present moment

Making the most of this precious human birth

Six shuttered windows in a honey-colored concrete window

Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.

First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.

So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say anything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.

The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:

Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.

So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.

But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”

This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.

In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.

And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.

The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.

  • Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
  • Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
  • Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
  • Asuras are too obsessed by power.
  • And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).

Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)

Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.

Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!

So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.

Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.

And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.

We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.

We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.

The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:

Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.

So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.

Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.

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The deep practice of just being peace

Recently I’ve been reading The Buddha Before Buddhism, by Gil Fronsdal, which is a translation of what is believed to be one of the oldest Buddhist teachings. It’s had a powerful effect on the way I practice.

It’s interesting how simple this text is. There are no lists: no elaborate eightfold path, no detailed exposition of four noble truths. Rebirth comes up mainly when discussing the beliefs of other teachers; the effects of our actions are mainly discussed in terms of this life, here and now.

There’s nothing about Nirvana, or some future state of spiritual breakthrough. Bliss or happiness are not the main goals; peace is.

And that is the part I find most interesting. Peace, or being at peace, is the goal. There’s not a great deal of emphasis on how to get there in the future. Instead it seems that we’re just to be there now.

And that’s where the effect of reading The Buddha Before Buddhism comes in. I’ve found myself simply noticing whether “unpeace” has arisen, and simply pausing. Sometimes the thought, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” arises.

That thought triggers spontaneous action. I ask, “How do I move my body in such a way that peace manifests?” Well, I move slowly and gracefully. “How do I eat in such a way that I feel at peace?” I eat slowly and mindfully, and without trying to do anything else at the same time.

If I’m feeling a bit tired and over-stimulated the question, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” triggers the desire to rest. I put down whatever I’m doing, and just become aware of my surroundings, my body, my breathing, and so on. It’s not necessary to be happy; just to be at peace.

If I find myself anxious, the question is not “How do I get rid of this anxiety,” but how do I be at peace with this anxiety?” And my mind seems to already know to stop striving to be free of anxiety, and instead to accept it with mindfulness and kindness. There’s no need to get rid of anxiety in order to be at peace. Peace and anxious states can co-exist.

These “questions” that I’ve mentioned don’t necessarily appear as words. It’s more of a wordless realization that there is a state of peace that’s accessible, and that a way can be found to allow it to arise. It’s just like when I’m going to the local post office: I don’t need to talk myself through the journey. I don’t need to say, “OK, now I go up these stairs, then I turn left onto Main Street, then I cross the road at the lights…” Just as it’s enough to know that the post office is my destination for my feet to be able to find their own way there, it’s enough for me to remember that peace is what I want, and then my body and mind will take me there.

And there’s no intellectual process I have to work through in order to figure out how to respond. I don’t need to think anything through. The movement toward peace just happens spontaneously.

I suspect that for most people the greatest barrier would be the belief that they have to do something in order to get themselves to a state of peace. But really you don’t need to do anything. You just need to get out of the way and to let peace happen. You don’t need to learn what to do: your mind and body already know what needs to be let go of.

Another barrier might be the habit we have of constantly thinking that we have to defer wellbeing for sometime — specified or unspecified — in the future. “I just have to get out of debt,” of “I can be happy once I’ve lost 20 pounds,” or “I can relax once this busy spell is over.” This really is a habit of unconsciously deferring wellbeing — often to a time that never arrives, since we keep thinking of new things that have to be done before we can feel happy.

But the practice I’ve been doing is very simple and immediate. It’s also radically simple. And in my experience so far it’s been surprisingly effective.

A third barrier might well be that of expectations. We might have the expectation that peace is something extraordinary. And so when peace is present, and seems quite ordinary, we might think “This can’t be it” and return to craving some kind of ideal state, rejecting the peace that’s already present.

The “solution” to these barriers — grasping, deferring, rejecting — is incredibly simple. It’s just what I’ve said, which is asking, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace.” Let go of grasping, right now, and experience peace. Let go of deferring happiness right now, and just be at peace. Let go of your resistance to peace, and just experience it.

Peace is right here, right now. Stop ignoring it, and let it be your experience. Just be peace.

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Seven ways to collect and concentrate your mind and energy

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember a time when people usually answered “good” when you asked them the standard, “How are you?” (often said “harya?”). These days the answer is commonly “busy.”

In the last few months I’ve been very busy myself and starting to feel dispersed: juggling a dozen priorities at any moment, attention skittering from one thing to another, body revved up, feeling stretched thin and spread out like an octopus squished between two sheets of glass.

You know the feeling? Besides being both unpleasant and a spigot of stress hormones, it’s weirdly contagious. Spreading from one person to another and fueled in part by the underlying economics of consumerism, we now have a Western and especially American culture of busyness. If you’re not busy, you must not be important. If you don’t have a lot on your mind, you must be under-performing. If your kids aren’t busy with homework and after school activities, they won’t get ahead. If you don’t look busy, someone will ask you to work harder. Etc.

Enough already. Instead of being scattered to the four winds, collect and concentrate your mind and energy. Besides feeling a lot better, it’s more effective in the long run. For example, what does an Olympic gymnast do before launching into a run or a rocket before heading into space? Come to center.

1. Savor Pleasure
As the brain evolved, pleasure and its underlying endorphins and other natural opioids developed to pull our ancestors out of disturbed fight-flight-freeze bursts of stress and return them and keep them in a sustainable equilibrium of recover-replenish-repair. Let physical or mental pleasure really land; give yourself over to it fully rather than looking for the next thing.

2. Move
Dance, exercise, yoga, walks, lovemaking, play, and athletics reset the body-mind. For me personally, movement at either end of the intensity spectrum – very subtle or very vigorous – has the most impact.

3. Get Wild
We evolved in nature, and multiple studies are showing that natural settings – the beach, wilderness, sitting under a tree in your back yard – are restorative.

4. Enjoy Art
By this I mean making or experiencing anything aesthetic, such as doing crafts, listening to music, watching a play, trying a new recipe, playing your guitar, building a fence, or taking a pottery class.

5. Feel the Core
Most of the inputs into your brain originate within your own body, and most if not all of those signals are like night watchmen calling, “All is well. All is well. All is well . . .” Feeling into your breathing, sensing into your innards, and noticing that you are alright right now are endlessly renewing opportunities to settle into the physical center of your being.

6. Be Now
The center of time is always this moment. A primary difference between humans and other species (with the possible exception of cetaceans) is our capacity for “mental time travel.” But this blessing is also in some ways a curse in that the mind keeps dispersing itself into the past and the future; it proliferates worries, plans, rehashings, and fantasies like manic vines in a speeded-up jungle. Instead, right now be now. And again.

7. Get Disenchanted
This means waking up from the spell, from the enchantments woven by the wanting mind in concert with culture and commerce. We normally pursue hundreds of little goals each day – return this call, organize that event, produce these emails, get across those points – associated with presumed rewards produced by ancient brain centers to motivate our reptilian and mammalian ancestors. Let the truth land that these rewards are rarely as good as promised.

Again and again I’ve had to remind myself to quit chasing the brass ring. While staying engaged with life, return to the reliable rewards of feeling already full – the undoing of the craving, broadly defined, that creates suffering and harm. Try a little practice on first waking or at other times in which you take a few seconds or longer to feel already peaceful, already contented, and already loved. This is the home base of body, brain, and mind.

Come home to center.

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“Everyone rushes elsewhere, and into the future, for no one has reached his own self.” Montaigne

Montaigne

Montaigne’s words (it’s “Chacun court ailleurs et à  l’advenir, d’autant que nul n’est arrivé à soy” in the original French) are a striking reminder of how unsettled and restless we can be.

All too often we do things halfheartedly. The other half of our heart is leaning into the future, anticipating what we’ll be doing next. So we’ll be loading the dishwasher, wishing we were watching TV. But when we’re watching TV, we wish we were on Facebook. Even when having sex, people spend ten percent of their time thinking about something else. We’re so often leaning forward — rushing on to the next activity.

When Montaigne says that “no one has reached his own self,” he means that we’re not able to just be with ourselves. We’re not able to appreciate the simplicity of simply doing, simply experiencing. We think there’s something lacking in the things that we do, or even that there’s something lacking in us. We lack confidence that we can be complete, and that we can be at peace, without adding something. And so we lean forward all the time, rushing on into the next moment, seeking the happiness that seems missing from the present one.

We can never be happy when our attention is divided in this way. Only by wholeheartedly experiencing something can we really derive joy from it.

Even things we think of as unpleasant chores can be fulfilling if we allow ourselves to be completely present for the experience. Loading the dishwasher can be done in a spirit of care and reverence, for example.

Happiness comes not from the experiences we’re having, but from the way we relate to those experiences. Any experience has the possibility of being completely fulfilling, if we choose to pay full attention to it, and to appreciate it.

Mindfulness can often have the quality of “coming home.” We arrive back at ourselves, and accept what we find, whether it’s pleasant or not. We allow ourselves to settle in to whatever is arising. We don’t criticize it or judge it. We don’t try to make it better. We just try to be with it. We appreciate each moment of experience as the tiny miracle it is.

Settling in to our experience in this way, we lose our sense of learning forward, of rushing elsewhere and into the future. We reach our own selves, and feel whole and at peace.

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“But right now … right now”

You know the standard advice: when you notice during meditation that the mind has been caught up in thinking rather than with paying attention to your present-moment experience, just let go of the thoughts, without judgement, and just come back to the object of the meditation practice. And do that over and over.

But sometimes the thoughts are very persistent, especially if there’s something that’s preoccupying you emotionally. If you’ve been involved in an unresolved conflict, or have unfinished business, or if you’re looking forward to some big event, then it’s natural that your mind is going to turn to that over and over.

Over the years I’ve found a “trick” that helps me to disengage, gently but firmly, from obsessive thinking. It’s a simple phrase that I drop into the mind: “But right now…” 

When I realize that I’ve been caught up in thinking — yet again — in whatever train of thought has been preoccupying me, I’ll drop that phrase into my mind as I return to the meditation practice. Often it takes the form “But right now … right now …” 

This phrase does three things:

  1. It affirms the value of the present moment: “But right now.” I’m redirecting my mind away from thoughts of the past or future, and back to whatever is arising for me right now.
  2. It also affirms whatever it is that I’m obsessing about. In saying “but right now” I’m implicitly acknowledging that there is a time and place for thinking about the issue my mind keeps turning toward, but that that time is not now. I’m not saying that it’s “bad” to think about these things, just that this isn’t the right time.
  3. It creates a sense of openness and curiosity. “But right now … what?” What is arising right now? What have I not been paying attention to while I was obsessing about the past or future?

A friend told me that she has a similar phrase: “What is?” She redirects her mind to what’s implicit in the question, which is “What is my present-moment experience?” “What is arising for me right now?” “What is going on in my experience?”

So there you have two phrases you can play with. Or perhaps you’ll come up with your own way of gently redirecting your mind away from persistent thoughts.

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Settling the Mind: You Have Allies

Friends showing support for each other by placing their hands together.

Meditation means settling the mind, but if you try it you’ll quickly find that this is easier said than done. Our minds are often busy and like to keep thinking about the things that stimulate and interest them. So what are our allies in settling the mind?

 Preparation

Settling is a process. You can’t sit down after you have been rushing around and expect to be calm and quiet straight away. So, if it’s possible for you, take time to prepare for meditation. Make sure the place you are sitting is tidy and beautiful. Light a candle, perhaps. Then spend time carefully setting up your meditation posture. Notice how it feels to be making this transition.

The Present Moment

Many of the thoughts that distract us are connected with the past (things that we have been doing, memories, regrets), or the future (plans, worries, fantasies). Settling the mind means focusing our attention on things that are happening right now, in the present moment. This simply means noticing the sense experiences that are arising right now: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. It can also mean noticing the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now without being carried away by them.

Checking In

Give yourself the space to recognise, as sensitively as you can, how you are feeling and what is going on in your experience. What thoughts are present? What is your overall state of mind? That helps us see what we need to do next in the practice.

 The Body

Meditation doesn’t mean thinking about our experience; it isn’t something that happens in our heads. Awareness of the body is direct and it’s a way to become aware of our emotions and our energy, which are often wrapped up in the body. That’s why it’s a key to meditation.

Finding a Focus

We settle the mind by paying attention to something in particular: the meditation ‘object’. In principle, you can use anything, but in mindfulness meditation we usually use the breath, which is always with us and usually has a calming influence. To start with, it’s a good idea to make the object as clear and specific as possible, noticing, in detail, a particular area of the body that is affected by the breath. Your attention, awareness and energy can gather around that.

The Breath

The breath is a powerful object of meditation because it’s naturally soothing and refreshing (unless you have breathing difficulties). We all know that taking a deep breath helps you calm down. The breath connects us to the body, the environment and to the most basic elements of being alive, so it’s a key ally when we want to settle our minds.

Letting Go

Becoming quiet and settled means letting go of the busy ‘doing mode’. Even when we sit quietly, our thoughts keep going because we are still in the same mode and our minds are drawn to the stimulation and urgency these thoughts bring. Letting them go means gradually disengaging from these thoughts and feelings and finding a way to settle into our experience without trying to change it.

Interest

Our minds usually find it easy to engage with plans, activities and worries. Engaging with meditation is subtler. We need to become interested in the process of settling the mind. That might mean noticing the detail in our experience of the breath and body and it might mean including our feelings and emotions.

Finding Your Key

As you become more experienced in meditation, you will get to know the things that help you become more calm, whole and settled. That might mean the breath or the sensations of the body, as I have suggested. Or it might be something that is quite personal to you: a word or a phrase; an image; a certain kind of breathing. Some people like to count the breaths, others contact a sense of kindness. So explore what will help you connect each time you sit down to meditate.

Patience

Because settling is a process, it requires patience. When the sea is full of waves, you need to wait for the wind to die down before it will become calm. Gently, kindly, just keep bringing the mind back, again and again.

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“Being in the moment”

chain_clock_blur_10(403).jpgOver and over again, you’ll hear Buddhist teachers talking about the need to “be in the present moment,” but interestingly this wasn’t something the Buddha emphasized much. There are one or two scattered references that are similar to the concept of being in the moment, like this one:

They don’t sorrow over the past,
don’t long for the future.
They survive on the present.
That’s why their faces
are bright and serene.

In many ways the language of “being in the moment” is useful, because so much of the time we’re unmindfully caught up in thinking about things from the past, or things that might happen in the future. But actually we only have this present moment. Even when you’re thinking about the future or past, you’re focusing on thoughts that are arising right now. You’re always in the present moment.

The problem implicit in what the Buddha says above isn’t actually to do with the past, present, or future, but with how we relate to memories and our thoughts about the future.

First, we tend to get obsessively caught up in thinking. It so happens that much of our obsessive thinking is concerned with things that took place in the past or with things that will or might take place in the future. But it’s also possible for us to obsessively think about the present, like “I wonder what she’s doing right now?” or “I wonder if he doesn’t like me?”

The Buddha tended to treat the past, present, and future in the same way. For example, in verse 421 of the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

He who clings to nothing of the past, present and future, who has no attachment and holds on to nothing — him do I call a holy man.

Certainly, we can think about, say, the future in an anxious way, but we can also think about the future in an objective or metta-ful way. For example the Buddha said things like:

While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So we’re actually meant to think about the future! Similarly, there are good reasons to think about the past, and the word we usually translate as “mindfulness” is sati, which primarily means “memory.” The Buddha made the connection between mindfulness and the past quite explicit: “…the monk is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago.”

Our mindfulness can include reflecting on past actions, as with this piece of advice:

Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So thinking about the future is unhelpful when longing or anxiety are involved, and thinking about the past is unhelpful when there’s sorrow involved, but it’s perfectly possible to think mindfully about the past or future. It all comes down to the quality of attention that you bring to anything you’re aware of. It’s whether craving, aversion, or delusion are present that’s important.

The problem with the language of being in the moment is that often people think there’s something wrong with thinking about the past or future. As we’ve seen, that’s far from being the case — as long as we’re paying attention to thoughts of the past, future (or present!) without attachment, aversion, or delusion. But the false impression given by the language of being in the moment also leads people to think that it’s wrong to have goals and aspirations. Since Buddhist practice doesn’t in fact teach us to “be in the moment” in a literal way, the “problem” of goals and aspirations isn’t in fact a problem at all. Of course we’re to have goals and aspirations. The Buddha was very keen on striving, and his last words were, “Strive diligently.” We’d never make progress if we don’t have goals and aspirations.

What’s important, again, is the quality of attention we bring to those goals and aspirations, particularly regarding whether there is craving, aversion, or delusion involved in them. If we grasp after attaining goals, or experience aversion because we haven’t met our goals, or have goals that are deluded, then that’s obviously unhelpful. But we can also have appropriate goals and work toward them without grasping or aversion.

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Taking care of the present moment

fall leaves sitting on tree rings

I’ve been having a well-earned rest from blogging after completing our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, during which time I managed to contribute a blog post every day, despite also, for the last month, having an intensive schedule of teaching and family responsibilities.

But practice goes on.

In the Wildmind community we’re working through a book called How to Train a Wild Elephant, which is an excellent book of mindfulness practices written by Jan Chozen Bays.

Week 2’s exercise is as follows:

Leave No Trace

Choose one room of your house and for one week try leaving no trace that you’ve used that space. The bathroom or kitchen works best for most people. If you’ve been doing something in that room, cooking a meal or taking a shower, clean up in such a way that you leave no signs that you’ve been there, except perhaps the odor or food or fragrance of soap.

(In Zen paintings turtles symbolize this practice of leaving no traces, because they sweep the sand with their tails as they creep along wiping out their footprints.)

So this has been very interesting for me, because I like to get things done, but I’m often so keen to move onto the next thing that I don’t finish off earlier tasks properly, and end up leaving paper and other objects lying around. There’s a sense of urgency and even anxiety about moving on to the next thing. There’s an anxiety to “get on with things.” When I’m doing one thing I’m already thinking about the next. And I don’t even finish that first task! I’m always leaning into the future, and away from the present.

The exercise is not necessarily about leaving no trace, though! When we tidy up a mess we’ve created in the past we are obviously leaving a trace, but we’re still doing the exercise, because “leave no trace” is really about bringing to completion tasks we’re working on now — for example putting the toothbrush away, the top back on the toothpaste tube, rinsing out and drying the sink — before moving (not rushing!) on to the next thing. The exercise is more about bringing task to completion, and about taking care of the present moment.

But when you start doing this exercise you realize how many tasks you currently have that are unfinished. So I ended up putting away laundry, putting away a bag I’d unpacked and left lying on the bedroom floor, tidying my desk, etc. In one sense I’m “leaving a trace” of tidiness, but on a deeper level I’m catching unfinished tasks that have left traces, and bringing the tasks home. And in so doing, the traces vanish.

The problem is that we live surrounded by the traces of half-finished tasks, and we take these traces for granted. So tidying up is, in fact, “leaving no trace.”

So I’ve been focusing on finishing tasks, whether I’m starting them now or whether I started them months ago and then left them incomplete.

I feel like I’m becoming more “upright” — standing in the present moment — as I leave no trace. There’s less leaning forward into the future, and more just being in the present. There’s less of that anxiety about getting on to the next thing. There’s more care and love. Something as simple as wiping down the sink after I’ve used it is like taking care of the present moment. Through doing this exercise I realize that I often see the present moment as an inconvenient obstacle that I have to rush through as quickly as possible in order to get onto more interesting future events. Now I’m finding that I like the present moment just fine!

You might want to take up the practice of leaving no trace, even just for a week, just to see how it goes.

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There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on. (day 89)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve been explaining how the practice of upekkha bhavana isn’t really about equanimity, and how upekkha itself isn’t really equanimity, but the desire that beings experience peace. It’s the desire that we and others experience the profound peace of enlightenment or awakening (bodhi).

In the upekkha bhavana — and in other ways in our lives — we cultivate peace through developing insight. And then we wish that others attain that peace. Now it doesn’t matter if we’ve not actually experienced the peace of awakening ourselves; we can still know that it’s a beneficial and desirable state for others, and develop the desire that they find the peace of awakening.

There are actually many angles on developing insight and the peace it brings. The main approach is to observe the impermanence of our experiences. And so I’m going to talk about how we can do this, beginning with the body.

We tend to assume that the body we inhabit, or the body that we are, or the body that we have (our perspective changes moment to moment) is something quite permanent and stable. Sure, we know it changes, but we tend to assume that the changes are quite superficial; the body moves, gets fatter, gets thinner, gets sick, gets better, but there’s some underlying stability and continuity.

But if you let go of your ideas and assumptions about the body, you’ll start to see something quite different. If you let your eyes close, and let an awareness of sensations that are arising in the body become more prominent in your mind, there might at first be a hang-over of that assumption of permanence. There’s the pressure of your bottom on your seat. There are your hands resting on your lap. There is your tongue in contact with your teeth. There are the sensations of the breathing.

But take any one of these sensations, and you’ll see that it’s changing, moment by moment. Take your breathing: you notice an in breath, and then an out breath. The in breath has a beginning. At one point the in breath didn’t exist. Then it started, at some point that it’s hard to define exactly. And it continued for a while, and then it ceased, again often at a point that’s hard to define, and then there was no more in breath. So the in breath was an impermanent experience. And then the same happens with the out breath It didn’t exist, it began, it continued, it ceased, it was no more. It was impermanent.

But then you can zoom in a bit more, and start paying attention to each moment of the in breath or out breath. Because you’ve been assuming that there was this “thing” called an in or out breath that came into being and then existed for a while. But when you look closely and see what’s happening in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, you recognize that each moment is a new constellation of experiences. Each moment is something new. Each moment is a birth and a death. The thing that you called an in breath or an out breath was not a thing at all, but a series of ever-changing moments.

And you can do the same with any other part of your body — say your hands. And you assumed that there was some “thing” there that you call your hands. But when you look closely you’ll start to see that there’s just this same moment-by-moment eternal newness. “The hands” dissolve into a tingling, buzzing, ever-changing cloud of sensations.

The sensation that you thought of as “the pressure of your bottom on your seat”? It’s the same. There’s nothing more substantial than the weight of your body resting on a solid surface, but actually it’s not at all substantial. The pressure, when you look at it closely, changes in every moment. Sensations of pain are just the same as this. We take them to be real; “There’s an ache in my knee.” But as you closely watch the sensation of pain, you discover that it’s actually many sensations: pulsing, throbbing, pressure, heat, cold, stabbing, tightness. And each of these sensations comes and goes in every moment.

As you continue doing this, the entire body can start to dissolve. We can lose that assumption of solidity that we habitually carry around (our assumptions, too, as impermanent). The body seems more like a cloud of sensations in space. We can start to realize that we don’t have a body, but merely experience sensations that arise and pass away.

We can apply this with sensations arising from the outside world: the light coming through your closed eyelids creates an ever-changing kaleidoscope of red, blue, green, yellow speckles, dancing in your visual field. Sounds: that hum of the refrigerator is not just impermanent because it starts and stops, but because in every moment it is a new sound. Waves of pressure are rising and falling in the air hitting your ear-drum. Sound can only be heard because it changes moment by monent.

And you can notice the same with feelings. You label something “anxiety” but it’s not just sitting there like an unchanging lump of solid matter. It’s not even one things, but is composed of buzzing and trembling and fluttering and pounding.

Thoughts? Where’s the thought you had a moment ago? The same thought may seem to come back over and over again, but it’s a different thought with every appearance. And each thought, however much we like it or dislike it, vanishes all on its own, without our needing to do anything. We watch all this closely.

Even your awareness itself is changing all the time. One moment you’re aware of the pain in your knee, and the next your attention has flipped into noticing the sound of a barking dog, and then it’s back to your breathing. Your mindfulness is there; then you have no mindfulness, and you’d distracted by some thought.

There’s nothing that isn’t constantly changing.

That fear you have that something will change? That fear appears and vanishes, and while it existed it was always changing. The fear you have that something won’t change? That’s changing too, moment by moment. It’s not even there while it’s there.

And so there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to gain; nothing to lose. There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on.

“Monks, suppose that a large mass of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a mass of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?”

There’s a vast space of consciousness, and in that space experiences arise and pass. And the more you let go of trying to hold on to anything that’s arising and passing (the trying will change!) the more peace you’ll experience. This peace is the result of the “close watching” of upekkha.

And when you turn your mind to others, watching them closely with the love and the compassion and the rejoicing in the good that you’ve cultivated in the other brahma vihara practices, you’ll want them to experience that peace too.

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Mindfulness means keeping things simple

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Most of us have no end of things to keep up with and sort out. In fact, life sometimes feels bitty, complicated and confusing, and we don’t know how to manage all the demands. Past a certain point we experience stress, feeling that we’ve lost the initiative. Here are some tips on finding an alternative with the help of mindfulness

1.     Come back to present moment experience

Mindfulness means coming back to our experience in this moment, starting with simple, observable sensations. That means letting go, for now, of thoughts about the past and the future that can easily feel confusing. Instead, we ask, what’s happening right now in my body, my thoughts and my feelings? What’s happening around me? Usually, that leaves us feeling clearer and more whole, even if what we experience is uncomfortable.

2.     Find your key

It helps to have a personal key that will help us settle our awareness in the present moment. For many people becoming aware of the body offers a way to do this, noticing the contact of our feet with floor and the support of the chair. For others, the key is becoming aware of the breathing and perhaps taking a slightly deeper breath. It’s good to experiment to find what works for you, and meditation is an excellent opportunity to do that.

3.     Reduce input

We’re getting better and better at increasing the input we receive from the media, social networking, entertainment and the general busyness of our lives. However, psychologists have learned that human attention is a limited resource, so if we want to attend fully to one thing, we may have to let go of others. This goes against the grain of our culture, which sometimes seems to be devoted to distraction!

4.     Leave gaps

Notice the tendency to fill the gaps in the day with some kind of stimulation. Gaps are important. That’s when we can settle down and absorb what’s happening. And it’s interesting to see what we notice in those gaps about our feelings and the world around us. A period of meditation is a kind of a gap in which we give ourselves time and space to simply experience; and the Breathing Space, which we teach on mindfulness courses, is a way of doing this throughout the day.

5.     Pay attention to transitions

Leaving gaps between activities is one way of making a steady transition between the things we do: finishing one thing properly, and then starting the next thing with full awareness. This is important in starting and finishing meditation, and it’s throughout the rest of the day as well. Making conscious transitions helps you feel to stay fresh and have a greater sense of satisfaction.

6.     Manage multi-tasking

Multi-tasking can be stimulating and energizing (for a while) and for many of us juggling social media with other activities has become a part of how we live. But research shows that multi-tasking actually reduces our effectiveness and productivity. So far as we can, it’s probably helpful to reduce the amount of multi-tasking we do. In practice, though, we often have to respond to multiple demands, and mindfulness practice may mean exploring how we can maintain our sense of balance and wholeness while we are multi-tasking.

7.     Remember that things change

The feeling that life is complicated is connected to an underlying truth: everything changes. People, our bodies, situations, our thoughts and our feelings are all changing all the time, whether we want them to or not. Coming back to our present moment experience lets us acknowledge change and let go of our unconscious resistance to it. Conversely, change and impermanence also apply to seemingly intractable difficulties: they, too, will pass.

8.     Let understanding emerge

Sometimes complexity isn’t an illusion: it’s just the way things are. We can’t always simplify the situation we are in, but we can find clarity by coming back to the present moment and what is clear right now. Sometimes, all we know is that things are baffling and difficult; but at least we can know that. Then, a deeper understanding may slowly emerge.

 

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