Category Archives: Meditation

Motorbike Crash

Moz 80th card1 blog

A week or two ago my brother, Tim, witnessed a motorbike accident. It was the morning rush hour in Edgebaston, Birmingham, and he was driving his van along a busy duel-carriageway on his way to a carpentry job. Directly in front of him was a stocky, middle-aged man in full leather gear riding a motorbike. This man was no doubt on his daily run to work, just like everybody else. It was a typically ordinary start to a day that would prove to be, for one person at least, devastating.

As is the case with these things, it happened quite suddenly. A woman driver – with her view of the road obscured by an approaching lorry, but being impatient to cross the main road – pulled out. She didn’t see the motorcyclist. He saw her, but it was far too late and he hurtled full-speed into the side of her car. Bones and rubber, flesh and chrome slammed into glass and steel. The momentum of a body flying at 50 mph was halted instantly and the man’s crumpled, shattered form dropped to the road. He might as well have ridden straight into a brick wall.

Tyres screeched. Car doors were flung open. A dozen horrified people dialled 999. Tim ran over to the man. He was alive, but in a state of shock. He moved around – panicking, delirious, desperate to pull the helmet from his head. But we all know that this must never be done, and he was urged to leave it on until the emergency services arrived. How badly he was hurt nobody could tell. The adrenaline that floods the system during experiences such as this appears to charge broken bodies with an almost superhuman power that causes them to run and breathe and beat. But a trickle of blood was issuing from his nose, and that’s never a good sign.

So the man was left in the care of a few, while the rest walked back to their cars to resume their journeys. We don’t know what injuries that man sustained, or even if he survived. But the image that formed in my mind as my brother recounted his experience was of a slightly overweight, unassuming man in a state of pain and shock so unexpected, so totally unfamiliar, that he personified pure suffering.

His entire world had been ripped apart in a moment. His body and his mind became something else, something alien, something terrifying. Every familiar, reassuring feature of his experience had been wiped out, and all that remained was a blank void of desperation. Such total, complete suffering! And out of nowhere! How could one mind bear the intensity of such an experience? People – healthy, normal people – were close to him, speaking to him, reassuring him – but he was far away. No one or nothing could reach him. This experience was for him, and him alone.

That evening, as I meditated, I visualised that man and radiated thoughts of compassion to him. It was easy, because his suffering had been total. There had been no compromising elements to his experience – no self-pity, exaggeration, or cries for attention – that might have diluted true empathy, empathy that welled up within me as I imagined his helpless, terrified face locked inside that helmet. And as I pictured him, I wanted nothing more than to share his pain. I wanted to take it from him and give him back relief.

And that, in effect, is what I imagined myself doing. I visualised his face and the panic in his eyes, and his confused, desperate movements. I tried to empathise with his inner experience – the wrenching pain, the suffocating fear, the mortal panic – so that I might share some small part of it with him and thereby help to soften it. I wanted him to feel that here was a friend, a friend on whom he could offload some of the burden. And then again I imagined his face: but now it was relaxing – the black fear in his eyes was fading, his panicked movements were slowing. He was letting go of the pain. He was not fighting. He was experiencing some relief.

That cold steel barrier of self dissolves when we open our minds to the suffering of others in this way. Their pain becomes ours and we desire to alleviate it as if it were our own. Then it becomes not a matter of my suffering and their suffering – or even of our suffering – but of suffering and the sincere wish to end it.

The cultivation of this heart-felt, selfless empathy is actually only half of the practice. To go further we need to become a kind of alchemist of the mind, where we take the raw experience of pain – our own and that of others – and transform its energy into compassion and letting go. In order for this to be successful wisdom is required. We must understand that pain is not something to be dismissed or feared or fought, but as misunderstood energy with the potential to be converted.

Painful experience in all its guises is inherently empty; the problem arises when we desire it to be otherwise. When we experience pain the aversion to it is so closely intertwined that the pain appears to be the enemy. There’s depression: we resist. There’s fear: we run. There’s physical pain: we fight. But fighting and running only reinforce and exacerbate these sensations. Reacting gives them a reality they do not truly possess. By letting the pain be – by allowing it, by opening up to it, by putting aside the instinctive, fearful reaction to it – we allow the mind to experience pain for what it is, just as it is. If the painful experience is left alone in this way its sting is removed and its energy harnessed and transformed.

Thus with mindfulness established we draw in our own suffering, and the suffering of others, turn its energy around, and exchange it for loving-kindness, compassion and letting go.

Doing this practice – although deeply moving – appears to be merely hypothetical. The motorcyclist remained completely unaffected as I thought of him. Or did he? In the various Buddhist traditions we do hear accounts of people in distress experiencing some relief and comfort when a person at a distance simultaneously holds them at the centre of a concentrated mind of compassion and loving-kindness. Such is the power of thought. Perhaps this phenomenon can be understood in the same vein as the effect that another’s mental state can have on us when we are in the same room as them: an angry, moody person is like a thunderous black cloud and we feel threatened; a happy person, a ray of sunshine and we feel warmed. How about we regard the world – or the universe for that matter – as a single giant room, one where our focused rays of loving-kindness and compassion can warm people wherever they are?

Well, whatever you think of that, our time spent nurturing the sublime states of empathy and compassion is never wasted. Mind, the Buddha said, precedes all things. Speech and action are merely its flitting shadows. With your thoughts bent on compassion and understanding, with your mind suffused with sympathy and concern, your words and deeds will follow suit, like an obedient pair of tiger cubs trotting along behind their mother. And not only will you be transformed, but so will those beings who come within your sphere of empathy and understanding. You will be a friend, an oasis, a refuge.

And the next time you’re with a terrified man who’s just crashed his motorbike, you will not be afraid, or nervous, or confused: you will hold his hand, look into his eyes, and let him know that his pain is yours.

The 2 Minute Meditator

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It’s the classic mistake: we resolve to do something, set the bar too high, smash into it, and give up.

We do it with food: Not one chocolate Hob-Nob will pass my lips ever again! And exercise: I will somersault off my mattress at four every morning and perform one hundred Sun Salutations! And writing blogs: I will write at least one post a day, and always have ten in reserve! And Hardcore Himalayan Hermit meditation programmes: I will meditate for three hours every morning before work, and every evening before bed, sitting full-lotus… Without moving… Or scratching… Or breathing…

Now I am exaggerating a little here for dramatic effect, but I don’t think that these examples are too far off the mark. We tend to make these grand determinations, without much thought for how realistic they are. The enthusiasm for transforming our sherbet-slurping, sofa-slumping, monkey-minded selves grips every atom, obliterating common-sense, and we leap out of our armchairs and leg it to the nearest Holland and Barrett to spend all our money on spirulina and Jane Fonda exercise manuals.

Of course we know that we need to eat healthily, and burn at least as many calories as we consume, and that it’s good to write a blog on Buddhist practice. And we also know that if we really want to change ourselves and be free of suffering a solid meditation practice is imperative. But the need to Do Something often becomes an all-or-nothing decision. Then we either do nothing, or we dive head-first into an elaborate, unsustainable scheme, only to crawl back out not long afterwards looking sheepish and feeling thoroughly disheartened. Thus we find ourselves once again slumped in the sofa – Coke in one hand, pizza in the other – while the X-Factor sucks all clarity and calm from our minds.

It’s like we’ve been zooming along on our very own habit motorway. It’s wide, and smooth, and easy driving. But it’s a bit meaningless, and we’re not happy. And so, seized by a desire for change, we veer sharply to the left. We crash through the metal safety barrier, plunge into the undergrowth, and tear through the snagging bushes, trees and brambles. But it’s all so difficult and unfamiliar. ‘Damn this changing lark!’, we think, ‘I’m going back to my motorway!’

But what about the slip roads, and roundabouts, and other motorways? There are plenty of those to choose from. Changing direction doesn’t have to be dramatic. These new roads may not at first be familiar, but they are gentle, and the views can be great, and they often lead to better motorways – motorways that are as smooth as the first, but which are composed of skilful and meaningful habits that will lead us on towards enlightenment.

So change doesn’t have to be a violent revolution. Revolutions have a habit of fizzling out and giving way to the old order. If change is gradual, and systematic, then it will put down roots and gradually become the norm.

I should note that once in while a dramatic change may be required. Never mind bashing through the safety barrier; we’re talking about rearranging life’s tectonic plates. This kind of change heralds initial friction and uncertainty, as well as deep long-term alterations to our personal landscape. That’s what going forth into the monk-hood, for instance, is all about; Siddhattha Gotama did it over 2,500 years ago, and it’s what men and women have been doing ever since. You will also feel the need to shake up things in your own life from time to time. Perhaps you can no longer tolerate the shaky ethics of your employer and you decide to leave; or you move abroad; or you end a damaging relationship. Even just establishing a dedicated Buddhist practice and keeping the precepts in your particular circumstances (like pressure from friends and family) can be a bit of an earthquake in itself.

But, aside from these examples, for the most part we try to find a balance. We eat our sprouts and the odd piece of chocolate; we do a dozen Sun Salutations at a sensible time in the morning; we write a blog post every one or two weeks. And we establish a meditation practice that is effective, flexible and, most importantly, sustainable.

Now it’s none of my business how many bags of crisps you eat, or what your heart-rate is when you’re puffing and panting up the stairs. But I have two suggestions about meditation. Firstly: Do it every day. And secondly: Aim to meditate for two minutes.

Two minutes? Yes. If we determine to meditate (or exercise, or write, etc.) for just two minutes then we bypass the most difficult part of achieving the thing itself: starting. Two minutes is nothing, and so we think nothing of it. ‘Oh, I’ve got a few minutes to spare’, we say to ourselves, ‘I might as well do my two minute meditation.’

The Two Minute Rule actually requires us to meditate for at least two minutes. That’s the minimum. So, before we start, we say to ourselves that if, after two minutes, we want to stop, then we will. That’s fine. There is no compulsion to continue. If, however, we reach two minutes and find ourselves in the groove, we are free to simply carry on. It’s an achievable daily practice that becomes as easy as checking our email. And just as habitual.

And that’s the point. It’s not so much about the act of meditating for two minutes as it is about establishing a habit. Meditating for two minutes will of course help you, even though the mind may not settle much during that time. Just the act of pausing, of breaking the momentum, of stopping the snowball of stress and tangle of thoughts from squashing you, is a powerful and fruitful practice. Taking those two minutes out to meditate will refresh you, even if you spend the whole time wrestling with your errant thoughts. But in the background a habit will be quietly forming; and habits are difficult to break.

And here we see how the Two Minute Rule is really a decoy, a Trojan Horse of Transformation. Because before long you will have established a daily meditation practice. And, what’s more, you will be consistently mowing down the 120 second marker. You’ll naturally extend it to five minutes, or ten, or fifteen, and you will hardly notice. Let’s refer to Newton’s Law of Motion to prove it: ‘An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion…’ Once you’ve started, it’s actually difficult to stop.

And you will start, because it’s only for two minutes.

 

Beyond Belief

Buddha Head Profile

Religion, I feel fortunate enough to say, was never a part of my home life when growing up. My mother, although refreshingly open-minded, had far more pressing concerns: there were fish-fingers to fry and muddy football kits to wash. And my father (who lived elsewhere) not only looks a little like Richard Dawkins but has views and a tongue to match – though he never once tried to persuade me one way or the other.

My primary school, on the other hand, was Church of England. And so that meant the usual humdrum of hymns, church outings, nativity plays, and even a cantankerous old Welsh pianist who, during choir practice, would threaten to have our guts for garters if we failed to squeak to his satisfaction. I never saw any intestines dangling around his shins, so I assume it remained an unfulfilled fantasy.

Anyway, since none of this was reinforced at home the religious indoctrination slid off me like a nob of butter from a warm knife. My mind thus remained free to wander the hallways of thought, asking and questioning and probing as it pleased, with no restrictions, no ‘KEEP OUT’ notices, and certainly no reference to an all-seeing, all-knowing God.

That’s not to say I didn’t try believing in God. I did. Once. I have a vague memory from when I was about eight of standing in my bedroom and asking for help. But I quickly gave it up as a bad job and returned to my Lego castle. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. Perhaps he was on the other line. Perhaps my request that he help with finding the last little plastic brick that completed the draw-bridge didn’t meet connection criteria. Or perhaps I instinctively knew that it was a waste of time and that the answers to the existential questions (and locations of important Lego pieces) are not to be found in dogmatic belief systems that are devoid of evidence.

And so I quickly found that I was an atheist. At weddings or funerals (memories of the two slide into one for some reason…) I would sooner have gone naked wearing only a red bow-tie than have closed my eyes as the vicar conversed with the Almighty on behalf of us all. And I would argue about Jesus with my grandmother, who would then pull out her trump card and suggest that I, as an unbeliever, stop receiving Christmas presents. Ha!

But being an atheist was not about rejecting Christmas presents or adopting another viewpoint; it was an act of rebellion. I hated being told what to believe, especially when there was no evidence. I wanted to know, but I wanted to find out the answers for myself. And I wanted to question, without being told when to stop.

Science at secondary school always left me cold, too. It just didn’t relate to my actual experience of being alive and aware. And the little knowledge I did acquire made no difference whatsoever to my dissatisfaction with life. It was all about Petri dishes and Bunsen burners and Thingamebob’s Second Law of Thermowotsits. It was second-hand knowledge and had no bearing on how I understood – in an experiential way – myself and the world.

Of course the study and advancement of Science is essential, and often fascinating (I am partial to a little astronomy myself – all those light-years and super-massive black holes boggle the mind; and quantum physics is intriguing). Through Science diseases get cured, planes get in the air, and atom bombs get developed (oops). But it’s all so far removed from actual first-person immediate experience. Who am I? I don’t mean the ‘I’ reflected in the mirror – the cells and atoms and chains of DNA – but the ‘I’ asking this question. The thought. The awareness. I think all of my questions boiled down to this one, and science was looking the other way.

After the Dark Night of High School (the less said the better) my inquisitive tendencies crawled back out of hiding and I found myself captivated by the nature of mind and its potential. I devoured books on philosophy, anthropology and mysticism (with a sprinkling of an illegal chemical or two), and it all seemed to point to the fact that our reality – our world – is to a large extent determined by our minds. And so it seemed that any attempts to understand the nature of reality that did not focus on the mind missed the point. After all, what else do we actually have apart from our mind and the experiences fashioned by it? Furthermore, it struck me that this knowledge was not to be gained from text books or holy books or any kind of books, but through direct personal experience. But how was this to be achieved?

Luckily I found my truth-seeker’s tool of choice while perusing the shelves in my local library. It was the practice of Buddhist meditation. This simple exercise awoke something within me, something which had been present all along but which I had never stopped to look at. It awoke the knowing aspect of the mind – that which is aware but which is not part of the myriad thoughts and mental states that splash through our muddy heads, and which is therefore able to observe and investigate the nature of experience. These new-found meditative ventures were simultaneously satisfying and exciting. There was pleasure and there was a sense of discovery. Questions were beginning to be answered and suffering was easing its grip.

So I had found a method that requires the suspension of all belief and preconceptions, a method which regards the mind as the ultimate laboratory, a method which concerns the training of the mind so that it is able to directly perceive the nature of reality. But its focus is also the experience of suffering; indeed, in Buddhism it’s the very problem of not understanding the nature of things that is the root cause of suffering.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. These are just words, and grand and exciting ones at that. You may have suffering and questions in equal measure but no amount of nodding your head at sentences such as these will solve them. The journey begins and ends on the meditation cushion, and so it is what we do on that piece of cotton and kapok that matters.

 

 

The Young Monk and His Sleeping Bag

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Lucky bunnies. Imagine having a built-in sleeping bag.)

The other evening a student at Warwick University asked me a now familiar question: Were your early days at the monastery difficult? Yes, I answered, they certainly were. And I admitted that during those unforgettable first few weeks, in that particularly chilly September, I plotted my escape several times. My home was within walking distance; I could have been shovelling down one of my mother’s speciality hot-pots within three hours. But the desire to not give up (and to not be seen giving up) kept my freshly shaven head and flip-flop toting feet within the monastery hedges. It was a close call, but I survived.

A few months later all had changed. And I looked back at those first weeks of manic wobbliness and scratched my head. Had that really happened? Had I really been such a baby? It was embarrassing to think of it. I know that to other people living at the monastery at the time I had borne no small resemblance to a petrified rabbit caught in the raging headlights of a tank.

But still, though teething problems had passed, life as a young and inexperienced monk continued to be challenging and at times downright uncomfortable. Of course, it is precisely this element of difficulty that is the rich and fertile soil in which the full spectrum of virtues – from patience to insight to letting go and peace – will flourish (or so they told me). To a nineteen year old young man, however, the promise of those supreme mental states is taken on trust (with the odd glimmer here and there), and the hard graft of getting through each day is the reality. Up early, sit cross-legged for one hour, cuppa, sweep, go for a walk, sit cross-legged again, one meal of the day, work, sit cross-legged again, cuppa, sit cross-legged one final time. And bed.

Ohhh, my bed. My sweet, sweet bed. And my sleeping bag. My puffy, silky, slidy blue and orange Arctic-weather-give-me-all-you-got sleeping bag. Ohhh, to be warm. To be without crossed legs. To be as secure and untroubled as a little worm curled up a mile down inside Mother Earth. The day was done; the night was ready to swallow me up. And there I was, lucky enough to be blissfully suspended between the two. Ahead of me lay nothing but six whole hours of oblivion, and I hovered in that awareness with divine relief. It was truly sublime. But it was soon over. And I woke up feeling crap.

You see, going to bed, for many of us, is not just about recharging our bones and brain cells for the following day’s adventures; it’s about escape. It’s about throwing ourselves under the covers and waiting for sleep to draw its black velvet curtains between us and this exhausting business of life. That’s certainly how it was for me, and that’s why I looked forward to it so much. But the mental state that was behind it all, the overwhelming force that twiddled and tugged at my strings as I raced through bedtime preparations (barely getting undressed sometimes), was destructive. Destructive, because it was, as the Buddha termed it, craving-not-to-be. And that’s what I craved: not to be. To be or not to be, it was an easy question. I had had enough. I wanted nothingness. I wanted not to be, not to be, if you get my drift.

But it was no good. Where there is craving there is suffering; and the suffering from the craving-not-to-be is intense. If I ended the day under its influence I would invariably wake up with the same two words on my lips: ‘Oh God!‘ The craving-not-to-be hadn’t disappeared in the night; it was the morose face staring down at me when I woke up. Although the problem and the cause seem so obvious now, it took me a very long time to actually do anything about it. Each day the prospect of said day’s ending dangled in front of me like a fat juicy carrot and I couldn’t help but drool in anticipation. I’d slog it out with the day, crave the night, drown in sleep, and wake up feeling terrible. And then I’d do it again. It was a viscous cycle from which it was difficult to extricate myself.

Thankfully, however, I did eventually learn the lesson. And it is this: sleep is a journey, and its destination is waking up. And most importantly, as with any journey, it is all about the preparation; if you don’t get that right, you’re done for. If you don’t pack enough oxygen before you scale Everest, you’re done for. If you don’t load up enough food on your round-the-world boat trip, you’re done for. And if don’t pull your suffocating mind out of the craving-not-to-be before you go to bed, you’re done for.

To prepare well, then, is what is called for. So what should we do before we hit the sack? Well, ideally we drop the craving, the regret, the depression, and lift up the kindness, the calmness, the letting go. We drive out the dark; we bring in the light. We might do that by meditating with the breath for a few minutes, or by focussing on loving-kindness, or by reflecting on an inspiring text, or by chanting a few words from the Suttas.

Or we might spend a few minutes casting our minds back through the day and recalling the meritorious deeds, words and thoughts that we performed.

It is precisely this last contemplation that I have used since I recognised the need to prepare well before sleep. It is easy to do, it doesn’t have to take long, and, most importantly, it works a treat. It is the simple and deliberate recalling of our own actions that were good, wholesome, and helpful, and then rejoicing in their goodness. Sound strange? Well, let me ask you this: in a world that is collapsing under the strain of all the hate, harm and rampant selfishness, don’t your little moments of good deserve some praise? Of course they do, and it’s you that’s going to do the praising.

Over here in the West (it’s a bit different in parts of Asia) we are not used to praising ourselves. Modesty and ‘thinking of others’ are the order of the day; and these are not, of course, without their merits. But the flip side is that we often fail to generate a good and helpful relationship with ourselves. We freely praise our best friend and love them to bits, but perish the thought that we might ever utter as much as an ‘it was ok…’ to ourself. It’s no wonder we want to grab the big red switch that says ‘AWAKE’ and flick it off as soon as we get the chance. Spending 16 hours a day with a person who’s always critical and judgemental is bloody hard work. Praising our own genuinely praiseworthy deeds is foreign, it’s unnatural, and it’s something that we absolutely must, must do. Especially before we go to bed.

As I mentioned, it doesn’t have to take long. I suggest that you set aside five minutes before you flop onto the feathers. It helps if you’ve done everything that needs to be done before you do retire: say goodnight to your dog, brush your teeth, don pyjamas, nighty, Bat Man suit, etc. Then sit quietly, close your eyes, SMILE (very important – it will send signals to your brain saying, ‘Be happy!’) and try to recall at least five of your actions that were wholesome. These are the things that you said, or did, or thought that were rooted in kindness, in compassion, in wisdom, in restraint, in patience, or in any of the wonderful qualities with which you are endowed.

So, maybe you removed a snail from the busy footpath; or you passed over the bigger slice of Victoria Sponge; or you donated some of your hard-earned pennies to a charity. Or perhaps you steered a conversation with friends away from harmful back-biting; or you diligently kept the precepts for yet another day; or you considered the angry colleague who barked at you, and you realised that he was suffering, and that it wasn’t about you, and that he deserved your sympathy and compassion.

Now good actions bring good results, and with this contemplation we are intentionally drawing a little of the sweet nectar that we deserve. So we recollect, and we praise, and we say ‘Well Done!’ and ‘You’re doing well!’ and ‘That was great!’ And we feel good and we feel happy and then we go to bed.

And then we wake up. And, if we’re well practised, the morose face of craving-not-to-be is nowhere to be seen. He’s gone. But where? Well, how could he be present when he didn’t even go to bed with us?

There is one other wonderful and unexpected habit that you might observe forming in your mind if you persist with this practice. You might just start looking forward to the end of the day. But, hold on! I don’t mean when you melt into the memory foam and say ‘Enough!’, as you did once upon a time; I mean precisely those concluding moments when you will rejoice in your merit. And if you look forward to that, you will concentrate on picking up even more vulnerable snails, and on being even more dedicated to the precepts, as anticipation for the joyful reflection that awaits hovers at the edge of your mind.

And at last it arrives: the time to say ‘Well Done’. Then, with a glowing heart and a smile to meet your closing eyes, you push gently away from the shores of wakefulness and into the healing depths of a Good Night’s Sleep.

 

Blu-Tack is Teaching Us

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(Bend me, shape me, any way you want me.)

You may not have thought of it before, but Blu-Tack can teach us a lot about the practice of meditation. For those of you on foreign shores who might be unaware of this cornerstone of British office stationary, Blu-Tack is a – you guessed it – blue putty-like substance that can be rolled, stretched and pulled apart and is used to stick pieces of paper and the like onto walls, notice boards and other flat surfaces. People even use it to make figurines.

But the thing is, when you first take your piece of Blu-Tack it is distinctly un-sticky: it’s hard, cold and certainly not tacky. And so a little office workers’ ritual is required. You place a small piece of it between the palms of your hands, and then rub them back and forth and round and round, gently rolling and warming the baby-blue putty incubating within. After about fifteen seconds the previously intractable lump will have transformed into a supple, sticky, stretchy ball. The piece of Blu-Tack has now become malleable and is ready for action.

The process of meditation is remarkably similar.  Often we find that when we first sit down to focus on our breathing (or whatever our primary meditation object is) our mind is not yet ready. It’s like the cold Blu-Tack:  unyielding and difficult to mold into a pleasing shape. In short, you want to concentrate your mind, but your mind does not want to be concentrated. You want your mind to hold to the breath, but the mind is simply not willing to be held in place.

So what can we do? Think of the Blu-Tack: when it was in its unsticky state all that was required was a soft, warm embrace. Well that’s precisely what our minds need. So we gently take hold of our mind and give it a little roll between the soft warm hands of metta, of loving-kindness. Metta is the ultimate tool for subduing the recalcitrant mind and preparing it for meditation.

As the Buddha said, when metta is developed: “One’s mind concentrates easily.” (AN 11.16)

PUFF the Magic Metta

There are many ways to practice metta. Cultivating this sublime state is a particularly personal thing and so requires experimentation. I have found, as have many others, the PUFF method very powerful.

With this technique we use four words to develop loving-kindness towards ourselves and others. As we repeat the words we find our hearts and minds gradually relaxing as metta establishes itself within us. After five or ten (or more) minutes of this our minds should be warm, supple and able to focus on the breath with little persuasion, just like a nicely massaged lump of warm Blu-Tack. Lovely.

First of all take up your meditation posture. Relax both body and mind and let all things be. Then recite these words to yourself:

1. Patience, Patience.

2. Understanding, Understanding,

3. Forgiveness, Forgiveness.

4. Friendliness, Friendliness.

We say each word deliberately, slowly, and with care. And we say each word twice. To help us remember these words, if we take the first letter from each word and put them all together we get the word PUFF. Once we have reached ‘Friendliness’ we then proceed to repeat the words in reverse order until we get back to ‘Patience’. And then we begin again.

If you wish, as you repeat these words, you can picture yourself just as you are now: not how you’d like to be, but as you are at this very moment, warts, ill-will and all. Hold yourself in the warm, caring attitude of loving-kindness. Just keep on patiently repeating the words over and over, gradually allowing the qualities you are invoking to permeate your body and mind.

It shouldn’t take long before your mind is nicely warmed. If not much appears to have changed, don’t worry: some lumps of Blue-Tac are tougher than others! However, once you are ready, bring the breath to the forefront of your attention and continue to be mindful of that instead. You can even combine the two practices by repeating the words in unison with the breath. Hopefully your mind will now stick to the breath like a freshly rolled ball of Blu-Tack to the wall.

Of course, metta can and should be developed wherever possible: on the bus, while waiting at the doctors’ surgery, while laying in bed after a bad day.

And always remember: whenever you are feeling rotten, just go outside for a quick PUFF!

 

Six Ways To Improve Mindfulness – Part 3

If you’re new to this series of posts on improving mindfulness then it might be worth your while scrolling down to the first as it’ll put this and the previous post in context. You’ll read more in general about the benefits of improved mindfulness and the drawbacks of letting it slip.

4. TOUCH

Just pause for a moment and scan your body with your awareness. Notice where there is contact between your body and something else, for example the soles of your feet and the floor, your bum and the seat, and your neck and your collar. These areas are mindfulness power points: focussing on them will help us to develop sustained attention, mental agility, and – as it is the refined sensations that we are interested in – a greater subtlety of awareness.

When concentrating on a contact point we examine the various qualities of the physical sensation. We take an interest in seeing what is actually going on when we touch something. We notice such experiences as temperature: is it warm or cool? Texture: rough or smooth? Hardness: hard or soft? As we become more focussed we look for movement: is the sensation still or is it changing? If it’s changing is it doing so rapidly or slowly? We try to focus exclusively on the point of contact, knowing it as clearly and as intimately as we can.

Concentrating on these contact points is – like focussing on the breath – an exercise in stealth mindfulness: no-one will know you’re doing it. It can also be done at any time. Kicking your feet in the queue at Tesco’s? Shift your attention to your hands in your pockets and examine the sensations there. Enduring a typical life-and-death episode of EastEnders that your other-half is forcing you to watch? Focus on the back of your head resting against the cushion and allow the on-screen pandemonium to fade into the background. And if a difficult customer is getting angry, stay cool by anchoring your mind on a contact point; in a challenging situation doing this will help to stabilise you.

With this mindfulness exercise you can concentrate on just one point or you can move between several. Focussing on one allows you to develop your ability to sustain attention, but it may also bring additional benefits depending on its location. For instance, by being mindful of the sensations on the soles of your feet you will feel grounded, and as you are at the point of your body furthest from your head – the place where you see, hear, taste and smell – you will experience the simple joy of not being dominated by those senses for a few moments.

Moving from one contact point to another is an exercise in both concentration and mental agility. Begin by focussing on the sole of your left foot for ten seconds (you don’t need to count – this is just a guide. And you might want to stay at each place for longer). Afterwards, move your mind to your right foot and do the same. Then, in an upward direction, move to the other main contact points (in my case while sitting in an office chair) such as the back of your left and right thighs, your bum, lower back, forearms, fingers, neck, lips and eyelids. Pause at each spot, notice the various qualities of the sensations, and then move on to the next. Pause, notice and move on. After a minute or two of this you can unplug your mind from these points and return to what you were doing.

A few words on walking meditation

Take advantage of a quiet walk through a park and focus on the contact between the soles of your feet and the ground. Very often when practising walking meditation this is exactly what we do, although here you will probably only have a few minutes, as opposed to the hour or so usually given.

As you walk, be mindful of the sensations arising at the soles of the feet. Notice the pressure as it shifts from the heel to the toes of your left foot. Then switch your attention to the right foot and observe it in the same way. Repeat this for as long as you can. Walking meditation is perhaps one of the best ways to strengthen your everyday mindfulness.

 

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Next up we have SLOW, where we, errr, slow down – a very simple yet powerful way to develop mindfulness of the body.

 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 2

3. BREATHE

How many minutes of the day do we have when there is nothing in particular for us to do? I’d say if we totted them up there’d be at least thirty, and almost certainly more. Think about how much time you spend fiddling with your phone, checking the news for the billionth time, standing around waiting for the bus, or chewing your nails while British Telecom put you on hold. Surely there’s something else we could be doing – something that will actually benefit us. There is. It’s being mindful of the breath.

We have the breath wherever we go. To concentrate on it requires no special equipment – no cushions, no meditation beads, no fancy foam thing for your hands to rest on. So not only is it accessible at all times (unless you’re dead), but it is discreet. You can focus on your breathing wherever you are and nobody will notice.

Being mindful of the breath is perhaps one of the best ways to recharge your mindfulness. Even focussing on ten breaths can make a huge difference. I heard of a man, I believe a nurse, who depended on his meditation to get him through a particularly tough situation: lunchtime in a mental hospital. Before he walked through those doors into the chaos of the canteen, he paused to collect his mind. In he then went – calm, composed, and ready for battle.

It’s important to recognise that your concentration during these short spells may not initially be of a high standard. But even though you might spend all of that time reigning the mind in as it rushes off to thoughts and feelings, at least you are exercising it. To pull the mind away from thoughts and feelings is to exercise it, to strengthen it, to gain some control. So much suffering arises through us being at the whim of our thoughts and feelings. To stop every so often and hold our attention on the breath is to take some control over our mind, and, consequently, our life.

So be awake to opportunities. When I first started practising meditation I would usually sit formerly in the morning and then again in the evening. These were the twin pillars that supported my practice. But then I also experimented with mindfulness-of-breathing at other times. I’d spend a few minutes sitting in the quiet section of the library in between lessons at college; I’d try and hold my attention on the breath as I bounced up and down on the seat of the college bus; I’d stop half-way through walking the dog and focus on some breaths. Not only did this help me right there and then, but the benefits of those moments of mindfulness that I sprinkled throughout the day would accumulate. They were like an investment: come the evening I’d feel calm, focussed, and I’d be carrying much, much less baggage.

There are many ways to be mindful of the breath. Part of our practice can be judging which of these ways best suits a certain situation. Tired? Ten short sharp breaths. Restless? Ten long, slow, deep breaths. Already calm? Then let the breath be natural. You could time yourself. Set your alarm to go off in three minutes. Focus on your breathing until the alarm goes off. If you don’t have three minutes, try two, or one. If you have the luxury you could pause every half-an-hour and focus on the breath for five minutes. Try it and see what happens.

Like any skill, the more we practise in this way the better we will be at it. The breath will become our refuge. You have probably heard of power-napping, where people are able to drop into deep sleep for a very short period and wake up refreshed, as though they’d been asleep for hours. We can also train our mind to ‘drop into’ the breath. We put down what we are carrying, we put down our thoughts and moods, and we ‘drop into’ the breath. When we emerge, even after one minute, we will feel like new.


New Moon Day (+1): Precept Power!

An effective Buddhist practice is a daily Buddhist practice. Pulling out the dusty zafu once a year might give you some fleeting respite, but it’ll do little more than that. And plunging head-first into an intensive retreat every six-months might take you to heaven for a few days, but if you’re back to partying and alcopops the day after you probably shouldn’t have bothered.

It’s easy to fall into extremes: to neglect meditation and party like Keith Richards for ninety-nine percent of the time, and then go at it like a Himalayan sage for the rest. But what really counts when travelling this path is a commitment to a steady, consistent and methodical daily practice.

Formal meditation must, of course, be central to this. One or two thirty minute sittings each day, for example, will keep you gliding along nicely. If, for whatever reason, you find this is too much sometimes, then do it for five minutes… three… one… but certainly not none! If we meditate consistently we will soon reach a point where we experience withdrawal symptoms when we don’t meditate: the mind has become accustomed to being fed – when we stop, it gets hungry!

Then there’s the cultivation of mindfulness, and, in particular, mindfulness of the body. Maintaining awareness of the body provides a refuge for the mind. It grounds us, makes us less impulsive, and, crucially, enables us to quite easily step back from and observe our feelings, thoughts and mental states. To keep our mindfulness battery charged we can pepper our day with brief spells of slow-motion mindfulness exercises, for instance while making a cup of tea or folding the towels, where we closely follow every stretch, bend and turn with a precise and concentrated awareness.

To direct and inspire our efforts to cultivate our mind we turn to the words of the Buddha and those of realised (or soon to be realised) teachers – noble beings who have crossed over to the far shore and are beckoning us to join them. Reading and listening to Dhamma Talks probably won’t be something we do every day, but still we shouldn’t neglect them.

Daily attention to meditation, mindfulness and sprinklings of instruction are thus key elements of a successful practice. But at the heart of it must lie something else, something which on the surface seems quite mundane and in some cranky people’s eyes spiritually stifling, but which is actually an essential tool in our quest to understand the true nature of things and be free from suffering. That something is the observance of the moral precepts.

Harmony

Keeping the precepts brings harmony: harmony within and harmony without. Refraining from harmful actions frees us from remorse and worry – hence the harmony within; and nurtures human relationships based on respect, confidence and trust – hence the harmony without. Having as the basis of our practice this lush and fertile soil of harmony, our development of concentration, mindfulness and insight is able to flourish.

The Buddha, referring to the bhikkhu and his maintenance of the numerous moral precepts found in the Vinaya, said he experiences a blameless joy that comes from living a life ‘as pure as a polished shell’. It is a joy that arises, not from anything having been done, but from the simple fact that something has not been done – that is: harm.

It’s funny to think of the lengths that people go to in order to experience elation and joy: roller-coasters, sky-diving, horror movies, snorting cocaine… when all they need to do is purify their virtue. Try to tell them this, however, and they’ll probably burst out laughing. What they don’t understand is that their actions follow them everywhere, and that the oppressive shadow of their harmful words and deeds will be cast over every attempt they make to experience happiness. If we live a life of moral purity there will be no shadow. We can lie in bed at night and experience that pure joy welling up in our heart as we reflect: ‘I have done no harm today!’

But this harmony is not limited to our own minds: it permeates our relationships with others. Do we feel secure and comfortable when in the presence of a killer? a thief? an adulterer? a liar? a drunk? Or do we feel our personal safety threatened? On the other hand, when we are in the company of a virtuous person, how do we feel then? safe? secure? at ease? As human beings we have this kind of moral scent which others intuitively pick up on. If someone stinks we want to get away; if they smell sweet, we’d like to stay. To keep the precepts is thus to give the gift of social harmony: the harmony that comes from people feeling secure in the presence of one another.

Just for a moment imagine a world where everybody kept the five precepts. What a heavenly place it would be! But, alas, on our little scruffy patch of the universe very few people do. Even society’s role models and leaders: politicians, sportsmen and women, writers, actors, pop-stars and so on, are largely beacons of moral decadence. So if they’re at it, what about the rest of the population? The world is in a pitiful state because it’s bereft of virtue.

To bring the five precepts into your heart and let them guide you through each moment of your life is a powerful means to cultivate this sorely needed harmony – both within and without.

But the benefits that arise through keeping the precepts don’t stop here; the harmony and joy, though delicious, are merely the first fruits. As a direct result of holding fast to the precepts through the hum-drum of day to day existence we find the liberating qualities of mindfulness, concentration and insight riding in their wake.

The Precepts and Meditation

When we close our eyes to meditate we look directly at our mind. Consequently, we become very aware of how it is coloured by the moral ‘tones’ of our actions, and, more importantly, how those tones dictate how we feel. Generally speaking, people are blind to how their thoughts, words and deeds affect their minds; ceaselessly chasing pleasure and fleeing pain they never stop to look. But the honest meditator is unable to hide. He or she witnesses how each action deposits an impression in the mental stream, and, depending on whether the action was harmful of not, how it produces suffering or happiness.

The impressions left by unskilful actions are like little monkeys on our shoulders. As soon we stop to meditate they start causing trouble. ‘La la la la laaa! I’m not going to let you meditate! I’m not going to let you meditate!’, they sing, while jumping up and down, tugging our ear lobes and pulling our hair (if we have any). But if our actions have been pure then there won’t be any disturbance. The monkeys will remain fast asleep while we close our eyes and effortlessly let go of a past that is not regretted, and a future that is not feared.

The mind fortified by virtue is a mind that can let go of past and future at will and thus become concentrated.

The Precepts and Mindfulness

When we keep the precepts we must be vigilant. We must be continually observing ourselves. They bring us right into the present moment as we keep guard over what we say and do to ensure that they are not broken.

As monks, living by hundreds of precepts, we are naturally made to be mindful of even the most seemingly insignificant of actions: we can’t lick our lips when we eat (try that with a jam doughnut!), we must wear our robes in a particular way, we mustn’t twiddle our thumbs in public, we mustn’t gaze at our reflection in the mirror… To somebody who doesn’t understand Dhamma practice these rules seem a tad ridiculous; but to one who actually trains with them their value proves to be inestimable: they make you so very aware. And not only aware of what you are doing, but, more importantly, of your intentions that are bubbling beneath the surface. The precepts reveal all.

The Precepts and Insight

It is this restraint, concentration and all-encompassing awareness that are generated by the precepts which combine to offer to us on a golden platter the most important quality of all: liberating insight.

Insight comes through observation and the precepts give us a lot to observe.

When our practice has no moral structure our greed, anger and delusion do as they please. Like great powerful tigers they eat whatever and whenever they want. With a full belly they sleep, purr and saunter around, admiring their silky coats and flexing their deadly claws, all the time increasing in strength and becoming potentially more and more dangerous.

Lock them in a cage made of precepts, however, and there’ll soon start to weaken. How can they increase in strength when they aren’t getting fed?

But they don’t always go quietly: no longer able to do as they wish they start to make a fuss. And this, though sometimes uncomfortable, is actually what we want. Because when these harmful mental forces are aggravated we can see them more clearly. Seeing them clearly we are able to observe and investigate them. And it’s through investigating them that we reveal their true nature. We see how they rise and fall, how they don’t last, how in reality there is no substance to them. By understanding this they fall away.

When this three-fold process of uncovering, investigating and understanding is repeatedly practised, our insight accumulates. Gradually the defilements wither under our ever-present gaze of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Eventually, they disappear altogether.

In some ways this isn’t such a difficult thing to do. It simply requires patience and a consistent practice that is led by the modest yet deceptively powerful hand of the precepts.

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