Learn to Practise Buddhism – Part 5
A Do-It-Yourself Approach to Happiness
This is the fifth in a 9 part series on learning to practise Buddhism.
If there is a magic ingredient in the Buddhist Path then it would be mindfulness. One of the first principles of Buddhist Teachings is that you can take charge of your mind as a key component of creating wellbeing and happiness for your future.
Mindfulness is what makes this possible. We need to be able to recognise in real time what we are thinking, doing and saying if we hope to take charge of any of these components of our behaviour.
What do we mean by practicing mindfulness?
“If you pour a cup of tea, you are aware of extending your arm and touching your hand to the teapot, lifting it and pouring the water. Finally the water touches your teacup and fills it, and you stop pouring it and put the teapot down precisely, as in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. You become aware that each precise movement has dignity. We have long forgotten that activities can be simple and precise. Every act of our lives can contain simplicity and precision and can thus have tremendous beauty and dignity.” (Trungpa 1973, p.156) 1.
“There is the story concerning the Buddha which relates how he taught a village woman to develop such mindfulness in the act of drawing water from a well. He taught her to be aware of the precise movement of her hands and arms as she drew up the water. Such practice is the attempt to see the nowness quality in action, which is why it is known as “shamatha,” the development of peace”. (Trungpa)
Both of these quotes should surprise us because they each say that within the ordinariness of our normal living, within the mundaneness of our daily activities, is the possibility of contentment, nourishment and joyfulness. Right in front of us in our simplest actions we can find peace and beauty.
The quality of attentiveness being described in the quotes is certainly different to our habitual way of doing things. This is a conscious observance of the nowness of living, a patient attention and an alertness which comes from the effort to savour the present moment.
According to Buddhism, reality exists in the present instant. Reality is occurring second by second. You exist second by second. The past is gone, the future hasn’t arrived. Only the present is real. What you were one minute ago is gone completely. Just an ancestor! What you will be tomorrow we can’t say.
Therefore if you wish to see what you really are you can only do it by looking at your experience in the present. If you want to take charge of your mind and your behaviour it can be done most effectively through your awareness of the present happenings.
Normally we don’t live like this. We usually take our actions and reactions for granted, we operate mostly from our habit or default settings. Our normal state from a Buddhist viewpoint is similar to living on automatic pilot. This state in Buddhism is likened to being asleep. Buddhism says the foundation of developing on the Buddhist Path is we have to wake ourselves up.
The more we train our attention to stay in the present, the more stable is our foundation for improving the health of our mind. Automatically our mind becomes brighter, more alert, more intelligent, and more energetic – all from this simple process of being awake in the present.
Even as our body deteriorates through ageing as our mindfulness is improved by our practice the power of our mind can still be increased.
It is quite a radical change to how we live. We decide to be awake to our momentary experience of living. We train ourselves until it becomes our new habitual way of living. This is called the awakening mind in Buddhism and it is considered our most treasured possession because it builds and strengthens the very essence of our enlightenment.
The effort to become mindful is well worth it. This commitment to living with mindfulness is a commitment to your own wellbeing. Through your effort to become mindful you can eventually overcome every obstacle that can arise within your mind, you can eventually defeat every unwholesome state, every unwholesome action, every cause of unhappiness can be removed.
“Mindfulness, O monks, I declare, is essential in all things everywhere” ~ The Buddha.
So how do we begin? It’s not too difficult if you remember you only have to stay mindful of one second at a time. Just what you are doing now – only. It’s a little bit at a time practice – one second, one second, one second. Just like the Buddhist meditation on the breath, we keep bringing our attention back to the present. We observe how usually the mind gives us a running commentary on anything that gets its attention. Then we get caught up in our thinking. Don’t get caught up in all these stories our mind produces. In Buddhism this day dreaming and internal dialogue is called the “monkey mind”.
Stop being interested in all the stories and internal commentary. Many of them are meaningless gibberish anyway. What do you think your mental chatter would look like if you wrote it all down? When you read it back to yourself later do you think it would be very coherent? How long would you bother to read this stuff?
When something happens we don’t like we often dwell on that for sometime afterwards. We replay what happened over again and again in our head. We revisit our disturbance. This is a sure-fire way of prolonging our negative mental states and keeping ourselves annoyed.
When we notice our attention has strayed off the present or we are lost in our thoughts we let go of the thing we have been playing with and focus our attention back to what you are doing in the present.
We can put this instruction into practice immediately, right now as we are reading. Practice being in the present now.
Sit as if in meditation, relaxed but with a gentle awareness of your body, with your mind contained in the volume of your body. You bring your mind home. Feel your body, feel your arms, your legs, your weight on the seat, relax any stress you are holding in your body. Be comfortable. Note the feelings that arise in your body. If you are warm enjoy that sensation of warmth, allow yourself to be softly nourished by just dropping everything else and dwelling in the present experience of sitting.
Then, when you start to read keep some of your attention relaxed in your body. Just read gently with interest to what is being said.
As it turns out, even though your attention is not focused exclusively on this book any more, you can still read with understanding as you did before. You will find, over time, you understand more of what’s being said when your mind is inside your body like this. This is because gradually your mind becomes quieter and more focused.
You can do this many times a day. Try it when you are driving your car, or travelling on a train, when you are watching TV or cooking, mowing the lawn, sweeping the floor, and so on. Washing the dishes is an excellent time to practice mindfulness because your body is active in a small area and generally there are not many other distractions.
Try washing the dishes meditation at home. Move consciously, in a relaxed manner. Use care and alertness to put down the washed dishes quietly. You may note the experience of washing the dishes which you may have previously regarded as being unpleasant is not quite what you thought.
The feeling of the soft soapy warm water on your hands and the feeling of movement which is unhurried, gentle and relaxed make this an activity of meditation rather than a household chore.
At your work look for opportunities to develop awareness of your body both when sitting and when walking.
Just start applying it whenever you can. It is going to take some time to build up your mindfulness. Like anything else we try that is new. There is a learning curve and it does take time to get out of out habit of being unmindful. Just know that gradually week by week as you work at it your mindfulness will improve.
“We should invest one hundred percent of ourselves into the business of carrot cutting. Nothing else. You have to cut the carrot with all of yourself. While cutting the carrot please don’t try to think of the Dharma talk, just cut the carrot in the best way that you can, becoming one with the carrot, becoming one with the cutting. Live deeply that moment of carrot cutting. It is as important as the practice of sitting meditation. It is as important as giving a Dharma talk. When you cut the carrot, just cut the carrot with all your being. That is mindfulness. That is to produce your true presence to become fully alive. The practice is not difficult, especially when you are surrounded by a Sangha where everyone is doing the same. You are cutting carrots, he is sweeping the ground in the meditation hall — you are both practising the same thing. If you can cultivate concentration and if you can get the insight you need to liberate yourself from suffering, that is because you know how to cut your carrots.
Cleaning the toilet, you have to do it in the same spirit: invest all of yourself into the cleaning, make it into a joyful practice. One thing at a time, do it deeply. The purpose of the practice is to cultivate the energy of mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness will help us to live each moment of our lives deeply, help us stop running, help us touch what is wonderful, refreshing, nourishing and healing in us and around us. There are many wonders of life that are available in the here and the now, and without mindfulness we would neglect them, we would ignore them, we would not know how to profit from them.” (1)
You can be mindful anywhere, any time, no matter what you are doing. It is practised alongside every other practice, hand in hand with every other practice. You practice generosity and kindness with mindfulness. You practice doing good actions with mindfulness. You guard and protect your mind from generating negative states such as resentment anger by using mindfulness. It is the practice which you can develop to be like a constant companion, at your side, protecting you, looking after you, helping you create benefits for your self and others through the recognition of what’s really happening instant by instant.
Now you may see how the calmness and brightness which can be developed in meditation can be extended into our normal lives. We make an effort to keep our mindfulness after we end each meditation session.
Your experience of living will feel and be better if you can train yourself to be mindful. You’re only going to find out about it by doing it for yourself. You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading about it. You can’t know the taste of coke unless you drink it.
Don’t expect too much too soon. Be patient; apply yourself gently minute by minute. If you train yourself this way, one day you will suddenly recognise something very liberating is happening.
“When you see the nowness of the very moment, there is no room for anything but openness and peace”. (Trungpa)