Friday, September 17, 2010

Emotional self-mastery: Like writing on water

Emotional self-mastery is not about never having certain emotions, it is about becoming very skillful with them.  For example, in Buddhist psychology, there is an important difference between anger and indignation: anger arises out of powerlessness, while indignation arises out of power.  Because of that difference, when you feel angry, you feel out of control, but when you feel indignant, you can retain full control of your mind and emotion.  Hence, you can be emotional and fighting for change without ever “losing your cool”.  Indignation is, therefore, a skillful state and a good example of self-regulation at its best.  I think the person who best personified this was Gandhi.  Gandhi was not an angry man, but that did not stop him from fighting injustice or leading massive marches.  And all that time he was fighting, he never lost his calmness and compassion.  That is how I want to be when I grow up.

Still, there are situations in life where you really need to dampen unwholesome thoughts or emotions, what do you do? 

I think the first question to ask is whether it is possible to prevent an unwholesome thought or emotion from arising in the first place.  In my own experience, I think it is impossible.  In fact, Paul Ekman, one of the most eminent psychologists in the world, told me he discussed precisely this topic with the Dalai Lama.  They both think that it is impossible to prevent any thought or emotion from arising.  That must be the correct answer then, since Paul, the Dalai Lama and myself can’t all be wrong at the same time, right?

However, the Dalai Lama added an important point, which is that while we cannot prevent an unwholesome thought or emotion from arising, we have the power to let it go, and the highly trained mind can let it go the moment it arises.

The Buddha has a very beautiful metaphor for this state of mind.  He calls it “like writing on water.”  When an unwholesome thought or emotion arises in an enlightened mind, it is like writing on water; the moment it is written, it disappears.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An engineer's view of self-confidence

An easy way to get an injection of self-confidence is to attend a “motivational speech” where some guy speaking perfect English without my funny accent shouts at you and tells you how great you are, “You can succeed, you are great, you can do it!”  And everybody claps.  And we all go home feeling great about ourselves, for three days, maybe.  In my experience, however, the only highly sustainable source of self-confidence comes from deep self-knowledge and blatant self-honesty. 

In my engineer’s mind, I think of it as understanding two important things about myself, my “failure mode” and my “recovery mode”.  If I can understand a system so thoroughly I know exactly how it fails, I will also know when it won’t fail.  I can then have strong confidence in the system despite knowing it’s not perfect because I know precisely what situations I must keep it away from.  In addition, if I also know exactly how the system recovers after failure, I can be confident even in situations where it fails, because I know the conditions where the system can come back quickly enough that nothing major will be affected.  Similarly, by understanding those things about my mind, my emotion and my capability, I can gain confidence in myself despite my numerous failings and despite looking like me.

The type of deep self-knowledge and blatant self-honesty needed for sustainable self-confidence means having nothing to hide from ourselves.  It comes from accurate self-assessment.  If we can assess ourselves accurately, we are able to clearly and objectively see both our greatest strengths and our biggest weaknesses.  We become honest to ourselves about our most sacred aspirations and darkest desires.  We learn about our deepest priorities in life, what is important to us, and what is *not* important that we can let go of.  Eventually, we reach a point where we are comfortable in our own skins.  There is no skeleton in our closets that we don’t already know about.  There is nothing about ourselves we cannot deal with.  This is the basis of self-confidence.

Accurate self-assessment in turn comes from strong emotional awareness.  I think of it as receiving emotional data at a very high signal-to-noise ratio (ie, “clean signal”).  To strengthen our emotional awareness, we must carefully study our emotional experience.  We are like a trainer studying a horse, the more we carefully observe the horse in different situations, the more we understand its tendencies and behaviors, and the more skillfully we can work with it.  With that clarity, we create a space that allows us to view our own emotional lives as if seeing it as an objective third party.  In other words, we gain objectivity, we begin to perceive each emotional experience clearly and objectively as it is.  This is the “clean signal” that creates the conditions for accurate self-awareness.

Finally, strong emotional awareness comes from mindfulness.

That is how mindfulness leads to self-confidence.  At least for an engineer.

(Also posted at: )

Monday, September 13, 2010

Always comb your hair before meeting a famous monk

My hair was a mess, but the Dalai Lama didn't seem to have that problem. 

 Neither did Matthieu Ricard.

I don't remember what I was laughing about, but I like making fun of enlightened beings.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Shinzen Young at Google

Shinzen Young is one of the best meditation teachers I have ever met.  He is very intelligent and extremely knowledgeable about science, and he speaks in a way that someone who values scientific, logical and rational thinking would find extremely attractive.  (Also, he speaks fluent Mandarin, so I like to say he speaks my language in more ways than one).  His audiobook, the Science of Enlightenment, is the best description of enlightenment (with a small 'e') I have ever come across.  I very highly recommend it.  There are also many video clips of him on YouTube, I highly recommend them too.  I was so impressed with him the very first time I met him in person, I asked him to be my teacher.

I had the honor of hosting Shinzen at Google twice, once for a public talk and once for a meditation session.  I highly recommend them.  Here are the YouTube videos.

Shinzen Young's talk at Google (YouTube link)

Meditation with Shinzen Young at Google (YouTube link)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Play meditation like a video game

Meditation requires a balance of effort and relaxation.  Too much effort makes meditation tiring and unsustainable, while too little effort causes you to lose your grip on your attention.  The classical analogy for this balance is having just the right tension on the strings of a sitar.  If the strings are too tight, they break easily, but if they are too loose, they cannot produce beautiful notes.  So the strings need to be in the "Goldilocks zone" of being not too tight and not too loose.

A very common question among people learning meditation is how to find and maintain this balance.  I suggest one fun way of doing it is to play it like a video game.  When playing a game on the XBox, it is most fun when the difficulty setting makes the game just difficult enough to be challenging, but not so difficult that you’ll lose every time.  So I like to start a game at a “beginners” setting and increase the difficulty as I get better at it.  We can play the same way in meditation, especially since we get to control the difficulty setting.  Initially, we can make the game easy.  For example, we can tell ourselves, “If I can sit for just five minutes, and I can maintain a solid attention on my breath for ten continuous breaths anytime during these five minutes, I win!”  If you can beat the game at this difficulty setting say ninety percent of the time, you can increase the difficulty setting for more fun.  Once again, the key is to create just enough difficulty to be challenging, but not enough to discourage you.

One funny thing I discovered about playing this game is after I became quite good at it, the lowest difficulty setting became really fun.  That setting for me is, “Just rest my mind for ten minutes, in an alert sort of way”.  That is it, just rest.   I like it so much I still play at this setting a lot in between days where I play the more challenging games.  It is a game where the easiest setting never gets boring.

(Also posted at: )