Letting go

It was November 25, 2015, day four of a seven-day silent meditation retreat.

Forty of us sit in the dusk-lit meditation hall at the retreat center. Gil suggests that before we go to bed, we set an intention for the next day. Without hesitation, I set an intention to let go of all expectations and control.

During a guided meditation the next day, I sit cross-legged on a zafu and zabutan, hands on knees, eyes closed, and observe myself sitting on the edge of time and space…defying physics in the spacious consciousness of freedom from the internal chatter, body tension, and learned expectations of what being human is supposed to be. I had let go.

When I try putting words to this experience, it sounds like: I was sitting on a line. No. A line has distance and distance means time. I was sitting on a point. How could I fit on a point? I was sitting on now. You know, that elusive place. Now is not even ephemeral. Here. Gone. Like that. Teetering in the moment between past and future. Now.

Reaffirming the intention

On December 31, 2015 at a meditation center in Santa Monica, I reaffirm my intention…this time I extend it to this year. My intention is to let go of all expectations and control, and add, “My intention is to [fuzzy memory]” something about being my authentic self and doing work that is meaningful to me.

None of this seems odd or outlandish. The way I’ve been living…with expectations, the illusion of control, and not enough courage to be my authentic self…has led to disappointments, a feeling of failure, self-criticism (i.e.: labeling experience as failure), self-doubt, self-loathing, and body tension I wasn’t aware of. I reached a tipping point…old habits weren’t working anymore.

Since then, I am letting go of all expectations and control has become a kind of mantra for me. And with that, my experience of life is changing.

We’re all in this boat

I share this with you because I believe most of us learn to have expectations about what life is supposed to be. We learn all the rules, the shoulds, the striving, the clinging. We learn that owning a house, a car or two, working in a cubicle in a building, getting married, having children…pursuing a career that earns enough money to afford all of that, is what life is. We learn to worry about the future and ruminate about the past.

When @$!& happens as it did in 2008, when illness or accidents happen, when unfortunate events happen, when this version of life becomes too much, some of us let go. If we’re unlucky, we escape into unhealthy habits…with awareness, we can let go…

like Neo did with intention and unplug from The Matrix.


This brings me to the past week’s unexpected encounters. As you visit these memories with me, keep in mind the intention. No expectations. No control.

While walking to the mindfulness group I lead on Wednesdays in Manhattan Beach, I realized I had gone too far and had to loop back along the railroad tracks to get to the street that leads to 2nd, my usual route. And there out in their front yard of a house I would not have passed were Keith and his two parrots.

new_neighborsKeith was spraying their feathers with water. He said the water keeps their feathers healthy, shiny. We talked for a while then he asked me if I wanted a picture with them. We talked some more and then I went on my way. Now I know Keith and his parrots. I wished him a motorcycle ride…he hasn’t been riding for a while.

Two new people came to the mindfulness group. Turns out they had heard about it from someone I don’t know.

I stopped at Trader Joe’s on my walk home. A young, lanky, Asian man [unusual even for TJs] was stocking the dairy section with individual-sized containers of yogurt…using a putting iron! I laughed; so did he.

“It’s version 2.0,” he said, and showed me how someone had cut off the head of the iron and bent the shaft. He was using it to line up the containers in rows with the least space between them.

Then, at the cash register, another man, young, attractive, kind face, held a jar of olive tapenade while I went back to the dairy case for a bottle of green cold pressed juice like the one he was buying. We agreed that it was good to run into each other…just because.

These chance encounters happen every day now. As my body softens; as my heart opens; as I let go of all expectations and control…

Softening invites in kindness

One of my other teachers mentioned this might happen. Matthew was giving a talk on kindness and was explaining how softening the body opens us to kindness.

Soft, open, and vulnerable are not words we hear often. Pump iron, build muscle, have snappy comebacks on Facebook, protect yourself, be strong…even yoga can be a strength-building exercise! We learn to build tension, armor, walls to keep out the risk of being hurt or left behind or left out.

Tense body

Throughout each day and night, we are bombarded with stimuli from outside and inside us. Noise, light, movement, pressure, smells, temperature changes, visuals, thoughts, feelings, memories…all coming at us at speeds we can’t control. Your conscious mind may not be aware of this, but your unconscious mind and body are. The body holds tension that we learn to accept as normal.

What can we do

We can practice becoming aware of the tension, aware of our expectations, aware of this illusion of control. And then we can practice letting go. Each time we let go of a little of it. A little body tension. A troubling thought. A worry. An expectation. The illusion of control. Each time, we soften and open to the world, we invite in kindness.

I can run again…not far or often, but far enough and often enough. I can get into yoga poses that were impossible for me before. I feel softer, more open, and yes, more vulnerable. Being open and vulnerable means being open to kindness and also open to hurt, pain, loss, and real reality. It’s all part of life.

Don’t believe Gil or Matthew or even me, though. Try if for yourself. Let go for a breath. And see what happens.

More about love

Love is ethereal, complicated.

Lovingkindness is practical, straightforward.

We learn the word love when we’re children, with an innocence and openness we later learn to cover up and defend. It’s only with intent and practice that we can learn to be innocent and open again as adults

This being February, home to cupid and Valentine’s Day, love might be on your mind: hearts and flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds, chocolates and a candlelit dinner with white linen tablecloth, and a glass of Pinot something or Veuve Clicquot regardless of your relationship status. You might feel a sense of longing if you’re single and alone; escape if you’re in a relationship and unhappy; or expectations of a specific experience if you’re in a relationship and relatively happy. Whatever your response, my guess is it has little to do with love the way we’re going to look at it. I could be wrong.


A pleasant feeling for a romantic partner is one kind of love. Other kinds of love include: love of an activity or experience (hiking), love of an object (pepperoni pizza), love for a parent, child, friend; platonic love, spiritual love, and of course, romantic love. Each has varying levels of intensity, attachment, and expectations.

Some, not all of us, expect pepperoni pizza to deliver the same dopamine rush it always has; hiking the same adrenaline rush as the last climb past your comfort zone. We expect parents to accept and love us unconditionally; a child to love without question; a partner to give us everything we could want or need. Of course, I’m exaggerating to make a point…you can see how expectations can lead to disappointment, pain, anger, sadness, and suffering.

Love can be the greatest feeling you’ve ever experienced. Being in love can be quite a high too, but…well, let’s put all of that aside for the moment.


Gil Fronsdal, teacher, co-founder of Insight Retreat Center and Insight Meditation Center both in Santa Cruz California, explains that there are four types of healthy love according to Buddhist psychology: lovingkindness (metta in Pali); compassion (karuna); sympathetic joy (mudita); and equanimity (upeksha).

Lovingkindness is the foundation for the other three. It is a friendly expression or treatment of others. Hmmmm…already there seems to be a difference between this type of love and the Hallmark version that Valentine’s Day conjures up.

Unlike the expectations that come with love, lovingkindness emphasizes a selflessness even when wishing lovingkindness to self. Lovingkindness is a practice. That means, it takes time and intention to change the habit of wanting or longing to loving and being kind to self and others.

The Dalai Lama often says, “My religion is kindness.” He talks about a gentleness in his relationship with his mother and her affection for him. Kindness and gentleness may not occur to you when you think of love.

Thich Naht Hanh differentiates true love from intrusive or unwanted love:

[Lovingkindness is] the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri [love]. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

Practicing lovingkindness

You can start to practice lovingkindness with yourself to soften the inner critic, deconstruct the defenses and barriers (we all have them). Then later, you can set an intention to offer joy and happiness to people you care about, and extend those same intentions to everyone you know and don’t know.

If this sounds saccharin to you or impossible, no need to accept it all at once or even at all. But consider this experiment: compare the responses (yours and others) you get when you are angry/sad/defended/expecting something from yourself and others and the responses you get when you feel kind, gentle, loving, accepting, and non-judging.

We live in a culture that promotes the winner takes all philosophy, cynical beats vulnerable, and intimidation rules. We learn that it’s better to protect the heart than open to the possibility of it being broken. But guess what? Too much protection eliminates the possibility of the heart being enriched and full of love and joy.

Based on my experience, practicing lovingkindness is as much for you as it is for others.


Want more from the sources?

Gil Fronsdal’s talk on audiodharma.org. Gil talks about different kinds of love according to Buddhist psychology, what love is, and what it isn’t.

The evolution of intelligence

Observation #1: This is my intelligence speaking. I write like I think; I think like I live. I have goals, but no expectations or illusions of control. And BTW, not always grammatically or politically correct.

Warning #1: If you think this is a choice, understand that we all live with uncertainty all the time.

Observation #2: We all get stuck in our heads from time to time, referring to journal articles and results from scientific studies. Attempting to connect intellectually from the cerebral cortex instead of emotionally from the heart.

Warning #2: this feels like one of those times for me.

A little intelligence history

Remember those nasty standardized tests in school?

Who can forget the anxiety, the pressure, the pleased or disappointed expressions of parents and teachers? Students with high scores were directed toward college prep; students with lower scores got shuffled into business or shop. Now though, the times they are a changin’.

IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests were and still are thought by some to measure raw intelligence and predict future success.

But raw intelligence does not predict anything. Standardized tests that all students take today measure achievement, that is, what students have learned so far. According to a couple of psychologist friends who work in a school, only the students who are falling behind or score low on those tests get the IQ, now known as WISC-IV (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) tests.

The WISC-IV  still provides one IQ score, but this battery of tests measures multiple areas and includes sub scores for those areas. The WISC-IV is expensive and takes about 4 hours of one-on-one time with a psychologist trained in administering the test. Not in most school budgets for all students, it is used to determine necessity for and allocation of special education resources, not to identify areas of giftedness.

Your intelligence

The WISC-IV is not what you would have taken with the rest of your classmates in school decades ago. Nonetheless, do you know what your IQ score is? And do you know how that score has affected your life?

You may have scored high and become highly successful in life. Or you may have scored high and “underachieved.” Conversely, you may have scored low and been laughing your a– off in your penthouse office and multi-home existence. Not that money measures success, but that IQ scores do not predict anything.

If you are familiar with Darwin’s theory, the most successful at surviving and thriving are those who can adapt to changes. Hmmmm….

Multiple Intelligences (MI)

in 1983, Howard Gardner, PhD introduced the concept of multiple intelligences (MI). He describes his theory in this Wall Street Journal article (Strauss V., October 16, 2013):

A belief in a single intelligence assumes that we have one central, all-purpose computer—and [that computer] determines how well we perform in every sector of life. In contrast, a belief in multiple intelligences assumes that we have a number of relatively autonomous computers… I estimate that human beings have 7 to 10 distinct intelligences (see www.multipleintelligencesoasis.org).

You can read brief descriptions of the MIs in this Wikipedia article then go from there.

All of us, Gardner suggested, have multiple intelligences. Kobe, Stephan, Cam, and Peyton would score high in Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence. Bob Dylan, you might guess, would be high in Musical Intelligence, but perhaps even more so highly intelligent in Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence. Mick Jagger, high in Bodily-Kinesthetic and Musical. You get the idea.


We all have highs and lows in imagined MI scores. (There is no MI test, although you can take this quiz for fun.)

Enough about that. What I really want to talk about is emotional and social intelligence. In MI terms, that would be inTRApersonal intelligence and inTERpersonal intelligence. Someone who is high in intrapersonal or emotional intelligence understands his or her emotions and manages emotions well in difficult situations. Under pressure, someone high in emotional intelligence will think clearly. Barack Obama is high in emotional intelligence; Martin Luther King Jr. was too.

From Wikipedia:

[Intrapersonal Intelligence] refers to having a deep understanding of the self; what one’s strengths or weaknesses are, what makes one unique, being able to predict one’s own reactions or emotions.

People who are high in social intelligence understand relationships and other people’s emotions.

…individuals who have high interpersonal intelligence are characterized by their sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations, and their ability to cooperate in order to work as part of a group….[they] communicate effectively and empathize easily with others…Gardner has equated this with emotional intelligence of Goldman [sic].”

Daniel Goleman is the author of Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than IQ (2005) and Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships (2007).

Insight and relational mindfulness

The mindfulness and psychology community refer to the process of increasing emotional intelligence (EI) as insight and the process of increasing awareness of social intelligence (SI) as relational mindfulness.

When we sit quietly and allow thoughts and feelings to flow, and we allow ourselves to observe those thoughts and feelings without criticizing, analyzing, or judging, we give ourselves space for insights about self, others, and our human experience.

When we pay attention to another person, rather than our own thoughts and feelings, we develop social intelligence or relational mindfulness…awareness of others…the connection that so many of us long for and the ability to work together to accomplish that which we cannot do very well alone.

Since the first publication of Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than IQ in 1995, EI has become a goal in business, education, and with policymakers.

This all makes so much sense looking back. In the beginning (of testing I suppose), we thought intelligence was an IQ number and that it determined success, or failure. Along came Howard Gardner who introduced the idea of Multiple Intelligences and suggested that each of us has something more like a graph with highs and lows in 7-10 areas of intelligence. Rather than one massive number, like 120 or 140, MI eliminated the judgment about people with high intelligence in areas that were not measured by traditional IQ tests.

Next, Daniel Goleman focuses his attention on Emotional (EI) and Social (SI) Intelligence. The Western world embraces this new idea of what it takes to succeed.

If you know your own emotions + can manage them + you know what other people want and need = SUCCESS!

But success at what? More friends on Facebook? Higher salary? According to this article in The Atlantic EI and SI are good for the one and for the many:

If we can teach our children to manage emotions, the argument goes, we’ll have less bullying and more cooperation. If we can cultivate emotional intelligence among leaders and doctors, we’ll have more caring workplaces and more compassionate healthcare.

With higher EI and SI, perhaps we can save the world in every way.

Learning to be intelligent

Mindfulness exercises provide a way to strengthen or develop EI and SI. We do that by practicing awareness, attention, and equanimity. Awareness of whatever is happening in the present moment: sounds, smells, sights, tastes, sensations, emotions, thoughts. Attention to whatever we want to focus on. And equanimity to observe all of this without attachment to any outcome. Like clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean, pelicans flying in formation at dusk.

Where do we go from here?

The article in The Atlantic is titled The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence. It begins with a story about a man who studied responses to his body language and facial expressions to improve his public speaking skills. Adolf Hitler refined his emotional and social intelligence to a science and convinced a whole nation of people to follow him.

We can imagine Wall Street and other banking executives, CEOs of multi-national corporations, CEOs of non-profits, politicians, religious leaders, university professors, salespeople, and anyone in positions in which EI and SI would prove useful for manipulating others, and we can imagine the darker side of what many see as progress.

The author of that article suggests that:

if we’re going to teach emotional intelligence in schools and develop it at work, we need to consider the values that go along with it.

That’s where Ethics, IR and SR* come in. Try measuring that on a standardized test.

*Individual Responsibility and Social Responsibility.

Winner takes all

Superbowl 50 ended a few hours ago. Yay Broncos!

Even if you’re not a Broncos fan or a football geek, you notice, perhaps by going to Home Depot, that the American machine screeches to a stop to pay homage to the sport, the athletes who play the sport, and dare I say it? pride in our crazy, mixed-up country. Cynicism aside for a moment, the Superbowl breathes life into US.

You also know if you log on to any web browser that the Denver Broncos won today 24 to 10. The Carolina Panthers go home without the trophy, without the rings, without the Nike hats, shirts, without the sports drink endorsement deals, and $50,000 less per player in pay. Each Bronco earns $102,000. Peyton Manning earns an additional $2M.

Each year the entertainment value of the Superbowl increases. This year Lady Gaga sang the national anthem, the Blue Angels flying over as she let out from her gut “…of the brave” with such emotion, she brought tears to my eyes. Beyonce, Bruno Mars, and Cold Play performed at halftime; and a daschund ran through a commercial in a hotdog bun. For some of us, the Superbowl allows us to dream the possible dream.

Truly. The Superbowl is one of the few opportunities we have to watch the best of the best compete. In this case, the players and teams fight for athletic recognition and sponsor endorsement$$$. And the winners take all.

I watch the Superbowl, the NFL playoffs, the World Series, and the Women’s World Cup, or certain parts of them because the human beings who play in them are AMAZING athletes. The best of the best; genetically, through practice, and with timing, luck, and circumstance.

The athletes’ play is their work; their work is their play. Their sport is their life. They focus their attention on the goal of being as good as they can be. They love what they do. At least we imagine they do. Otherwise, why would they do it and why would we watch the Superbowl?

Most people dislike the work they do, and I am guessing that watching the Superbowl gives them a break from that reality. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in February.

But I wonder…what does it mean to love what you do? Can you even imagine loving what you do? This may be simpler than you think.

First you have to know what you love. At the risk of sounding evangelical or redundant, bear with me as I switch to the concepts we learn in meditation.


You first need awareness. What is your passion, your love, your desire?

This is different from what do you do for a living. The answer will be unique for you. Maybe you love dancing, making art, playing music, writing songs, writing poetry, making deals, writing books, playing basketball, surfing, hiking, running, helping others, collecting Japanese manga, gardening, public speaking, teaching, advocating for a cause or a group of people or animals or the environment.

Awareness…what makes your juices flow? Not what did your parents want you to be when you grow up and not what is the quickest way to earn a living that leads to the home and cars and other stuff of your choice.

Awareness…what do other people need? If there is no need, there is no market and you will love what you do but you won’t survive financially, probably, I’m not sure about that one. This is the reason or excuse you will hear from yourself and others when you say, “I love hiking and meditation and writing and that’s what I’m going to be the best I can be at.”

“Hiking, meditating, and writing?” you’ll hear yourself say. “You can’t earn a living doing that.”

You might have heard you, or someone you know, say something like “When I was young, I loved making art. First my parents and then I, convinced me that I would not earn enough money to survive if I focused my attention on making art. So, instead of focusing my attention on mastering my skills as an artist, I fumbled around looking for a career that would pay my bills.” Sad, but true stories.


That’s exactly the type of thinking that prevents any of us from spending time and energy practicing the skills and honing the passion that drives us to master whatever it is we’re drawn to. Remember the 10,000 Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers? It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. If you tell yourself you can’t or shouldn’t do whatever it is, you won’t feel confident enough to devote time to mastering the skills necessary to find out if you can survive doing it. And that thing called love?…gone.

Self-criticism and self-doubt will quash the love you have for what you love doing.

Imagine following your dreams…doing what you love instead of doing what you think you should do or what will earn you the most money. How scary is that? You won’t find a formula for that path. No college degree X = career and income Y.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell noticed that a group of successful people were all born within nine years of each other in the early 1800’s. Names you would recognize: Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, all Caucasian men, all financial wizards, who made their fortunes in the late 1800’s when the American economy went through a transformation possibly similar to the one we experienced in 2008. These men had to have loved making deals. They were willing to take risks, and had timing and luck on their side.

They had no roadmap, no safe plan to follow. In a sense, they had the confidence, insanity, or both to jump off a cliff into uncharted territory.

Leap and your wings will grow.


Equanimity means inner peace. It means standing still in the midst of chaos and it means having the wherewithal to be able to think clearly, to observe calmly, to take in what is…not what you want to see. Jumping into the unknown takes a lot of this stuff we call equanimity. You need courage and confidence to continue when there is no support for what you want to, even need to, do.

In a 2013 Forbes magazine article Marc Bodnick (Why Do So Many People Hate Their Jobs?) writes:

…people hate their jobs because, now more than ever, there is the possibility to love their jobs … and they don’t.

We watch amazing athletes compete against each other and imagine them loving what they do. We watch amazing performers sing and dance and imagine them loving what they do. We watch amazing creativity played out in half-time commercials and imagine the artists and writers loving what they do. And then, through a sort of osmosis, we imagine ourselves following whatever dreams we left in childhood and loving what we do.

We live in a time and place where we have the luxury to imagine loving what we do. You owe it to yourself and to the rest of us to at least go that far. Put your toes on the edge and look over. Imagine your wings growing. And then imagine jumping off the cliff. Take the road you haven’t yet traveled.

Go Broncos! Go you!

What’s PUNny? Everything!

Sharon Salzberg has a formidable presence even when sitting. When I saw her, she was leading a daylong meditation retreat in Santa Monica.

The InsightLA event drew a standing-room only crowd at Crossroads Elementary School auditorium on that Saturday in 2010. I sat cross-legged on the floor just 15 feet from the stage. Sharon sat in a floral fabric covered arm-chair; a floor lamp to her right. She could have been sitting in your grandmother’s living room. She glanced at me and scanned the rest of the audience.

“All experiences are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral,” she said.

This Buddhist concept of Vedana refers to our feelings and emotions or our responses to internal and external stimuli. In other words, Vedana describes our human experience of life and all that entails. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Let’s take a few sentences to consider, question, and even challenge this idea. Imagine three buckets in this PUNny (my attempt at humor) analysis: P is Pleasant; U is Unpleasant; N is Neutral or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. I’ll say a word, you put it in a bucket. Keep in mind, there are no right or wrong answers; your bucket depends on your experience. We’ll start out easy and go from there.

Pepperoni pizza
Bubble baths
Getting up in the morning
A double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone
Getting ready for work
Walking to school
Your best friend
Your partner
Your co-workers
Your family members
Rock scrambling

I think that’s enough to give you, and me as I write this, the impression that PUNny is more complicated than it sounds.


Most of us don’t pay enough attention to our experiences to know what they are, when we have them, or how we feel about them until our emotions take us off the rails. And even then, we’re so dysregulated we can’t think clearly.

That’s one point. The other is we don’t always have the same feeling all the time. And sometimes, we have more than one feeling at the same time! Keep that in mind as we continue.

As an example, I sit at my desk hands on keyboard fumbling my way through this idea. My stomach, full of a vegan lunch, grows tight. Unpleasant.

I am thinking in a way that stimulates me. Pleasant. I am writing. Also pleasant. I watch the time so I’m not late for the meditation group I’m facilitating tonight. Neutral; neither pleasant nor unpleasant. All at the same time!

Your turn. What are you doing, thinking, feeling right now? Are those experiences pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?

You may have noticed from this brief exercise that the added element of time makes a huge difference. What’s happening now is more specific than a double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone in general. Right?

That first lick of ice cream is cold, sweet, creamy, most likely pleasant. The last crunch of the cone could be less so…ice cream all gone, boo hoo. Or the last bite could be more pleasant: ice cream gone yay…I was done with all that pleasantness.

Shifting emotions

Slow this scene down even more. Think of eating that ice cream cone in the presence of someone you like.

Ahhhhh. On a scale of 1-10, a 10 Pleasant.

Now imagine that while you are eating that ice cream cone your ice cream partner tells you he or she is dating someone else. Ah! Not pleasant any more.

When we add, in addition to time, the Buddhist concept of impermanence, we get closer to letting go, equanimity, and flow. How so?

Even if your ice cream partner said something like I love you or engaged in a stimulating conversation with you, and your response to this experience is a 10, the 10 won’t last. The 10 sensations of that first bite of ice cream becomes neutral and the mind loses interest, travels to another pleasant or even unpleasant place. See if you can pay attention to that the next time you’re eating ice cream.

How many bites does it take for your attention to go someplace other than the pleasant sensations of licking the ice cream?

Clinging and avoiding

The PUNny conversation continues with another Buddhist concept: suffering. The Buddha observed that clinging to pleasant, or wanting more pleasure in life; and avoiding unpleasant makes people unhappy. Initially, this sounds counter-intuitive. Of course we all want more pleasant experiences in life. And of course we all want to avoid unpleasant experiences in life. That’s not the problem. We get into trouble when we compulsively go after or compulsively avoid.

My thoughts always drift to alcohol, drugs, and other addictive substances and behaviors when I think in terms of clinging and avoiding. That first whatever it is, hit of cocaine, tablet of Vicodin, lick of ice cream, sip of Chilean Pinot Noir, bite of chocolate chip cookie, physical sensation of touch or sex, emotional promise of love, breath in meditation can be so pleasant you don’t want it to ever end. In fact, you might be so pleased, you want to enhance the feeling even more, you want the moment to be even more pleasant, a higher high, a deeper, richer sensation. This is where the chase begins. More. I want more.

Likewise and even simultaneously the chase of pleasant includes the avoidance or aversion to unpleasant. Life is difficult. Relationships are messy. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we don’t even get what we need.


Eventually, all good things pass. Infatuation, the high, enlightenment. All difficulties pass too. Disappointment, loss, loneliness, feeling lost.

In the practice of mindfulness and meditation, we develop the wisdom to accept impermanence and the equanimity to let life happen without clinging or avoiding. What’s PUNny about that? Nothing really. And everything, too.

Letting go of goals

It’s that time of year when goals set on New Year’s Eve go bye-bye.

I asked a few people about their New Year’s Resolutions this year. All of them said they don’t make resolutions anymore; that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work so why bother. I interpret that to mean that New Year’s Resolutions do little more than evoke a sense of guilt and feelings of failure for giving up again by mid-January.

Some people continue with the tradition, either with a sense of humor or with the heavy presence of disappointment looming in the not-too-distant future. Who needs that?

Skip the resolutions; skip the goals. Set an intention.

I spent New Year’s Eve with about 200 other people at Against the Stream Meditation Center in Santa Monica. We each lit a candle, set an intention, and stated it out loud (optional) for the new year. It was the first time I did anything like that.

Here’s what I learned: Setting an intention differs from making a resolution or setting a goal in three important ways.

The tone of setting an intention

Listen to the words. My intention is to… Ahhhh….my intention has wiggle room…space. The words sound soft, pliable, forgiving. There’s a subtle difference in tone, cadence, and, well, intention from this and I want to… or I will

Bam. Bam. Bam. Like keys on a manual typewriter, an Excel spreadsheet, or track and field hurdles, goal statements tend to sound harsh, limited and limiting, driven, cold, superficial, heavy-handed. Makes me feel like I want to shake the words off my skin and out of my head. Which is what most people do.

  • I will lose ten pounds by Valentine’s Day.
  • I will find a job I like within the next six months.
  • I will put a profile on a dating web site .
  • I will find someone to spend the rest of my life with…or marry…or have children with.
  • I will stop [an unhealthy habit].

Not to say that goals are useless or unachievable. They have their place and some people do very well with them. Presidential candidates have to set goals to get where they want to go. So do professional athletes, corporate leaders, artists of all flavors, and anyone who wants to do anything measurable in the outside world. Goals are great for graduating high school with a 4.6 GPA, finishing college or grad school, or selling ten thousand widgets.

Uncertain future

Setting goals disregards the possibility that the real future may not be the future you imagine. Setting goals disregards the very real human limitation of control, or lack of control, over uncertainty. The future could unfold in a more spectacular and happier way than you imagined. Or the results could turn out completely different from anything that you could have imagined for yourself.

As an example, you may know people who say they want to get married. Internet dating sites attract people with such goals. The people on these sites tend to feel that their biological clock is ticking (grasping) or they have to act now to avoid permanent singlehood (aversion). They usually have a long list of what the person they want to marry looks like, acts like, thinks like, and does for a living. From the Deepak Chopra article 5 Steps to Setting Powerful Intentions:

Intention is much more powerful when it comes from a place of contentment than if it arises from a sense of lack or need.

The people I know of who have set a similar goal, usually don’t have long or intimate relationships. Instead of setting a goal, these people might consider setting an intention.

What would an intention sound like? I intend to live more fully, to open myself to emotional intimacy, to love with abandon while holding space for a LTR (long-term relationship). It’s a subtle difference and may be imperceptible to anyone who is goal-driven or clinging to an idea.

Goals are future directed in an insistent way; intentions happen in the here and now and become integrated over time. Intentions allow space for anything to happen. With an intention instead of a goal, you open yourself to living a more meaningful life now.

Deepak Chopra recommends that you:

Relinquish your rigid attachment to a specific result and live in the wisdom of uncertainty.

Heart, passion, insight, kindness

You might recall from Change and the Elephant or if you went on to read The Happiness Hypothesis (Haidt, J., 2006) that the part of us that sets goals and makes New Year’s Resolutions, the rider, has little chance of affecting change if the emotional self, the elephant, is not considered.

So I ask: Where’s the heart, the passion, and the emotions in goal statements? Where’s the space and flexibility for being human, the forgiveness if things don’t happen exactly the way you stated the goal? Where’s the consideration of other people’s wants, needs, intentions? Where’s the space for fear, anger, risk aversion, love, attachment style, and just plain old laziness?

Unlike goal statements, setting an intention considers your emotions, your strengths, and your limitations.

Take one of these for a test drive. My intention is to…

  • let go of my fear of dating
  • let go [period]
  • pay attention to myself when I feel sad, or lonely, or anxious, afraid
  • be kind and gentle with myself
  • savor each pleasant life experience; marinate in the goodness in life
  • notice the goodness in others
  • express gratitude
  • let go of expectations and control
  • celebrate being me
  • show up in a more authentic way in my work and personal life

Intentions can be used for practical matters too. My intention is to:

  • earn more money
  • socialize more
  • take better care of my body
  • remember to smile
  • forgive more quickly
  • practice [whatever you’re practicing] every day

Take some time to think about what you really want. Consider your feelings, your place in life, your circumstances, what you want now, not five years from now. Then set an intention that feels authentic.

When you have one you like, repeat it to yourself whenever you think of it. Then, let it go.

Deepak Chopra suggests that during daily meditation, assuming you do meditate every day, you “…plant the seeds of your intention.” Then

…let it go—simply stop thinking about it.

Let the marvelous alchemy of life take over. Your subconscious will remember; your elephant will feel seen and heard; and you’ll give your seed of intention the space to grow.

The outcome? Smile as you watch it unfold. 🙂

The downside of mindfulness

Mindfulness practice at Deer Park
Deer Park Monastery Escondido CA

Scientists all over the world are studying the benefits of mindfulness. So, when an article comes along that challenges mindfulness as a “cure-all,” I want to read it. 

People who know me know I am “into” mindfulness big time. I study it, practice it, and write about it. I give talks about it. I have integrated mindfulness into the psychotherapy work I do, my personal relationships, into hiking, writing, and every breath I take.

Not true about every breath. That was a pun I couldn’t resist. Sometimes I am so thoroughly oblivious to my surroundings, my body, my breath, I wonder if all the meditation I do has any effect (it does). Take that six-part sonic boom two of my hiking buddies heard when we were headed up to Eagle Rock. “Did you hear that?” one of them asked. “Hear what?” I said. Right? Oblivious. But I am also kind to myself about being oblivious.

Mindfulness–the mainstreaming of

Because people who know me know I am interested in mindfulness, they send me articles they think I might like to read. I appreciate that because my Google alert for mindfulness misses a lot of articles and doesn’t retrieve articles posted to the internet in the past.

This latest article someone sent my way, If Mindfulness Makes You Uncomfortable, It’s Working (Su, A.J., The Harvard Business Review, December 29, 2015) begins with the story about a woman named Claire. Claire learned about mindfulness from her company and was trying a mindfulness app. Rather than feeling more calm and relaxed, though, Claire was feeling more agitated.

“…mindfulness has hit the mainstream,” the article continues. Indeed it has. You will find mindfulness in schools, in government, in police departments, in prisons, in community centers, in graduate programs for organizational development. Which is probably why Claire learned about mindfulness from the company she works for, of all places.

Mindfulness is based on the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is caused by getting tangled up in thoughts and feelings about the past and the future–two time zones we have no control over. Suffering is caused by clinging and avoiding. In Buddhist terms, suffering is optional. But suffer we do.  We all have a tendency to cling, grasp, and chase pleasant experiences and avoid or push away unpleasant experiences. Eating too many sweets and avoiding honest but difficult conversations are examples.

Mindfulness is also based on the idea that if you are more aware of what’s going on NOW in your body, in your mind, and around you, you can feel more alive by  a) being aware of your present moment experiences and b) learning from them. You might even do something about them. Maybe.

Mindfulness–the mis-reputation

On the way to fame, recognition, and integration into our culture, though, mindfulness picked up the mis-reputation as a pathway to happiness, peace, calm, maybe even enlightenment and perfection. For good reason.

Scientists in every major university in the Western world conduct rigorous studies on the effects of mindfulness. I just did a Google search for “mindfulness” and got “About 29,600,000 results (0.49 seconds)”. On EBSCO Host, a database of journal articles, there were more than seven thousand.

Some of the more interesting research reports that a regular mindfulness/meditation practice can:

  • reduce anxiety, stress, reactivity, depression
  • change the wiring in your brain
  • prevent relapse in addiction recovery
  • improve memory, concentration, sleep
  • strengthen the immune system
  • improve quality of life

and more of course. We don’t yet know all the benefits, or how much (or little) mindfulness it takes to feel the benefits.

Mindfulness–the awareness, the attention, the equanimity

Where were we with the article? (awareness) Let’s get back to what the author was saying (attention). We do this without criticism of mind and writing wandering (equanimity, compassion, acceptance, kindness).  Su continues:

Therefore, we have to redefine mindfulness as more than feeling good, and instead see it as having an increased capacity to sit with the full spectrum of being human, experiencing it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and learning to be less reactive so that we can make better choices each day.

But, but, but…what about all of that research?

Mindfulness–the Shinzen view

Mindfulness looks and sounds simple. But it’s far from that. In What is Mindfulness? Shinzen Young breaks down mindfulness into eight areas for us to consider (p. 4):

  1. Mindfulness – The Word
  2. Mindfulness – The Awareness
  3. Mindfulness – The Practices
  4. Mindfulness – The Path
  5. Mindfulness – The Translation
  6. Mindfulness – The Fad
  7. Mindfulness – The Shadow
  8. Mindfulness – The Possible Revolution

I encourage you to read his paper.

“Mindfulness–The Practices” includes Noting, Body Scanning, Lovingkindness, and Open Presence. To keep this as simple as possible, I only want to mention Noting in this article. You’ll see why later. Noting is the practice of labeling whatever you experience in an objective way. “Thinking.” “Planning.” “Worrying.” “Happy.”

“Mindfulness – The Path” includes the application of mindfulness as a way to increase the human experience of happiness. In other words, what is the effect of mindfulness on physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual distress or dis-ease? That’s what all the research is about. So far, mindfulness has an A+ and is proving to be quite effective. Hence, the not-so mis-reputation. The idea that mindfulness leads to happiness is not entirely based on our desire to be happier. It is based on the body of research that drives our thinking and transforms our culture.

No one says that sitting in NOW is pleasant all the time. NOW is not pleasant when we get hijacked by thoughts, feelings, and stories. NOW is not pleasant when we review conversations, the latest to-do list, and worries about what could happen in the future for the 99th time. NOW is not pleasant when we feel sad or anxious or angry.

NOW is not pleasant when you don’t get the promotion you expected, when the person you love leaves you, or when illness visits you or someone you care about.

The idea is to learn to sit through whatever comes up.

Remember Claire? When people begin practicing mindfulness, that is the formal practice of sitting quietly or meditating, all kinds of stuff comes up that’s always been there, stuff you’ve avoided or ignored. With mindfulness practice, you are alone with you, your thoughts, your feelings, your body sensations. These parts of you may seem like strangers at first. Unfamiliar, even scary. As with strangers, the more time you spend with them, the more approachable they become.

Mindfulness–the corporate application

NOW in the corporate world is based on experiences like Claire’s and the other two people in A. J. Su’s article. Because she writes for a business audience–remember the article was published in the Harvard Business Review–Su’s advice focuses on organizational behavior from a mindfulness perspective and more-or-less how to be more productive. She suggests (my comments in italics):

1. “Witness” and track the pattern

of behavior, thoughts, feelings. This is AWARENESS

 2. Notice, name, and pause.

This is NOTING. Mindfulness–The Practices…That’s why I mentioned it earlier.

3. See more clearly, choose more clearly.

This is EQUANIMITY, maybe. Equanimity is inner peace or a calmER nervous system. Calm nervous system = less fight/flight/freeze and more cerebral cortex engagement.

Mindfulness–The Future

As I mentioned earlier, we do and we don’t know a lot about mindfulness, the effects of mindfulness, the benefits, or the limitations if there are any. Not knowing is exciting.

A few decades ago, the 2,000-year-old practice of meditation met with Western technology and psychology. POW! Like the Big Bang, something big happened. We don’t yet know where that will lead. We don’t know the effect mindfulness will have on human evolution, on the future of the planet, or even on your next breath.

What we do know is that the practice of being still even for five minutes a day is more complicated and more interesting than it sounds.

Oh. The downside of mindfulness? So far there are none.


The promise of an interesting conversation

I don’t know where this will lead, but let’s see what happens.

I had a brief conversation with a hiking buddy last week  that went something like this:

“Psychology is crap.”

Hmmmm…”What do you mean?”

“All that stuff about Oedipus complex just makes everyone think they have it.”

Interesting…”Yes, that was Freud,” I said. In school, we learn all about theories, and pathology. We learn about the power of suggestion too. Every one of us can recognize ourselves in every disorder.

“In my experience with therapy, though, theory is not that important.” Then I tried to explain what therapy means to me. I fumbled around awhile trying to understand it myself. I wish I had asked more questions.

“Therapy is magical,” she said.

Before she answered, and maybe she was fumbling around with some ideas too, the conversation shifted off to another topic. In hindsight, I was caught off guard by the promise of a more meaningful conversation than I’ve had in a while. Gratefully so, because it’s given my holiday stupor a kick in the pants.

You know how social conversations go. People talk about TV shows and Netflix movies, sports, weather, the stock market, housing prices (here in LA anyway), maybe a little gossip, current events after testing the political wind around the people in earshot, food, niceties. Social conversations steer clear of anything too intellectual or deep or controversial and certainly nothing emotional. Yet this conversation had that other element, a hint of a deeper, richer ribbon of discourse woven between the lighter fare.

Wanted: Guidance

Later she said she wanted guidance. Again, I wish I would have asked more questions, but I said, “No one can tell you what to do. And why would you want anyone telling you how to live your life anyway?” Not very compassionate of me. Not very honest either.

The truth is, now that I’ve gnawed on that idea awhile, I realize that most of us (me included) long for someone to tell us what to do. Not all the time, of course; just when the going gets tough, when we feel lost or bewildered or overwhelmed. We want someone to say go this way, or take this risk, or stay away from that person, or jump into that relationship with both feet.

Life is so complicated, so difficult at times, how can you, or anyone, possibly figure out how to navigate the uncertainties AND make a plan that leads to happiness while feeling good about the choices you’ve made?

Guidance is available

There’s plenty of advice and guidance out there; just look at some recent Facebook posts:

Well, maybe not Facebook. But you can find advice on web sites all over the internet by doing a Google search, or ten:

How to be happy: the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine

How to find the job of your dreams: Forbes

How to date: wikiHow

How to unplug a toilet in seven ways: Digital Trends

How to build a house out of old tires, straw bales, and mud: Mother Earth News

How to live on $5.00 a day: Forks over Knives

How to get divorced: Nolo.com

How to have the most amazing sex on the planet: Cosmo, who else?

How to raise your child’s self-esteem: WebMD (I actually like this article)

How to care for an ill and aging parent and stay sane doing it: HuffPost

Then there are the people, you’ve heard of them, who sell promises of certainty and happiness if you buy their book or attend their workshop or seminar or life-changing event. I almost forgot about podcasts and apps!

It’s all there, right? and more…so much more you could drive yourself crazy listening to everyone else’s suggestions and advice about what’s right for you.

Isn’t that what my hiking buddy meant by guidance?


Maybe not.

Broadband vs. Personal

Internet, books, workshops, and life-changing events are designed for broadband distribution. That means that their content is designed for you and everyone else in the Western world. You read or listen to the advice. You might even try it on for size. Maybe you spend a thousand dollars on a life-changing event that promises you’ll be happier after attending. Then, after your dopamine and other pleasure chemistry levels return to homeostasis, you’ve forgotten what you read or stopped doing whatever was suggested and you’re back to feeling lost or bewildered or overwhelmed. Am I wrong? You can tell me. I am just fumbling around here with some ideas.

I think what my hiking buddy meant by guidance is something more personal. She might have in mind a person, a more experienced, wiser person–something like a parent but not the parents of birth because most of us who long for guidance didn’t get it from our biological parents otherwise we’d go to them–who will listen to what’s on her mind. I think she was saying she wants a go-to person she trusts.

Don’t we all want someone in our corner who has no agenda other than our well-being and growth. I think what she was saying is that she wants the advice, suggestions, or guidance to be for her ears only or at least for her life only.

This is what I believe therapy is today, not therapy in Freud’s time. At least, this is what therapy is for me at this moment in time. You bring in all of your stuff. Then the non-verbal space between therapist and client “in the room” contains, absorbs, digests, marinates, savors, and explores whatever presents itself.

For therapy to happen, the client has to trust that the space, and the experience, is safe, that every topic, thought, feeling, emotion, fear, shame, desire, and fantasy will be honored, respected, validated, and welcomed. Then there’s the space between sessions where most of the real work happens.

In that sense, therapy is magical. Not hokus-pokus magical, but can’t see it and can’t always describe it magical.

In therapy you can experience the kind of guiding relationship you did not get growing up. When therapy is good, that relationship includes kindness, acceptance, compassion, unconditional emotional holding, and the freedom to bring into the open everything that’s on your mind and in your heart in the presence of someone whose witnessing of you and your story makes you feel heard, seen, and understood.

We therapists talk about the therapy process as relaunching, a do-over of learning to become a somewhat independent adult. (We all need people we can lean on, Mick.)

Social vs. intimate

In social conversations, we steer clear of risky topics. In therapy, we dive into them.

Fantasizing about marrying your father and killing your mother? Or is it marrying your mother and killing your father? Maybe not. Maybe Freud never meant to broadband his opinions. He certainly made significant contributions to our understanding of human behavior. Remember learning about defenses in Psych 101? That was another of Freud’s observations and theories.

My responses to my hiking buddy’s thinking out loud and this article arose from a curious defensive position. After all, psychology is my work. Hearing it called crap tapped into that tiny voice in my head that thinks it is too. By thinking about this conversation that almost happened and writing as honestly as I can with as much compassion and kindness as I can, I think I have more clarity about what this thing we call therapy means to me. I hope too, that her opinions and my thinking out loud has given you something to gnaw on for a while as well.

This is the space I was talking about earlier. Magical. Interpersonal. Personal. Can’t see it; can’t describe it. Can’t plan it. It just happens. When therapy, or a conversation, is good, it can feel magical.

My broadband message

Bad guides have their own agenda, be it fame, or money, or sex, or power. Good guides offer suggestions and advice from a place of wanting to help. Great guides ask questions that lead you to your own conclusions.

I would like to wrap this up with a positive broadband message. I would like to say that therapy is good for everyone. But it’s not. Therapy is not always the only solution or the best solution. You have to decide for yourself what is right for you. As scary as that can be at times, it’s the best guidance I can offer.

Life is an experiment and you are your own scientist. Chew on someone else’s guidance. If you think you will benefit from it, try it on and evaluate along the way. Is this still working?

Sometimes LOL Facebook posts are all you need.

So, hiking buddy, what did you mean by guidance?

Revisiting mindfulness…

Mindfulness practice instructions go like this: “focus on breath, mind wanders, you become aware mind wanders, you bring our attention back to breath.”

Like jumping into the middle of a moving stream, in the beginning you tread water just to survive a half hour (or five minutes) of stillness and silence. You learn how to move your arms and legs (focus on breath), but don’t always stop to think about what this practice means or why you do it.

When you swim in the ocean, you keep your head above water so you can continue breathing. You swim to get from point A to point B, and you swim because it’s fun. With mindfulness, you do the same thing. You breathe to keep your head above the murky water of entangled thoughts, emotions, and sensations…you learn to become aware of what’s happening in the moment. But you also learn how to focus your attention so you can live fully, not just survive. You learn to cultivate a particular kind of life. A meaningful life. A calm life. A happy life.

Talking about abstract concepts like mind and feelings and mindfulness can get complicated, so let’s pause here for a moment and talk vocabulary.

Mindful happiness

You might think of happiness as situational pleasure or an enjoyable experience, like eating a double scoop of chocolate chip ice cream on a cake cone. Or you might think of happiness as a chain of pleasant experiences, like an afternoon of hiking in the mountains followed by cheese pizza and then ice cream with someone you like. You might think of happiness as a big house in a safe neighborhood, winning the lottery, or retiring from a job you’ve tolerated for twenty years.

If you close your eyes, and intentionally think about happiness, what do you imagine? A relationship without all the messiness of life? World travel? A new wardrobe? A bigger car? More time off from work? 500 friends on FaceBook? Certainly, these situations and experiences can evoke a sense of momentary happiness, or pleasure, or even joy. But happiness in the mindfulness world is deeper than momentary or situational pleasure.

For the purposes of this article, you can think of happiness as attitude or disposition, a base level or foundation of functioning from which you experience all of what life offers…the pleasant and the unpleasant.

Mindfulness and suffering

Mindful happiness is not an addition of an experience, but an absence of suffering.

Just as happiness is different from pleasure, suffering is different from pain. Life includes pain. The physical pain of a fractured femur, the emotional pain of a broken heart, the spiritual pain of feeling disconnected from others, and the cognitive pain of your inner critic (we all have one).

Suffering comes from efforts to avoid pain (aversion). And suffering comes from reaching, with too much expectation and illusion of control, for pleasure, even happiness (clinging).

You can see this clearly from the use of intoxicants or setting a goal of enlightenment. Some of us, not you I know, use drugs or alcohol to avoid pain; or we meditate in the hope of attaining enlightenment, the high. This can work in the moment, but eventually, and maybe even just a few hours later, reality crashes the party and we get caught in the cycle of avoiding pain by chasing pleasure again. It’s not a sustainable way to live.

Awareness, attention, equanimity

The three big words in mindfulness practice are awareness, attention, and equanimity. Through the formal practice of sitting in silence and stillness, you develop awareness about who you are, how you think, how you feel, how you respond and react to internal and external stimuli.

In the simplest terms, you are sitting, focusing on your breath, the air passing in and out of your nostrils, your lungs expanding and contracting, the abdomen rising and falling. Before you can count five breaths, the mind takes off like a shot to here there and everywhere without the time or distance constraints of the physical world.

Sometimes mind remembers or rehearses conversations, the ones you’ve visited 500 times already; sometimes mind travels to worrying about what if; sometimes to problem-solving. Each mind has its favorite haunts.

With guidance or even on your own, you realize “Thinking.” You label what mind is doing. Or “Sadness.” The idea is to keep it simple. Simple prevents the mind from getting entangled in story. This is the awareness. You become aware that your mind has taken off again; you become aware that your body feels agitated, restless; or you become aware that a screaming fire engine is passing.  Awareness.

From there, you decide to be curious about the thoughts, feelings, memories, problems, body sensations or to turn your attention back to the breath or the body or whatever else you have defined as your anchor to the present moment. This is attention. Rather than mindless thinking monopolizing your attention, you learn to direct it, mindfully with awareness.

The intent is not to clear the mind of all thought, but to prevent yourself from getting pulled down and entangled in the elaborate stories you weave around the thoughts.

That’s where equanimity comes in. After practicing for some time…I don’t know how long that will be for you…and oh, by the way, this equanimity comes and goes…you develop what Shinzen Young refers to as a small distance or step back from the body’s responses (emotions, a.k.a. inner motions) to stimuli. Think of that fire engine siren. I don’t know about you, but my body usually flinches when I hear the sirens and then my mind wonders who’s hurt, what’s on fire, do I need to do something?

Equanimity or inner calm allows you to step back from that response and the stories about where the fire engine is headed. With equanimity, you still have those thoughts. But you don’t get caught up in the spin cycle of past events, elaborate webs of future worries or memories.

Awareness with equanimity gives you freedom from mindlessness, stories, and suffering.

Thinking or not thinking

The idea is not to clear the mind, but to be able to observe whatever happens without getting caught in what can become ever-growing  elaborate thinking. And then sometimes…with curiosity and an open mind…you can learn from those thoughts.

That’s one of the reasons this practice is called Insight Meditation. When you sit with yourself, you have the opportunity to learn about you, your thinking, your feeling, your sources of happiness, pain, and suffering. You can learn to do something different. As Pema Chodron explains, when we meditate, we learn that no matter what happens, we will be there with awareness, attention, and equanimity.

Please do not believe what I have written here even though all of it comes from people before me who know far more than I do. This is not a top-down practice. Your practice, your life, is your experiment. Try it for yourself. Sit in silence for five minutes. You may be surprised at how quickly and readily your mind gets caught up in stories. Then be curious. Do the stories cause you suffering?

Pain is real; suffering is a product of your imagination.


After you read the next sentence, close your eyes for a few seconds.

How would you feel if an important someone in your life said, “I wish you happiness?”

And how would you feel if that person said to you, “There are no strings attached, I expect nothing in return, not even a thank you.”

Wow, right?

Maybe you don’t have someone in your life who would wish you happiness without strings; maybe you do. While it is deliciously wonderful to have that kind of relationship with another person, it can be surprisingly rare. Most human beings are so caught up in their own lives, they can’t wish you happiness, or they want something in return. No worries. You don’t have to live without.  You can give yourself permission to wish yourself happiness.

I am very serious about that.

Managing the inner critic

For some of us, the judgmental inner critic will spring to life and say, “What do you mean wish happiness to yourself? You’re so selfish! What about your poor, sad, struggling [fill in the blank].” We’ll get to her in a second. For now, be aware that you might have an inner critic and that critic might not like your wishing happiness to you. We are conditioned to put others first lest we be labelled narcissist, self-centered, or self-absorbed.

So, you will have to tell your judgmental, inner critic in as kind a tone as you can manage, “No, I’m not being selfish at all. I’m taking very good care of myself.”

Many cultures and religions encourage compassion for others. But, when the focus of your attention is always on others, you can develop an inner longing that can feel like a garden that has no water or sunshine. Wishing yourself happiness can help reduce the longing and feed your spirit. Don’t believe me, though. Try it for yourself.

Kindness for you

Lovingkindness or simply kindness is a Buddhist meditation for developing compassion, first for yourself, then for others. Most people love this meditation. It goes like this:

Sit comfortably. Breathe naturally. You can close your eyes or not. Then just take a few breaths to settle into yourself.

You can say the words out loud, or you can think them. Whichever way you choose, bathe yourself in kindness as if you’re standing under a gentle shower of unconditional love. Pause between each sentence and embrace the wish.

May I be happy.

May I be safe.

May I be healthy.

May I live with peace and equanimity*.

May I love and feel loved.


Repeat as often as you like.

Kindness for others

Remember that poor, struggling person your inner critic wants you to focus your attention on? When you’re ready, and not a moment before, think of someone you care about and send kindness to that person.

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you live with peace and equanimity*.

May you love and feel loved.

Smile. Pause.

In meditation groups, the leader will sometimes suggest that each person wish to the others in the group:

May you be happy.

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you live with peace and equanimity*.

May you love and feel loved.

In the Buddhist tradition, you would repeat this wish for someone neutral in your life, then for a difficult person in your life, and finally, to all sentient beings. This exercise can have a profound effect on your happiness.

Kindness for someone difficult

You might resist sending kindness to someone who has hurt you or someone who is hurting so much they have nothing to give. That’s a healthy response. Don’t force it, and don’t make it a goal, but leave yourself open to the possibility that as your inner garden grows and your heart opens, you might find yourself doing just that.

*inner calm

Steven Smith’s description of the lovingkindness meditation
Sharon Salzberg’s guided lovingkindness meditation on YouTube
Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness