17 April 2017

Resolving-problems -The-meditator’s-way

How does it work with problems?

Meditative techniques – mindfulness, contemplation, imagery, and stillness are all known to improve brain function, creativity, resilience, health and wellbeing. They enable us to overcome stress, manage big workloads and sleep well.

But it is not too hard to get stuck with our problems. Obsessive thinking, difficult emotions and poor decision-making can all lead to deep dissatisfaction.

Want to try something new? 
This week, fresh from contemplating all this amidst the recent Meditation Teacher Training and Meditation retreat that both included contemplation on problems; something you may find really practical and useful. Also news of our Winter meditation retreats, but first

            Thought for the day

    Spread love everywhere you go;
    First of all in your own house. 
    Give love to your children, 
    To your wife or husband, 
    To a next door neighbor...

    Let no one ever come to you 
    Without leaving better and happier. 

    Be the living expression of God's kindness; 
    Kindness in your face, 
    Kindness in your eyes, 
    Kindness in your smile, 
    Kindness in your warm greeting. 

                                                Mother Theresa

Contemplating problems
The aim is to become aware of how we process “problems” in our mind, and then regulate where we turn our attention. Here is how it works.

First, we become aware of 5 elements or components of the problem…

1. The Story
When we have a “problem”, it starts when we bring to mind a story.

We think “He did this awful thing”… “That terrible event took place”… “What is going to happen with the finances?”

The story is like the basic detail of what happened, what is happening, what might happen.

2. The Commentary
Almost immediately we think of the problem, the story, we tend to slip into commentary, the way we think about the story.

The commentary is commonly loaded with judgment and habitual thinking.

“That was such a bad thing that I did…”. “If only he had not done that, I would be different, my life would be different”.

If a problem is long standing, then we tend to run the same commentary, the same thoughts about it over and over. These thoughts tend to be circular in that they rarely lead to any clear resolution. So the sense of “problem” persists and each time we think of the same person or event, it triggers the same commentary.

3. The Emotion 
It is the commentary that then elicits the emotion.

“I hate that awful thing that he did. It makes me so angry. “What happened makes me feel so sad.” “Thinking about the finances makes me so scared.”

Often these emotions can become habitual. Sometimes they even become what we call “racket” emotions; emotions we get into the habit of running in many situations other than the one that first set them in motion.

Some move so quickly from the story to the emotion, that the commentary is immediately obvious. Sometimes it may feel as if the emotion is pure reflex.

4. Secondary commentary

This is when we make judgement on our own emotions.
“I know I should not be angry, but what he did makes me feel so cross. There must be something wrong with me that I feel this way and cannot control it.”

5. Secondary emotion 
Now we experience another layer of emotion, usually quite a self-destructive one that is based on the secondary commentary about the primary emotion we felt in response to the story and its commentary.
“Now I feel so guilty, so ashamed.” “Now I want to blame someone else for all that made me feel so bad.”

Finding a solution to the problem 
The chance of choosing a wise solution is slim if we are running a strong commentary or are affected by strong emotions.

1. Become aware what problems you focus on habitually
Some problems are simple. Thirsty? Glass of water. No problem. But some problems become like skin itches. We go back to them, scratch, pick at them over and over, and nothing much changes. Notice what problems you dwell on.

2. Become aware of the elements of your problem
i) Review the story 
Be as objective as possible. Contemplate the basic facts of the matter - what happened, who did what, what events unfolded.

ii) Notice the commentary
Tease out what seem to be the facts as you know them, and what are the secondary thoughts you have about those facts. You might notice how the commentary is judgemental and habitual and circular.

iii) Feel into any emotion
Maybe you have shut the emotion down. Maybe the emotion is really strong. Aim to allow yourself to feel what is going on with the emotional response to your problem. Notice too if you are running a secondary commentary with secondary emotions.

iv) Notice whether or not you get to a solution
Some  commentaries and emotions are so habitual, it is like being stuck in soft sand; no matter how hard you try, no progress is made. Some people attempt to fly right over the commentary and emotion and head straight for the solution. Notice what you are doing.

v) Make new choices
Curiously, many find once they do become aware of the story, the commentary, the emotions, the prospect of a solution and where in all this they may be stuck, that there comes a new sense of understanding and freedom.

Stuck with being solution orientated come what may? Maybe time to feel the emotion a little more.

Stuck emotionally? Maybe time to notice the commentary and how it affects you.

Stuck in the commentary, the thinking?
Maybe time to step back a little; develop more mindfulness along with the capacity to contemplate and thing things through more effectively.

This more meditative, contemplative way of looking at problems has recently emerged for the Meditation teacher training and meditation/ contemplation retreats Ruth and I have presented recently; along with me writing a new work on contemplation. It is a work in progress.

So feedback will be really useful. What do you make of all this? If you do try this approach, how useful do you find it?

Those who were at the recent programs where we discussed and developed this, please be encouraged to share your experiences with me as the plan is to write more widely about it. It seems to have been very helpful so far…

Could be added to the Comment section below on the blog, or maybe better send to info@insighthealth.com.au.

I will reply to all comments and any questions; many thanks!


June 5 – 9th Deepening Your Meditation

Our only 5 day meditation retreat, this program is all about taking time out, entering into a meditative environment and being supported to deepen your experience. Then, with this deeper experience, being able to take it with you so that your ongoing practice is more rewarding, more beneficial, more enjoyable.

July 1 -7th Mindfulness and Meditation in Daily Life

We have had many requests to present a meditation retreat in Queensland, so this is it. We are fortunate to be able to use the facilities of the Chenrezig Institute – a purpose built Retreat Centre in the hills back of the Sunshine Coast. Our retreat will focus on integrating mindfulness and meditation into daily life. I know when I first started, meditation was something I did for a few minutes (or hours) every day; but at first, I then went back to my day as if nothing much had happened.

The real benefit of these practices is in how they inform our daily life, so this retreat will be very practical. We will practice mindfulness and meditation together formally, and then use the rest of our time to bring the qualities of the practice into our daily experience – in a way that we can take them home and maintain them. My sense is that for many this could well be life changing.

October 9 – 13th Meditation Teacher Training – Module 2

This is a repeat of the earlier program. These training have been booking out, and like all our retreats, it is wise to register early.


  1. Hi Ian. I have recently been reading a lot on love - similar to your quote from Mother Teresa. What I am seeking is how you directly experience it so that you can give it out as Mother Teresa states above. I contemplate love however, as soon as I stop all the negative thoughts take over. Would the problem technique you describe above provide further insight into love at the experiential level rather than the intellectual one - that is where I seem to be "stuck".

    1. For many people it seems contemplating love generates that feeling and it lasts; however, there are many for whom, as yourself, the old sense of "problems" returns fairly regularly. So yes, in that instance, it does seem this contemplation on problems may be a way to change your perception of the problem and in the doing of that, lead to a novel solution; maybe just a greater inner peace...

  2. The thing about meditation is it will tend to drive your thinking along more productive paths. What you outline above is a very useful structured approach to thinking about problems. Ultimately, at least for me, the "solution" to all problems comes from putting them into a larger (and less egoic) context. Meditation seems to just lead to this outcome in a gentle way.

    1. Yes Martin, the interesting question then becomes whether just the simple, almost passive nature of "pure" meditation does all this; or if active contemplation is warranted. My sense is that for many of us, a bit of both works well. Let most problems evaporate within meditation, more actively contemplate any we get stuck with.