simplicity

Dealing with the pain of change

leaves changing

The other day one of my meditation students wrote, asking for some advice. She was having to downsize and move into a smaller apartment. And this meant that she couldn’t hold on to some of her family heirlooms, like her mother’s wedding china. It also meant that her teenage son wouldn’t be able to continue living with her. That last part was particularly painful.

So I wrote the following in response:

Dear X.

It is hard to let go of things, and to have relationships change, so I can appreciate why you’re suffering.

The changes you’re going through are unique to you, even if others have been through similar experiences, so I offer the following only as things you might take as a starting point for your own reflections.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to about the move? It might be that you can focus on things like creating more of a sense of simplicity in your life, or creating a new space around you that supports aspirations you may have. If there are things you can look forward to, then focusing on those might help shift your perspective about the move… (continued below)

See also:

Ironically, I find myself with too much “stuff” at the moment. When Teresa and I moved in together, we ended up with duplicate furniture. Some we got rid of, but we ended up with two dining tables and no room for either of them, and so they’re in storage in our basement. I look in the basement and see all of this clutter, and I sometimes think that if it all disappeared one day I probably wouldn’t notice for weeks, since I hardly ever have a reason to go down there, and that if I did happen to walk into an empty basement I’d feel free! So really we should get rid of all that stuff, but unless we were moving again there’s really no motivation to do so.

Anyway, I do like to think of the freedom and lightness that comes from not being burdened by things I have but don’t use. I don’t know if that’s something that you could also embrace.

I sometimes also think about the fact that one day I’m going to die, and that, as they say, you can’t take it with you. Who would have your mother’s wedding china once you’ve passed away? If there’s no one obvious who would take it, then you might think about what the difference is between giving it away now and it being given away once you’re dead. Advantages to passing it on now (even to strangers) would be that you’d know someone else was enjoying it, that you’d given them this gift, and that you’d be in control of where it goes. Once you die, none of those things would be possible.

With regard to your son, I wonder if you could think of sending him out into the world as a man? Is there some way you could build up to ritually or ceremonially marking and celebrating this transition in his life? I can imagine, for example, that it would be lovely to create a book of wisdom teachings (maybe accompanied by photographs of the two of you) that could guide him as he goes into the world and remain as a tangible record of his transition. Something like that might give you a positive focus that mitigates the suffering of the change.

As I said, I’m just throwing some ideas out there. I’d be really fascinated to hear what you come up with yourself.

What has helped you get through painful periods of change? Why not share in the comments below.

Read More

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.

Read More

Lay your burdens down

On the path of life, most of us are hauling way too much weight.

What’s in your own backpack? If you’re like most of us, you’ve got too many items on each day’s To Do list and too much stuff in the closet. Too many entanglements with other people. And too many “shoulds,” worries, guilts, and regrets.

Remember a time when you lightened your load. Maybe a backpacking trip when every needless pound stayed home. Or after you finally left a bad relationship. Or just stopped worrying about something. Or came clean with a friend about something that had been bothering you. How did this feel? Probably pretty great.

Sure, we are no longer nomadic hunter-gatherers whose possessions could be carried in one hand. You know what you really need in this life; personally, I’m glad about good friends and a full refrigerator. But all the extra physical and mental stuff you lug around complicates your life, weighs you down, and keeps you stuck. There’s enough weightiness in life as it is without adding more.

Putting this subject in a larger framework, consider the Hindu idea that God has three primary manifestations: Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. I can’t do justice in this brief space to this view, but the simple notion that works for me is that there is a lawful and beneficial principle in the universe that is about pruning, emptying, completing, and ending.

This positive “destroying” – very broadly defined – enables creating and preserving, like exhaling enables inhaling, or emptying a cup of something bitter enables filling it with something sweet.

Dropping loads enables lightening up.

How?

In general: Lay your burdens down. And rarely pick up new ones.

Now the details: Pick some place of storage – like a bookshelf, drawer, or corner of a closet – and clear it out of everything you no longer truly want or absolutely need. Give it away or throw it away. Notice how this feels – both anxiety and positive feelings.

Sometimes we fear we will sort of blow away in life if we don’t have a lot of stuff. Then focus on the positive feelings and open to a sense of reward in dropping things you don’t need. Keep going with other stuff you don’t want or need, both at home and at work.

Take a hard look at your obligations, responsibilities, and tasks. Maybe write down a list. Ask yourself: do I really need to do all of these things??! Open to that voice of wisdom in you that’s telling you what you can afford to drop. Open to a sense of freedom and autonomy: you get to decide what makes most sense to do, not the “shoulds” yammering away inside your head. Decide what you can give to others to do – and get them to do it. Decide what you could stop doing, whether others pick it up or not.

For a period of time (a day, a week, a year), do not take on a single new major obligation. Regard all new activities, events, and tasks as “guilty until proven innocent” – toss them in your backpack only if you are certain you truly want to or absolutely have to.

Consider your relationships. Which ones feel weighty, entangled, encumbered? Then consider what you could do about that. Could you step back? No longer engage certain topics (e.g., intractable health problems, conflicts with third parties, the past)? No longer perform certain roles (e.g., problem-solving, quasi-therapist, dating advisor)?

Take a look at your mind: what weighs it down? Guilt about long-ago misdeeds? Needless anxiety? High, perfectionistic standards? Grumbling anger? Grievances? Passivity, lethargy? Doubt? Taking yourself way too seriously? Whatever it is, for a brief period of time – half an hour, half a day – totally drop it. At the first whiff, drop it. See what that’s like: probably pretty great! Then ride that great wave of relief and lightness and continue dropping those lead weights in your mind.

Overall: if in doubt, throw it out.

Play with feeling lighter in your body. As if you are lifted up by invisible helium balloons. Lighter in your step. Your head lighter on your shoulders.

Lighter in your heart.

Read More

Full-screen living

Leo Babauta has a great post at Zen Habits (a site I must remember to visit more often) on Full-Screen Living.

Many of us who write, he points out, use tools that simplify our computer screens. My last book, and most of my blog posts, were written in an application called WriteRoom, which presents me with a black screen, green plain type, and no formatting options, toolbars, or any other distractions. When I’m reading news articles on the web I often use Readability, which is a browser plugin that reformats the screen to make reading an undistracted full-screen experience. Babauta mentions these options, and more, and this may be new to you, but it’s something I’m already deeply into. (Readability has announced since I wrote this post that it’s closing down, but here’s an alternative if you use the Chrome browser.)

But where he gets really interesting is when he takes “full-screen” as a metaphor for life. It’s a brilliant metaphor, and along with many other writers I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of it myself. Here’s the juicy part of his article:

That’s fine for computer work, but what about life in general? You can live exactly the same way.

If you’re going to spend time with your child, don’t switch between the child tab and the work tabs in the browser of your mind. Put your child into full-screen mode, and let him take up all your attention, and let work and everything else you need to do later fade into the background.

You’ll still get to the work, when you’re done with what you’re doing with your child, but for now, be fully in this one activity, with this one person. When you’re done with that, you can bring your work into full-screen mode, and let the rest of your life go into the background for the moment.

If you eat, let the food fill up the screen of your attention, not your thinking about other things. If you’re showering, let that fill your attention, instead of planning. When you’re brushing your teeth, let the “conversation” (read: argument) you had earlier fade away and just brush your teeth.

When you work, do one task at a time. And don’t just do one task at a time, but do that task with all your attention (or as much as possible), and don’t be thinking about the other tasks.

But how do we do this. Babauta has some advice on this too, but I’ll let you read that on Zen Habits.

Read More

The art of finding abundance in frugal times

In the metta sutta, the discourse on loving kindness, the Buddha teaches us how to be “skilled in goodness and know the path of peace”.

These attributes can be practiced in a number of ways including kind speech, humility and also through being frugal.

We are living at a time when prices keep going up and our income, if we are fortunate enough to have one, is not keeping up.

So, how can we live abundantly while living frugally?

Here is a list of suggestions.

1. Attitude is Everything

The way we think about things creates our reality. When we think we don’t have enough, we come from a place of scarcity. When we think we have what we need, we come from a place of abundance. We can choose which place we come from by choosing to think positively.

We may not have the latest technological toys, the biggest house, the fastest car or designer clothes, but we have abundance when we appreciate our five-year old laptop, our comfortable living space, our reliable Subaru and skill to do your own home repairs.

2. Take a Realistic Look at Our Financial Situation

If we don’t already have a budget, now is the time to create one. List what comes in and what goes out. Take a look at what is spent on wants rather than needs. Make that list of wants shorter.

3. Become Aware of What is Really Important

Think about what is really important to you. Perhaps you are saving for a college education for yourself or your children. Perhaps you are saving for a home or a car. Find ways to put money into the bank for these items that are meaningful. Each time we bring our coffee and lunch to work, we are giving up a little now to gain a lot later.

4. Meditate on What Material Things Mean to You

Take some time to sit quietly and think about what you spend money on and what those objects mean to you. Do you have high mortgage or car payments to finance because a pricey home or new car makes you feel a certain way? Do you buy rounds of drinks for your friends because you try to keep up with them even though they make more money than you do? No number of material things can increase our self-esteem — that can only be increased by intrinsic qualities like kindness.

5. Learn About Ways to Nourish Yourself Without Spending a Lot of Money

They say “the best things in life are not things”. Rather than spending money on things, spend time in natural surroundings, take a walk, and get together with friends and cook at home rather than going out to a restaurant. Read to your children or take them hiking, listen to music or create art together.

Being frugal may mean that we are giving up some material things, but it can also mean we find abundance in other ways such as spending quality time with friends and family members and finding out what is most meaningful in our lives.  One of the most meaningful Buddhist scriptures I have read is the metta sutta:

The Buddha’s Words on Lovingkindness

This is what should be done
By those who are skilled in goodness,
And who know the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: in gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upward to the skies,
And downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Read More

“Happiness and How it Happens” by Suryacitta Malcolm Smith

reviews
3 Comments

Happiness and How it Happens

“Happiness and How it Happens,” by “The Happy Buddha” Suryacitta Malcolm Smith

At first glance, the most obvious thing about this excellent little book on mindfulness and meditation is just how beautifully produced it is. It’s a pleasure just to pick it up and browse through it. Somehow, the care the publishers have taken with the book’s appearance both reflects its theme and adds to its impact.

So, how, according to Suryacitta, does happiness ‘happen’? He gets straight to the point – “Happiness is our natural state. It happens when we stop making ourselves unhappy by believing in the stories the thinking mind throws up”.

It’s all very well to say this, one might think, but anyone who’s tried to make miserable thoughts ‘just stop’ will know that it’s not easy at all – it can seem quite impossible.

Title: Happiness and How It Happens
Author: Happy Buddha (Suryacitta)
Publisher: The Ivy Press
ISBN: 978-190733-293-7
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Fortunately, many Buddhist traditions have been exploring this for millennia, and what Suryacitta presents here epitomises some of the most pithy and direct methods that these traditions offer. “Being in the present moment is the secret to a life of unconditional happiness and freedom. But how do we do it? The key is simply to notice, without judgment or criticism, what takes you away from the present and then return to the felt experience of the present.”

That just about sums it up. I like the way that Suryacitta keeps emphasising that while this is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. This goes against our conditioning – it feels like simple things should be easy. Cultural norms tell us that happiness lies in having desirable objects, desirable relationships. Simplicity sounds a bit … boring. Yet we long for it “People complain about their lives being stressful, hectic, over-complicated and with little or no room for the simple things that they want to enjoy”. Changing our external conditions is really just more of the same. Simplicity, and hence happiness, is right here ‘within’. What’s needed is a change of orientation – to look for happiness where it’s actually to be found.

Suryacitta offers very practical ways into the practice of mindfulness together with a very simple ‘just sitting’ kind of meditation where we “simply … notice the bodily sensations and thoughts that take us away from an open and direct experience of the moment”. He spices the book with helpful quotes from other authors, anecdotes and a good deal of warm-spirited humour, which is very much part of his style (see his Happy Buddha website).

See also:

Over recent years there have been an increasing number of books published around mindfulness and meditation as ways of overcoming stress, depression and chronic physical and mental pain. It’s great to see this development and it’s certainly good to see these ancient Buddhist practices being used for what they were always intended – the alleviation of suffering.

But in one vital respect, this one differs from most that I’ve come across. Suryacitta doesn’t hold back from presenting ways into the deepest and most profoundly transformative perspectives that Buddhism has to offer: the illusory nature of the view of a separate ‘self’, the nature of awareness, and the meaning and possibility of waking up (awakening, ‘enlightenment’). I suspect that a lot of the books based on fairly recent applications of Buddhist method combined with western science and psychology, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, avoid these areas to the extent that their authors are concerned to present mindfulness and meditation in a secular / scientific context. This is understandable and I certainly have no problem with it, but it seems to me that practising without bringing in these further perspectives can only take you so far.

‘Happiness and How it Happens’ shares common ground with the ‘mindfulness based’ approaches in showing readers how to set up a meditation and mindfulness practice, to work effectively with fear and other ‘negative’ emotions as well as how to engage positive emotions such as compassion. But as you work through it, you also discover what it means to truly accept whatever experiences arise (negative as well as positive) – which is the same as ‘letting-go’, and to realise the importance of learning to trust awareness as the main key to leaving behind, for good, what makes us less than happy.

As Suryacitta point out, we can “give up the idea of trying to change ourselves. We can let go of trying to rid ourselves of aspects that we don’t like, and of trying to add anything on to ourselves. This is just aversion and attachment in more subtle forms.” What’s wrong with trying to change ourselves? In the ultimate sense, it’s because we’re trying to change something that doesn’t really exist: ‘my self’. “The root of our suffering … is a sense of self separate from all the other selves out there … We build an identity out of this sense of self …. In doing so, we lose contact with our true nature.” Trying to change ourselves is like trying to make a prison cell a more comfortable place to live. “Never mind tinkering with the place”, he writes “it’s about escaping the prison altogether.”

A great thing about the book is that, by the time you’ve worked through the earlier chapters, this radical and apparently counter-intuitive perspective comes across as obvious. It is, in fact, the very core of Buddhist insight and practice. The methods Suryacitta offers for investigating one’s immediate experience open up a real possibility of getting a direct glimpse of our true nature – and discovering for ourselves that this is how happiness, in fact, happens.

Read More

Meditation on happiness

girl sitting on a doorstep, laughing with joy

Happiness – we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Self-help books on happiness line the shelves of book shops and libraries and there are all kinds of theories about happiness.

Over the years what I thought about and desired as a means to gaining happiness have changed as I have… matured (I like the word matured better than aged). Here is my list, organized by decades.

From ages:

0-10 I wanted to be cared for, safe, nourished and nurtured to be happy (although I could not articulate all this at the time).

11-20 I wanted friendships, fun, freedom, popularity, a car and someone interesting and sexy to date.

21-30 I wanted a college education, to go to lots of parties, a satisfying career, a marriage partner, pregnancy and healthy children, and a nice house in a neighborhood with a good school system.

31-40 I wanted to further my career as a Social Worker and Educational Consultant, a happy marriage, and healthy, independent kids.

41-50 I wanted to understand what spirituality meant, to know the meaning of life, to go beyond my self and live in an altruistic manner.

51-60 I want freedom, health, prosperity, deep friendships and to simplify my life more and more.

Throughout these decades there have been some things that did not change from decade to decade, including:

  • health, love and happiness for myself, my family members, friends and all people
  • stimulating work that helps people
  • a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home
  • good friends, a happy marriage and independent children
  • peace in the world
  • that everyone have food to eat

For the past ten years, my quest for happiness has focused on things that, at younger ages, I would not have thought important, including:

  • a spiritual practice and community
  • deep friendships based on caring, trust and mutual generosity
  • a life simplified by having less – fewer material things, a small living space
  • simple pleasures – watching otters and ducks on the pond by my cottage, watching the seasons change, spending time in natural settings, cooking for friends, phone calls and visits from my kids
  • peace, tranquility, compassion, and acceptance of myself, my children, my friends and acquaintances
  • acceptance for all that is
  • living mindfully, ethically and compassionately

I realize happiness comes from what I value most, what brings me pleasure, challenge, contentment and peace.

Whatever is on your list of things or values that bring you happiness, I hope you revel in them.

Read More

10 ways to live a better life

A black man and woman, cooking

When we think of changing our lives for the better, we may think of a new job, a new home, a new relationship, or material wealth – more “things” that we think will improve our lives.

Recently I saw a bumper sticker that read “the best things in life are not things” – it made me smile and I started thinking about ways to live a better life without looking for or wanting more stuff.

Here is my list:

1. Simplify – rather than desiring more, find ways to live with less. Bring clothing to Good Will or a charity. Clear away clutter from countertops and tables. If you have not used something or worn something for a year – give it away.

2. Enjoy nature – nature soothes the psyche and lessens stress. If you are fortunate enough to live near nature, do not take it for granted. Rather than rushing to work in the morning, take a moment or two to enjoy the trees, ponds, streams, rivers and the sky. If you do not live near natural beauty, take a drive to a nearby lake or take a walk in the woods.

3. Enjoy the arts – whether you enjoy visual art, performance art or historical art – make it part of your life. Take time to visit museums, see a play, or go to a local gallery.

4. Cook at home – it can become a habit to eat fast food in transit to work or school and at restaurants for business lunches and dinners. Cooking at home is less expensive and often more healthy than food from restaurants.

5. Cook for friends – invite friends and family members to your home and prepare a meal together – it is such a lovely way to spend time with people you care for.

6. Bring mindfulness to work – in this culture of multi-tasking, we rush through our work without really enjoying what we do. Being mindful at work helps us to concentrate on one task at a time, and enjoy the sheer pleasure of being present to what we are doing.

7. Spend time with children. I was washing dishes with a four year old recently. It was fun to watch her enjoy running her hand under the water from the faucet and delighting in the bubbles from the dish washing liquid. Her laugh made me laugh, and we both had fun.

8. Focus on others rather than yourself. It is so easy to get caught up in our own needs. Find ways to help others – shovel snow from an elderly person’s walkway, bring a meal to a neighbor who is not feeling well or volunteer at the local SPCA.

9. Spend time with friends – make a conscious effort to remember this. Write notes in your calendar to call a friend and make time to do something together. Friendship is such a precious thing, so we should not take it for granted.

10. Do something creative – whether it is writing a poem or a short story, painting a picture or a room in your house, or taking a photograph.  Doing something creative is energizing and makes life better.

So there you have it, ten ways to live a better life – non of which are expensive – but which will make you happier and your life better.

Read More

Dharma on zero dollars a day

Brass buddha statue

In a time of global financial meltdown, it may be wise to consider that many of the best things in life are indeed free, including self-awareness, happiness, and the freedom to explore one’s own experience. Bodhipaksa shares some reflections from a former monk.

“Rise before dawn and bow three times to the Buddha within you. Bow three times to whatever Buddha image you may already have. If you have no Buddha image, trace the outline of a footprint or a circle on the wall and bow to that. Bow three times to anyone else who may be doing this practice at this very moment, to those who have done it in the past, and to those who may yet come to this practice in the future. When you have thus performed your prostrations, fold your blanket into a square and be seated on the floor.

See also:

“Next, begin the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Maintaining awareness of your breathing in as you are breathing in, breathe in. Maintaining awareness of your breathing out as you are breathing out, breathe out. As thoughts arise, make note of them. As physical sensations arise, do the same. From moment to moment, follow only the breath. Do not follow anything other than the breath.

At all times maintain a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars

“Note carefully when thoughts or impulses arise in regard to purchasing the dharma: the impulse to buy incense or a cushion, to pay membership dues, to purchase dharma teachings in the form of books or tapes or initiations. At the very moment that these thoughts or impulses arise, unbind yourself from them and return to the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day.

“At the end of your meditation session, replace the blanket and proceed about your ordinary business, at all times maintaining a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars. Be especially mindful of advertisements for dharma products and of catalogs or stores where such products may be displayed. To enter such an establishment or touch such products, or to gaze longingly upon images of such products, is an impure act requiring confession before another practitioner of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day within a period of one month.

As you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them.

“When you have returned from work, and have taken your evening meal, meditate once more on your folded blanket in the prescribed manner. Afterward, reflect on the quality of your behavior throughout the day. Did your acts in any way contribute to the idea that the dharma was for sale? Did you engage in rootless discussions on the merits of teachers who live in faraway places? Did you do or say anything to imply that the dharma was unavailable to yourself or another at the present place and time? Stated more positively, what did you do to encourage yourself and others in the belief that the dharma can manifest itself right here and now without consumption of any kind?

“As you retire, in the moments before you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them. Reflect on the Four Noble Truths of Buddha and the fact that no dollars need be spent to understand them or to take them to heart.

“Once a week, go to your public library and read books on Buddhism (all kinds). Be mindful that these books may or may not have been written by someone who understands and follows the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Take that which comes without a price tag and cherish it as a holy text.

Walker Douglas is a former Tibetan Buddhist monk.

Read More

Jean Antoine Petit-Senn: “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate.”

Jean Antoine Petit-Senn

The words “abundance” and “spirituality” may not seem to go hand in hand but, Bodhipaksa argues, mindfulness, properly seen, is inherently enriching.

Once, on retreat, I was in a discussion group in which we were discussing the metaphors that encapsulated how we saw our spiritual practice. We all had very different ways of seeing what we were trying to do with our lives.

One person thought in terms of becoming a kinder person, shedding compassion like the sun sheds light; another in terms of really seeing how things are. One saw himself as a spiritual warrior; another as a tree taking root, aspiring to provide fruit and shade for other beings. I was impressed both at the variety of the personal myths expressed, and by the spirit of harmony with which they were shared. We all seemed to recognize that there was no “right” myth and that all these metaphors were valid and useful to the people that held them.

One moment that particularly struck me was where one man said that he saw his spiritual path in terms of richness, while another saw his spiritual life as a quest for simplicity. It struck me that although those aspirations — richness and simplicity — might seem to be contradictory, they were actually both expressions of the same underlying truth, perfectly exemplified in an aphorism often attributed to the Swiss poet, Jean Antoine Petit-Senn*:

It’s not what we have
That constitutes our abundance
But what we appreciate.

We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing. We’re materially rich but emotionally poor. I know children like this, who have a plethora of toys and gizmos, all the latest computer equipment and games, but who are unable to pay attention to any of them, and who are perpetually bored.

We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing.

Appreciation is one of the qualities of mindfulness that most resonates with me. When I’m at my most mindful I’m at my most appreciative; I notice the fine details of my experience, I really look at things, I really taste my food, I notice and enjoy the ordinary sensations that arise in the body as I walk, lift a cup to my lips, or brush my teeth.

It’s possible to conceive of mindfulness as a cool or even cold state, one in which we have a detached and uninvolved gaze. But that kind of mindfulness is purely cognitive — involving the mind — and lacks heart. It’s a form of mindfulness that’s alienated. True mindfulness involves the whole being — head and heart — and we don’t simply notice but appreciate. We notice the fine detail of our experiences, and we also notice ourselves — our feelings, our physical responses, our emotions, the effect that our experiences have on the mind, our thoughts.

Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.

Abundance lies in this richness of response. Poverty is when we encounter experiences in an alienated way. We have sensory contact with the world but we don’t have any depth of contact with ourselves, and so consequently our responses are flattened, deadened, and monochromatic. We’re bored and restless. Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.

To be appreciative through mindfulness doesn’t mean that everything is going to be rosy and sunny in your life. Suffering is inevitable. But even painful experiences are richer and more alive when we pay attention to and appreciate our pain.

Another poet, Ryōkan, who died six years before Petit-Senn was born, is said to have returned to the hut where he lived as a simple monk, only to disturb a thief who was ransacking his few possessions. In his haste to escape, the thief left behind Ryōkan’s meditation cushion. Ryōkan picked up the cushion and chased after the thief to give it to him. Afterward he sat in his hut, looking out of the window at the moon, thinking, “I wish I could have given him the moon as well.”

This was no idle thought. Ryōkan was famous for expressing simple appreciation and gratitude in his poetry. He could find joy in the simplest things — the sound of the wind, the dripping of water from his roof on a rainy day, children playing, the taste of a berry. Ryōkan knew that if the thief had been able to appreciate the moon as fully as he himself could, he would have had no need to steal.

Ryōkan, sitting in a bare hut looking at the moon, was materially destitute but had such spiritual abundance that he had riches to spare.

*2023 Update: Since I wrote this piece, 15 years ago, I’ve found no evidence that Petit-Senn is the actual source of these words. It’s possible that they’re an adaptation from another writer.

Read More
Menu

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.

X