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38. How To Meditate

Master meditation teacher Robert Beatty walks us through: the basics of meditation, how to start a meditation practice, principles of mindfulness, understating the roots of suffering, how concentrating on the breath can lead to insight, and healthy vs unhealthy coping.



Guest Bio: Robert Beatty is co-author of Mindfulness for a Happy Life as well as founder and guiding teacher of the Portland Insight Meditation Community. He has worked with thousands of students and, as a practicing therapist, has created a unique synthesis of Buddhist methods of awakening and healing and those of western psychotherapy.





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Possible picture quote: “To experience any true transformation in life and to not be bothered by things that used to be problematic is a miracle.”


We discuss:


When starting a meditation practice, the importance of knowing what your ‘fantasy’ is about meditation [06:50];

  • Much of what's available in the spiritual marketplace suits a particular fantasy. Examples: to learn a technique for controlling your mind; to get rid of pesky thoughts and sad or angry feelings; to be in charge.

  • With meditation practice, people hope that their mind will be blissful and that this will carry over into the rest of their life.

  • Rather than trying to get rid of bad thoughts and emotions, Beatty’s aspiration is to be able to accept everything exactly as it is.


Why having a meditation teacher is essential and how Ruth Denison influenced Beatty’s practice [08:30];

  • If we read something out of a book, we always interpret it through our own neurotic structures.


The paradox of 2 truths: skillful effort to restrain unwholesome mental states and the effort to bring into being wholesome mental states [12:30];

  • The intention is to cultivate a consciousness in which the wholesome mental states (like mindfulness, concentration, equanimity) tend to arise more frequently than unwholesome states.

  • The 5 hindrances are powerful forces in the human mind that hinder progress in meditation: desire, aversion/disliking, worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt,

  • The 7 enlightenment factors are opposing forces that can be cultivated: mindfulness, curiosity, persistence, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity.

  • Through practice, one learns to balance these forces and to “relax into your wakefulness”.


Beatty’s guided meditation for the novice [15:00];



If you want to develop a meditation practice, decide how long you're going to do it and then do it every day for a month with no excuses.

What it is in mindfulness that we’re actually being mindful of [25:10];

  • One learns to be mindful of the body (how it sits, walks, breathes, etc), of how the body interacts with the world (through our senses, pleasant or unpleasant), of our feelings, of our memories, of our belief structures, and of mental phenomena (ie. the 5 hindrances and 7 enlightenment factors).

  • “When you look at someone, there's the seeing, but there's also the knowing of seeing. That's mindfulness.”

“There's nothing that's outside the realm of mindfulness. One can be mindful of being mindful.”

Driving a car The Headless Way [28:50];

  • The Headless Way is a spiritual tradition which helps you see who you really are.

  • Beatty likes to drive to work “headless”, experiencing the process from ‘zero distance’. Rather than seeing himself in the car driving, he shifts his focus to how the experience is playing out from his unique perspective. Rather than seeing the moment as his body being in the car, it’s a frame shift to the experience of the drive ‘being in him’. This helps him be more attentive to what’s happening in the present moment.


Why it is almost universal in meditation practices to use the breath as the primary meditation object [30:15];

  • A meditation object is chosen based on what’s most appropriate for that moment. It’s something you can come back to when your mind wanders. When you’re driving, seeing is the most appropriate thing to be observing. When you’re chopping carrots, be most aware of your fingers.

  • In sitting meditation, there are many options for the meditation object -- the breath is always there (from birth to death) and an efficient object to focus on and come back to.


Beatty’s opinion of meditation apps [35:37];

  • There’s a gamification aspect to these apps that might seem contrary to the purpose of meditation. But if an app can help a person practice, they’re wonderful.

“In the long-run, the app would fall away. At the beginning, one times one’s meditation to set a goal they think they can meet. As the vistas of meditation open up, the timer is used as an alarm to show how much time you are allowed.’

How intentionally letting go of your thoughts and concentrating on your breath can lead to deep insight [38:38];

  • On the surface, it would seem that meditation would be a process of trying to not think. So how this would lead to insight might be puzzling.

  • If you practice mindfulness of breathing, you begin to notice that thoughts are thoughts. It's possible to wake up from them and to become attentive to the actual sensations of breathing in and breathing out.

  • Over time you can become increasingly more adept at waking up to the thoughts and then coming back to the breath. Instead of being continuously lost in the wandering mind, one starts waking up from it.

  • Sometimes wandering minds are emotional uprisings related to painful life experiences, and these psycho-emotional complexes can become the object of observation. This leads to a process of psychological and emotional insight.


The 3 characteristics of existence and how they provide spiritual insight [42:30];

  • Impermanence -- Everything is in flux and nothing is stable. A breath has a beginning, middle, and an end. Thoughts come and go.

  • Suffering -- It also means struggle or that which is difficult to bear. That’s our lives.

  • Non-self -- The self is a process. There is no permanent self.


Using meditation as a purification process to help you let go of stuff (or people) that cause negative emotions [48:50];

  • Get grounded in your meditation spot, come to your breath, and then turn toward that person and reflect upon them with compassion.

  • Compassion is an incredibly powerful practice. It can help to remember that everyone is going to die. We’re only on this earth for “the blink of an eye”.


A skillful way to come back to your meditation object that is not self-criticizing [51:30];

  • When your mind wanders, you might resort to negative self-talk. “Why can’t I get this right?”

  • One of the secondary objects of meditation that many of us have to deal with is self-hatred. The mind is conditioned to speak ill to us.

  • If we recognize that these are just thoughts and notice them as they are, over time they attenuate. They come into being, and they disappear.

“Self-hatred is nothing more than another wandering mind. It's just malware.”

The metaphor of the two arrows and how it can be applied in daily life [54:50];

  • In life we will encounter many difficulties (or arrows).

  • Imagine one is hit by two arrows. The first arrow is the pain. It’s the human condition, and there is no choice. The second arrow is the resistance and desire for things to be different than they are. With the suffering of the second arrow, there is choice.

  • The more you turn ‘towards’ the first arrow, however unpleasant it may be, the smaller and the less deep the second arrow gets.

  • Pay attention to the suffering, noticing how much struggle and unpleasantness there is. Instead of turning away from it, turn toward it. Use all the concentration power you developed for meditation, all the compassion, and just feel the pain.

  • Suddenly, you might find that the pain is the same, but the suffering is gone.

“The quenching of the suffering. That's Nirvana. ”

Healthy vs. unhealthy coping mechanisms [01:00:00];

  • Distraction works for small pains. But excessive shopping, drinking, etc. does not lead to waking up.

  • Leaning into and confronting trauma only works if one wants it and is ready. And then you need to get the right help externally and commit to a meditation practice.

  • First you develop the capacity to bear the small things. Over time, it becomes possible to heal from the bigger pains. We continue to do that all the way to full awakening, where we face the profound suffering of a human life.

“Life is extremely beautiful and connection is incredible. There's so much to appreciate about it. It's also excruciatingly painful. Having this in mind results in tasting things more, being more present, being more compassionate and being able to be with people when they're really hurting.”

The reasons people come to meditation [01:06:00];

  • For stress management -- meditation works great for mindfulness-based stress reduction.

  • For psychological and emotional well-being -- meditation is incredibly helpful for depression and anxiety.

  • So you can chant and get things -- not terribly helpful, but it happens.

  • For true spiritual practice, asking the profound question, “Who am I?”


Beatty’s aspirations [01:09:30];


“I aspire to love and accept myself exactly as I am in this moment. Love means there's room for everything. I aspire to accept myself exactly as I am. And when I'm hurting, no matter how I'm hurting, I aspire to hold myself in sweet compassion.”


Why ‘should’ is such a violent word [01:10:00];

And more.


Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD


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