I’ve never been bored
since I learned to meditate.
Just pay attention.
I’ve never been bored
since I learned to meditate.
Just pay attention.
“When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, “space cadet,” cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, from “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life”
“Get used to disappointment.” – Westley, The Princess Bride
I’ve been dealing with several disappointments lately, some major and some minor. Since I’m an introspective person by nature, I’ve asked myself two important questions. First, what are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment? And second, what’s the skillful way through it?
The “Why” of It
The threshold question we seem to ask in the West is, “Why is this happening to me?” Luckily, I’ve learned to let that one go. When I was going through cancer treatment, well-intentioned people (usually those into the New Age movement) asked me why I thought I had cancer. I told them I hadn’t thought about it, which was true. It didn’t occur to me to ask why I had cancer any more than it had occurred to me to ask why I got to work at my dream job or be married to the perfect man.
Someone asked the Buddha whether the correct question was “Who is this I who is experiencing this disappointment?” The Buddha said that that inquiry didn’t go deep enough. The better question, taking oneself out altogether, is “What are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment?”
Simply by taking the word “I” out of the question, we relax our grip on a sense of a solid, separately existing self. We are reminded of the interrelatedness of all things. Now we’re ready to take a deep dive into causes and conditions.
Let’s use a gardening analogy. There’s a beautiful orange tree in my backyard. Why is it there? Because (for the cause of) a seed was planted there. But that’s not enough. Conditions must also be right. In this case, we need the right soil composition, sunlight, and enough water. When these causes and conditions line up just so, I get to enjoy the orange tree and make fresh OJ!
So, what are the causes and conditions of this current disappointment? The causes are that plans have changed. There was and is absolutely nothing I can do about those plans being changed. That’s outside of my control. What about the conditions?
Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The conditions were that I was looking forward to those plans, I had expectations, I was attached (in the Buddhist sense of being overly attached in an unhealthy way) to those plans!
There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fun events. It only becomes a problem when we’re so attached to the future – as I was – that we create disappointment and suffering for ourselves when plans don’t go the way we wanted them to.
Looking at my inquiry, I can clearly see that my clinging to my plans was the cause of my disappointment. It’s just like the Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth:
“Suffering, as a noble truth … is the five categories of clinging [to] objects” (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta — SN 56.11).
The “How” of It
So now what? The logical answer seems to be letting go of my attachment and clinging to my plans. But when have emotions ever been logical? What is the skillful way through this disappointment and self-created suffering?
Acceptance, taking life as it comes. Fortunately, we Buddhists have a practice for that: equanimity meditation.
The practice goes like this. You choose three people, things, or events from your life. Once should be someone or thing you’re overly attached to. One should be something you’re don’t like. At all. And one should be something neutral, or close to neutral.
Start with the person or thing you like, and imagine them sitting on one side of you. Spend a few minutes tuning in to all the feelings you have for them. Then imagine the person or thing you don’t like on your other side. Once again, tap in to your feelings about them. Finally, place the neutral person or thing in front of you, and allow your feelings to settle. You should feel generally positive about this “neutral” person or thing, but without any emotional intensity.
Then try to feel all three at once! Take some time to see if you can balance your feelings for the two extremes to match what you feel for the central figure. You may want to remind yourself that they all have an equal right to exist, even if you enjoy being with one more than the others.
Once your feelings have leveled off, just breathe for a few minutes before ending your meditation.
In my meditation, I place my cherished plans on the side of too much clinging. I place something I absolutely do NOT want to have happen on my other side. (I don’t “catastrophize” here, picking the worst thing that could ever happen no matter how unlikely.) Then I place some other event, which would be nice but isn’t terribly exciting, in the middle. After a while, I come to realize that there are many likely potential outcomes for my particular situation, and any of them would be okay.
Wrapping It Up
In short, I am the architect of my own suffering – by clinging to my plans – and I can relieve my own suffering – by letting go through meditation practice. May all disappointments be as easily alleviated!
VTH (that stands for Venerable “The Husband”) and I went to the small, arts colony of Idyllwild, CA last weekend. After dinner, we were sitting on the porch of our rented mountain cabin, sipping tea. He got out his iPad.
“What are doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to play some Solitaire,” he replied. “What are you going to do?”
“Well, I could get out my Kindle, or I could watch the sky go from indigo to black.” I paused to consider the options. “The latter seems far more interesting.”
As it turned out, I made the right choice. Ah… 🙂
“I hate waiting.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
During my journey through cancer treatment, I did a lot of waiting. I waited in doctors’ offices, I waited in exam rooms. I waited in labs for my blood to be drawn, and I waited on hold with my insurance company to find out whether they’d approve payment. I waited in pharmacies for my prescriptions to be prepared, and I waited for the MRI to start. And all this while not knowing if I’d survive the process.
At some point, I decided I wasn’t going to wait any more. Life was more precious than ever before, and the Buddhist concept of “impermanence” had been smacked upside my head with the cosmic 2 x 4.
My first response was to take my Kindle to all medical appointments. That way I could read something that interested me and not feel that I was “wasting” my time by “waiting.” While I couldn’t take the Kindle everywhere, I could take it most places. If I’m in the middle of a good book – and I usually am – this is something I still do today.
This worked great until I got too sick from chemo to be able to read.
Then I remembered what the Buddha said about mindfulness of breathing: you can do it anywhere because the breath is always with you. So, I started meditating instead of waiting. I meditated in doctors’ offices, exam rooms, labs …you get the picture. Best of all, I could meditate in the MRI tube. (You can’t take a Kindle in there!)
As my treatments wound down and my life began to adjust to its “new normal,” I found other places to meditate: in the car at stoplights, in line at the grocery store, and standing around while other people got ready to go. Any time I found myself “waiting,” I took the opportunity to meditate, instead.
This has become part of my daily practice. Instead of either becoming frustrated by a delay, or daydreaming, I use this time in the best way I know how: for my spiritual practice.
I can honestly say that I don’t wait anymore. Care to join me?
It was the fall of 1982. I was a college freshman, standing in line for one thing or another, back in the days before computers sped us all along. Next to me was a senior, dispensing wisdom and advice.
“Study,” he admonished us, “or don’t. But don’t study and wish you were doing something else, and don’t not study and feel guilty about it.”
At the time, this seemed like a pretty good idea to me. So, I implemented it right away. What I didn’t foresee was the profound impact it would have on my life.
This advice doesn’t just apply to studying. It applies to anything we feel we “should” be or “ought to” be doing. Either do it, or don’t do it. But don’t beat yourself up, either way. As a psychiatrist friend of mine likes to say, “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!”
Most days, I meditate. I like the idea of doing seated meditation every day. Some days, however, I make a different choice. Perhaps something else is calling for my attention, so my meditation practice gets shortened, takes a different form, or gets missed altogether. And that’s okay!
I consciously choose how I spend my time and don’t regret it after the fact. Do I sometimes wish I had done things differently? Sure. I learn from those experiences. But I don’t wallow in guilt or other unskillful emotions as a result.
I do “this,” or I do “that.” Whichever I choose, I put all of my attention to the task at hand. I don’t daydream about “that” while doing “this,” nor feel that I should be doing “this” while doing “that.” Pick one! I tell myself. Commit! By focusing fully, I’m more productive and have time for more of both “this” and “that.” Instead of trying to multitask (which psychologists report doesn’t work, by the way; our brains aren’t wired that way), I monofocus.
Nearly 35 years later, I don’t recall what else that senior had to say, what he looked like, or why we were all standing in “that good old Baylor line,” but I remember that one piece of advice. It’s served me well.
One of the sanghas to which I belong recently became a California non-profit. As part of that process, we wrote our bylaws. And, like our parent organization, the Five Mountain Zen Order, we decided to include the Four Great Vows in those bylaws.
Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.
Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.
The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.
The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to realize it.
Most of us, when reading or reciting these vows for the first time, are struck my the impossibility of actually keeping them. And that’s okay; some vows aren’t meant to be “kept” so much as “attempted.”
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that intention is the key to the spiritual life. I remember Khenpo Ugyen Wangchuk giving a teaching on this in 2013. It can be tricky, because it requires tremendous self-knowledge and honesty. “Oh, I meant well…” isn’t good enough. Mistakes are fine, provided they come from a sincere heart. But we must be clear about the sincerity and strength of our intentions. If we enter the spiritual life half-heartedly, we’re deluding ourselves that anything will change.
We also need effort, but that flows naturally from powerful intention. Let’s use meditation as an example. I intend to meditate every day. But I still have to follow up my intention with the effort of sitting my butt on the cushion. If I can’t seem to make that happen, then my intention wasn’t strong or heart-felt enough. If my intention is deep enough, if it’s felt in my bones, if I can’t imagine a world where I’m not meditating every day, then I’ll exert the effort and get it done.
All of which means: we’re not off the hook on these vows! We have to try. We help sentient beings whenever we can, from catching and releasing a bug that came into the home, to giving a stranger directions. We look fearlessly at our own spiritual ignorance and attempt to illuminate the dark places through meditation. We read, study, attend Dharma talks, and question everything until learning takes place. And we watch how we keep our minds, moment to moment.
What’s the point, if the vows can’t be kept? First of all, it makes a difference to that stranger who was lost! But even more basically, it’s training in how to keep going, even in the face of impossibility. If we can look at the enormity the Four Great Vows and commit to undertaking them, how much easier is that daily meditation practice by comparison!
May all beings benefit.
I’m currently re-reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Bodhisattvas.” No, wait, it’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. But this time, I’m reading it as Bodhisattvas, and it works great that way!
Covey says that a habit is formed by the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. As I was listening to this section (okay, I’m actually listening to it on audiobook rather than reading it), I wondered how to apply it to meditation. This is what I came up with.
Knowledge of meditation answers the questions “What?” and “Why?”
So what is meditation, anyway? Here’s a great answer from buddhanet.net: “Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’ which means ‘to make grow’ or ‘to develop’.”
In Zen, we sit without a goal. If we have a goal, we set ourselves up for disappointment, and then, suffering. But if we could have a purpose without getting attached to the outcome, it would be to pay attention to our mind moment-to-moment.
As for the “why” of it, you probably already have some good ideas on this question or you wouldn’t be reading this. Just yesterday, a new study came out showing that meditation can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder in active-duty military members. (Read more about that here.)
It’s long been known that meditation helps us to slow down, relax, and be calmer. Scientists have confirmed that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain, leading to greater happiness:
“As we showed in ‘Super Genes,’ actually meditation changes your gene expression so within one week of meditation you see a 40 percent increase in the enzyme called telomerase, which is an anti-aging enzyme,” said [Deepak] Chopra, who co-authored the book “Super Genes” with Dr. Rudolph Tanzi. (Read the story here.)
And in keeping with the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part), when we’re happier, we tend to be kinder to others, which makes them happier, so they’re kinder to others, and so on, and so on, and so on…
Skill in meditation answers the question “How?”
Sometimes it seems that there are as many ways to meditate as there are people on earth! Here’s a simple one, called “Mindfulness of Breathing.”
Pay attention to your breath. Notice where you feel it moving in your body: your nose, upper lip, throat, chest, stomach – there’s no one answer here; it’s where you feel it. Once you’ve felt it, just keep paying attention. That’s it. When you’re breathing in, be aware that you’re breathing in. When you’re breathing out, be aware that you’re breathing out. When you pause after you inhale or exhale, be aware that you’re pausing.
Simple, right? Certainly. Easy? Well, we call it practice for a reason.
Here are some more tips to keep your thinking mind occupied with your breath. You can count your breaths. Start over when you reach 10, or when you catch yourself thinking. You can recite a mantra silently to yourself as you breathe. Breathing in, ask “What is this?” Breathing out, answer “Don’t know.”
When thoughts come, and they will, gently release them and return your attention to your breath. You might think the word “thinking” to yourself, labeling the thoughts as you let them go. Don’t go into any more detail, like labeling the type of thought, or you’re just indulging in more thinking!
So now we know what meditation is, why it’s good for us and the world, and how to do it. But if we’re not sufficiently motivated to get our butts on the cushion, none of that matters.
Desire, for me, comes down to motivation. Here are four things that motivate the hell out of me. See if one or more of them works for you.
Many people think that this merely means they were born human this time around – and if you don’t believe in rebirth, this isn’t terribly motivating. But it means far more than that. This precious human existence refers to the fact that you have encountered the Dharma and are capable of understanding it. Think of how many billion people alive today don’t have that advantage.
As a cancer survivor, this is the one that really gets me. As Pema Chodron asks, “Since the fact of death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what’s the most important thing?” It probably isn’t checking Facebook.
“Samsara” refers to our cyclic existence of birth, death, and rebirth. And the defects are ways that life can suck. We suffer when we’re born; we suffer when we die. And in between, we suffer from illness and aging. We suffer when things change; we suffer when they stay the same. Luckily, meditation helps break our clinging to wanting to have things our own way. We crave less, and therefor suffer less.
Ah, karma, let’s not forget you. What goes around, comes around. You want to be surrounded by people who love you? Love other people. You want to have less drama in your life? Stop being a drama queen. You want to live an abundant live? Give generously. You get the idea. Meditation shows us what’s really important. Over time, we come to live our values. And then karma takes care of itself.
Let’s put it all together. You have the knowledge of what meditation is and why it’s a good practice. You have the skill of how to do it. And, hopefully, you have the desire or motivation.
So get busy. It’s no accident that Lent is 40 days long. That’s how long it takes to form a new habit. (Sorry, one month doesn’t cut it for many people. Plan on 40 days.) In the beginning, you may need to experiment with what time of day to sit, where to sit, and for how long. The answer is whatever you’ll stick with. But do stick with it for 40 days.
Meditation has changed my life for the better, as well as the lives of billions all over the world and for thousands of years. If, after 40 days of sincere practice, you’re not completely satisfied, your suffering will be cheerfully refunded!
In Zen, we talk a lot about what’s happening in the present moment. What do we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch right now?
In Buddhism, there are six sense doors: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Everything that we experience comes in to our awareness through one of these doors. Let’s leave off the mind for now, and deal with our physical senses. These are the same five we’re taught in Elementary School in the West.
When we pay attention to our senses, it gives the “drunken monkey mind” less chance to wander into ruminations of the past or fantasies about the future. It may still tend to judge, however. “What a beautiful color!” “Ew! People actually eat this?!” Just bring the attention back to the sensory experience itself, releasing likes and dislikes.
The Buddha taught to follow the breath as a focus of meditation. The breath is great for two reasons. First, it’s always with us. No special equipment required. We don’t have to light a candle, put on special clothes, sit a certain way, or even sit down at all. Second, the breath is always moving. The motion gives us something to pay attention to.
Using the sense door of touch, we can tune in to where we feel the breath in the body. Is it in the chest? The stomach? Is there a sensation on the upper lip or nostrils as the breath moves past? Is the temperature of the air different on the inhalation and the exhalation? Using our sense of hearing, is there a sound when we breathe? Can we smell anything? There’s a lot going on with the breath.
Any time we need to quickly refocus our attention, we can come back to the breath. While waiting in the 15 Item or Less line behind the woman with 22 items, we can just breathe. While stopped at a red light when running late, we can just breathe. Even when being yelled at by a boss or a child, we can take a single, mindful breath.
But don’t forget all the other senses. The yelling boss is waiting for a reply, and you don’t have time to count to ten? Notice the color of his shirt, anchoring yourself in the present moment, and then answer. Be more aware as you move through your day. Pay attention to the world around you, rather than daydreaming.
Focusing on our sensory awareness in this way helps to quiet the mind. Less thinking results in less craving, and therefor less suffering.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself. And tell me what you… “think.”
~ Rev. Jăbō