathing (aka belly breathing) is when the diaphragm deeply contracts and we appear to “breathe” into the lower belly because the viscera of the abdomen (the guts and internal organs) are pushed downward and bulge out slightly. Thoracic breathing is when we breathe into the chest cavity, using the accessory muscles of breathing to expand the rib cage. In yoga, the practice of full yogic breathing involves both of these actions.

It’s important to understand the difference between abdominal and thoracic breathing because the body and mind initiate these two basic breathing patterns—and respond to them—differently. Thoracic breathing is often more shallow and rapid, and can include a forced exhalation in order to trigger the next inhalation sooner. Thoracic breathing is activated when the body is exercising or under duress and blood needs to be oxygenated and circulated more quickly. It is associated with the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight or flight” response.

Abdominal or belly breathing tends to be more slow and deep and relaxed. When the body is at rest, abdominal breathing is generally considered the most healthy breathing pattern. Abdominal breathing is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system which governs relaxation and the “rest and digest” response.

Both types of breathing are necessary for different situations in life. Sometimes we need to activate quickly, move and respond to the environment, and our cardiovascular activity needs to be proportional; other times, we need to chill out, relax and slow down, and the body’s systems need to support that relaxation.

Problems can arise when we don’t understand how to work skillfully with the breath, and breathing becomes a conditioned behavior that is shaped by our emotional states, stress levels, and so on. For example, we may have a pattern of breathing more thoracically—taking in shallow, rapid breaths into the upper chest—even when we are at rest. This breathing pattern, in turn, keeps our sympathetic nervous system activated, which continually releases stress hormones that help the body prepare for “fight or flight” syndrome even when “fight or flight” is not an appropriate response to what’s happening in our environment.

Developing a deeper understanding of the psychobiology of breathing—how breathing influences mind and body, and how mind and body influence breathing—is essential for any human being who wants to live with a greater sense of health and well-being. For the yogi who practices with the goal of spiritual awakening, breath is the inspiration, the guide and the raw material for the practices of yoga and meditation.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stop Trying So Hard

In meditation, as in life, some of the simplest lessons are also, paradoxically, the most challenging to learn. The most basic principles can be easily understood in theory but may take the longest time to be metabolized and understood in practice.

Striking the balance between effort and effortlessness is a good example. Perhaps you’ve heard about the Buddha’s famous meditation advice to one of his disciples: like the strings of an instrument, he said, you should fine-tune your meditation in a way that’s “not too tight and not too loose.” Finding that elusive balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough — between concentrating the mind too intensely and not concentrating at all — sounds simple in theory. But it can take years of practice — falling back and forth from one extreme to the other — to really metabolize this lesson and understand what that balance actually feels like.

Image from

I recall some vivid glimpses of this when I was first starting out on my path of meditation.

At that time I was attending a meditation center that offered a series of weekend intensive courses in which participants would basically sit and meditate (interspersed with lectures, walking meditation, and other activities) Friday night, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. That's a pretty hardcore immersion into meditation, especially for a beginner. A lot can happen when you sit on a cushion for eight hours and do nothing but work with your own mind.

What mostly happened for me was a lot of struggle as I sat there waging battle with my overactive mind for hours at a stretch, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t seem to keep my attention focused on the object of meditation for very long. My frustration would grow stronger as the day went on and I tried harder and harder to conquer my restless mind and wrestle it into submission. I wasn’t really aware, of course, that I was trying too hard.

But then one day I noticed something really curious happening. I left the meditation center and got on the subway to go home, my mind exhausted from hours of self-inflicted battle. I was disgusted with meditation, disgusted with myself, and I didn’t want to think about anything — I just wanted to rest. On the subway ride home I sat there and looked around at the people in the car and at the advertisements festooned above them, and — boom! — suddenly, without any effort on my part, I was vividly present and relaxed and aware. The colors around me seemed brighter, the sounds more precise, my mind more open and spacious, no longer bombarded by thoughts and commentary about everything. Right there in the subway, of all places, I was experiencing a spontaneous moment of the sort of pure presence that I’d been trying so hard, all day long, and without much success, to cultivate on the meditation cushion. And it came to me, unbidden, because I had simply given up and stopped trying so hard to create it.

A lot can happen when you sit on a cushion for eight hours and do nothing but work with your own mind.

Over the course of several of those weekend intensive trainings, this experience repeated itself several more times, until the lesson finally began to sink in. Naturally, if you don’t make any effort to train the mind, you don’t experience the benefits of mind-training; but if your practice isn’t balanced and you’re always trying too hard, then your effort is self-defeating, like tying your shoelaces together.

As the Buddha said, “not too tight, not too loose.” Makes sense, right? At least in theory…. ;-)

Fast forward about a decade-and-a-half. These days, my personal meditation practice is largely about effortlessness — about trying (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) to rest the mind in a natural state of awareness that is free from effort, free from manipulation, free from contrivance. This is called the natural state because it’s how the mind already exists when we stop trying so hard to control our experience.

When I first began meditating, I used to sit on my mind like a sumo wrestler who wants to squash his opponent, always trying too hard. These days, I’m more prone to the opposite extreme, not trying hard enough. As I seek to allow the mind’s natural state to emerge into awareness and simply stop interfering with it, my tendency sometimes is to become too loose, to space out and drift away.

But that’s the thing about tuning the strings of an instrument, be it a violin, a banjo, or the mind. You might be able to tune them perfectly for the music you’re playing right now, but then the next time you play the same instrument, you’ll need to tune them again. Strings don’t magically stay tuned forever just because you tuned them perfectly once. Every meditation, and every moment, is a fresh experience.

I guess that’s why they call it practice.


Want to go deeper with your practice? There are still a few spots open on our yoga + meditation retreat in Cuba, Feb 6-11, 2016. Click here for details.