Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What's Step Three About?

What’s This Step About?

Excerpted from Buddhism & The Twelve Steps Workbook

Step Three sounds as if it’s about God, but from the perspective of the archetypal journey, I think that’s a very limited view. Instead, I think it’s about making a commitment to a new way of living, to living in harmony with the Law of Karma, with the Dharma.
                  First of all, making a decision, any decision, for an addict is progress. We don’t “decide” to get drunk, crash the car, and wind up in jail; we don’t “decide” to binge or overdose or waste our lives. These are impulses, obsessions, addictions. So when we actually make a decision, that is, consider alternatives, make a choice, and act on it, we are already showing progress.
                  In Step Three, the decision we are making is to turn away from our previous addictive, self-centered, pleasure-seeking way of living, and turn towards something more healthy, spiritual, and ethical. If we’re approaching this process from a Buddhist perspective, a big part of this Step is to engage the Noble Eightfold Path, which I’ll talk about later in this Step.
                  Turning “our will and our lives” over is about two things: setting our intention to live differently, “our will,” and actually taking the action, “our lives.” This distinction in the Steps corresponds to the Buddhist understanding that all actions follow on the heels of intention. If we are trying to do the right thing, we are already in better shape. We may succeed or we may not—we may even relapse—but if we are clear about what we really want, we’ll be able to get back on track. Intention, as I’ll talk about later, conditions the results of our actions, that is, if we do something for the right reasons, the results will tend to be beneficial; if we do them for the wrong reasons—selfishness, pleasure-seeking, resentment—the results will tend to be unbeneficial.
                  So, this Step is about setting our direction and trying to stick to it. It becomes our touchstone. Finally the Step implies acceptance. If we are “turning it over” to something else, whether God or the Dharma, we are saying that our job is to show up and do our best, but that we don’t control the results. Therefore, we need to learn to accept how things unfold. A lot of the problem with the addictive personality is the effort to control everything, and when we can accept how things are occurring in our lives, there is much less conflict and turmoil, less stress. We come to see that, even if things don’t turn out exactly as we wanted, they are workable. And many times, what we thought was a “bad” result, turns out to have hidden benefits. Many times in my recovery I found that in the longterm, disappointing results led eventually to a much better outcome than the one I had wanted. This is what “turning it over” is about, and it’s key to maintaining serenity in recovery.
The Big Book of AA says famously:
“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation -- some fact of my life -- unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.”
            What does this mean to you? How true is it for you? What about things you don’t think you should accept?
            How much does lack of acceptance cause agitation, stress, and suffering in your life?
Begin to notice things you have difficulty accepting:
·       What is difficult to accept in your past?
·       What is difficult to accept about the world?
·       What is difficult to accept about yourself?
·       What is difficult to accept about your experience during meditation?

Friday, February 7, 2014

What's Step Two About?

This is an excerpt from my newest book, Buddhism & The Twelve Steps: A Workbook for Individuals and Groups. Available on CreateSpace or Amazon.

What’s Step Two About?

When I first read the 12 Steps I thought Step Two was saying, “If you just believe that God will fix you, the power of your faith will take care of everything.” This was a very Christian reading of the Step, which might very well have been its original meaning. I was willing to suspend disbelief and skepticism and play along—“God? Sure, why not?” That worked for a while. I kept doing the grunt work of recovery, everything from showing up at meetings, being of service, and writing inventory to getting a day job, going back to school, and starting to deal with my relationship issues. There was a feeling of magic that everything seemed to be falling into place, all those little “God shots” and synchronous moments. People kept showing up just when I needed them—teachers, employers, friends—and it all seemed to be happening because I “Let Go and Let God.”
                  That’s one way of looking at it. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that way of looking at it. Maybe. . .
                  Today I see Step Two in completely different terms. First of all, the way I understand it now is that the Step is saying, “There is hope. It is possible to change. Things can get better.” The reason that statement is important is that when you’re an addict, you don’t think you can change. In fact, that’s the whole point—you want to stay loaded all the time—you don’t want to change. One of the reasons it’s so hard to take Step One, to actually quit drinking and using, is that the question that looms in the background is, “What then?” How are you going to deal with not drinking? We have the sense that our life is going to be the same, only worse because we won’t have the relief of getting high. Why would we choose that? The whole reason we are getting loaded all the time is that we don’t want to be in our life as it is. Step Two is offering us an alternative; it’s saying that there’s a completely different life out there for us.
                  Okay, but the Step says “a Power greater than ourselves.” Just believing that it’s possible to change and for your life to get better doesn’t seem to involve some big power. But, if we think about it, for anything to happen, some power or force or energy has to be involved. To get out of bed, a lot of muscles have to be involved. To take a midterm exam, a lot of study and thinking have to be in play. Nothing happens without power. And the power of intentional change is the power of karma. Actions have results; that’s what the Law of Karma says. Drink and use all the time, and the result is addiction. Stop drinking and using and the result is being clean and sober. When we take Step One and stop, that’s essentially what we’re doing, using the Law of Karma to establish ourselves in recovery.
                  If we don’t believe we can change, if we think we are bound to stay addicts forever and that we can’t heal, then we don’t believe in the Law of Karma. We are saying, “No matter what actions I take, I am fated to be a suffering addict.” From a Buddhist viewpoint, this is called “delusion,” or Wrong View. It means that we don’t understand the way the world works. We believe in fate, that everything is preordained and we have no power to do anything about it.  Nonetheless, most of us, when faced with the question, “Do my actions have any effect on my life,” will say, “Yes, of course.” The Buddha said that if our actions didn’t bring results, he wouldn’t bother teaching people because there would be no way for them to achieve enlightenment; they wouldn’t be capable of change.
                  But this belief that we can’t change is implied in the despair of the addict who can’t seem to stay sober or feels stuck in negative emotional or behavioral patterns. That’s why it’s important to take Step Two, to confront this, often unacknowledged, belief consciously and see how we are being held back by our delusion. Once acknowledged, we can begin to consciously build a belief system. We can start to ask ourselves, “What do I need to do to change and grow?” Then we can begin to access the powers at our disposal, powers like love, determination, awareness, wisdom, the support of others, and, yes, faith. Whether we know it or not, as addicts we’ve been using powers, but mostly negative ones like selfishness, impatience, fear, and resentment. Recovery means working with the positive powers. The faith or belief involved in Step Two is when we “come to believe” that it’s actually worth changing our behavior and orientation. Once we believe that change is possible and that it’s worth making the commitment to a new way of living, we are ready for Step Three.

If you have struggled with whether you want to go into a 12 Step program; with the idea of God; with “those people” in meetings; with your own ability to succeed in recovery, what if you just stop fighting? What if you put this all aside, and any other objections or resistance and just surrendered to the process?
                  Consider any ways you have been resisting the recovery process, whether they are about the program or about you or your beliefs, and ask yourself if it might be possible to simply drop that resistance, if only for today. Question yourself and your beliefs. Don’t believe everything you think.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Beginning Step One

What’s this Step About?

This is an excerpt from my book Buddhism &The Twelve Steps Workbook, available on at
The language of Step One, especially the idea of being “powerless,” can distract us from what the Step is really about: quitting. As much as the Twelve Steps and Buddhism are spiritual practices, they are both founded in action, in behavior. And the starting point of that behavior in the Steps and in recovery is to stop doing what we’ve been doing.  This is the simple function of this Step, to change our addictive behavior so that we can start the work of recovery.
                  I also find it useful to view Step One as the beginning of a process, the archetypal spiritual journey. The journey starts in darkness, a “bottom,” that wakes us up to the unworkable nature of our lives as we’ve been living them. Just as Buddhism starts with insight into suffering, recovery starts when we honestly confront our own pain. This may be as simple as a persistent cough triggering the thought, “I’ll never see my grandkids grow up if I don’t quit smoking,” or as dramatic as waking up from a blackout in a prison cell—and not knowing why you’re there. No one can tell you what your bottom is. I’ve been amazed over the years of my recovery to see how little it sometimes took to push someone over the line into a program, or on the other hand, how resistant someone could be to recognizing their need for help even when everything in their life was falling apart.
                  Yes, Step One is about Powerlessness and Unmanageability, but both of those things are meant to motivate you to quit.
This exercise can be done as a writing process, a sharing process, or a contemplative process. The main thing is to be honest. Totally honest.
            When speakers tell their stories at 12 Step meetings, the classic format is to describe “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” This exercise covers just the first part of that formula.
            Go through in detail every case where you acted on your addiction and the results weren’t good. Start with your earliest memories, maybe getting caught drinking, getting sick, blacking out; perhaps you missed school, crashed a car, got arrested. What about violence? Emotional outbursts?
            Did you waste money? Damage relationships? Waste professional opportunities?
            How many times did you act like a jerk? Take foolish risks? Sleep with someone you didn’t know or care about?
            How did your addiction affect your emotional states, causing depression, anxiety, anger, apathy, mania, irritability, or any other moods?
            You get the idea, and I’m sure you can come up with your own consequences. The important thing isn’t to remember every single event, but to establish in your conscious mind the persistent nature of the destructive effects of your addiction. This is fundamental to destroying any vestige of denial, so that you never again can tell yourself, “It wasn’t that bad.” Sure, it might not have been “that bad” every time or all the time, but if you look at the whole scope of your addiction, the years it dragged on and all the ways it hurt you and others, it’s bound to make an impression. That’s the result we want from this exercise.
            Writing all this down and sharing it with a sponsor or other trusted person is a great way to embed a basic truth in your mind: It doesn’t work!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Way of Mindfulness and Recovery

The Way of Mindfulness and Recovery

This is an excerpt from my book Buddhism &The Twelve Steps Workbook, available on at

What is mindfulness? As this practice and Buddhist teachings have attracted more and more attention, the simple definitions once offered have been challenged by Buddhist scholars and dharma teachers, creating a bit of confusion about something that seems quite simple: the application of our attention to our mental and physical experience, moment by moment. I’m not qualified to enter into an academic debate on the topic, so I will give you my sense of the meaning of the word, and then encourage you to explore other sources if you’d like to understand more.
                  Mindfulness starts with being present, being aware of what we are experiencing through our five physical senses and what’s happening in our mind. Our natural tendency is to get caught up worrying about or planning the future or remembering the past. The first thing we try to do with mindfulness is notice these tendencies and start to train ourselves to bring our attention back to what is happening right now. This alone is a huge task because of our deep conditioning. Planning the future based on our experiences in the past is a survival strategy developed eons ago by our ancestors. Our capacity to do this is what sets us apart from other living things, and so our instincts resist any effort to act otherwise. Nonetheless, these habits take us away from a direct experience of life and obscure a whole range of truths, from the psychological conditioning that drives our behavior to the elemental realities that Buddhists call “the Dharma,” Truth or Natural Law.
                  With mindfulness we not only observe what’s happening in the body and mind, but how we react to things, how a sound triggers a thought and a thought triggers an emotion and an emotion triggers a physical response. We begin to see the bigger picture, the process by which we construct our understanding of our world and who we are. This deconstruction of our experience is vitally important for addicts in or trying to get into recovery because it allows them to see how their addiction works and that there is a way out, that it’s not inevitable or unstoppable. The process by which we become addicted is a mind/body process that can be reversed, and awareness is the first stepping-stone in that process. That’s why Step One of the 12 Steps starts with the words “We admitted,” because that admission is the bringing into our awareness the truth of our condition. Until we are aware of our condition, until we come out of denial, no recovery is possible. Step One is, essentially, an act of mindfulness, a clear seeing.
                  One of the things that’s always struck me as unique about the Buddhist teachings is that the Buddha started out by talking about the difficulties in life, the suffering. This doesn’t seem like the best marketing technique. If you want to sell a product, you shouldn’t start out by being such a downer. And maybe that’s one reason Buddhism seems to take hold slowly in a culture: it doesn’t start out by promising paradise.
                  The practice of mindfulness then has a role in building from this recognition of suffering. The Buddha asks us to sit down (literally) and start to watch our experience unfold. If you sit still for a little while what you’ll discover is that your mind is restless and filled with plans and memories that are agitating; your body doesn’t want to sit still and often will begin to hurt or at least get itchy or tense; you start to fall asleep when you’re trying to pay attention to the breath; sitting still becomes boring and tedious, not to mention frustrating as you try to follow the meditation instructions but fail repeatedly.
                  So, the first effect of mindfulness is to see the truth of the first Noble Truth—the Buddha was right, it’s hard to be a human being. If we keep watching carefully, tracking the process moment-by-moment as we notice the mind wandering and gently come back to the breath, we see that when we let go of our obsessive thinking, we get moments of relief. Thus, we see the truth of the second and third Noble Truths: our discomfort is caused by our clinging and ends when we stop clinging. We also see, as Step One says, that we are powerless, in this case over the arising of thoughts, feelings, and sense experiences—not that we can’t do anything about them, but that, just as with our addiction, they are going to keep coming up and if we are not going to suffer as they arise, we are going to have to change our relationship to them.
                  When an addict sees this meditative process clearly—and usually it helps if a teacher or guide clarifies what’s happening—the logic of letting go becomes indisputable. We see in microcosm the process of addiction and recovery.
                  I know a couple of people who say that seeing this was enough for them to get clean and sober. They didn’t have to go to rehab or AA or any other recovery program; all they needed was to see their addiction with mindfulness, and they were able to quit. But this is the rare exception. Before I got sober I seemed to be engaged in a pretty serious mindfulness meditation practice, even going on extended silent retreats, but still didn’t make the connection between the microcosm of moment-to-moment letting go and the habitual patterns of drinking and using that persisted between retreats. The power of addiction and denial was just too great for my mindfulness practice alone to penetrate. There simply wasn’t the willingness to go that far, and there wasn’t the clarity to understand the problem and the potential that sobriety might bring.
                  Nonetheless, today I regularly teach mindfulness in treatment centers and to newcomers who attend my workshops and retreats. And I find that, if people are willing to learn and are engaged in trying to deal with their addiction, the mindfulness practices are a powerful support to the process of recovery. I think it helps that I guide them to understand what they are experiencing. Sometimes the non-verbal meditation experience is difficult to interpret at first, and this is one of the main jobs of the meditation teacher, to illuminate what is already happening, to understand the felt experience.
                  When I’m introducing mindfulness at a treatment center, I feel the need to explain why we’re doing it. After all, when someone forks out money for rehab, it’s not with the desire to learn to meditate. They might wonder, “What does this have to do with recovery?” I tell them that mindfulness meditation has two key values for the recovering addict: one, it helps them to de-stress. Recovery is stressful, in the beginning especially, and having a method by which you can, on a daily basis, get some quiet, calm, and peace, is invaluable. Two, mindfulness practice helps us to become aware of our mental habits so we can start to catch thoughts like, “I need to have a drink,” or “What’s the point of this, I might as well get loaded.” Getting in the habit of watching and questioning our own thoughts is vital to maintaining recovery because the addict’s habitual thoughts are so often self-destructive, or just simply destructive.
                  Mindfulness isn’t magic or religious. Developing and applying mindfulness takes determination and effort. Nonetheless, it can have a powerful, liberating effect on our lives. All change starts with awareness, and when we cultivate mindfulness our awareness deepens far beyond our common way of experiencing life.
1.     Set up a place in your home devoted to meditation. This can just be a corner of a room, or a small extra space or alcove. Put your chair or meditation cushion in the corner, and perhaps a small table with some special objects. Having a space devoted to meditation acts as a reminder to practice, and reinforces the practice when you sit there.
2.     Schedule meditation into your day. Before you go to bed at night, decide when you are going to meditate the next day. You might have to get up earlier or leave some gaps in your schedule. You can meditate on a break or at lunchtime at work; you can meditate before dinner; you can even meditate before bed, though that’s not ideal.
3.     Commit to meditate every day, even if it’s only for 1 minute. This commitment helps you sustain your practice. It reinforces the idea that consistency is the most important thing, not perfection.  
4.     Find a meditation group and/or teacher. Nothing reinforces practice like regularly joining others to meditate. Just as with recovery, it’s hard to do it alone. Take advantage of the support that’s out there.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Right Intention 

Kevin Griffin

Once we see the truth with clarity, Right View, we are motivated to change, Right Intention. This motivation is the key to our ongoing recovery process and spiritual development. While we may continue to make mistakes or even relapse, a strong intention will keep us on track, eventually bringing us back to the path.

When I first learned to meditate, my goal was peace and some kind of magical spiritual fix. For two years I did a Hindu practice mechanically, just sitting and repeating a mantra for twenty minutes twice a day. Not much happened, and I believe that the problem was my intention. I wasn’t committed to a real spiritual awakening; I just wanted meditation to make my problems go away.

When I then discovered Buddhism, I think my intention started getting closer to something skillful. I began to see the process as broader than just taking a “meditation pill.” But I still couldn’t acknowledge the depth of change needed, and I lacked the willingness to address those fundamental issues.

From the time I started that first meditation practice until I got sober was seven years. That’s how long it took for my intention to become clear and strong enough for real change to happen.

The 12 Steps and the Eightfold Path aren’t mechanical processes. We don’t just go through a series of actions to get a desired result. We aren’t just acting differently; we are becoming different people. Intention is at the heart of this change.

Initially, most people who work the 12 Steps go through them as a linear process, admitting they are powerless, working with the Higher Power idea, inventorying and then trying to let go of failings, making amends, and doing service. For many people this is an important exercise and one that helps to solidly establish them in their recovery. But simply going through the process isn’t enough. If it were, more people would be successful in their recovery. What the process is trying to accomplish is what Step Twelve calls a “spiritual awakening.”

 I used to think the Buddhist parallel to this was enlightenment, but that term has so many meanings in different traditions and contexts, that I don’t find it specific enough. What seems like a clearer comparison is what’s called a “transformational insight,” an insight that changes who you are, how you respond, and how you behave in the world. While many insights may occur as the result of spiritual practice, only transformational insight actually changes you for good. And the underlying quality that transformational insight changes is your intention, that which motivates and gives purpose to your thoughts, words, and deeds.

(Of course, enlightenment is supposed to be transformational, but given the number of supposedly enlightened Buddhist masters who drank alcoholically or acted inappropriately in their sex lives, it calls into question the use of the term.)

 It’s important to understand why the Buddha said that “karma is intention.” While the typical understanding of karma is that actions bring results, what the Buddha is saying is that what motivates the action is what determines the quality of the results. This means that following a simple mechanical process—like the Steps, like the Eightfold Path—isn’t enough for transformation. The spark of motivation must be there or the process will be hollow and ineffective. This is, of course, a good protection against hypocrisy.

 This idea, though, seems to come up against the 12 Step idea that we need to “act our way into right thinking, not think our way into right action.” This suggests that we should “fake it till we make it,” another popular 12 Step idea. This goes back to people trying to think their way out of their addiction instead of just stopping using. The 12 Step program, then, is thought of as more behavioral than psychological. Nonetheless, if we look closely, we see that intention, or as the Steps talk about it, “willingness,” is essential for change to happen. We see this in Step Three, which says we turned our will over to “God.” We see it in Step Six, which says that before we can change we must “be entirely ready.” And we see it in Step Eight, which says once we’d made a list of those to whom we needed to make amends we “became willing to make amends to them all.” Obviously the Steps are asking us to do more than simply take action; they require us to change the heart of those actions, our motivations. No matter how many times we go through the mechanics of the Steps, until we become people who want to be sober; until we become people who want to live with integrity; until we become people who want to be loving, compassionate, and wise, we will never establish solid recovery.

12 Step/Buddhist principle: Change only happens with willingness.

Kevin Griffin is the author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps and A Burning Desire: Dharma God and the Path of Recovery. A longtime Buddhist practitioner and 12 Step participant, he is a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network.  Kevin teaches internationally in Buddhist centers, treatment centers, professional conferences, and academic settings. His website is

Sunday, January 30, 2011

One Blog at a Time: Powerless

Step One: Powerless
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [drugs, food, sex, etc], that our lives had become unmanageable.”

People often tell me that they have trouble with the word “powerless” in the first of the 12 Steps. They’ll say “I’m not powerless; there are lots of things I can do. “ They think they’re being told that they are helpless victims of their addiction. Others tell me that they think it makes for a victim mentality that pervades 12 Step programs.
The language of the Steps is often difficult to take in. There is the simple fact that language has changed a great deal since the Steps were written in the 1930s. But I also think that the founders of AA who wrote the 12 Steps were intentionally using somewhat extreme language to get our attention. If they’d said, “We admitted alcohol was a problem for us,” or even “We admitted we couldn’t control our use of alcohol,” it might have been more accurate, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact as saying “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” Questions of style aside, though, what these early members of AA found was that the best time to approach someone about their drinking problem was when they were at their lowest—hungover or at the end of a bender. Whether they were literally powerless or not wasn’t the point. That’s how it felt. And the admission of powerlessness leads to the response that the program is trying to evoke: surrender.
This struggle with the word powerless is often just the first of many complaints about the language of the Steps. And underneath the complaints is often just a desire to avoid the real issue: your problem with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or some other addiction. Focusing on the minutiae of the 12 Step language lets you sidestep the larger issue. This is why, ultimately, I’m not that interested in debating the language of the Steps. What I want to get at is the process that the Steps are pointing to.
Obviously the Steps were designed to help people stop their addiction and stay stopped. But I think that their underlying structure is based on a broader template for spiritual transformation. The function of the first Step then is more than just telling us we have a problem with addiction. It is the realization that the whole premise of our pleasure-seeking lives is flawed. Another classic template for spiritual transformation makes this same statement: the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha starts his teaching with the recognition of all the ways that life is challenging, physically and mentally—that we’re often stuck with what we don’t want or wishing we had something else; that we inevitably get old and sick and die. Just like Step One, he’s trying to get us to see past the surface to what’s really going on. The starting point of both paths, then is to see the truth: in 12 Step terms, to come out of denial; in Buddhist terms, to shed delusion. To begin on any spiritual path, and to deal with the destructive power of addiction, we have to be honest with ourselves.
For the addict or alcoholic this honesty is about admitting, as the Step says, that we have a problem, that our life isn’t working. For the Buddhist, this honesty is about recognizing that the way we have been approaching life is unrealistic. Until we come to this point, called “Right View” in Buddhism and “a moment of clarity” in AA, there’s no chance that we will change. As long as we believe that pleasure-seeking and acquisition are the way to happiness, and that all we have to do is get better at acquiring and holding on to things, we will never resolve the real problem. That’s because, as the Buddha tells us, what’s actually causing suffering is the very attempts to control and acquire, our craving and clinging. He points out that, since everything is constantly changing, there’s nothing that we can actually control or hold on to. His strategy, then, is to let go, to surrender—exactly the solution offered by the 12 Steps.
And this all starts with the honest recognition of how things work. When Step One says we are powerless, this is the idea that’s we’re being encouraged to see, that our attempt to create a perfect world out of imperfect parts is doomed to fail. We have to see what is happening, that drinking and using by their very nature cannot bring happiness, that pursuing pleasure is not a life strategy, and that surrendering to the truth and abandoning our addiction, though painful at first, is actually the beginning of the path to recovery, happiness, and spiritual transformation.

Exercise: The Cause of Suffering
Begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes. Try to consciously relax the body, and just be aware of your breathing. Once you’ve settled a bit, ask yourself “What am I holding on to that is causing me suffering?” This might be anything from an object, to a behavior, to a relationship. It might involve substances like drugs or food; it might involve a viewpoint or opinion that causes you problems at work or at home; it might be about some loss you’ve suffered. There may be multiple things you are holding on to. Once you have a sense of what these things are, ask yourself, “What would happen if I simply let go?” "What if I let go of the behavior or the opinion or the grief?"
Sometimes simply seeing the problem is enough to inspire us to let go. For many things, though, it’s a process, and that’s what the rest of the 12 Steps are meant to help us with.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

It's All About Practice

The other day I was talking with a therapist friend who has never been able to establish a regular meditation practice. He told me that after attending a recent workshop of mine, he’d finally been inspired to start meditating every day. He said the results were immediate and dramatic, notably that his blood pressure had dropped twenty points. He said he had also been able to lose weight and generally felt happier and more relaxed. All of this in a little over a month.

It’s all about practice.

I write books (and blogs) about meditation, Buddhism, and recovery, so I want people to read. But the truth is that my books and workshops, and all my work, is really directed towards getting people to do the work themselves. Reading is valuable, but it’s not a practice, it won’t lower your blood pressure. Meditation can and sometimes will.

How many books do you have on your nightstand that are supposed to help you?

It’s all about practice.

The hardest thing for people is to actually sit down and do the work. I hear over and over that people can’t manage to sustain a meditation practice.

I can’t do it for you. Nobody can.

What are you waiting for?

Sure, you can meditate occasionally, or go to a class or retreat and get some benefit. But for me the best analogy for a daily meditation practice is exercise. If you go to the gym once a week, you’ll get sore and tired, but you won’t get in shape. Sure, you might feel better afterward, but your overall healthy won’t improve significantly. The same is true of meditation.

If you only practice when you feel like it, you’ll have a very limited meditation practice. In fact, the truth is that meditating when you don’t feel like it is probably more valuable.

I think a lot of people get frustrated because they can’t quiet their minds, or they feel restless and can’t sit still, or they keep falling asleep, or they get bored. All of these experiences are the practice! If you can sit with your noisy, rambling mind, you are meditating; if you can stay in your seat when it feels like you have to jump up, you are meditating; if you can keep pulling yourself back everytime you nod off, you are meditating. The essence of mindfulness is simply to be with it, whatever it is. Can you hear that? Whatever it is. That includes everything.

Last week I was doing my morning meditation when my chin began to tickle. I’m not the most disciplined meditator, so there are times when I would simply scratch, but I chose not to this time. I just focused my attention on the tickle. The urge to scratch was intense, but I restrained myself, and in about a minute my mind went still. It was amazing! I’ve had this happen many times, when I paid attention to a pain in my knee or a noise outside, or some other “distraction.” These strong stimuli are great meditation objects because they are strong. They hold the attention if we are willing to stay with them.

This kind of practice depends on a certain letting go. We have to allow ourselves to surrender to the experience. For me it feels almost like sinking into the sensation or the sound. At a certain point, you become immersed and the experience that seemed unpleasant transforms.

This is practice. And it works. But you have to show up on a regular basis.

Does this mean that if you miss a day you’ve blown it? No, that’s just another rationalization, another way of giving up so you don’t have to do the work. It’s “progress not perfection” as the AA Big Books says.

The old Nike slogan is a cliché and it kind of irritates me, but in this case, it is the key: “Just do it”: Get out of bed early; or sit in your car during your lunch break; find a meditation group in your town; or listen to a guided meditation (there’s a bunch on my website, You can do it! If you really want to grow and change, if you want the benefits of serenity and openheartedness that come from meditation, find a way to make it happen.

It’s all about practice. . .