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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Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Question sent to

I'm not as compassionate or patient as I could be. I'm often selfish about little things, don't listen and act prideful. Often times, I snap easily on the ones who I love most.

How can I develop more compassion for others?

I know people who would sacrifice some of the things they love most in an instant, just to help others out. I want to be like that. I'm tired of hurting those around me, and hurting myself in the process, too.

Thanks for your time.

Brad Warner's picture

It's impossible to develop compassion other than by being compassionate, I think. It's not like you can do some kind of magic breathing exercise for 10 min a day and end up compassionate after a month.

If you want to build up your muscles, you use the muscles you want to build. If you want to become more compassionate, you just have to do compassionate things. If you see an opportunity to act in a compassionate way, don't hesitate, do it!

Be patient when you don't feel like being patient. If you find yourself wanting to snap at someone don't do it, even when you know you're right. Share what you don't want to share.

sjursh's picture

hey i do shamata meditation and have been for almost 2 years, recently i think i made some progress. when i have sat for quite a wile and are completely relaxed i get to a place where it feels like im almost fallen asleep, it is really peacfull, and when thoughts enter they are kind of dreamy.. so what you think:)

Brad Warner's picture

The idea of "progress" in meditation is a difficult notion. You can never really measure it. But all of us who meditate feel it happens.

Anyway, yeah, after you do it for a time, you do tend to end up in a place where thoughts are less rigid and more fluid and dreamlike.

sjursh's picture

and when the thoughts give you a break in that place is that samadhi?

sharmila2's picture

Dear sjursh
I have been in that state many times, but it doesn't have the bright, wide awake and light characteristics of the jhana states that the Buddha classically described as samadhi. Unfortunately even though it is very pleasant, it could also be a manifestation of too much drowsiness - almost like being sedated without drugs. It is perfectly fine just as any other state is, unless you build up the notion that "this is it" and start trying to recreate that state in your meditation, consciously or unconsciously, which of course leads you off the path. My advice (through having been there a few times - I'm a slow learner!) is to just accept every state for what it is, and not rank them as better or worse than any other.

sjursh's picture

thanks you helped me out;)

Megan's picture

My only meditation training was with TM way back in 1976. Since then, I've meditated at times with some consistency, and at times not at all for months at a time. I meditate because it helps me and because it is sometimes enjoyable. But sometimes, I wonder about doing it "wrong". Sometimes, I use the mantra that I was given nearly 40 years ago. It is useful for applying a more firm approach to my disordered mind, particularly at the beginning of a session. But when my thoughts quiet and my mind becomes more clear, my focus can shift to the breathing and being in the present. I do not live in a community where there is access to teachers, but I have found good information and support through the Tricycle community and the magazine. If I could ask questions, I would ask for what length of time should I sit? I am over 50 years of age, and I have undertaken a few longer sessions, but mainly aim for the 18 minutes that the TM teacher prescribed. Is there something wrong with what I am doing - meditating for the pleasure of the clarity and the tasting of the present? Where should I go from here, if anywhere at all?

Brad Warner's picture

Hi Megan,

I often get asked by people if they are doing their meditation "wrong"? But there are very few ways you can really get it wrong. The question usually boils down to a matter of what they call "comparing mind" over at the San Francisco Zen Center. Oh how I hate that term! But I have to admit it's useful.

If you compare what you're feeling now (in or out of meditation) with some idealized version of what you think you ought to be feeling there will always be a gap. Always. So forget about comparing. That's easier said than done. But practice with it and it will become a new habit.

As for how long to sit, I try to do one hour a day spread out over 2 sessions, usually 40 min in the morning and 20 in the evening. But if 18 min works for you, that's also fine. Meditating for pleasure sounds like one of the best reasons I've come across! You don't need to go anywhere. Just keep enjoying this very moment.

Rehn's picture

I teach that one should not have goals, because as Brad suggests, it becomes all about tomorrow. You become so caught up in thinking about that goal, you miss what is going on around you. You miss today. And today is all you have. Instead, I maintaint that we should have directions. Ok it is only semantics, but it is another way of looking at the same thing. (Like a table is for us an item to set things on, but for a termite, it's food. The table didn't change. The perception did.) Direction makes one think of the path one is on. It makes you think about today, and what you are doing today to get you where you want to go. It is all about now. If you are going in the right direction, you will reach that "goal." You don't need to think about it; you will end up there. And if along the way, you want to change directions. That's great. No tormenting yourself over not reaching your goal. You just do it. If you want to spend less money, than do that today. If you want to change the world, what are you doing about that today. It is not about tomorrow--it is all about today.

dharmadragon's picture

Dear Brad
8 years ago i hit a bottom and started praying (Lam Rim) and meditating every day for 6 years, at the 6 year make found out at 59 I was bipolar and put on lithum and the last 2 years haven't been able to set daily, any thoughts?

Brad Warner's picture

I'm not sure what Lam Rim is. But I sometimes wonder what people mean by the word "praying." If it means petitioning God or some other supernatural being to intervene in the world in your favor, it could be a problem. But I would guess that's not what you mean.

I'm also not sure what sort of effect the lithium is having that makes you unable to sit daily. Most of the time when someone says they're unable to sit, what it really means is that the sitting they do doesn't feel the way they think it should.

The Zen answer to most questions about difficult or impossible sitting is, "Sit with that." So I would suggest that you try sitting anyway, even when it's impossible to do so.

sterlingwrigley's picture

In regards to effect on on meditation - I took lithium for a period of several months and had a similar effect, to the extent that I am no longer on lithium. What I found out is that, being that the medication itself is a form of salt, it can significantly effect one's electrolyte balance. While it can help to quiet the brain, it can have the opposite effect on the body by causing frustrating physical sensations such as tingling or itching and pronounced sensitivity to cold. I still find, especially in winter, that it is more difficult for me to meditate due to small, distracting itches brought about by dry skin. To an extent I think that this can be taken as an opportunity to contemplate the nature of one's own body and health. Aside from that, though, I know that when something as important to me as meditation seemingly can't happen, it has a detrimental effect on my mental well-being. I also know that the thought of, "Do I really need medication anyway?" given sufficient chance to proliferate, can pose monumental setbacks to those of us for whom the necessity of comprehensive mental health care is simply a fact of life. I suppose only you can know the tipping point at which considering a different BPD medication is warranted. For me, it was something that bore serious discussion with my doctor. I guess what I'm saying is that we each have our own road to wellness. I've needed to change lanes and even pull over sometimes, but taking exits has never been a good idea.


mancinelli51's picture

I am a very experienced practioner of this type of thinking, Brad, and thanks for calling me out on it! Gets me nothing.....but not in a "good"-nothing sense. ;-)

amybethbarr's picture

In light of today's Daily Dharma (about letting go of all goals) I am wondering if I should drop my idea of setting a New Year's resolution to cut back on spending money on unnecessary things. It seems like a worthy "goal" right?

Brad Warner's picture

I agree with the two answers already given.

But I also think there can be value to making some kind of vow. For example, in Zen we do a ceremony called "jukai" in which one vows to uphold the ten precepts. You may fail sometimes to uphold the precepts. But taking avow to do so is still worthwhile.

So if a New Year's Resolution helps, then make one!

Tharpa Pema's picture

I think our lives are spacious enough to contain both goal-pursuit and no-goals. They may occur at different times in our lives, or simultaneously but in different areas.

For example, we could have a goal to contribute to our communities by earning a living, while at the same time harboring no other expectations of reward from our job other than our wages.

I like the idea of cultivating both skills, of knowing how to use both goals and no-goals to further the larger purpose of compassionate interaction with the sentient beings with whom we share our lives.

Compassionate interaction can itself be viewed as a goal or a natural expression of human goodness. I can see it both ways.

zentient's picture

You don't need a New Year's resolution to cut back spending money on unnecessary things. Don't spend money on unnecessary things, no resolution needed. Just do it, starting and ending now.

amybethbarr's picture

Exactly! thank you for clearing that up for me.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Your resolution is sound. I would question the Daily Dharma.

dandiaz19934's picture


Joan R's picture

Today is my husband's 50th birthday and I love him deeply, but he is stuck and will not move forward with his life. He decided to take action by buying a jig saw puzzle and working on that all day. I am broken hearted that the beautiful brilliant man I married is so withdrawn from this wonderful world we inhabit. This resentment has taken over my meditation is not making our lives better.

Anicca1956's picture

I sometimes work on a paint by number painting. Just a nice quiet activity that can settle and quiet my mind and is quite enjoyable.

Brad Warner's picture

The standard Zen teacher type cliché answer to this would be to say, "sit with your resentment." Don't try to stop being resentful. Just sit and allow the resentment to be what it actually is. Try to feel it fully and completely. Then you might find out what it really is.

It's hard when someone you love behaves in ways you can't comprehend. But maybe the jigsaw puzzle is just his way of working through whatever it is he needs to work through. Often focusing on a task will help bring a person back to reality. It might be his only way into something like a meditative state. Maybe give it a little time and see what happens.

AlisonDScott's picture

I can imagine the heartache you are now feeling. You will most likely get much wise advice. From my own experience, this is what I would suggest:

Focus your meditation on accepting this current situation, sending yourself love and compassion. Things will surely change one way or another, and by providing yourself with the full support you need, you will minimize the potential for escalation. Pema Chodron offers much excellent support in this area.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests asking our nearest and dearest, "How can I love you better?" If you provide you husband with what he requests, you reduce pressure on him and provide him with the optimal climate to evolve in the direction he feels he needs to evolve.

I hope this helps.

daveschutz's picture

My meditation is disturbed by thinking about all the tasks I think I need to do for the holidays. Shopping, cards, decorating, etc. plus work and meditation make for a busy schedule. How can i decide what things are the most important without feeling guilty about not doing the other things?

Brad Warner's picture

My teacher always used to say that whenever you need to make a decision, the correct choice appears instantly. But our thoughts crop up a fraction of a second later and make everything confused again.

I would say just sit and allow all that disturbance to be what it is. Don't try to make it stop. Just let it do what it needs to do. Don't try to be less disturbed. But also don't stir those disturbed thoughts up. Or if you do find yourself stirring them, just stop stirring.

You can never do everything. So just do what you can do.

zeynep.aksel's picture

Yes, my meditation is being disturbed by thoughts. I don't use a mantra. Could that be a reason? I don't know how to get a mantra. Could you guide be in that, please? Thank you!

Brad Warner's picture

I'm a Zen teacher and in Zen we don't use mantras. We just allow our minds to be as they are and quietly observe. When you say your meditation is disturbed by thoughts, it just means that it's not what you think it ought to be. Instead of worrying about that, just see what your meditation actually is. Sit quietly with your disturbed meditation.

If you can't stand doing that, just watch the rising and falling of your breath. Let the thoughts whirl around as much as they like and pay attention only to your breathing.