Holiday Season Healing: Ask the Meditation Doctor with Brad Warner

Brad Warner

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It's no secret that the holiday season is a true test of your practice. There's no better time to see just how equanimous you've become, and whether you've really peeled away your conditioned behavior, than when you are engaging in the many frustrating activities that dominate the "jolliest" time of the year.

So now is the perfect time—when you really need your practice—to clear up any troubles or questions you might have. Is your meditation being disturbed by visions of kicking your in-laws out of the house? Can't concentrate on your mantra due to an eggnog hangover? (We're kidding about that.)

Zen monk Brad Warner will be answering any and all questions about your practice all month on Please post them below.

Need inspiration? Read Brad Warner's tips and meditation advice in Tricycle here, here, here, and here.

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indianspice's picture

Hi Brad:

I've been meditating for the last four years. My meditation style has varied from concentration practices (focusing the attention towards the nostrils, etc.) to more awareness based practices (zazen, shikantaza etc.). It seems to me that most meditation teachers request their students to stick to just one style. However, I've always wondered why both types of practies (concentration & awareness) can't be combined in some way? As far as I know, I am not aware of any literature or thoughts/comments around such an approach.

Would like to know your opinion on developing an approach that combines concentration as well as a awareness/zazen type practice.


Brad Warner's picture

I have never looked specifically for concentration/awareness meditation systems. But it seems to me like these days there is a ton of literature advocating various hybrid meditation systems. Everywhere I look, it seems to me like somebody new is trying to synthesize two, three, four or more meditation traditions into some kind of ultimate meditation scheme.

The problem with most of these things is that they are usually put together by people who aren't very well grounded in any of the traditions they're trying to combine. Or at best, they know one of them pretty well and the others in passing. Most of these traditions take decades to really master. And here is some guy who's 43 years old, who started meditating when he was 30, trying to combine six of them! I'm left wondering how well can he possibly even understand one of those things.

I'm not sure concentration-based meditation is really compatible with zazen. It's like trying to play baseball and basketball at the same time. The hybrid wouldn't be a good example of either one. There is a chance you'd end up with an interesting game. But that would take a lot of work to develop. That may be worthwhile. I'm not saying it can't be. But it would take a great deal of effort.

It seems to me that trying to develop one pointed concentration on a specific object and trying to develop awareness of whatever one happens to encounter are two different things. I'm not sure the gap could ever be bridged successfully. However, I feel like the practice of zazen allows one to learn to focus on whatever is the most urgent thing that needs to be focused upon, rather than focusing on some arbitrary thing that we've decided is important.

Of course, I am quite thoroughly biased. You could pose that question to someone else and get a very different answer.

indianspice's picture

Thanks Brad! That was very useful. I'm reading your book (Sit down & shut up), and the bit where you talk about thoughts that come up on their on - that we don't have to necessarily keep following them - is very useful, and has helped me tremendously with my zazen practice.

I think my desire for shamatha/concentration meditation largely comes from the fact that it involves 'doing' something, unlike in some sense, zazen.

That being said, what do you think about practices such as those that involve labeling/noting of mental experience? (kind of like what Joko Beck/Shinzen Young suggest).

Much appreciate your responses and your work. Thanks again.


Brad Warner's picture

The only thought labeling I've ever done was something my first teacher taught me. When you find yourself thinking you go (silently), "Thinking, thinking, thinking." That made sense to me & helped me grasp that all thoughts are just thoughts. Which is easier understood intellectually than it is deeply comprehended. But labeling thoughts any more specifically than that just seems to me like adding extra thoughts on top of the ones you already have.

Of course I am aware that there are traditions in which this is standard practice. And I haven't pursued those traditions. So I could be misinterpreting them.,

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is the middle way. It takes into account the very natural and normal human inclination to think or be mindful, thoughtful.

i.feel.a.bit.lightheaded's picture

Hey Brad, thanks for this!

I've been sitting for a few years now with varying experiences, though mostly finding myself miserable while sitting. Recently I've changed my approach to sitting practice. I used to either watch my thoughts or watch my breath, the effect of this was to make me irritated by my thoughts and think an awful lot while sleeping. After watching breath, I felt like I had to continue to be conscious of it for it to happen at all. Which also did little for my sleep pattern.

Now I just sit full or half lotus, back balanced while looking at a wall. Not watching breath, not watching my thoughts but kind of letting the zazen "do itself".
I find this to be a hell of a lot easier. When I get up I feel kind of settled and at ease, thoughts more in the background and on top of that, I sleep like a baby.

The only thing is, while the change has resulted in a whole lot less stress on and off the cushion, I have been finding that I get a lot more forgetful and my attention strays a lot more when off the cushion . None of this bothers me all that much, in fact it's quite pleasant, but my question is:

Does this sound normal? It all seems too easy after changing my approach.

Thanks for checking out my babble!
Have a nice Christmas!

Brad Warner's picture

What? I'm sorry. I forgot the question...

Oh! Forgetfulness! I'm always reluctant to say this. But a certain degree of forgetfulness is one of the side-effects of zazen practice. I believe this is due to the fact that you learn through the practice that it's all right not to continuously retell your own life story to yourself. Before I started the practice I did that a lot. I went over my own past again & again & again in my head. This caused me a lot of stress and pain. When I stopped doing that, much of the stress and pain was relieved. But I also tended to forget my life story. Like, uh, whatever I did yesterday. Or whatever that guy said to me. Or, uh, well, I forget.

You can counteract some of this by doing certain memory exercises. I found a book in my teacher's zendo called something like Increase Your Memory in 20 Days or some such thing (I've forgotten). It had a few tips in there that I was able to employ to start being able to recall things I needed to recall without sliding back into that same painful process of always retelling my life story. Though, oddly, I've forgotten what they were! I've internalized whatever I learned from that book and do it habitually now.

As for distraction, I don't know if I'd really call what I've encountered "distraction." It's more that everything I experience has become important. So I don't ignore the little details while being focused on some major goal, which is what I guess one is supposed to do to be "successful" in life. That kind of success doesn't seem very important anymore.

So, yeah, what you're describing sounds normal to me. Merry Kwanza!

Rerorange18's picture

Thank you for taking the time to do this.

My question is about cultivating equanimity. Lately I've been having issues with accepting the world as it is. I get angry that people are as mean as they are and feel that it just shouldn't be this way. I get very upset that there isn't more that I can do to end the suffering of people or animals around me.
I know that being furious with how things are isn't helping the situation and ruminating on a problem isn't getting me any closer to a solution. It's just poisoning my own mind. But I can't seem to shake it.

I was wondering if you had any suggestions for cultivating equanimity. Are there good meditation practices or exercises in daily life that I can use to strengthen my okay-ness with the way things are? :)

Thanks again.

Brad Warner's picture

I answered an earlier question about cultivating compassion by saying there aren't any magic exercises that will somehow make you compassionate. You just have to do compassionate things.

My advice here is similar. There's not much you can do to change the thoughts that happen to cross your mind. They're the result of a long history of thinking about things in a certain way. You can gradually shift these patterns. But that takes patience.

Right now, though, you can understand that just because you think certain things doesn't mean those things are true. Or even if they are true, it doesn't mean that your one way of looking at stuff is the only way of looking at it.

You don't have to be okay with things that aren't okay.

I deal with ruminations by noticing when I'm ruminating and then setting those thoughts aside. Do that for a while and you develop a new habit of setting such thoughts aside rather than dwelling on them. It's not 100% foolproof. But it's worked pretty well over the years.

Sit quietly with your ruminations. Watch them arise. Don't judge them. Don't try to banish them. But don't follow them either. Just let them be. And when this fails, as it will, just notice that and try again. Keep it up for a while and new habits will form.

jhornor5's picture

Hey Brad!

So my question is how to practice and stay present when my family is super stressful over the holidays. Individually and not at the holidays I have no problem being around them or enjoying their company. But it's super difficult for me to be around all the stressyness and not feel anxiety and my body get tense. Nothing like family! Anyway, would love any recommendations on how to stay mindful and aware amongst the storm that is going home for the holidays.

Brad Warner's picture

Families are difficult. There is no magic meditation that works on family problems, unfortunately. My best recommendation is to work hard to find the time to do your daily practice. Don't neglect it.

It's easy, during the holidays, to come up with excuses to skip practice. Believe me, I know! But it's worthwhile to do it, in spite of the extra difficulties posed by having so much else to do.

Sukha's picture

Hi Brad,
I'm really enjoying this discussion. Thank you for your participation.
My question is about observing the breath in meditation. If I understand correctly, we're just supposed to breathe normally and observe our breath going in and out. Yet whenever I pay attention to my breath, I inevitably end up altering it. Oftentimes this gets to the point where I have difficulty breathing. Do you have any suggestions for how to just relax and breathe normally?

I'm also curious if it's possible to really have your thoughts stop during meditation. Or if that's even the point so much as it is to just observe whatever is happening. Granted I haven't been doing this for very long, but I find that even when my mind quiets somewhat and I'm successfully noticing my breath and not frolicking around in a field somewhere or planning what I'll have for breakfast, etc., I'm still having thoughts like "oh, my breath is going in now," or "oh, I notice my chest expanding," or "oh, I'm doing a good job of not thinking..." ha ha. So I'm just wondering what the experience is like for more long term practitioners like yourself and if the mind can ever really be completely quiet for any length of time barring being dead.

Brad Warner's picture

The best suggestion on how to relax and breathe normally, is relax and breathe normally! I know it's easier said than done. Don't worry about paying attention to your breath. You will breathe whether you pay attention or not. Paying attention to breath is, in my experience, usually an instruction given to people who are getting distracted by other stuff. It's not like YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BREATH! Rather, if you're too distracted, pay attention to your breath because it's always going on.

As for stopping thoughts, it's really not necessary. Thought is just the stuff the brain produces the way your stomach produces stomach acid. It's normal and natural. But it's not necessary to pay any more attention to what your brain is doing than it is to pay attention to what your stomach is doing. These processes continue by themselves whether we watch them with intense fascination or not.

If you learn to break the habit of always stirring your thoughts up, they will settle of their own accord. But it takes time and practice. Be patient with it. Each time you find yourself getting caught up in a stream of thoughts, just drop it. You'll have to do this hundreds of times before it becomes a new habit. But eventually it will.

Sukha's picture

Thanks Brad. I read the article where you advised "not to feed the thoughts" and found it very helpful. I'm getting better at it, but it's another of those things that's much easier said than done. They're hungry little bastards!

fightclubbuddha's picture

I have no problem making my way to my Zafu every day, and most days, I have no trouble with my practice. But, I meditate at home and I have two cats who insist on practicing with me, in a manner of speaking. One of them actually sits on his own cushion next to me and stays quiet for the full 25 minutes. He is a very good monk. The other cat often has a bad case of "monkey mind." He jumps onto the altar, rubs against my leg and wants to be petted. If I close the door to the room, he stands on his hind legs in the hallway and beats on the door with his front paws until I let him into the room. I know that many monasteries have cats. How do they handle a situation like this? Should I meditate outside?

Brad Warner's picture

Meditating outside might be challenging. But if it works, that might be a good option.

I used to have a bird that didn't like it when I sat zazen. He would perch on my shoulder or chest and bite my lips when I sat. I usually just let him do this until he got tired of it and flew off somewhere else.

Have you tried just petting the cat a little? He might just want some acknowledgement. If that's not the case. If he continues to be troublesome, that's more difficult. I've noticed that animals go in phases with things like this. They'll do a certain behavior for a time and then move on to something else.

Monastery cats tend not to be like regular house pets. They're usually almost like strays who hang out around the temple. So this kind of thing doesn't happen so much. If it did, I'd think they'd close the doors to the zendo and let the cat keep beating on the door until they were done with their practice. Eventually any cat is going to give up once it gets the idea the door isn't going to open again for 25 minutes after which everything will return to normal for them.

Good luck!

Alise's picture

Brad, I just want you to know that I like your answers so much. They are all indirectly helpful to me. I come to Buddhism with much reserve and even some resentment, because of sobering experiences with tiresome buddhist teachers at some retreats. But you have restored my affection for this discipline. Your answers show how diligently you have worked at this and still kept your soul intact. Everything you say seems to come from your center and resonates with some kind of universal truth. Thank you!

Brad Warner's picture

Thank you!!

tayzo74's picture

I have been diagnosed with Schizophrenia for quite some time now. It seems to create doubt and confusion in me at times, as to whether my Buddhist practice is the right path to be on. I have not felt a need to practice lately. I turn to entertainment instead of practicing.

Buddhism has always intrigued me for as long as I have known. However, I can't help but think that it has only spun me around in circles up until now. Sure, there are times when the practice has provided me with some inspiration, contentment, and joy. In that sense, I am very grateful for the Buddhist practice, and also for everything else that I can be thankful for in my life. But in other ways, I feel lost/afflicted in the sense that the pieces don't quite fit together where I feel they should. I feel as though I have traveled a great journey with Buddhism, and maybe now is the time to slow it down a bit?

My insight into the teachings are that they seem to be in need of being completely rejected in order to be completely understood. Like a paradox, in fact. Unfathomable. Like it's hiding something. As in the way we all interpret the teachings differently, contradictions often arise in various Buddhist doctrines. Quite understandibly, this can be very confusing. In my case, it took me to a very dark place. A place where I never want to go again if I can help it.

So, my questions are...Is there a linear solidity/validity to the teachings themselves, that make them worth practicing to your grave? Or is the idea to get caught up in their "whirlwind", learn your lesson through personal experiences and experimentation, and then let them go? To abandon your interpretation of the teachings? If so, then I believe I may have come to that point already in my "practice".

I heard the Buddha was said to be an advocate on following your own path, not believing what you are told, if it doesn't make practical sense to you. That's where I'm stuck and confused. I feel disconnected from the Buddhist world.

Obviously, everyone has beliefs. That's unavoidable. The tricky part is what beliefs you choose to engage in. Should you even accept this proclamation by the not believe what you heard just because someone said it? But then, you get caught, because you have to either accept to accept or accept to disbelieve this teaching, right? (Hope that even makes sense). Either way, you are participating in a duality where both choices are being made by you AND the Buddha. It functions effortlessly. So truth is beyond belief or disbelief or any particular doctrine that you choose to follow. So real truth is very ambiguous. It should be beyond Buddhism or other spiritual systems.

I would like to note that I still have a resonating acceptance and affinity towards many of the Buddhist viewpoints and practices. I just feel that it's only the map, not the territory. Just a tool, if you will. Is it trustworthy enough to safely transport me to my destination? Possibly. Or, once I am familiar enough with the territory, can I navigate without the map? This is my dilemma.

I've tried to meditate regularily. I used to regularily attend the local Buddhist Church (where I was a part of the sangha). I also used to be very passionate and dedicated to the dharma. Nowadays, not so much. You could say that I have become spiritually stagnant. I think my brain function is dulled and quieted from my medication (which, ironically, makes it easier to meditate more peacefully). Because of this, I have a hard time being mindful of my thoughts and bodily sensations.

I find that some meditation here, some meditation there, can be quite helpful for me. But after a few days of regular sitting (20 minutes or more a day), I tend to become noticeably more depressed. My performance and relationships at work also seem to suffer when I do this regularily. Why do you think this is so? Am I putting strain on my dulled mind by meditating? Do you think that meditation in this manner would be beneficial if I were to continue? My opinion is "no", but then you never know, right? Maybe being dedicated this way for the long-term would be beneficial?

Do you think that doing common Buddhist practices could be a hindrance on the path of awakening, for someone who has a history of psychiatric trauma and who is on medication? Thank you. (Sorry it's so long).

Brad Warner's picture

Gosh. That's a lot of words! But I'll do my best.

A lot of people, when they start meditating, have the apparent experience of the meditation seeming to make them more depressed, or more restless, or more whatever they're using the meditation to try to cure. I had that experience myself. But upon reflection I believe that the meditation actually just made me more sensitive to how depressed and restless and so-on that I actually was. It also enabled me to see the real source of that stuff more clearly. But that took time and effort.

Meditation is a long term thing. I don't think it's putting strain on your dulled mind. My guess is that, to the contrary, it's taking strain off of it.

I don't think Buddhist practices are a hindrance to someone in your situation. But, then again, I'm not you. Only you really know you. I suspect that at some level you find Buddhist practices beneficial or you wouldn't bother writing.

As for navigating the territory without the Buddhist map, you can try. But I find the Buddhist map to be very helpful. Like any map, it has its drawbacks. It's not perfect. It represents the territory you're navigating but ultimately it isn't the territory. What the territory looked like to the mapmaker and what it looks like to you can often be quite different. I had this problem a couple weeks ago trying to use the London A-Z map to navigate the real London streets!

But it's good that we have the records of other people who have embarked on the exploration before us. I don't think we should be too quick to discard their maps, even if they don't always work for us 100% of the time.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Question sent to
By four different doctors, I've been diagnosed bipolar Type II , and have also been diagnosed as ADHD (who hasn't?). With all the mental disorder I deal with, I have done fairly ok with medication that keeps me functional and mostly predictable. But I made a realization recently that although the meds help with clinical depression, my brain is still running in a million directions....and that has led to alcoholism, in a sense to "dumb myself down", and make my brain "shut up".

Having a brain that is never quiet makes it very difficult to do Zazen, but I feel like I'm getting better with it.
I guess my question to you is: do you think Zazen is a good remedy to "slowing down" the mind in a case of clinical mental illness? While I think it's been proven that meditation can physically change the brain, do you think this is a good way to start getting it under control without use of chemicals or alcohol?

Brad Warner's picture

My answer is yes. But note that your question is "Do you THINK zazen is a good remedy..." Yes. I think so. I believe this to be the case.

However I've never been diagnosed with ADHD or prescribed medications like you're describing. So I don't have any personal experience to draw on.

I have had friends who were prescribed medications for psychiatric disorders and who also did zazen. One friend in particular went off her meds and tried to deal with things solely through zazen. It worked well for a while. But then things started to get bad for her again and she went back on the medication. Last I heard, though, she was off the meds again and doing OK in spite of the lack of chemical assistance.

The biggest difference between zazen and medication (including alcohol) is that medication works fast and zazen works slowly. My feeling from watching the friend I just mentioned and others is this; It appears to me that medications have an overall dampening effect that cannot be switched off once one has ingested the chemicals. They get rid of the problem of an overactive mind by forcing the brain to slow down all of its activities. And one cannot change what the drug has done until it is out of one's system.

On the other hand, if you stick with zazen for a long time (usually years) you can start to be able to do this yourself. And you can do it selectively, when its needed, while retaining the ability to use your brain at full speed when necessary.

The problem is that some people need help RIGHT NOW. And zazen won't do that. So for those people, medication may be useful or even necessary. What happened with my friend is that even when she went back on her meds, she started using far lower doses than she used before she worked with zazen.

Zazen requires tremendous patience. One of the symptoms of ADHD, as I understand it, is a lack of patience. These factors will certainly work against each other and may prove to be an almost insurmountable challenge. It may be necessary to use medication in combination with practice in order to get to a place where the medication can be abandoned.

Leah's picture

It is dangerous to imply that getting to a place "where the medication can be abandoned" is an admirable, top goal for individuals with serious mental illness. Would you say that about heart medication that keeps the person alive and thriving, or insulin for a diabetic, or any other physical illness that is chronic and life threatening? I doubt it. And mental illness is as physical as any other disorder of the organs of the body. Yes, some people suffer from serious emotional and psychological issues which may indeed be ameliorated by zazen or another meditative practice. This is a very different predicament then the one facing a person who through no fault or lack of skilfulness on their part must cope with severe brain disorders that cause everything from complete loss of contact with reality to very confusing thought difficulties or manic depression/bipolar that involuntarily causes unpredictable and uncontrollable emotional disturbances, all of which are conditions which are just as physical as problems with any other organ of the body. There is not a dualism of physical versus mental in these victims of brain disease. It is just the human body struck down with illness, a fact of life. And it is quite wrong, as I see it from an experienced point of view, to suggest that Buddhist practice can cure severe and chronic illness of the brain.

jb's picture

For over a year now I am in a state of apathy. I lack ambition. My practice has been mostly consistent during this time, with at least one 20 or 30 minute sit each day and usually two, and I feel I have opened up and learned compassion for myself in this time. I have worked with accepting myself and whatever arises, including this state, and I feel mostly peaceful but also as if this stasis has gone on too long. I am a creative person, but lack interest even in my art. I feel I am holding in my heart both the pain of quiet longing and the grace of the peaceful warrior--which is poignant and lovely--but I need a job. Thank you.

Brad Warner's picture

Oh dear. This is hard to address. I always see myself as a person who is apathetic and lacks ambition. And then my friends point out that I've written four books, done three world tours, recorded several albums, etc. So when I hear someone say stuff like this, I'm not really sure they're defining themselves any more accurately than I tend to define myself. Therefore, the first thing I'd say is ask yourself if this is objectively true.

If it is, the thing to do is just do it. Just do whatever it is you think you need to do without waiting for motivation or inspiration to strike. I used to set myself a goal of writing 1000 words a day every single day even if I didn't feel like it. Most of those words were garbage. But just doing it and getting into the habit has helped tremendously. And a couple of times I've looked over stuff that I had consigned to the garbage file and found out it was actually pretty good. I just didn't see it at the time.

babu.subburathinam's picture

I have a family member who is going through a tough time and in the past I have got disturbed when caring for that person. Recently, I have been able to retain my peace of mind when caring by focusing on my blessings. But once I am peaceful, I feel a sense of guilt that I have become in-different to the suffering of my loved one. Am I right in seeking to be peaceful when a loved one is going through difficulty?

Brad Warner's picture

Yes. I think you are right to seek to be peaceful when helping a loved one.

When you're on an airplane they give you instructions about using the emergency oxygen masks. They always tell you, "If you're traveling with small children or persons needing assistance, put on your own mask first before trying to help others."

I think this is remarkably sound advice. You can only help when you, yourself, are in a relatively peaceful state. Even in an emergency you have to establish at least some degree of peace before you can do anything effectively to help others.

The fact that you wrote this proves you're not indifferent at all. I suspect you're just feeling peaceful when everyone else around is freaking out. Lots of people think that freaking out is the only way to prove you care about someone. But it's not. It's just freaking out and it's never necessary or helpful.'s picture

Wow so many people have a lot on their minds. My question is about changing teachers. From a Buddhist perspective if the teacher is your main connection to realization and you feel that you will be able to progress faster with a different teacher than the one you started with how can one explain that to the first teacher? If the first teacher is not happy with your decision what is the best way to handle that situation.? Thank you for helping me with this confusion

Brad Warner's picture

The idea of "faster progress" is problematic. In a very real sense there isn't any such thing as progress and one doesn't necessarily always want to go faster with this stuff. It is often more useful to go slowly and not concern oneself with progress.

But your question is about changing teachers. Sometimes it's necessary to change teachers. When the reasons are dramatic, it's easy to leave (at least cognitively speaking). I think a lot of times people make things dramatic with their teachers just so it'll be cognitively simpler to leave them. This, of course, isn't really very good and people end up getting hurt. But it happens.

If your reasons for changing are not so dramatic and don't involve any outright rejection of your former teacher then it is simple good manners to tell the teacher you're leaving about your decision. If your teacher is any good, he (or she, but I'll stick with he for simplicity) should just say something like, "I'm sorry to see you go. Good luck."

But please understand that your teachers are people too. They have feelings and they even (shhhhh) form attachments to their students. It's hard when someone leaves. The teacher might feel like he has failed or done something wrong. So take care when telling your teacher something like this.

If your teacher tries to coerce you into staying against your own better judgement, by all means leave that teacher. If, on the other hand, he gives you clear and rational reasons he thinks you should stay, those may be worth listening to. But do what you feel best anyway.

Chugai's picture

A guy goes in and says," I've been reflecting a lot on the Eight Hells and it's causing me quite some concern". The teacher says" Well, quit reflecting on the hells and go polish a tile". da da dum. So anyhow Could you please explain the Dharma realms to me as if I'm five yrs. old?

Brad Warner's picture

My teacher used to always explain them as psychological states. You don't have to believe that there us a real Hell of Black Metal (I did not make that up!) out there somewhere. All of us have been to heavenly and hellish places in our psychological lives.

Me, I mostly just don't worry too much about Dharma realms. It's just an old-fashioned way of describing something people experience. If it doesn't work for you, then describe it other ways that do. These things aren't "out there" beyond our experience. We all know the Dharma realms that we have encountered.

Dominic Gomez's picture

And physical states: "You look like hell." "It's hot as hell." "Havin' a helluva good time."

Nimrodscott's picture

Good example!!!

TW77's picture

Knowing you sit for 1 hour, could I be sitting too much? I do 30 in AM and 1 at night. No reason other than that's what I need to calm my mind most days. When i saw you sit for 20mins at night it made me wonder if maybe i'm overkilling a little. I don't get the chance to do many retreats though.

Your blog & books are a huge help for me. Anyone reading this should check out:

Brad Warner's picture

Just do however much works for you. I used to do 2 hours a day. Honestly, that was probably better for me than one. So I feel like kind of a lazy dharma bum these days!

It's only overkill if things start to get a little strange in your practice. Then it's OK to back off a little.

BlackCrowQueen's picture

I am not a Buddhist. I’ve read Hardcore Zen and several other books about Buddhism and they seem to make sense to me. But then I try to meditate and my mind is full of bees and I just feel frustrated. I’m stressed out and angry all the time. It probably doesn’t help that I work for an animal protection organization and spend every day hearing about people who have set dogs on fire or Superglued cats’ tails to their eyes (I am not even kidding). So I meditate for several weeks or so and get frustrated and stop and then don’t meditate again for months. I’ve been doing this for years. So, I guess my question is: Do you have any advice for someone who’s having trouble just getting started on the path?

Brad Warner's picture

This is a question I get asked a lot, but with other details of course. Meditation is frustrating and difficult for everyone. That's why for thousands of years people have built gigantic statues and written books about people who simply just sat still for a long time. It's hard work!

My only advice is to just do it. Sit when you don't feel like sitting. Sit with those bees in your head and those awful images. Let them do what they need to do and after a while they go away. It's our wanting things to be different that's our biggest problem. Sitting is about acknowledging what actually is rather than about trying to establish a more desirable state.

me6's picture


That's not entirely true. It may be true that in Soto they do not use mantras but in Rinzai and Sanbo-Kyodan Zen we definitely use mantras. The use of "Mu" or "Wu" koan can definitely be considered a mantra. This is discussed at some length in Phillip Kapleau's "Three Pillars of Zen".


Dominic Gomez's picture

The holiday season comes heavy with Christian baggage, always an interesting time for the practicing Buddhist. What a great opportunity to deepen one's faith.

celticpassage's picture

I would that were true. But alas, I think the heavy baggage is corporate: about the only culture that exists in North America.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's the golden calf, only it's not about the calf or what the calf represents. It's the bling.

derek's picture

Hey Brad,

The hardest part for me about meditating during the holidays is finding time to do it around my family. I usually do it right when I wake up, but with family over, I tend to get up later instead of getting up before everyone else does. I get kind of embarrassed about them seeing me or knowing that I'm meditating. They haven't said anything about it, but it just feels weird (since I was raised Christian and they still are but I'm not). What should I do? Ignore the embarrassment? Talk to them about it? Ugh. That last one would be weird.

Brad Warner's picture

I used to deal with a similar situation. I lived in a punk rock house with several punk rock people. Meditating was definitely uncool. Hippies did that! Lucky for me, punk rock people always sleep as late as possible. So mornings worked very well.

Since then I've tried a number of things when faced with this dilemma. Sometimes I just sit right in the middle of things and try to enjoy the embarrassment. But usually I manage to find some space and time where I can do it in a concealed fashion.

I don't think it's necessary to tell your family if that's going to cause problems. If you have to skip a few days, that's not such a big deal. Or if you can only find a quiet safe spot for 5 minutes a day, try just doing those 5 minutes.

JStnton's picture


In your most recent book Sex, Sin, and Zen; there is passage where you talk about the difference between feelings and emotions. You say something along the lines of, "Buddhism is about transcending emotions, feelings are okay but emotions are just feelings we attach to too deeply with." As a musician, I find certain emotions to inspire some of my songs, of course this kind of wistful romanticism can be dangerous, but also a useful catalyst. Perhaps not dwelling on, and thus solidifying the emotions makes sense-but how can art be made without at least an initial regard of the internal world? I always thought in order to create one has to at least know *something* about the self stories and emotional landscape. What do you think?


Brad Warner's picture

The word "emotion" is problematic for me. My teacher often talked about transcending emotions. And yet he was far from some kind of unfeeling robot. He definitely had feelings, cared deeply about people, even got angry sometimes.

I felt that when he used the word "emotion" he was trying to express something about the state when our feelings get too big, when we cling to them, when we conceive of them as OUR feelings and then believe we must act on them in certain specific ways.

Feelings, on the other hand, arise spontaneously and naturally. For example, being happy can occur naturally and spontaneously. But then we often want to hold on to it, or extend it, or try to make it last. Then it becomes something neurotic or even destructive.

I think art comes out of that natural state. It can also come out of the state of being too wound up in emotions. But that kind of art is usually cloying and sort of gross if you ask me.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Question sent to

I have a daily meditation practice, but do nothing in the way of ceremony surrounding it -- just plunk, and I am on my cushion. I have often wondered whether reciting something (such as we do in a zendo) or lighting a candle would deepen the meditation experience in any way. What do you think? What do you do?

And: When might you ever come to Montreal again?

Brad Warner's picture

I don't do much ceremonial stuff myself when I'm just sitting alone. I bow once to my cushion and once away from it, then I sit. My teacher does this, but he also chants the robe verse and rings a bell to begin his sitting even when he's alone. I don't feel like ceremony is terribly important. But it helps. I used to light incense each time I sat and the smell of it got me in a nice mood.

As for Montreal, I would love to come again. I almost moved there I like the city so much! But right now I don't have any specific schedule to go.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Question sent to

During the Christmas holiday, I will be spending a few days alone with my severely depressed mother (who is in denial and refuses to seek help). Her every sentence is negative and she says if she were to say something positive, it would not be true. Logic does not get through to her. She has many things to be thankful for, but she will not see them. Needless to say, I try hard to detach and to be compassionate. I can take her for several hours at a time but day after day, night after night, is brutal. She drags me down with her. Any tips to cope with her consistent negativity?

Paul Stevenson's picture

Wow. I can certainly sympathize with this question. My mother is very similar, with diagnosed depression, medication, etc. In Tibetan Buddhism, in the 7 Points of Mind Transformation (LoJong), one is advised to look at others (who are NOT being nice, lol) to view them as Buddhas who are training you (in your practice) to learn how to show that your thoughts and emotions are not truly "yours"; they arrive, seemingly, and they go, seemingly. You remain. Well, something does. See who that is. So, these people COULD (theoretically for your practice) be Buddhas who are helping you. Then you are, with each little success, thankful for your mom, just the way she is. (Ok, I have not got to that point. Yet. Working on it. Ha.) Other traditions probably have similar practices.

(Has your mom been to the doctor about it? Sometimes, it's hard to get the doc/psychx to diagnose it. Worth the effort; another type of practice, I guess.)

Good Luck, Paul

Brad Warner's picture

Oh boy! This is a tough one.

I would suggest that you don't try to change your mother. Allow her to be negative. But don't affirm her negativity. If she happens to say something even a tiny bit positive, pick up on that. But don't push it on her. If she turns it around and makes it negative again, just let it go.

Allow her to be who she is. Never give her anything she can fight against. Sometimes we say negative things just to establish our own position. If someone else tries to counter what we have just said, we retrench ourselves in our position. By trying to counter what she says with logic you end up giving her an opportunity to try and re-establish her position.

It's also OK to take a break from her. Find excuses to be alone for a time. It doesn't do her any good to have you be as depressed as she is.