peace of mind

Mindfulness: can a Buddhist monk offer peace of mind?

wildmind meditation newsAnna Maxted, The Telegraph: My mind often feels like a dusty cupboard, full of junk. I have so many thoughts in my head that my brain hurts. Work, social and familial obligations jostle for space. Modern life is fraught. How is it possible not to be stressed? If anyone has the answer, it’s Buddhist monk Bhante Kondanna, who, at 75, travels the world teaching its tenser inhabitants how to find inner peace. London is a frequent base, and on a recent visit I beg to be enlightened.
“Stress,” says Bhante, over tea at Kensington’s Mandarin Oriental, “is a new disease. When I was small, …

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It’s not what’s happening … it’s how you respond

Monkey waving

One of my favorite stories took place a number of decades ago when the English had colonized India and they wanted to set up a golf course in Calcutta. Besides the fact that the English shouldn’t have been there in the first place, the golf course was not a particularly good idea. The biggest challenge was that the area was populated with monkeys.

The monkeys apparently were interested in golf too, and their way of joining the game was to go onto the course and take the balls that the golfers were hitting and toss them around in all directions. Of course the golfers didn’t like this at all, so they tried to control the monkeys. First they built high fences around the fairway; they went to a lot of trouble to do this. Now, monkeys climb…so, they would climb over the fences and onto the course…that solution just didn’t work at all. The next thing they tried was to lure them away from the course. I don’t know how they tried to lure them—maybe waving bananas or something—but for every monkey that would go for the bananas, all their relatives would come into the golf course to join the fun. In desperation, they started trapping them and relocating them, but that didn’t work, either. The monkeys just had too many relatives who liked to play with golf balls! Finally, they established a novel rule for this particular golf course: the golfers in Calcutta had to play the ball wherever the monkey dropped it. Those golfers were onto something!

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We all want life to be a certain way. We want the conditions to be just so, and life doesn’t always cooperate. Maybe it does for a while, which makes us want to hold on tight to how things are, but then things change. So sometimes it’s like the monkeys are dropping the balls where we don’t want them, and what can we do?

Often we react by blaming…ourselves, or others or the situation. We might become aggressive. Or perhaps we feel victimized and resign. Or sometimes we soothe ourselves with extra food or drink. But clearly, none of these reactions are helpful.

If we are to find any peace, if we are to find freedom, what we need to do is learn to pause and say, “Okay. This is where the monkeys dropped the ball. I’ll play it from here, as well as I’m able.”

So how do we do that?

What if you pause right now, and take a moment to be quiet. Can you think of a place in your life where things are not cooperating with how you would like them to be? Whatever unfortunate place the monkeys have dropped a ball in your life, bring your focus to that. It could be something that happens in a relationship with another person, where you get reactive. What would it mean to “play the ball” here? If you could tap into your deepest wisdom, your true compassion, how would you like to respond to these circumstances?

One of the great teachings in spiritual life is this: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we respond. How we respond is what determines our happiness and peace of mind.

So how might you respond with presence, when you find the monkeys have dropped the ball in a difficult spot?

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How to move forward by being here now

Man walking along a road, photographed in dramatic perspective

We all come to meditation with some kind of wish for self-improvement. Less anxiety, more peace of mind, better focus – these are among the more common goals I hear. But somewhere along the way, most of us get stuck in a trap. When mindfulness helps us see ourselves more clearly, our goal can start looking very far indeed. We’re STILL too distracted. We STILL can’t seem to stop beating ourselves up. We STILL do and say things we regret.

Hence disappointment and self-criticism arise. A poverty mentally sets in. Clearly where I am now isn’t good enough, and I look instead to a far horizon when things will be better. Some day…

That’s the trap. Haven’t we just put ourselves into the exact opposite of the peaceful, content mindset we had aspired to in the first place?

Ironically, I think the best way to move forward toward goals like these is to be present, here and now. One way to do this is to reframe our concept of what “working toward goals” looks like. Rather than striving toward something off in the future, how about right now, in this moment, BEING more the kind of person that you aspire to be?

We can practice whatever skills or behaviors we understand of it now. And I mean literally right now. It means we make a choice in this moment to act in a different way then we habitually have in the past. Not succumbing to an anxious, poverty-stricken mindset might be one place to start. Even if it’s only one percent different than before, that’s a step in a forward direction. Put together a hundred steps like that, and over time we will have made great strides.

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It also helps to hold our goals and aspirations more lightly. It’s like going on a hike up a scenic mountain. Sure, the goal is to reach the summit, but if we’re hyperfocused on that goal, we could miss the whole point of hiking, which is to enjoy the climb itself. So instead, we keep pointing ourselves mindfully in the direction of the summit, but also stay fully present and open to whatever surprises might arise on the way. There are always unexpected scenic vistas or dangerous crossings to watch for. We might even decide part way up that a side road looks more interesting, and change plans. If we make that choice explicitly, what’s wrong with that?

With personal development goals, we often can’t know in advance what the summit looks like. And chances are we don’t have a clear sense of how to get there either. All we can do is show up, right now, and take one step from here. Isn’t that the only realistic option?

So next time you hear yourself bemoaning how you STILL get distracted in meditation, or STILL whatever, stop and ask yourself – am I falling into the poverty mentality trap here? Is it helping me to see things this way? What is something more positive I can do – even if it’s simply to forgive myself for my mistakes? That’s a perfectly good step in a forward direction. In fact, sometimes that’s best and only thing we can think of to do.

Take what small steps you can, and don’t forget to celebrate your small victories, too.

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Using focus to come back to peace of mind

One of the most valuable things we can have is peace of mind.

When we are not feeling peaceful, our mind may be racing, or we may be thinking obsessively, and we are likely feeling stressed and frantic.

Meditation, even for only a few minutes, can be the key to your peace of mind.

Have you ever had trouble concentrating on a project, or falling asleep at night because your mind is racing or you are obsessing over a problem?

It seems that the mind has a mind of its own! Meditation is a method to tame the mind and bring a sense of peace and serenity.

The next time your mind is moving like a locomotive, try this meditation technique: close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and then count your breaths. When you get distracted and lose track of the counting, gently refocus on your breathing and counting.

You will probably have to refocus many times, but that is okay – the important thing is to keep coming back to counting your breaths and be gentle with yourself rather than feeling frustrated.

The more you practice this technique, the longer you will be able to concentrate.

Another form of meditation to bring calm to your mind is the candle meditation. Just light a candle, relax, take a few deep breaths and concentrate on the candle flame.

The mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so when we keep focused on the candle flame, we let go of what is troubling us and gain a quiet mind.

The candle meditation has a similar effect as gazing at a fire in the fireplace – it is calming and peaceful.

We may not always have a candle handy to use for a meditation, but we can visualize one and we always have our breath and counting breaths can bring peace of mind.

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