February 03, 2014

Questions about Meditation? Ask our Meditation Doctor

Brad Warner will answer your meditation-based questions all month

February is Meditation Month here at Tricycle! We're challenging ourselves—and our readers—to sit every day this month. To help all of us along, we've enlisted the help of Zen monk Brad Warner, who blogs at Hardcore Zen, has written numerous books on Zen, and is the head of the International Dogen Sangha. Ask him any question you have about your meditation practice this month, and he'll answer.

If you need some help getting started, today's your lucky...month. We're featuring meditation-focused blog posts, e-books, and more:

  • Our online reterat this month features meditation teacher and bestselling author Sharon Salzberg, who explains how to bring our meditation practice off the cushion and into the workplace. We also spoke with Salzberg in the newest episode of Tricycle Talks.
  • We have not one, not two, but three meditation e-books to help you survive the month and a lifetime of meditation practice. Our newest e-book, Tricycle Teachings: Commit to Sit, was originally an at-home retreat manual from the minds of Salzberg and fellow meditation instructor Joseph Goldstein. It includes week by week meditation instructions, challenges, and tips for whatever meditation mood you’re in.
  • The Tricycle team is also blogging (almost) daily on our meditation ups and downs this month. Be sure to leave a comment on our posts so we know how you're doing!

To ask the Meditation Doctor a question, simply post below or email it in to us at editorial@tricycle.com. He'll get back to you soon!

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yytgpt's picture


This is Yayati Gupta. I am very new to meditation. I became very much overwhelmed by my life conditions. That's why I decided to start meditation in my life to improve the quality of my life. It has been one week meditating. I sit for 3 hours daily- in one one hour slot and focus on my breath and let thoughts creep in. I feel a bit relaxed after my meditation session. But, my dreams have increased from the time I have started meditation. I am just curious to know, how much time will it take to become stable using meditation as I am very easily mentally disturbed on small issues. I want to feel the benefits for better life and in order to be motivated for keeping it up also. I am not expecting a very happy life after meditation. I am just expecting a balanced life in which I am not so much disturbed by outside affairs to think of suicide. I am taking depression pills also. I wish to live and feel my life. That's why I started meditation. I am just anxious to feel the benefits before any major setback in my life affects me as I am going through a very critical time in my life where my carrier and my relationship is at stake.

Joogster's picture

Hey! Hopefully this question is not too late.

I have been doing transcendental meditation for little less than a month. I noticed near the end that I couldn't quite fit my mantra with this wave of energy I have been feeling in my body that was going up and down. It may explain why I feel a bit off for the day. Are you familiar with this? Anything that can be done with it while meditating?

Max Zahn's picture

This another question sent from one of our readers via email:

Hi, Brad. First of all thank you for for your articles and books. I started sitting and reading about zen after hearing about the "benefits of mindfulness" and all that crap that kind of messed me up. But then, I stumbled upon your blog and I have to say that your articles helped me stay grounded in reality and not some kind of fantasy.

So I have been sitting daily for more than a year now, although I have to admit that many times I just sit for 5 minutes and barely concentrate at all. But very often while I'm sitting, I feel tingling in my hands and my arms getting heavy. This usually happens a few minutes after I sit in the posture. Is it because of the posture? Am I doing something wrong? Sometimes it worries me a bit.

Anyway, thanks to you and to Tricycle for this opportunity!
(and sorry for my English)

mettaboy's picture

I felt that once and it was related to my cervical vertebrae. I would check it out. it could be a pinched nerve.

Brad Warner's picture

Thank you for the kind words!

It's hard to know what might be causing that tingling. It could be some sensation that's always there but you haven't noticed before. It could be that something about the way you're placing your arms is cutting off the blood circulation to them. That's all I can think of!

lukeinaz's picture

I once read that adding awareness to action is like mixing water and oil. I try to be mindful of my actions but it seems very clunky. Like I am just telling myself what I am currently doing. As soon as I leave the cushion I find it difficult to maintain that level of awareness and apply it to my habituated actions. Can you speak a bit about how to cultivate the right attitude as I go through my days activities. Also maybe you could say three words about intoxicated insight. Thanks once more!

Brad Warner's picture

I don't think of it as adding awareness to action. Awareness and action always appear together. This is true whether you're aware of the specific action you're doing or not. It's good to pay attention to what you do. But the meaning of mindfulness isn't "pay conscious attention to what you're doing." It's not a matter of telling yourself what you're doing. It's more a matter of noticing that awareness is always there.

It helps to avoid multi-tasking when possible. It's better to do one thing at a time. Although these days many of us have jobs that demand we multi-task. If you have that kind of job, try to find a way to multi-task while not multi-tasking. Do a bit of one job fully, switch to the next job and do a bit of it fully, switch to job #3 and do a bit of it fully, etc.

It's easy to ignore habituated actions. But being present with them doesn't mean you have to think about them consciously. Just inhabit them a little more.

And you also want three words about intoxicated insight? OK. "Don't take drugs!"

TW77's picture

Your last book "There is No God and He is Always With you" was reeeaaaally awesome and very helpful.

I think I know what your recommendation will be...but, I'm kind of lazy about sitting lately. The "antidote" to this I'm guessing is to "just sit" anyway?

usually it goes up and down but lately I find myself waiting for the up to come back. and even if I have an easy, intense, relaxing sit...the next time it's time to sit I'm still like "meh". I know it's not about relaxing/feel good time...but when you don't feel it it makes it that much more difficult to sit and stay.

Also, your blog (hardcorzen.info) is so incredibly helpful. Between it and your books it's been much appreciated...Somehow I missed that you were on this site this month but saw it on your blog.

Thanks for the help!!!!!!!!!!

Brad Warner's picture

You're welcome.

You've already answered this question in the only way I know how. Basically "just do it."

I discovered that sitting was good for me by stopping. I quit several times in the course of my early days of practice. But I always felt worse for not doing it. After a time I just figured I'd better simply do it every day whether I felt like it or not.

It's always possible to come up with good reasons not to practice. But you have to learn to ignore most of those. I mean, if the house is on fire, or you're having a heart attack or something along those lines, you probably should skip the sitting. Otherwise, most of the things that seem like better alternatives aren't.

I wish there was a neat meditation-based version of the old dieter's slogan "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" that you could say to yourself every time you're tempted by some delicious alternative to practice. But I'm still working on that!

johng29's picture

Hi Brad, in Hardcore Zen at the end of the chapter Why Gene Simmons is not a Zen Master you said:

"Lots of Zen students also fall into this trap: they think that balance occurs only when they are deeply in Zazen and at no other time. Students like this often spend far too much time doing zazen and the practice ultimately leads them further and further from true balance."

The idea that meditation could lead us away from true balance struck me as quite worrying. I'd be grateful if you could say a bit more about what you meant here. What is happening when someone falls into this trap and what does it means to get further and further from true balance?

Thankyou! John.

Brad Warner's picture

This is a tough one. I wrote that book ten years ago. I would express it differently now. And it's hard to recall precisely what I was thinking when I wrote that line.

I feel like meditation practice can get you into some very deep introspective places. And these places can be extremely fascinating and entertaining. They can also seem *incredibly* important. You can start to feel like if only you could get more deeply into these spaces you'd know The Big Answer to Everything and could then bring it back and SAVE THE WORLD!

But it's not really true. People have been attempting to do this for centuries and nobody has ever succeeded. It's pure egotism to feel like you alone will be able to do what all the great masters of every tradition were not able to. I may have written this line more to myself than anyone else, because that's kind of what I was going through at the time.

Or else you become what the Buddhist traditions call a "self-enlightened one." That's somebody who keeps going deeper and deeper and deeper into her/himself until nobody and nothing else matters at all. You end up sitting under a blanket with admirers feeding you oranges but you can't really do anything for them because you're so far gone.

The reason I'd probably either totally rephrase this now or maybe even cut the line completely is because this is a rare thing. That is to say, it's fairly common among serious practitioners. But my book ended up being read mainly by people who were not that deeply into the practice (though many later went that direction). I didn't anticipate such a wide audience when I wrote it. Heck, I didn't anticipate any audience at all! I thought the book would never be published!

Max Zahn's picture

Here's another question we received via email:

Hey Dr. Brad :),

I was wondering if you could speak to the difference of sitting "quantity." For periods I have sat every day, and now I'm in a spell of not sitting for whatever reason. Could you say something from your experience about sitting daily for a few minutes, sitting intermittently for longer periods, sesshin, etc.? And for folks like me who sometimes fall out of regular sitting, anything more encouraging than "hey buddy, notice the difference in your life when you sit and when you don't / what else do you want me to say?" :)

Thanks Brad!

Brad Warner's picture

Noticing the difference between when I sit and when I don't was what got me sitting every day. But I'll try to avoid that!

It's best to sit a little every day. Dogen said four times a day, Nishijima Roshi (my ordaining teacher) said twice, Tim (my other teacher) said twice is best but "even five lousy minutes" is better than not sitting at all.

I think sitting even a little bit every day is better than not doing it at all for a long time then trying to cram in a year's worth in one seven day sesshin or something. I try to do both, sit every day and do a sesshin at least once a year.

Even when sitting feels lousy or useless, it's doing you good and you can feel that immediately. It doesn't fix everything, but it does make everything better, at least a little. Sometimes a lot!

More and more I'm starting to feel that meditation of some sort is necessary for a healthy life. Like good diet and exercise. It's not just some option we can add if we want to. It's really crucial.

Max Zahn's picture

A final question from one of our readers:

If the instruction is to focus on the breath and gently bring ourselves back to the breath when we notice thoughts and monkey mind then how do we experience feelings. For example I notice I am distracted, feeling impatient/annoyed, aware of many and all of the hindrances?

Many who explain "how" to meditate, say to "sit with the impatience. sit with feeling annoyed. How does it feel in your body? How tense do you feel? What color is the emotion?? Where do you feel it in the body? Feel it fully—experience the impatience; do not struggle against the experience/feeling/emotion, etc. Be with it and do not push it away."

This seems like a contradiction to me. If I notice impatience....and the goal (I think) is to notice it pass like clouds in the sky—not latch on to it, and return to the breath, then how am I staying with the state I am in?? Staying with annoyance? Imaptience, anger, etc?

Thank you for any clarification/guidance you can offer. Your thoughts and insight are greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Brad Warner's picture

I think that sometimes teachers instruct students to stay with annoyance etc. because we have a tendency to try to push those things away. Pushing them away doesn't really work, though. I think we all know that on some level. But we forget it. So as a corrective instruction sometimes you'll be told to stay with it.

Whenever I have tried to stay with such emotions, I find they dissipate rather quickly unless I start re-stoking the fire (to use a metaphor that I hope is understandable). For example, I won't remain angry unless I keep repeating to myself what it is I'm angry about. If I try to simply stay with the anger without adding fuel to it, it just sort of fades out.

We like our anger and our annoyances and so forth because we use them to reaffirm our self image. Negative emotions are very often much more useful for reaffirming ourselves than positive ones. We contrast our self-image with whatever it is that's bothering us.

Max Zahn's picture

It's Max, again. Here's another question from one of our readers:

I like focusing on the sensation of the breath just under the nostrils. However, I find that it is difficult to not control my breathing when I focus there since it tends to be a less sensitive area. Any advice on how not to control the breath?

Brad Warner's picture

In Zen practice we never worry about the sensation of breath under the nostrils or on focusing on any particular part of the body. The instruction we give is generally to allow whatever sensations come up to simply come up as they will and then forget about them, or at least let them pass naturally. The breath too is just a natural breath, as it is.

Max Zahn's picture

Hello Brad,

This is Tricycle Editorial Intern, Max. I'm posting some of the questions that we've received at our editorial email account. Here's the first:

Hi! I have a question regarding meditation. I've been learning how to meditate using mala beads: Some sources say to use your thumb and middle finger to move the beads (yoga teachers often say that the index finger is your "ego" and should NOT touch beads), but most Buddhist teachers seem to say that you DO use the index finger and thumb to move the beads. I know that meditation techniques and rituals vary among different cultures, but could you please elaborate on this particular contradiction? Thanks so much for your time and consideration.

JoseBuendia's picture

Best to follow instructions of your teacher on this. what other traditions do doesn't matter. If you don't have a teacher, you might consider whether you need to find one before engaging in mantra practice.

Brad Warner's picture

I'm no help at all with this one, I'm afraid! I've never used mala beads as part of my meditation practice!

As far as contradictions, there are as many "right" ways of practice as there are teachers who insist that their way is the only correct way!

lukeinaz's picture

Is there any techniques or advice to help expand the no thought before the thinking catches you and says wow nice no thought?

thought, thought, thought, no thought, wow no thought! thought, thought, ect

Thank you

Brad Warner's picture

There's not a whole lot you can do about this cycle. But I think it's often useful to remember that even the thought that says "This is not what I'm supposed to be doing" is just another thought and no more valid or true than anything else that pops into your head.

savethedreams's picture

Hello Brad, I'm new to my meditative practice. I practice in my own personal home. 1) When should I ever attend a Sangha or any Buddhist community in chicago? Is it necessary? 2) How do you deal with 'moneky mind' as they call it ? Thanks.

Brad Warner's picture

You should attend a sangha whenever you feel it's right to do so. I recommend trying a few out and seeing what they're like. My experience has been that the best ones are the ones you are around 75%-85% comfortable with. Ones that are less comfortable than that might be sketchy. Ones that are more comfortable than that may just be reinforcing your own tendencies.

werdna314's picture

Hi Brad, this is a great idea you're participating in, helping out us newbies. One question I have for you is around muscle tension. Once I sit for a while I often have my stomach and chest seize up. The abdomen seems to pull in very tightly and muscles in the whole torso engage very strongly and breathing stops. After a short time the muscles let go, breathing returns to normal and I carry on with mindfulness of breathing. I see this as underlying tension arising and being released but I have read other views which suggest trying to remain absolutely immobile. What is your view? Cheers

Brad Warner's picture

I never recommend people to try to remain absolutely immobile. I know some teachers do. But I can't see how that would be useful or good for anyone.

I would just allow the cycle of tension to do its thing. Watch it carefully and see where it comes from. Once you start to see what triggers the tension, you'll have the ability to stop it. This might take a while. You have to be extremely honest with yourself. It's most likely some habit you have picked up and which you probably enjoy at some level. That's always been the case for me with things like this. The solution is to break that habit. But this can be challenging.

lukeinaz's picture

I often find my eyes opening or closing while sitting. Should I develop more discipline to keep them either open or closed for the whole duration. I feel with my eyes open they flit around a bit and when they are closed more thoughts come, so I find myself going back and forth. Thanks again!

Brad Warner's picture

In Zen practice we sit with eyes open. But we don't really focus on anything in particular. That's why in the Soto tradition we face a wall. Walls are pretty boring to look at.

If your eyes flit around, that's OK. They'll settle after a while. Try to resist the urge to look around unless there's some very compelling reason to do so. Like if someone you don't know enters the room with a big knife or something, you can look around then. But random sounds and that kind of thing should be ignored.

I don't recommend sitting with eyes closed. But keep in mind some would consider this a sectarian view (I don't). I feel that closing one's eyes blocks out the outside world and encourages more thoughts.

red1001's picture

I am a lifelong musician. I have music running through my head almost all of my waking hours, and even in my dreams; my brain is like a perpetual jukebox. I find this really distracting when I try to meditate. How can I shut this off? How can I deal with music intruding upon my meditation?

Brad Warner's picture

I do this too. My teacher would say, "That's just the content of your practice!"

Don't look upon it as an intrusion. Look upon it as part of what comes up during practice. Don't reject it or try to make it stop. But don't encourage it either.

Our brains are always taking in information. When we sit still, that information is processed by the brain. This is just the normal functioning of the organ. Allow that normal functioning to take place without trying to manipulate it in any way and see what happens then.

red1001's picture

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question, Brad! I will use this in my practice.

lilitax's picture

I started meditating recently, around the end of October. I am doing the guided meditations from audiodharma. By the end of November I was sitting for 30 minutes. I have bipolar disorder and sometimes I get anxiety. One of my sessions triggered a panic attack, I never had one before. I stopped for all of December and started again in January. I feel I can't settle in the meditation anymore. Do you have any advice for me?

Brad Warner's picture

This is a tricky question. I do not have bipolar disorder. But I have had panic attacks triggered by meditation practice. So I've had at least that part of what you're asking about.

The panic attack I remember best is detailed in my book Hardcore Zen. It happened at a weekend retreat and it was pretty severe. It actually happened in the middle of the night, rather than during the meditation. So I went to a lighted room by myself and just read a magazine. Trying to get my mind off the fear. It didn't help that the only magazine I had was all about paranormal phenomena (Fortean Times). But it helped.

It's OK to take a break from practice if it's getting too freaky. Also, sometimes guided meditations tend to try to encourage you to have some sort of special experience. You might try meditating in simple silence for a while. Just allow yourself to find your own way rather than accepting someone else's guidance (however well meaning) as to what your meditation should contain.

1999Stendahlsyndrome's picture

The Dalai Lama mentions in his book The Way to Freedom, meditation on suffering, on the suffering of animals, and the "horrible thirsts and hungers of ghosts". I never considered going to a trance to experience the pain known by other creatures. Do you know anyone who has practiced meditation on these themes. Most meditation that I know about is similar to the transcendental meditation the Beatles introduced into popular culture back in the '60s

indoor_fireworks's picture

Are you vegan?

Wisdom Moon's picture

I'm familiar with this meditation. It's not about going into a trance but about using your creative imagination to think what it would be like to be a being in the lower realms and trying to vividly experience the suffering they are going through. You can either contemplate the sufferings from a distance, as it were, or vividly generate as such an unfortunate being and try to completely identify with their pain. It's an excellent meditation for developing renunciation, empathy and compassion.

Dolgyal's picture

Good practice, since the lower realms are your destiny if you mistake propitiating a worldly spirit or mundane wealth god with a 'wisdom buddha'.

Jowo Atisha warned us: "if not practiced correctly, the dharma itself becomes the cause of inferior states"

aewhitehouse's picture

Is he perhaps referring to Tonglen, which is so eloquently addressed by Pema Chodron in her many talks and writings?

Brad Warner's picture

I don't know anyone who has practiced mediation based on these themes. Tibetan style Buddhism is very different from the Japanese Zen style I learned. So it's hard for me to even imagine what such a meditation would be like. Sorry!

Brad Warner's picture

Hi everyone! It's Brad, author of Hardcore Zen and There Is No God And He Is Always With You. I'm ready to take your mediation questions!

Dominic Gomez's picture

mediation question #1: "Will WR Eric Decker stay with Broncos or go for more money elsewhere?"

Brad Warner's picture


lukeinaz's picture

Often while sitting I will have a very brief flash of something. It is so shocking and usually over by the time I realized something had happened. I find myself trying to maintain and strive for these glimpses but end up just chasing them away in the process. I am just falling into a trap trying to make something out of these? Thank you

Brad Warner's picture

It's hard to know from this what kind of a "flash" you're referring to. But it's not really important what the content of your flash is. These kinds of "glimpses of something" and "flashes" can be very exciting. And if you read the pop culture literature about meditation you can start to believe that the point of the practice is to have these kinds of things happen as often as possible. But it's really not.

The problem we all have is that we strive for something other than what's actually happening at this moment. That doesn't just mean striving for sex or money or fame in the future. It is the same kind of striving to chase after supposedly positive experiences such as flashes of insight during meditation.

If insights come, that's fine. Just let them come and then let them leave. Stick with what's really going on at THIS moment, though. If your meditation is boring and uneventful, that's perfectly fine too.