on practice

A student asks: I’m committed to establishing a regular practice. But I’m so busy I can meditate only once a week.

empty meditation cushion

Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: I feel strongly committed to establishing a regular meditation practice. My goal is to sit for an hour every day — which I can do IF I get to my cushion. But I have such a busy life — including a demanding job and a family, too. So I end up meditating only once or twice a week. I am so frustrated with myself that I can’t do it more often!

Sunada replies: I do understand about busyness, and how challenging it is to keep up a practice in the face of all that we have going on in our lives. This is, of course, the #1 issue I hear from everybody. You’re not alone.

One suggestion I have is to change the way you frame the picture. When you’re starting out with meditation, as with anything else, it occupies the same place as other items on your to-do list: aside from your job, there’s exercise, eating well, household chores, laundry, etc. It does require a conscientious effort to set aside time for something new like meditation. I’m not denying or knocking how challenging that can be.

But it sounds to me like the situation you’ve put yourself in is something of a no-win situation. You’ve got too much on your plate and so you’re going to perpetually disappoint yourself in not living up to what you’d ideally like to accomplish. Frustration and disappointment with oneself are not healthy emotions to carry around when taking up meditation (or any time, for that matter!)

First of all, I’d say it’s better to sit every day, even for just 5 or 10 minutes, than to do a marathon session once a week. Meditation is about training ourselves to take on new habits, so practicing in small amounts daily is going to be more effective than long sits done less often. But I also hear you say that there are days you can’t find time to sit at all.

So then how about resetting your expectations? On the days that you’re unable to do a formal sit, how about taking small “mind breaks” in the middle of your work day, and intersperse 5 or 10 minutes of mindfulness (nothing formal, just bringing your attention to your present activity, whatever you happen to be doing.) Or you can do a walking meditation outdoors around your place of work, if that’s a reasonably pleasant atmosphere. When you eat your meals, do the dishes, or sit at your computer at work, you can stop for a bit, bring your attention to the present, and be purposefully mindful for a few minutes.

My point behind these suggestions is that mindfulness isn’t something that you do that’s separate from the rest of your life. Because sitting meditation seems to take you away from your daily activities, one can fall into thinking that it’s something you do outside of the context of life – as if mindfulness is something you practice separately from everything else, and competes for time with them. That’s a fallacy! A formal meditation practice is really more like a rehearsal for being mindful in the rest of one’s life, and the “real thing” happens off the cushion!

But also, it’s not helpful to establish a meditation practice in the context of striving, effortful-ness, self-blame, and unmet expectations. These are all antithetical to the principles behind meditation – acceptance, patience, being easy with things as they are, etc.

I don’t mean to imply that meditation is about being passive and accepting of situations that you aren’t satisfied with. I realize you’d really LIKE to be at a point where you meditate for an hour daily. That’s really admirable! But can you hold that aspiration more lightly – more like looking ahead at a beautiful mountain peak as the goal of a hike. It’s certainly something to look forward to, but at the same time, the hike is also important. If you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being at the goal yet, well, you’ve just missed the whole point of going on the hike. Meditation isn’t about grasping for goals. It’s about being fully present on the journey.

If you apply your strong commitment toward being purposefully mindful in small bits throughout your day, and take on more of a gentle, accepting attitude toward your practice, I’m guessing your mental landscape will start to change on its own. You’ll start to see things differently. For example, you might start to feel like some of the things you spend so much time on are no longer so important. Or you find ways to do things differently. Slowly, the larger patterns of your life will start to change. Priorities shift, and new possibilities open up. But it will happen slowly and gently, in an atmosphere of kindness and acceptance.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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Guest article: Prasada Caroline Brazier – Burning issues

image of droughtThis summer the trees in our retreat center in France were turning brown by early August. When the wind blew, sucked up by soaring thermals in the searing heat, leaves scattered across the field in a whirling mass. Temperatures rose steadily until they peaked at 42 degrees [108F] in the shade and stayed there for two weeks. Everywhere the landscape was shriveled and bleached. Trees stood, branches bare. The drought had lasted all spring and the countryside was feeling its effects.

Watching the slow decay of woodlands and hedgerows in the surrounding countryside, the reality of climate change hit me in a way it hadn’t before. If this weather pattern were to continue, great swathes of forest would simply die. Agriculture would struggle and, in many cases, fail. The countryside as we know it would change beyond recognition.

As I looked up into the blue sky, criss-crossed by plane tracks, and knew the interconnectedness of increasing fossil fuel consumption and environmental change, I felt … What did I feel? Was it anger? Was it despair? Was it grief? A sensation in my chest, tears pressing into my eyes, thoughts circling, my reaction was visceral and poignant. Thoughts tore at me. This had to stop. Someone had to listen now. Images of heaping the embassy steps of those countries most guilty of over-consumption with dying vegetation flashed into my mind.

Anger has a bad press – at least in Buddhist circles. Yet, if I examine my responses to the drought, I am left with two questions. Firstly, I see the need to look more closely at what we mean when we say we are angry. It would be easy for me to say I looked at those trees and felt anger, yet the emotion I felt was much more complex. Secondly, if this response was fired by anger, was it potentially useful anger? Certainly, in my reaction there was energy to do something. Indeed not to act felt a betrayal. I was fired up. Such energy could blame and punish, but energy could be used to seek change.

These days, “anger” has almost become an icon. Whether people are for its free expression or against it, the subject itself evokes powerful responses. The preoccupation with expressing anger probably has its roots in the rise of interest in psychology that became particularly strong in the human potential movement of the late 20th century. Through my work, I am only too aware of the view in some personal development circles that all emotions, especially if they are negative, need to be expressed, and of the paramount position anger holds. Repression is out: bad for your health and definitely rooted in past attitudes.

Thankfully there has been some questioning recently of the catch-all assumption that “getting your anger out” and bashing cushions is a good thing. Nevertheless I still encounter people who seem to feel it not only their right, but also their duty, to express their anger – often regardless of the effect on the recipient. Such a need to express often seems to go beyond simply the attempt to gain relief and healing, and to become an end in itself.

Anger is a powerful emotion; so, too, can be the attachment to expressing it. For those wedded to the expressive model, a level of passion often accompanies the belief that anger should be expressed. This suggests there may be more going on for the person than is immediately apparent. Attachment to beliefs often has more to do with individual and group self-definition than with the subject of the belief itself. This is just as much the case with beliefs about anger as with anything else.

Buddhist teaching suggests that we build structures of identity or selfhood as a way of defending against uncomfortable or threatening experiences. Initially we retreat from such experiences into a variety of distractions or attachments, which take the form of greed, hatred and delusion. When we have used the same distractions many times, a pattern of habitual behavior is created and our identification with this pattern of responses gives us a sense of self. Attachment to beliefs is one such pattern, and for a person who is attached to the view that the expression of anger is a good thing, these beliefs form a creed that sustains their ‘habit formations’ and identity. Thus anger and identity can be enmeshed and together represent the avoidance of reality.

Few in the Buddhist world share such views on the desirability of expressing anger, yet here, too, there is a danger that anger becomes a kind of icon. Identifying oneself as a not-angry person can lead to just as fixed a process of self-creation and self-definition as identifying with anger. Being Buddhist can also be an identity: we are calm, peaceful people, not like those others who get angry. But if our avoidance of anger is driven by identity formation and the need for certainty, we can be pretty sure that existential fear is operating not far from the surface.

In the uncertain world we inhabit today, the fear of war, environmental disaster and many other threats evoke strong reactions. We can react to these realities with anger; we can also react with denial and withdrawal. The person who has invested in non-anger may withdraw into quietism. If I am a not-angry person and need to maintain that identity, I may not only work on getting rid of my anger, I may also avoid situations that give rise to it in order to maintain my sense of spiritual progress. I can not read the newspapers, avoid meeting people who discuss disturbing events, and bury myself in a remote rural spot where my calm will not be challenged.

Not all Buddhists are so strongly identified with the quietistic position. Recently there has been increasing interest in engaged practice, in which Buddhists take part in humanitarian or campaigning activity as an active expression of the Bodhisattva spirit. This is a model practiced by the Amida Order, the tradition I follow. In engaged Buddhist approaches there is less likelihood of falling into quietism, but understanding and working with reactivity becomes even more important. The person who has invested in anger may be sucked into vociferous or even violent pressure groups. Finding an alternative that expresses a compassionate message actively but not aggressively is the challenge of engaged practice.

The engaged practitioner’s aim is not to eradicate emotion, but to hold the energy of their reaction, and to harness it for the needs of the situation. Letting go of a fixed position, we need to be willing to face our frailty and impulses. Such reactions are part of being human. We are not so special or separate that we are not touched, nor would it be good if we were.

The roots of anger and hostility lie in our individual and collective attachment to identity, and with it our attachment to certainty. Although real situations are never as simple as they are portrayed, there is always a temptation to create heroes and enemies, and to define ourselves in relation to “my country” or “my side,” because this gives us a sense of certainty. We may have a sneaking feeling that things are not so straightforward, but there is a relief in putting this aside and shouting slogans. It is uncomfortable to know that there are no easy answers. Delusion is more comfortable than authenticity. The temptation to seek quiet spaces away from the problems of the world becomes attractive.

Yet we cannot avoid being involved. As humans we are cast into the world with its many conflicts and troubles. Simply withdrawing can be a retreat from reality into delusion. It can be another way of holding onto our personal world at the expense of seeing the one that others are forced to inhabit. This is not to deny the importance of contemplation and quiet, but the practitioner who seeks these must be aware of the choice being made, and not pursue them from a need to flee from disturbance.

Engaged Buddhist practice is a matter of bringing awareness and non-attachment into the place where turmoil is unfolding. In such situations we often have no choice but to act. In doing so we take responsibility for the karmic consequences of our actions while still inhabiting this uncertainty. And that demands great personal courage.

Anger is a complex emotion. The elevation of anger to its current iconic position has tended to prevent us from looking at what we really mean when we say we are angry. Whether positively or negatively framed, anger limits and distorts our perception of both our own responses and the situation that evokes them. We feel the first flash of negativity and assume it to be anger. Then, having labelled it, we either indulge it or we dismiss it as something to be avoided. Yet, if we neither give way to the impulsiveness nor suppress it, but stop and look into our response, other layers of the process become clearer. Stepping back creates the possibility of separating the energy behind the anger from the potentially harmful results of expressing it.

So does Right Anger exist? Engaged Buddhist practice is a middle way. In recent demonstrations against the arms fair at the Excel centre in London, Buddhists were actively and visibly present, bearing witness to the gross immorality of such commerce. The presence of people of faith – recognizable by their robes and signs – is welcomed by many involved in these actions as a source of calm among groups who might otherwise become angry and even violent. Being able to hold back from reacting aggressively in highly charged situations is a vital aspect of training. Yet the energy that arises when a person is confronted by the harm and wrong in the world is also vital to the practitioner’s practice. It brings the kind of presence that speaks to others.

The impact that the engaged practitioner creates comes out of the passions: the person’s ability to be moved. The deeper we look at a subject, the more we are moved. Last year, with members of our sangha, I attended part of the inquiry into the setting up of a laboratory in Cambridge that would use primates to research various degenerative diseases. We were deeply affected by the films and descriptions of experiments shown at this event and, following it, we staged a procession through the city carrying replica coffins for the animals that would die if the project went ahead. The powerful image of a line of robed figures in procession was both moving for us and affecting for many who observed it.

Another form of engaged practice is involvement with those who are disadvantaged, perhaps through offering direct humanitarian help. Here, too, we have to work with our reactions. The feelings that arise when one is confronted with people living in extreme conditions or mental distress can be a hindrance, but they can also motivate us to offer compassionate support. In turn, this can broaden our perspective. When the Amida Trust became involved in supporting a health project in rural Zambia, we had the chance directly to support sick people, but we also became more aware of the global context in which such poverty is allowed to exist. That awareness led us to become more involved in campaigning work.

Faced with issues of social disadvantage, the treatment of laboratory animals, the run up to global conflict or environmental disaster, a strong emotional response is inevitable and appropriate. It is part of being fully alive, and the fruit of a practice that moves us out of our small, personal concerns.

The engaged path is not smooth. It does not have the tranquility of the remote mountain retreat. Sometimes the rising passion tips over into rough responses. At other times people act with tremendous courage in the face of our great global mess. The unease of uncertainty is always close, but our reactions can also provide a wake-up call. We see the impulse to blame, to distort, to duck out of situations. We see how, again and again, we fail to handle the reactions as well as we would like. Real life situations have a way of puncturing self-satisfaction.

Back in Britain, September rolls on. Still the sky is blue and the sun is hot. We start to see the effects of drought on vegetation here. Cars keep tearing along the motorway within earshot, belching greenhouse gases into the autumnal air. Change touches all. The rural retreat is far from immune. What will it take to call an end to this particular madness? Our practice may make us more skilled in avoiding destructive outbursts of anger, but let us not lose the passion that fires us to create a better world.

prasada caroline brazierPrasada Caroline Brazier has been a pioneer in the presentation of Buddhist Psychology and directs the training programs offered by the Amida Trust which include a full professional training for psychotherapists and counselors taught from a Buddhist Psychology perspective. In addition to Pureland Buddhism, she has also studied Theravada and been a member of the Tiep Hien Order of Vietnamese Buddhism.

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Buddhism: Beyond good and evil

The following is a letter I wrote today to an inmate I’ve been corresponding with for some time. I thought I’d share it with a wider audience.

Dear Billy,

Since you last wrote I’ve been in Ethiopia for two weeks and adopted an orphaned baby girl. She’s called Maia and she’s well, happy, and having no trouble adjusting to being in a new country. She’s only five months old, which makes adjusting easier.

I was pleased to hear that you’re familiar with the Dhammapada, which is one of my favorite texts. In fact it was the first two verses of the Dhammapada that made me realize that I was a Buddhist. And it’s interesting to hear that you have a bookmark permanently stuck in the chapter on Evil — the very chapter I sent you.

“Evil” is an interesting term. Often Buddhism avoids that term, using instead the term “unskillful” (and using “skillful” instead of “good”). These terms are used when Buddhism is speaking in a more technical sense, and “evil” and “good” tend to be used more in poetic statements. The Dhammapada is (as you may have noticed, even in translation) poetry.

The terms “skillful” and “unskillful” are actually far more useful than “good” or “bad.” They suggest that happiness is the goal of life, and actions are judged as being helpful or unhelpful in attaining that goal. When we wish to attain a goal and are able to do this easily, then we show skill, while aiming for a goal but repeatedly missing it suggests a lack of skill. So in life we want to be happy but instead we end up miserable a lot of the time; we lack skill. The things we do that cause us unhappiness are called “unskillful” actions. Those things we do that lead to happiness (not mere pleasure or elation, but a sense of wellbeing) are skillful actions.

You’ll notice there’s no moral judgment here about actions being right or wrong, good or bad. In fact the Buddha said that if actions based on greed, hatred, and delusion actually did lead to happiness then he’d tell us to go out and do them! That’s an amazing statement when you think about it. It’s only because greed, hatred, and delusion cause unhappiness that the Buddha recommends we give them up, and it’s only because mindfulness and compassion lead to happiness that he advocates cultivating those qualities.

The words good and bad are inevitably misleading, because rather than simply looking at our actions and seeing whether they lead to happiness or unhappiness, we look at our actions and judge them. Then we judge ourselves as being good or bad depending on which kinds of actions we’ve performed.

I was thinking about this the other day in regard to Don Imus, who I’m sure you’re aware is in disgrace at the moment for having made derogatory comments about a basketball team of mainly black women. He’s said that he’s a “good person” because he does good things, and in fact he does do a lot of things that benefit others. But if he’s a good person because he does good things then does that also imply that he’s a bad person if he does bad things? Is it a question of adding up the good and bad? And who decides whether being kind to one person balances out being unkind to another? The joy of one may be nothing compared to the hurt and shame of the other.

Actually, from a Buddhist point of view it makes no sense to talk about a “person” being good or bad, or even skillful or unskillful. A person is by necessity far too complex a phenomenon to reduce to such a simple label. An action can be seen to lead, on the whole, to happiness or unhappiness, but can a person be said to do the same? I don’t think so.

Most of the guys I’ve met in prison — including those who have murdered or abused others — are likable people with many fine qualities. They often act in ways that are kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and considerate. While I can’t ignore the worst things that they have done in their lives I can also see that they are not defined by the worst things they have done in their lives. A human being is much larger than any one action he or she has performed.

So it seems to me that the problem with the labels “good” and “bad” for our actions are unhelpful because they lead to us labeling and judging ourselves — and those judgments really are profoundly unhelpful. I think a lot of people in prison have learned to label themselves as “bad” and that this not only causes suffering and self-loathing, but it also leads to further unskillful actions (after all if I’m “bad” then what does it matter if I do bad things?)

A very valuable perspective that Buddhism brings is that none of our experiences — thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations — are permanent. Nor are they inherently a part of us. So we may, in this precise moment, be full or rage and hate, but in the next moment those things may be gone. And in years to come the underlying psychological processes that give rise to those emotions may have gone, and the emotions with them. We can change our minds. We can transform our hearts. We can become more loving and aware, and although we may never entirely rid ourselves of destructive impulses we can find ourselves changing, sometimes quite rapidly. I’ve seen this in my own life and in the lives on many other people, including many men in prison.

Through the medium of your letter I believe I can see you changing.

I wish you well and hope to hear from you again soon.

Best wishes,

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The Upper Middle Way – Have North American Buddhists renounced renunciation?

woman meditating in front of an Indonesian shrine

Historians of religion often repeat the accepted truth that it takes about two centuries for a culture to absorb a new religion and make it its own. Buddhism is certainly not a new religion on the world scene; nevertheless, it may be turning into something new as it is adapted to fit Euro-American culture. And this revised Buddhism might be neglecting crucial elements of the original teachings in favor of values and practices that give comfort to us in the receiving culture. As North Americans and Europeans, we seem particularly attracted to the enticing and psychologized project of spiritual enlightenment, but we are neglecting, at our peril, other fundamental Buddhist values and practices.

As we find ourselves one-quarter of the way through this two-century process, one of the original themes of the historical Buddha’s teaching, namely, the ideal of renunciation, is being conveniently renounced in the West. While the original Pali term (nekkhamma) means the negation of kama (desire), or “withdrawing from sensuality,” the English word has come to mean something like “putting aside the things of the world.” Thus, in English, we refer to monks and nuns as renunciants. Yet the suttas show us that all serious practitioners must in some way be renunciant. The Buddha held forth a rather strict standard of renunciation for his monks compared to his householder followers. The Pali canon makes clear in many places that householders, as well as monks and nuns, can all attain nirvana. A particularly beautiful expression of this truth is found in the Mahavacchagotta Sutta:

Just as the river Ganges inclines towards the sea, slopes towards the sea, flows towards the sea, and extends all the way the sea, so too Master Gotama’s assembly with its homeless ones and its householders inclines towards Nibbana, slopes towards Nibbana, flows towards Nibbana, and extends all the way to Nibbana. (Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 73:14)

Although the layperson may not be “homeless,” to use another phrase that refers to monks and nuns, it is still very clear that renunciation must be a part of every follower’s path as they incline, or slide, toward nirvana. In the Dantabhumi Sutta, the Buddha addresses Aggivessana and talks about the layman, Prince Jayasena:

So too, Aggivessana, Prince Jayasena is obstructed, hindered, blocked, and enveloped by a still greater mass than this—the mass of ignorance. Thus it is impossible that Prince Jayasena, living in the midst of sensual pleasures,…could know, see, or realize that which must be known through renunciation, seen through renunciation, attained through renunciation, realized through renunciation. (MN 125:10)

Here, the Buddha is talking about someone very much like himself as a young man. Some Western teachers have explained that what the Buddha meant by renunciation was that his followers should relinquish their attachment to things, not necessarily the things themselves, a notion that the American Theravadin teacher Santikaro calls “a liberal legalism, à la Bill Clinton.”

There is perhaps confusion between the term relinquishment (patinissagga), which could be defined as this mental exercise, and the more concrete concept of renouncing those things which embroil us in desire. But both these actions are necessary in the Buddha’s outline of the path to nirvana. We must give up things, people, and concepts, as well as extinguish the mental mechanism of attaching to them.

Abandoning the trappings of wealth, as Gotama did, is still put forward in the teachings as a practice for householders. Speaking to the monk Udayin in the Latukikopama Sutta, Gotama says,

There are certain clansmen here who, when told by me ‘Abandon this’ …abandon that and do not show discourtesy towards me or towards those bhikkhus desirous of training. Having abandoned it, they live at ease, unruffled, subsisting on others’ gifts, with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer’s. (MN 66:12)

In the Dhammapada, one of the most revered and accessible of Buddhist scriptures, it says, “I do not call him a Brahman merely because he was born in the caste of holy ones, or of a Brahman mother.… But one who is free from possessions and worldly attachments—him I call a Brahman.” (XXVI:396) (The word brahman referred originally to any holy person, but now when capitalized refers to the caste of Vedic priests.) This quote makes clear that both the mental attachments and the possessions themselves are to be renounced, but Buddhist teachers in the West rarely cite such passages.

Santikaro says that the Buddha never required his lay disciples to lead lives of voluntary simplicity, they just did it as a result of their deepening spiritual insight. “You see that most of the really important lay leaders in the early sangha renounced their wealth and status,” explains Santikaro. “King Pasenandi gives up his throne, the merchant banker Anathapindika gives his wealth away; Citta, the foremost dhamma speaker among the laity and Visakha, a very accomplished laywoman, do the same.”

Writings and dharma talks by North American Buddhist interpreters soothe middle-class devotees with the diminished expectations of Buddhism-lite. Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire, to pick only one recent example, says: “Renunciation need not mean a turning away from desire, but only a forsaking of the acting out that clinging creates.” Zen teacher Ed Brown once summarized this concept by saying, “It’s OK to pick something up, as long as you can put it back down again.” These simple dicta are true as far as they go, but emphasizing the importance of detachment, or nonattachment to things, as mere mental attitude, without any real-life implications, compromises the nature of the original teachings. This smoothed-out version of Buddhism gives us permission to have our lifestyle, to be wealthy—even pampered—without having to wring our hands in guilt. It requires no concrete action in the real world—except for the occasional retreat with our favorite teacher.

But it’s important to notice a few things before we rest easy in this comforting interpretation of the dharma. The first principle that should not escape our attention is the original teaching on generosity (dana). The Buddha saw poverty as a curse and wanted householders to earn enough to support themselves and their families—and to help their villages. He even gave very specific advice to Anathapindika, one of his wealthiest lay followers, on what today we call “asset allocation.” As Robert Aitken Roshi said once, “Someone has to make money so others of us can be poor.” And this is indeed the Buddhist formula for supporting monastics. It relies on a laity with enough disposable income to support the monks.

In Asia, Buddhist teachers summarize the path for laypeople as being composed of dana, sila (ethical behavior), and bhavana (spiritual development). In the West, however, the formula is recited, and emphasized, in reverse: bhavana (more specifically, “meditation,” which was the formula for monks) sila, dana. Middle-class North Americans want to become accomplished meditators, and many of us spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to attend retreats and workshops in an effort to “get” enlightenment, as though it were one more accomplishment, one more thing to cross off our to-do list. We want to buy enlightenment rather than sacrifice for it.

But instead of getting, the early teachings suggest that we engage in the practice of giving. Dana is really a spiritual method. Practicing generosity helps us to overcome greed and clinging; it facilitates the realization of no-self—and it feels good. The Dhammapada says clearly:

These three ways lead to the deathless realm:
living in the truth,
not yielding to anger,
and giving, even if you have
only a little to share. (XVII:224)

The difficulties of householder life are also noted:

Renunciation of the worldly life is difficult;
difficult it is to be happy in the monastic life;
equally difficult and painful it is
to lead the householder’s life. (XXI:303)

Renunciation is difficult, yes, but as contemporary Buddhists, we have fled from this challenge and we have turned renunciation into a painless mental exercise. It’s much easier to say, “Yeah, but I’m not attached to my BMW.” That way we never have to question what could have been done with the money we spent on an upscale car, house, or vacation. Thus, we avoid the implications of simplicity, nonconsumption, and generosity enshrined in the original teachings. And few Euro-American Buddhist teachers call on their followers to set aside wealth and comfort for the practice of real, tangible renunciation and simplicity.

There are some exceptions. Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Australian Theravadin abbot, was recently teaching in the U.S. and, referring to practice, said, “You don’t have to go for the big idea, but just keep moving forward, toward greater simplicity—a smaller home, for example. Less clutter in the physical world leads to less clutter in the mind and more freedom.” As Buddhist discourse in the U.S. goes, this is a very rare sentiment.

Of course, I cannot know in any statistical sense what my Buddhist colleagues are doing with their incomes, but I have plenty of anecdotal experience. For instance, I’m on the board of a small Buddhist nonprofit called Paramita House, which helps released prison inmates reintegrate into the community. In our routine solicitations to sanghas in the region, only a few Buddhist groups have responded positively. When we ask groups why they can’t contribute, they often say, “We’re raising money for the new temple.” If they’ve built their temple, they say they need money for landscaping. If the landscaping is done, they talk about keeping a prudent reserve and, of course, once there are sufficient reserves, it’s time to fund the endowment. Some sanghas do engage in social justice commitments, but all too many spend their time fluffing up the meditation cushions, waiting for the next retreat.

Many in my own generation, the boomers, are immensely wealthy—yet we don’t feel that way. Investment firms and retirement advisors constantly challenge us with the huge amounts of money they say will be needed to fund our retirement lifestyles. So we feel we haven’t saved enough to support that eighty-six-year-old person who does not yet—and may never—exist. As Buddhism entered various cultures over the last two and a half millennia, it changed as it incorporated various spiritual traditions—the Brahmanistic and animistic traditions of South and Southeast Asia, Taoism and Confucianism in China, and the Bonpo practices of Tibet. But Santikaro points out that “As Buddhism is adapting to the West, rather than incorporating a healthy or effective spiritual tradition, it is adapting to secularism. This is unique in Buddhist history. It is being molded and changed—not by the Western monotheisms—but by pop-psychology and consumerist capitalism. Perhaps the only thing Western Buddhism is inheriting from monotheism is a tendency toward dogmatism.”

I am not asking that North American Buddhists turn into tottering Mother Teresas or throw the BMW keys to the ground and walk off into the mountain mists, but if we really took up the ideal of householder renunciation, we would become more generous—much more generous—with our time and our money and our talents. We could vow to make do with less and stop consuming needlessly. Boomers might consider the old Indo-Aryan ideal that the final decades of life ought best be devoted to simplicity and spiritual development. Many of us will play golf in gated communities till that final trumpet sounds, but those of us who call ourselves Buddhists owe the world, and ourselves, much more. What if we turned our backs on the false security of our L.L. Bean lifestyles? What if we gave generously to the causes that stir our hearts? What if we worked hard to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalized in our own communities? That would give us what Buddhism promises, and what we’ve longed for all along—the taste of genuine freedom.


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A student asks: Sometimes when scanning my body during mindfulness practice, I come across some pain or discomfort…

A student asks: Sometimes when scanning my body during mindfulness practice, I come across some pain or discomfort. Do I try to stay with it until it goes away? And if it doesn’t go away, do I move on?

Sunada replies: Well, first of all, if the pain seems to be an indication of something wrong –- like an aggravated injury –- please do something to address it right away! You’ll have to be the judge of what’s really going on, of course.

But otherwise, mindfulness is about getting to know ourselves and our world better, not to escape into a feel-good state or to get rid of unpleasant/painful things. It’s a useful practice to stay with our discomfort, make it the object of our concentration, and observe what happens as it waxes and wanes. If we just let it be, in many cases, it will pass away on its own.

But other times it won’t go away — like chronic physical conditions or emotional issues like depression or anxiety. So yes, it’s a good question — what to do when it doesn’t go away?

Let me share my experience of walking outdoors recently on a bitterly cold New England winter day. My body’s natural reaction to being out in the cold is to hunch up my shoulders, cave my chest in, and get into a protective sort of posture. But as I was observing myself, I realized that my responses were doing nothing to make me feel warmer or more protected from the cold. It was just making me tense up (shoulders up around my neck, for instance), and if anything was making me feel worse –- not so much from the cold but from all the tension I was carrying around. I also noted that if I dropped my shoulders and stood up straight and faced the cold, it really didn’t feel that bad. And if I brought my attention more closely to the raw sensation of the wind on my face, and setting aside any judgments about how cold it was, it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I had thought it was. So I’d say at least 75% of that feeling of “cold and uncomfortable” was an inflated judgment I had made up in my mind, and was not the reality.

I think this is one of the lessons of mindfulness. If we stay with our experiences, we can begin to separate out the bare reality from what’s a fabrication of our minds –- in this case, exaggerated thoughts of discomfort that served no purpose other than make me feel worse! Being mindful of my discomfort didn’t make it go away –- I couldn’t make the cold weather go away, of course -– but I WAS able to find a way to be in the cold without piling unnecessary suffering on myself. That realization alone made the coldness much easier to live with.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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Work is a Mess (book extract)

Reprinted with permission from Michael Carroll from his book, “Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work’s Chaos.”

Many of us come to work with the hope that we can control our jobs. We want to be the capable authors of our work, not helpless victims of unplanned circumstance. We want to feel on top of our game and in command of the details, and we want work to stay in place so that we don’t need to worry.

Yet work will not stay in place, despite all our efforts. Financial reports and spreadsheets bring the appearance of order. Routines and schedules seem reliable. Our computer systems and management abilities offer a certain kind of predictability. But what we set out wanting to do at work is never what we end up with. Work, by its nature, is unpredictable and messy, chaotic and surprising.

Such chaos can affect us very directly and very personally. We go to work expecting one thing, and we get quite another. We may accept a new job with all its promise and challenge. Then when we get there, we find out that the manager who hired us is leaving for an opportunity elsewhere. We are left with a new boss and a different challenge altogether. Or maybe we have launched a new and promising product line — say a game to teach children how to name countries around the world — only to discover that the packaging instructions on the one hundred thousand units are in French and we thought we had ordered English. Perhaps we have convinced our boss to invest in a new project; we build a team and create momentum. Then we find out midstream that the budget is cut and we must fire our newly hired staff. Such untidiness can seem to put our routines, financial security, sense of accomplishment, and much more in question.

This kind of predictable unpredictability happens every day to thousands of us. And yet we somehow end up relating to these very common circumstances as threats and disasters, losing our sense of confidence and creative challenge. Typically, we treat work’s surprises is merely mistakes, missteps, or blunders that should have been otherwise, events that we should have prevented. We so much want our world to run smoothly — no uncertainties, no surprises, no uncomfortable conflicts. We want to be on top of our game, not striking out for dropping the ball. If work’s messy surprises are not just mistakes or liabilities or weaknesses, what are they? And how can we better respond to them?

The reality is that there is no solution to work’s inherent chaos and messiness. Work by its very nature will always be uncertain. The good news is that work’s messiness and uncertainty need not be distressing. They may, in fact, be just what we were looking for.

In the ancient Chinese text The Art of War, the renowned strategist-general Sun Tzu gives the following instruction:

When in battle,
Use the orthodox to engage,
Use the extraordinary to attain victory.

While our workplace may not be a battlefield, Sun Tzu is explaining to his warrior leaders that they should come to battle with the “orthodox” strategies in place. This means that they will have studied a wide range of tactics and disciplines. They will have devised plans ahead of time — anticipating the enemy’s maneuvers and predisposition. Soldiers will have been trained in combat and weaponry, officers drilled in battlefield tactics, weapons positioned, and offenses fortified. It is from this, the orthodox, that they will engage battle.

But victory, Sun Tzu points out, does not come from such preparations. Victory is obtained from the “extraordinary.” Here Sun Tzu is revealing to warrior leaders a powerful reality of war: it is unpredictable and chaotic — and it is in this untidiness that the warrior general finds victory. A change in weather, and error on the battle-plan map, a weapon that discharges prematurely — all unanticipated yet inevitable — are what the warrior general remains constantly alert for and ready to exploit to his or her advantage. According to Sun Tzu, it is the infinite unshapable variations of war that offer the strategist the levers for victory.

How the warrior leader remains ever alert for the extraordinary is of the utmost importance to Sun Tzu. We cannot sit at the edge of our seats waiting to pounce on surprises like a cat on a mouse. Being greedy for success or victory is not the point. Rather, Sun Tzu stresses throughout The Art of War that the warrior leader must possess victory in the very fiber of his or her being from the very start, before the battle even begins. Sun Tzu teaches that the warrior leader must be relaxed and open to the present moment at all times. The more at ease the warrior is with the situation at hand, the more open and powerful and fearless he or she becomes as a leader. Sun Tzu’s instruction on engaging the extraordinary is to first “know oneself” and, through that knowing, to work directly with conflict, appreciate the immediate moment, and let natural intelligence arise. In short, be awake!

Sun Tzu’s use of the orthodox and the extraordinary can be applied to our experience at work. We use routines such as our business plans, financial forecasts, staff meetings, and monthly reports to engage our work. We train ourselves with MBAs and CPAs — the orthodox. But according to Sun Tzu, we will never succeed at work if we rely exclusively on such things. Only by remaining alert and open to the extraordinary events — the untidy and unpredictable — and engaging them directly and openly can we truly succeed.

A talented employee recruited by a competitor becomes an opportunity to promote new talent from within — and have a friend within the “competitor’s camp.” The economy slumps, our profitability is down — but so is our competitor’s, who now is ripe for acquisition. Accusations of unfair work practices provide an opportunity to refresh policies top to bottom. A lack of new product ideas becomes just the chance to reach down into the lower ranks and listen to the unheard potential innovators. The conflicts and difficulties at work hold the possibility of success if we are open enough to engage with them without resentment or fear.

If we were to adapt Sun Tzu for the workplace, we might translate his three-lined instruction a bit differently:

When at work,
Use established routines to pursue objectives,
Use messiness and surprises to innovate and succeed.

“Work is a mess” encourages us to first recognize that we can never have a completely neat relationship with our livelihood. Treating work’s messiness as if it were a mistake or liability only creates further unnecessary distress and resentment. By developing the attitude that work is a mess, we can learn to relax and be curious about the surprises and interruptions. By engaging the messiness of work directly — appreciating both the advantages and disadvantages — we become fully equipped to engage such events in all their variations. We have the ingenuity, good humor, and curiosity to adapt and innovate — to be victorious, no matter what the circumstances.

Michael Carroll is the founding director of Awake at Work Associates (www.awakeatwork.net), a consulting group that works with organizations and individuals to help them rediscover balance and well-being while pursuing professional success. For over two decades Carroll worked in major corporations such as Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. He is also a longtime student of Buddhism and an authorized teacher in the lineage of the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.

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Learning to let go

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

2500 years ago the Buddha taught a beautiful meditation to help us appreciate ourselves as part of an ever-evolving interconnected universe. The practice is called the Six Elements.

But why do this practice?

One reason is that having a narrow sense of ourselves – seeing ourselves as fundamentally different from and separate from what’s around us – leads to selfishness and unhappiness, and polarization, while recognizing that we’re part of a greater whole is nourishing, strengthening, and leads to healing.

By letting go of the delusion of separateness we become identified with something greater than ourselves. Another reason is that much of our suffering comes from trying to hold onto things that are impermanent and therefore inherently ungraspable; anyone who’s had the disappointing experience of seeing wrinkles or gray hair appear will know something about this, although there’s no limit to what we want to hold onto: goals, ideas, status, material objects, and even other people.

We can’t hold on to these things, but we try, and so we end up experiencing suffering.

This meditation – the Six Element Practice – involves looking at various aspects of the body and mind and seeing how these parts of “our” selves arise from outside (“not us”), and how they continually return to the outside, and consequently never really are ours. The meditation is known as the Five Element Practice because it’s structured around an early Indian conception of the world being made up of the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, along with the nonmaterial element, Consciousness.

So how do we do this practice? Perhaps you’ll get a flavor of the practice through reading these notes, and if you want to take the Six Element practice further, read through them again, pausing after each sentence or few sentences and letting the words sink into the depths of your heart.


First we sit comfortably but upright, with a sense of dignity. We then take a few calming, deep breaths to help center the mind and to connect with the body, and we follow the breath until thoughts have begun to settle at least a little.


Then we call to mind the Earth element, everything that is solid and resistant, outside of ourselves: bricks and mortar, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, wood, concrete. We don’t think about these things but simply call them to mind as images.

Then we bring to mind the same Earth element within us. We experience the solidity and weight of the body, recalling whatever in the body is solid and resistant: bones, teeth, nails, hair, and tissues.

We normally think of these as being ours, as being ourselves, but here we recollect how everything of the Earth element that is within us comes from outside and returns to the outside. Our bodies started as a sperm and an egg from our parents, who are not us. That first cell grew as it absorbed nutrients from the world outside us, just as we now have to take in the Earth element in the form of food.

And the earth element within us is constantly returning to the outside world. We shed hairs and skin cells, and we go to the bathroom. And of course when we die we’ll have to finally let go of everything that is solid within ourselves. So the Earth element is simply flowing through us during our lives. It’s borrowed, but never owned. And we can reflect that this body never was “us.” It never was “ours.”


Then we call to mind the Water element in the world: seas and lakes, streams and rivers, dewdrops and raindrops.

Then as with the Earth element we call to mind the Water element within us: saliva and blood, synovial fluid and lymph, tears and sweat, and liquid filling and surrounding every cell in the body. And we recognize that all of this Water within the body, that we think of as “us,” and “ours” – as “ourselves” – is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world. We can’t hold onto it. It’s not us. It never was us.


The Fire element outside of us is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear combustion in the heart of the sun to the glow of a burning ember, from the molten core of our planet to the crackle of lightning in storm clouds. T

he Fire element within us is everything energetic. We can experience the heat of the body, and call to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, and sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves, and brain. And all of the energy within us is borrowed. We feed the body by taking in the sun as plants or flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, whether directly or through fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past. All of “our” energy is really not ours at all. It’s not us. It’s not ourselves.


The Air element is represented around us by the atmosphere: winds and clouds, and breezes felt against the skin and heard moving through trees and grasses. And the air element is continually entering and leaving the body as we breathe in and out. Air enters, oxygen dissolves in the bloodstream, is taken to cells to provide energy, and then carbon dioxide is exhaled.

Our oxygen comes from trees and other plants, and our exhalations go to feed those same plants. We can’t hold onto the Air element any more than we can hold onto any of the others. In fact we can only live by letting go, never by holding on. The Air element is just borrowed and isn’t ours, isn’t us.


One approach to reflecting on the space element is to think about the shape your body makes and how you get attached to that. By “shape” I mean the precise image of yourself that you see in the mirror — how we look.

I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror I’m often surprised — even disappointed — by the image staring back at me. I expect myself to look younger, better-looking. I’m attached to how I looked a few years ago and somehow feel betrayed that how I look has changed. Of course a few years ago I had the same experience.

So call to mind the image you see of yourself in the mirror. Not the idealized image, but how you actually look. And notice how you identify with that, or how you find yourself clinging to some image of how you’d like yourself to look.

And then reflect on how you looked when you were five years younger, ten years younger, when you were ten, five, one year old, a new-born baby. Reflect on how you might look in five, ten, twenty years.

And realize that change happens. The precise volume of space that your body occupies is always changing, and you can’t stop that process of change from happening. So you can’t hold on to the space element.


We may not think of consciousness as being an element in the same way as the physical elements, and in fact it’s not. It’s what allows us to know those other elements, and in fact we could say that consciousness is the four elements knowing themselves. In this stage of the practice we notice – and reflect upon – the way in which sensations, thoughts, images, and emotions come into being, persist for a little while, and then vanish into the void. None of these things is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the Earth, Water, Fire, and Air elements are flowing through us. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us.

So there is nothing we can hold onto and nothing, ultimately, to do any holding. We may ask then, what are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we consider experientially rather than through discursive thought. Rather than try to work out an answer in logical terms we simply ask the question, and sit, and listen patiently for the heart’s response. When I’ve done this practice the answer I get is a sense that we are transparent; that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious, divine energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise and loving; and that we are finally coming to know our true nature. And having done this we simply continue to sit in order to enjoy the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on.

I’d encourage you too to do this practice, not as an intellectual exercise but as an experiential exercise in letting go, so that you also can begin to connect with the divine energy and infinite love that is the eternal and essential core of your being. To live is to let go, and in order to live fully we must learn to let go fully and to embrace the flow that is the universe.

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Setting up for sitting

burning incense

Traditionally in a Buddhist temple or meditation center we leave our shoes at the door before entering. We do that not just to keep the floors clean (although don’t knock that) but it’s also a symbolic act. When we leave our shoes outside the meditation room we’re also leaving the dust of the world behind us, and that symbolizes that we’re leaving behind unhelpful attitudes and habits.

Or at least we’re intending to leave those things behind. If getting rid of unhelpful mental habits was as easy as taking our shoes off we’d all be enlightened by now!

Still, intention is valuable, so let’s honor the symbolism inherent in leaving the shoes outside the door, and think a bit more about ways in which we can prepare for meditation.

Preparation is not something we do for the sake of it. It’s not a meaningless ritual that we do because it’s “the done thing” or because past generations have done it. We do it because it helps our meditation practice to be more effective.

Before meditation

Having a little quiet time before meditation is helpful. It gives the mind an opportunity to “shift gear” in stages, from busyness, to sitting quietly, to sitting in meditation. Rushing straight from activity to meditating can lead to strong restlessness and even frustration.

You might want to let people who are around you know that you’re going to be sitting so that they won’t disturb you. You may want to put a do not disturb sign on your door in case someone comes into the house.

Unplug the phone, and leave a note reminding you to plug it in again afterwards. Merely taking the phone off the hook can result in loud noises coming from the speaker, so avoid doing that. Without the note you may forget to reconnect it!

If you’re anxious about unplugging the phone because someone may try to contact you in an emergency, then that’s just a sign that you really need to unplug the phone and meditate! (Unless of course there’s good reason to expect an emergency, like you know someone’s about to give birth or someone’s just gone into Intensive Care).

You may have pets to deal with. Some cats and dogs are happy to sit with you. Others may demand your attention. So you need to learn what your pet’s individual response is. Having a pet scratching at the door can be more distracting than having a pet pawing you a few times. To get pets used to you meditating you may want to pet them a few times during your meditation.

Also, remember to send lovingkindness to your pets, and to any other beings who may be disturbing your meditation. Pets can be very sensitive to the vibes you give out.

It’s traditional when entering a meditation room to bow. This isn’t a symbol of submission, but a way of honoring the spiritual teachers of the past and also of honoring your own potential for enlightenment.

The meditation space

It’s good to have a dedicated meditation space. As best you can, create at least a small area where you can keep your cushions, mats, bench, etc. And make sure that the space is clean and tidy. It’s hard to clear your mind when your surroundings are cluttered.

Having an altar can give you a focal point for the mind. You can have flowers, candles, incense, pictures, and objects that are meaningful to you. Many people have natural items on their altars — leaves, stones, crystals, etc.

The base of an altar may be specially made, or it may simply be an upturned cardboard box draped with a cloth.

Some people prefer simple altars, while other people have more elaborate ones. It’s really up to you.

Incense can be particularly evocative. Often we just have to smell a particular kind of incense and we find that we’re calmer and clearer. Japanese and Chinese incense are the most refined. Tibetan incense can be rather overpowering and heavy, and many brands of Indian incense can smell like an accident in a chemical factory. Just make sure you choose an incense that you find pleasing.


Some people go for a full yoga workout before meditating, while others don’t do any stretching at all. But even a couple of minutes spent stretching the hamstrings, back, and shoulders can help you to sit more comfortably and can also help you to feel more energized. But be careful! Stretch only if you know what you’re doing, and be sensitive to yourself at all times.


The first time I chanted before meditation (following along with others at a local sangha gathering, many years ago) I had a strangely enjoyable meditation afterwards. I described the chanting at the time as being a kind of “meditation before the meditation.” That chanting was in Pali, an ancient Indian language, and was the traditional chant known as the Tiratana Vandana, or Salutation to the Three Jewels. Another common chant is the Refuges and Precepts. These are good chants to learn.

But chanting any text that is spiritually meaningful to you will be helpful. For Christians, chanting the Lord’s Prayer might be appropriate, for example.

These kinds of preparations may seem to be optional extras, but in reality they’re part of the meditation practice. Coming back to the notion of intention being important, the more we can blend meditation with daily life, the more effective will be our meditation practice. And daily life will be a bit easier too!

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