In many ways, music is the opposite of a meditative state of mind — it invokes strong emotion very energetically, and packages emotion in a way that makes it easy for the brain to repeat over and over like an addiction or obsession. When music is heard in a quiet way, it becomes a subtle thought or feeling, which can be difficult to notice amidst the other noises of daily life, so is difficult to mindfully get rid of. However, heard in a loud way, its crassness makes what it is trying to do to the mind more obvious and easier for the mind to reject and be peaceful.
As art forms go, I have the most attachment to music, so this approach has worked well to help me get songs unstuck from my head. If someone was more attached to visual arts (fashion, painting, sculpture, etc.) or cooking, I imagine they might find similar mental relief by briefly exposing themselves to obviously crass, strong, etc. examples of their art, so that their minds might easily reject those things and find peacefulness.
One of the simplest, and quite difficult, mindfulness exercises I have seen bhikkhus recommend is not to scratch when you have an itch. Most itches go away on their own in a minute or two. If it’s caused by something more persistent, like a bacterial or fungal infection, scratching can worsen or spread the infection, and might wipe away any medicated cream/ointment you may be using. Of course, you still might want to look at the itch, in case it’s caused by something like heavy sweat or an insect on your body, which perhaps you should remove.
Similarly about coughing… both otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat (ENT)) and internist doctors have told me that coughing is hard on the throat, and that it’s usually better to drink liquids to clear the throat.
In the name of “critical thinking,” I have noticed a tendency in the West for intellectuals to become not only reflective and deconstructive, but to frequently live in mentally aggressive/hostile, cynical, pessimistic, etc. states of mind. Although I would agree that being overly positive can bias one in various ways (e.g., to see only what you want to see and miss/ignore challenges, obstacles, etc.), being overly negative can bias one in opposite ways (e.g., to see only obstacles or challenges and miss/ignore what might be possible). So I think it is important to turn critical thinking against itself, and to be critical of becoming too negative of a person. To me, the main value of critical thinking is to acknowledge and let go of biases and assumptions, to become mentally detached and aware, to try to see and think clearly. Mental detachment is perhaps the primary activity/aspect of mindfulness meditation, as is awareness of vipassana meditation.
For managing pain (or pleasure or boredom), here is a mindfulness technique that has worked well for me. Hold whatever part of the body or mind is in pain at a distance, look at it, and calmly/dispassionately repeat the following to yourself: “the pain is over there… the pain is not me.”
This seems to work for a few reasons:
- Calm, clear-headed, detached, dispassionate, etc. mental observation discourages the mind from creating things. It is like placing a buffer of empty space between the constructive part of the mind and the problematic construct.
- Pain is a more unconscious, automatic sensation, whereas suffering is a more conscious, habituated perception or psychological labeling of experience. Perceptions (like suffering and joy) can be more easily consciously managed than can unconscious sensations (like pain and pleasure). For example, when babies get injured, they often look to their parents to see how they should respond to, or feel about, the pain from the injury — is it no big deal, or should they cry? Similarly, adults can learn to separate their reactions to pain from their experience of pain.
- The body and brain are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and brain’s states are always changing, and seem to follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile (or maybe this apparent abiding itself subtly changes from moment to moment), then they decay and condition/become something else. If one can just disassociate oneself from the problematic thing or person for long enough, that thing and/or oneself are guaranteed to change on their own eventually, and they might change enough that the current problem is no longer a problem. Alternatively, if action is better than inaction for some reason (e.g., if the pain is being caused by a poisoned knife stuck in one’s arm, which one should quickly remove), the mental clarity and detachment of this technique should help one to make a good decision and take immediate action.
Like most meditation techniques, the benefits of this technique include that it doesn’t involve taking any expensive, possibly dangerous drugs, or losing one’s mental clarity or self-control; the cons include that it takes persistent, conscious effort and practice.
I usually sleep deeply, and can go to sleep in 10-15 minutes, even during stressful times. People I have lived or traveled with sometimes have asked me how I do it. Having a genetic health problem that causes chronic fatigue probably plays a large part, but I also intentionally abandon the outside world and focus on the inside world, as I fall asleep. The feeling is similar to diving into a swimming pool — letting go of the land and committing to the water — come what may. Going deeply into concentration/jhana meditation also feels similar to me, though dreaming feels more about letting the mind construct whatever it wishes, and meditation feels more about applying attention and piercing through the muddiness/murkiness of the mind. Sweet dreams.
Mental states usually have multiple opposing states that can counteract them if cultivated/focused-upon. Below are examples.
Like with any medicine, one must be careful not to indulge in any mental state too extremely, or it can become a kind of poison, blindness, or delusion. For example, taking a positive attitude to everything can cause one to miss, or be taken advantage of by, the negative aspects of life (e.g., scammers, thieves, things falling apart, etc.), but taking a negative attitude to everything can lead to anxiety and depression. The Buddha once taught people to meditate on death and decay, and that led several monks to become so disgusted with their bodies that they “sought an assassin” (see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s footnote on SN 35.88). Therefore, he switched to recommending meditation on the breath (anapanasati), which is more mentally neutral.
Siddhartha heard the musician say, “If the string is too tight, it will snap. If it is too loose, it will not play” (from the traditional Buddhist enlightenment story). A Middle Way is best.
- For anger: thinking about (or asking) how the object of your anger might have come to be the way it is (e.g., social or natural forces, history, chance, etc.), forgiveness, generosity, patience, tolerance, etc.
- Anxiety/fear: internal and external detachment/watchfulness/listening, letting go of attachment to outcomes, remembering that the self is just an impermanent construct, etc.
- Arrogance/ego/narcissism: remembering your impermanence and fragile humanity, acknowledging things you’ve lost/forgotten or that you can’t know/see, having experiences where either nature or people don’t care who you are (riding the bus in plain clothes or a disguise if you are famous, doing a manual labor job, going far away from civilization with minimal supplies, etc.)
- Depression (an umbrella term for many states): identifying and counteracting the specific state(s) involved (e.g., grief, hopelessness, fatigue, physical discomfort or weakness, etc.)
- Greed: slowing down and doing less, generosity, remembering the impermanence of all things, remembering that one can’t ever fully own/control either oneself or external things, etc.
- Laziness: aspiration, belief/trust/faith, effort, flexibility (see also the “eight antidotes“)
- Lust: asking the attractive person to cover themselves, looking closely at the attractive person until you can see past their facade of makeup/jewelry/clothing, seeing people as just variations on a theme (a little bigger or smaller here or there), reducing people’s bodies to their components (skin, muscles, bones, organs, glands, etc.), disgust at the dirty or infected things inside everyone’s bodies (rotting plants/animals, feces, urine, bile, mucus, viruses/bacteria, small cancers, etc.), imagining the person as the rotting corpse they will inevitably become or looking at images/videos of rotting or burning corpses on the Internet, etc.
Many of these things involve remembering impermanence or that the self is a construct of many components. If there is no stable self, there is no one who can always feel anything. If you can change for the worse, you can change for the better.