Mindfulness and Meditation in Daily Life
Meditation is an essential means of accomplishing the ultimate aim of a Buddhist practitioner-the attainment of an enlightened or Buddha mind, one without suffering, through gaining wisdom, cultivating positive practices and maintaining a mind free of negative emotions. When the experiences and realizations of meditation and mindfulness are taken beyond the cushion and into daily activities, we and others benefit from our transformed actions.
In this book, we explain the basics of meditation and the Buddhist principles behind it.
Starting a Meditations Practice
In Buddhism, meditation has to do with “familiarization”. Through meditation, you can familiarize your mind with beneficial states and thoughts-thoughts such as assisting others, compassion, treating others equally and morality. You begin to realize that non-virtuous thoughts such as hatred, anger, greed, and jealousy are destructive not only to the people you direct them at but also to yourself.
This can be a confronting experience, but it need not be. The idea is not to give yourself a hard time when contemplating the less favorable aspects of your nature. But to use the awareness to change and improve yourself. It can be a source of positive change for a happier life.
The most common experience for someone meditating for the first time is the realization of how busy the mind is. It is not until we attempt to quieten the mind that we realize there is a continuous arising of thoughts, memories, sounds, physical sensations and visions.
This is what the Lamas (Buddhist teachers or gurus) call the “monkey-mind”. Just like a monkey’s mind, ours too is continually jumping from one object to the next. By understanding the current nature of your mind, you can begin to learn how to change it.
The success of meditation depends on many factors, including your state of mind before you begin, your stress level and physical tiredness. As a result, some sessions are better than others. Don’t expect too much, especially to begin with. Even experienced meditators have bad days. Be patient. Be gentle on yourself.
When, Where, and How
The Meditation Environment
Meditation can be practiced almost anywhere, and you do not need much to practice-a quiet place to rest is enough, but a cushion or chair and a small table to rest a book on is ideal. It is helpful to dedicate a space for this purpose. Your meditation space should be comfortable, clean, tidy, quiet, and isolated from distractions.
How often should I meditate?
For a beginner, regular and brief meditation sessions are more beneficial than occasional attempts at longer sessions. If we try to do too much too soon there is the change of becoming disheartened, feeling that meditation is just a painful, frustrating experience.
The first step in a meditation session is to check your posture. The following seven points are widely accepted as being important, as they help the subtle energies in the body flow freely and reduce the chances of distraction. They are note compulsory, though. The main concern is to be comfortable enough to avoid moving around or being distracted by discomfort, but not so relaxed that you fall asleep or experience dullness.
- Cross your legs if sitting on the ground or on a cushion . Sitting on a chair is also fine.
- With your palms facing upwards, place your right hand on top of your left with the tips of your thumbs gently touching, hands resting in your lap.
- Hold back comfortably straight; not so rigid that you experience discomfort or tension during the session.
- Relax your jaw and allow your tongue to rest behind your front, top teeth.
- Tilt your head slightly forward.
- Your eyes may be closed, although this can increase the chance of falling asleep. If you have your eyes open, have them only slightly open, gazing downwards without focusing.
- Hold your shoulders level and keep your elbows slightly away from your body.
Let’s try a simple meditation now. By placing your thought on the breath. It is possible to quieten the “monkey-mind” and improve concentration.
The aim is to become aware of the breath as it enters and leaves your body by concentrating on the rise and fall of the abdomen or the sensation of the breath passing through your lips or nostrils.
With the exhalation of each breath, count one, two, three, etc. Set yourself an achievable target of say seven to begin with. When sensations of quietness, stillness and peace eventually occur, hold them as best you can and experience them as fully as possible. When you are distracted or lose the sensation, return to the breath.
Distractions come in many forms. Sounds, visions, physical sensations such as pain in the knees or an itch, happy or unhappy memories, memories of people and events that you have not thought about for ages may come up during your practice.
If you find that you are distracted easily, do not get angry or frustrated. This is the nature of the “monkey-mind” and an awareness of this nature is actually a sign of progress.
The best way to handle these distractions is to not indulge them or attempt to repel them. As they arise in your mind, they will also disappear of their own accord. Simply acknowledge them and return the thought to the breath and resume counting.
As a patient mother will gently bring a curious, crawling baby back on the blanket, we should be the same with our mind when it wanders. Patiently and gently bring it back to the breath, understanding that wandering or distraction is part of its current nature.
While effort is important, it is possible to try too hard to meditate. Meditation should be an enjoyable, inspiring experience. Ideally, you should be looking forward to the next meditation session and not feeling that it is a chore, finding reasons to avoid it. If you find yourself becoming frustrated at the apparent lack of success, it may be best to take a break. Go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Try again later in the day.
Meditation and the Mind
We are inclined to talk about our mind as something solid like a container, or maybe even a filing cabinet located in our head. We often say such things as: “I’ll keep it in my mind”, “my mind is full of thoughts”, etc. However, the mind is not a physical object. No matter how skillful a surgeon maybe, they are unable to extract the mind from a body and hold it in their hands.
Buddha’s teachings Tell us that the mind is formless; a beginningless, endless, dynamic process of experiences that are continually arising. From beginningless time, our minds have be reincarnating and experiencing various sufferings of a samsaric (from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth) existence. Our bodies, in different states of existence, act like vehicles for the mind. As long as we are satisfied with this sort of existence and do nothing, it will continue. But by becoming aware of the nature and potential of our mind, we can begin to understand that profound changes are possible.
The experiences that are currently arising and forming our mind are not doing so without cause. For something to exist or come into existence there must be a reason; a cause or action to create the effect.
Those experiences are driven by karma, the Law of Cause and Effect. Our mind is a result of our past actions causing effects to arise now. Buddha observed and taught about the laws of karma; how certain actions result in experiences of suffering, while others result in experiences of happiness.
Creating Causes for Happiness
If we are able to modify our behavior appropriately, understanding that certain actions bring certain results, then we can begin to create the causes for happiness in the future instead of suffering. To start, we need to develop an understanding of the nature of our mind; then we will have an informed idea of what changes to make.
Buddha has shown us the way to do this by detailing the actions required and the ways we can create the conditions in our mind to allow those actions to arise naturally. While there may be a considerable delay between the action and its karmic result, we can experience profound changes in our lives by modifying our actions.
A more peaceful mind, contentment, less worry, less stress and deeper happiness; all this is possible, as well as a more profound love and appreciation for those close to us and for all sentient beings. A mind that looks at other sentient beings with compassion, love and care is one that will convert all our actions into a cause to attain Buddhahood-an enlightened mind. With this sort of mind, our resulting actions will create happiness, not only for us but also for those we come into contact with.
Understanding Negative Actions
If the reverse is true, then it is easy to see what the result would be-negative actions creating unhappiness and disharmony in our minds and in the minds of those we come into contact with. It is essential to be aware of our actions and understand their consequences.
The priceless and very precious positive state of mind is our responsibility to cultivate and maintain, as there are few sources of assistance from outside. The positive influences in our lives are greatly outnumbered by negative influences! In any given day, our minds are exposed to an overwhelming amount of information via radio, television, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and of course, other people. Most of this information is not a positive influence for our minds. We need to be more discriminating with the input our minds receive, to minimize the harmful effects that are accumulated so easily.
Cultivating Positive Thoughts
The first step in cultivating a positive state of mind is awareness. The next step is having the willingness and motivation to investigate, analyze and identify positive or negative, constructive or destructive influences and states of mind.
It is said that it is not possible for a negative thought to be in our mind at the same time as a positive thought. Considering this, we need to consciously cultivate the positive thoughts and swamp the negative ones, outnumber them, rather than fighting them and getting frustrated when they dominate.
With the practice of meditation, we can familiarize our mind with appropriate thoughts. Meditation also allows us to contemplate the teachings of Buddha and relate them to our own experience. This is the way to transform more intellectual knowledge into profound, life-changing realizations.
With practice, meditation and a mind of compassion for others, we are doing more than just wishing peace, happiness and good conditions for others-we are also counteracting our own hatred, anger and negative states of mind.
Our mind can be our own greatest enemy! Buddha taught that if control can be gained over the mind, then control will be gained over everything. Meditation in which we watch the breath is intended to develop mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the ability of the mind to maintain attention on an object. This ability is crucial in advanced levels o meditation, where undistracted focus on an object for great lengths of time is necessary. Mindfulness in our everyday activities also benefits us immediately by contributing to a peaceful, stress-free mind.
From the moment we wake in the morning, we tend to follow the impulses of the “monkey-mind”, with occasional periods of taking control to focus on the task at hand. As a result, many actions are carried out subconsciously and we are unable to recall doing them.
You may have had the experience of driving to a destination, arriving, and then not being able to recall how you got there. While we may have times where we are focused on a task, more often than not we are thinking of other things.
Think of a recent face-to-face conversation you had with someone. What thoughts were going through your mind at the time? Were you really listening to the other person, or were you just hearing part of what they said while busily thinking of other things?
Much of the time we are not really listening. We half hear, then quickly make assumptions about what the person is saying and start to think of appropriate responses. It is not often that we really listen mindfully.
When we are physically ill, we may be distracted by pain or discomfort, resulting in an inability to carry out physical actions properly. So it is with our mind. Distracted by other thoughts, we are unable to concentrate on the task at hand. This can result in not doing tasks to the best of our ability. We may be doing the task to simply get it over and done with rather than doing it mindfully.
By practicing mindfulness, we can become discerning about the thoughts we let into our mind. More importantly, we can check our motivation for carrying out an action. What are the consequences of the action? Is it an action that ill create happiness or suffering for others and myself? Is the action motivated by the thought of cherishing myself at the expense of others? Is there a more skillful way to handle this situation?
If we can develop mindfulness, we begin to take control of our mind rather than be controlled by it. Less stress, improved concentration and a feeling of more control over our lives are all possible if we make the effort!