The 2 Minute Meditator

2 min 22

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.

 

Rebirth, Alms-bowls and Pets: Some Questions and Some Answers

Alms-bowls

(Freshly fired alms-bowls)

Just before I left for Thailand towards the end of last year I visited a school in Coventry and spoke to three classes of 10/11 year olds. The school was in quite a deprived part of Coventry but the children turned out to be some of the most inquisitive and mature I have met in my long and varied experience of teaching Dhamma in schools. Following the visit I received an email with some questions from the children but as I was about to jump on the plane I didn’t have time to answer. So, being back in Blighty and having finally responded, I thought I’d share the questions and my answers here.

Did you live near the monastery before you became a monk?

Yes, I lived in a village about 9 miles away. Even though I lived so close to the monastery I didn’t know it existed until shortly before I came to live here (when I was about 19 years old). I even used to walk my dog and camp in my tent by the river Avon about 1 mile away, but I still didn’t know!

What happens if you break one of the 5 Precepts?

You get struck by a bolt of lightening. Only joking! Remember that the five precepts are not commandments laid down by a god who will punish you if you break them; they are rules to help you live happy and harmless lives. Really the question should be: What happens if you kill someone? Think about it: the victim suffers, their family and friends suffer, and you suffer. Everybody suffers! The same is true for the other precepts. So by breaking one of the five precepts you cause suffering for yourselves and others. If you keep the five precepts then you help one another to be happy and peaceful.

I should say a little bit about the monks’ rules. We live by many more than 5 precepts – 227, in fact. The first four of these, called the Parajika, are very important. If we break one of these we are immediately expelled from the Sangha (the community of monks) and we can never be a monk again in this life. The four rules include not killing another person, not stealing, and not lying about having reached enlightenment.

Are you allowed to have a pet?

Most monks don’t have pets, partly because they move from monastery to monastery quite frequently. It is common, though, especially in Thailand, for Buddhist people to rescue animals such as chickens, fish and monkeys and set them free in a forest monastery. There is one monastery in Thailand that looks after a lot of animals, including wild pigs. I heard a story that one day a wild pig turned up at this temple because there had been a fire in the forest in which he lived. Not long afterwards he left; but he soon returned – this time with all of his friends! He obviously loved it there! If you think about it, a monastery is a very safe place for an animal to be in.

At this monastery we do have animals, though we don’t like to call them pets. A pet is something that belongs to you, but can we really own another creature? So, we just call them our friends. Here we have two dogs, two tortoises and a cockerel; these all live with the Abbot. We used to have many more animals including goats, a parrot, ferrets, a duck, rabbits, a goose, etc. Most of them have been rescue animals, including Ben and Jimmy, the two dogs, and many were given to us.

As we love animals so much we are also vegetarian. We regard all animals as our friends, and obviously we don’t like to eat our friends…

Is it true that you are not allowed to open a door if you are holding your alms bowl?

Wow! I’m surprised you know about that rule. Yes, it’s true. We do this so that we don’t risk dropping the bowl and breaking it. We first put down the bowl before opening the door and walking through. Then we have to put the bowl down again to close the door! It’s a time consuming process but it makes us very mindful. Actually, this is one of the main reasons behind many of our rules: they make us mindful. Mindfulness means to be aware of what we are doing and thinking at all times.

If you read the Buddhist scriptures you will understand why we have a lot of rules. When the Buddha was alive he had many, many monks, and sometimes these monks would make a mistake. So I think that one day a monk must have opened a door while carrying his bowl and then – smash – he dropped it! So the Buddha made it a rule that we shouldn’t open a door while carrying our bowl.

As monks we are taught to be careful and respectful of our alms–bowls both for practical and symbolic reasons: as we don’t have any money we must look after our possessions and make sure they last for as long as possible (my teacher had his cast iron alms-bowl for almost 30 years!); and as the alms-bowl is a symbol of the life of a monk we are taught to be respectful of it. When I was a new monk I was told to treat my bowl as if it were the skull of the Buddha. If I ever knocked it on something – clangggg – I felt terrible!

When you die will you come back as another living creature?

This will take a little time to explain as it’s a complicated subject, so please be patient. I will try to keep as simple and as brief as possible!

The Buddha taught that this life we are living now is just one in a very long chain of lives. He called this chain of lives Samsara, and he said that it has no beginning and that, if we don’t reach enlightenment, it has no end. Can you imagine that? This means that we have all lived many lives before and that when we die we will be reborn again (if we aren’t enlightened). But people aren’t just reborn as humans; we can be reborn as animals and other types of beings, too.

You might ask why an enlightened person doesn’t get reborn. Well, first of all we should ask: what is it that makes us come back after we die? The Buddha taught that it’s our greed and desire that bring us back. The thing that makes an enlightened person special is that they don’t have any greed or desire (or anger or hatred) in their mind. They are free. That’s why they’re so happy, and it’s why they don’t come back.

You might also ask why one person is reborn as a rich and handsome prince that lives in a palace and why another person is reborn as an ugly rat that lives in a sewer. It’s a good question, and to understand it you need to know a little bit about the law of karma.

The word karma means action – it’s what we do. When we say something: that’s karma; when we do something: that’s karma. Now, everything that we say and do has an an effect on us. If the karma, the action, is helpful – such as saying something kind or helping an old lady to cross the road – the effect will be pleasant and we will be happy. But if the karma is harmful – such as bullying someone or killing an animal – then the effect will be painful and we will suffer. So, to put it very simply: good karma (helpful actions) brings happiness; bad karma (harmful actions) brings suffering.

The most important thing about karma, however, the thing that really makes it good or bad, is our intention. Our intention is what we mean to do. It’s whether we mean to hurt someone or mean to help them. So, if you step on an ant accidentally, that is not bad karma because you didn’t mean to harm it. But if you saw that ant and thought, ‘Right, you!’ and then – crunch – you squashed him, that would be bad karma because you meant to kill it. So, good karma happens when we mean to do kind, generous and wise things. Bad karma happens when we mean to do selfish, cruel and stupid things. Got it?

So, back to that question:  why will someone be reborn as a rat and another a prince? Well, it all depends on their karma, on what actions they do in this life. For example, if you say and do harmful things all of the time then you might be reborn as a creature that suffers a lot, like a rat in a sewer; whereas if you have been very generous and virtuous then you might be reborn as someone who is comfortable and privileged, like that rich and handsome prince (though princes can be unhappy too – the Buddha used to be one and he got fed up with it!).

Now we must remember that it isn’t a god that decides whether we will be reborn as a prince or a rat. If we are reborn as a rat: that is just the result of our karma; if we’re reborn as a prince; that too is just the result of our karma. It’s like if you plant an acorn in the soil: you know that it will produce an oak. It doesn’t need a god to make the oak, does it? So it is with our karma: the karma is like the acorn; the result is like the oak. So if we plant good actions in our life our rebirth will be a good one; if we plant bad actions, it won’t be. Can you understand? I’ve tried to make it sound simple, but it’s actually much more complicated than this!

You might think this idea of rebirth is very strange, but there is actually a lot of evidence for it. This mostly comes from children who remember a previous life. For instance, there might be a four year old girl called Sally who keeps describing her former life. She says that she used to live in Nottingham, on a street called Smith Street, in a big blue house with a red front door. And she says that she was married to a man called Jim and that the neighbours were called Ted and Molly. Now the parents think she’s making it all up, as you might imagine! But after a while they go to visit Nottingham and – do you know what? – they find that everything she said is true! There is a big blue house, with a red front door, on a street called Smith Street, with neighbours called Ted and Molly. And, to top it off, living in the house is a man called Jim whose wife had died five years before (remember – Sally is four). Everything that Sally said is true, but she had never been to the house, or even Nottingham, before! Now I just made up that story about Sally, just to help you to understand. But there are many, many stories just like this one, except they are all true, and some of them are even more amazing than this!

We should remember that the goal of Buddhism is to free ourselves from this chain of being born again and again and again by becoming enlightened. After all, who wants to keep going back to school! And even if you do get reborn as a prince or princess you will still get old and die again. The only true happiness is to free ourselves from Samsara, this endless chain of birth and death.

Phew!

When someone becomes a monk and gives up their personal possessions what happens to them?

That all depends on the individual. Some monks sell all their things and give the money away to friends and family; some monks don’t have anything to give away! Other monks will just go to the monastery and leave their friends and family to tidy up after them (like me!).

With no money, how do monks get robes and clothes?

This is a good question. As monks we don’t have any money, we can’t grow food, and we can’t cook for ourselves… We’re pretty helpless! And so we have to depend on what people give us.

In Buddhist countries like Thailand monks go out every morning with their alms-bowls to collect food. We walk through the local village or town, keeping our eyes downcast, and people line the streets waiting to put some food into our bowls. By the time we get back to the monastery we have plenty to eat. Regarding robes, the material is also given to us and then we usually sew the robe ourselves. You might think we are a burden on people, but they actually love to give things to monks. If we don’t go out to collect food they aren’t happy! Buddhist people, you see, love to give.

In England we don’t really go out to collect food and so instead people come to the monastery to cook food for us. I did once go on a 7 day walk by myself with no money or food, just relying on what people put into my bowl every morning. People were very kind and I had enough to eat every day. It was amazing!

So we depend upon people for material things, like food, robes, a place to live in, and medicine; and the people depend upon us for spiritual guidance and teaching. Or you could put it the other way around and say that people give us material things; and that we give them our example, guidance and teachings. And that, in fact, is just what I’m doing now!

 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 5 and Summary

6. ORIENTATE

Sight – check. Sound – check. Smell – check. Taste – check. Touch – check. To orientate ourselves to the present moment we can do this simple exercise. We pay attention to the doors of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body to see what exactly is happening there. Just as the captain of a ship checks his compass to determine his position; so we can check each of the sense-doors to determine our position – which is, of course, the present.

If we are not careful, these inner worlds of ours easily become choked with troublesome thoughts, perceptions, memories and characters. But are these private worlds we drag around a true reflection of the outside world? Aren’t they just based largely on our own mistaken perceptions? How many times do we pass judgement on something, only to have it promptly overturned moments later? Our inner worlds are – for the most part – disconnected from reality, from what is actually going on right now.

And so it is crucial that we learn to be mindful of what is happening around us; that we pause to pay attention to what is occurring, in the present, at each of the sense-doors. The sense-doors are our windows to the world, and to stop the creation of more mental proliferation we must be vigilant and learn to just observe. To be mindful of what is actually happening around us puts a break on these meanderings of the mind and we become aware of what is right in front of our noses.

We can begin with sight. Here we pay attention to the objects that occupy our field of vision and try to let there be just what is seen. Normally there is a moment of bare perception – when we simply see – before the labels, perceptions and associations come tumbling along and bury it. So, for instance, we see a teacup, and with that seeing come all manner of things such as liking or disliking, memories of good cups of tea had, thoughts of who gave the cup, etc. So, our experience of seeing the teacup largely comprises our own inner proliferations; we are not actually seeing the teacup.

If we let go of all the associations, perceptions, liking and disliking, etc., there will be the bare experience of seeing. So when this happens what do we actually see? Colour and shape – that is all. To just see is to see without labels, without commentary, without proliferation. We see the teacup as it actually is: a white upturned semi-circle with a few wiggly blue lines on the face and a little thin ear-shaped bit on the side, and nothing more. And so it is with the other things that fill our little screens, where there is no ‘dog’, no ‘tree’, no ‘miserable mother-in-law’ – just a few brown lines, a wavy green blob, a red square. As the Buddha said, ‘When seeing, just let there be what is seen.’ So we drop all of the inner-commentary and experience just seeing.

Then we move to sounds. What can you actually hear? Listen carefully and try to be aware of the various sounds around you. The longer you listen, the more you will hear. And again, try to hear without the labels and commentary; ‘When hearing, just let there be what is heard.’ There’s the sharp tweet of a bird – though we don’t label it ‘bird’; there’s the whirrr of the fridge – though we don’t label it ‘fridge’. We pay attention to how the sounds actually sound, without piling our conditioned reactions onto them. We notice the textures of sounds, the pitches, the frequencies, and so on. We are mindful of the bare experience of just hearing.

Then we do the same for tastes, odours and bodily sensations. At each of these doors we ask: ‘What is actually happening? What is being experienced?’ Bitter, sweet, bland, spicy, sour; strong, subtle, sweet, pungent; warm, cool, comfortable, painful, etc… We are mindful of the bare experiences of just tasting, just smelling and just feeling.

Not only does this orientate us to the present but it fosters a very subtle awareness. For instance, as we are mindful of what we can hear we gradually tune into sounds which would usually go unnoticed. Try it now. What can you actually hear? After a few moments the quieter sounds will begin to appear to you. You will hear the faint hum of the traffic, the rustling of the leaves, perhaps even the snoring of a mouse! And in the same way you will notice subtle experiences at the other sense-doors – experiences which had hitherto been undetected.

To begin with, this practice serves to help remind us of the simplicity of the moment. But as we progress, these sense-bases – including the sixth: mind – become the source of liberating wisdom. The more carefully we examine sense-impressions with an unclouded awareness the more we will gain insight into their ephemeral nature. We like to say that ‘Everything speaks the Dhamma’, that every experience speaks the truth. Well, if we really learn to just see, just listen, just smell, and so on, then we will hear that message. And what will these experiences tell us? ‘I am transient, unsatisfactory, and empty!’ In this way the senses cease to be substantial and a great sense of ease and relief takes its rightful place.

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Summary of the Six Ways

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1. QUIET: Convenient, efficient, rewarding. Simply take your time to do something quietly and see how your mindfulness levels immediately increase. Mindfulness turns all of our actions into an art form, and it is especially so with this method.

2. STOP: In theory simple, in practice not always, but deeply rewarding if we can really do it. As the method’s name implies our sole concern is to stop. We put down our things, and stop externally; and we put down our thoughts/worries/plans/emotions, and stop internally.

3. BREATHE: The breath is always available and it is very discreet. When a few minutes present themselves to you don’t fiddle with your phone or pick your nose – make that time count by focussing on your breathing. Even ten breaths will make a difference.

4. TOUCH: Pause and take a few moments to focus on the obvious points of contact experienced around the body, for instance your feet touching the floor: examine the sensations and be mindful of hardness, texture, temperature and movement. Don’t spend too long on one contact point before moving to the next.

5. SLOW: Often taught by meditation teachers and for good reason: not only is it devastatingly simple, it is perhaps unparalleled in its potential to enhance our moment-to moment awareness. Making a cup of tea? Do it slowly and see what happens.

6. ORIENTATE: The captain of a ship checks his compass to determine his position; so too can we be mindful of what is occurring at each of the sense-doors to determine our position – which is, of course, the present. Simply be mindful of exactly what you are experiencing at the doors of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body.

 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 4

5. SLOW

When… we… slow… down… it… is… very… easy… to… be… mindful.

Every… movement… is… distinct.

Every… movement… makes… an… impression.

Every… movement… is… remembered.

See? By taking our time reading those sentences we allowed each word to make an impression. Each word was distinct and each word was more easily remembered.

Slow-motion mindfulness exercises are a convenient yet exceptionally powerful way to hone our awareness. They are easy to do, they can be done at any time (though ideally not when crossing a busy road…), and their effects can be felt for a long time afterwards.

Remember

Let’s get back to that word remember. The term ‘mindfulness’ is, in this unsatisfactory realm, generally regarded as the most satisfactory translation of the Pali term ‘sati‘. But much is lost in translation and so to gain a more comprehensive understanding of this little word we need to look at its other connotations. Sati is closely linked to memory and so as well as ‘mindfulness’ it can be rendered as ‘to recall’, ‘to recollect’, ‘to remember’. When we are mindful we are thus continually recollecting or remembering a particular object in the present moment.

Take, for instance, Anapana-sati: it means mindfulness or recollection of the in-and-out breath; or Marananussati: mindfulness or recollection of death; and Kaya-gata-sati: mindfulness or recollection of the body. To be mindful of something is to hold it in mind, to be continually recollecting it, to be continually remembering it. To be mindful of the body is, in part, to be continually remembering what we are doing as we are doing it. That’s where moving slowly comes in.

We can’t move slowly without being aware. This is because it takes a deliberate effort in order to slow down. To deliberately slow down requires mindfulness. If you try this exercise you will notice that when your mindfulness slips you speed up and shift into auto-pilot: ‘Ooops! I speeded up. I must have lost my mindfulness.’

So how slowly should we move? Well, even moving a fraction slower than normal demands mindfulness and will therefore benefit us. If this is all you can manage then do it. However, for the best results we should move very slowly indeed – as if we were a frail old person of a hundred and ten years. Not only will this allow us to concentrate precisely on each movement, but we will come to be aware of a little-noticed but fundamental aspect of our lives: the intentions that precede our actions. See if you can catch them.

Theravada and The Art of Making Tea

The beauty of the slow-motion method is that it transforms even the most mundane and bog-standard task into a powerful mindfulness practice. Washing up, folding the tea-towels, tidying your room and re-stacking the bookshelves are all perfect candidates.

But let’s now take that most sacred of events – making a cup of tea, as an example. During your tea-break at work/university/home determine to take your time while making the special brew. Break the tea-making process up into manageable chunks of mindfulness by slowing down each movement – even the most insignificant movement. Especially the most insignificant movement! (There’s no such thing as an insignificant movement in this practice.) Put down your thoughts and moods and concentrate totally on the act of making a cup of tea:

Slowly and deliberately lift the kettle.

Slowly move it towards the cup.

Slowly tilt it and pour the water in.

Slowly tilt it back.

Slowly return it to the base.

Slowly move your hand to the spoon.

Slowly open your fingers.

Slowly grasp the spoon.

And so on.

If you break any activity down like this then there is a much greater chance of you recollecting and remembering what you are doing as you are doing it. In other words, of being mindful.

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Next up we have ORIENTATE, where we pay attention to each of the external sense-doors in turn to see exactly what is happening there.

 

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.


Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 1

It’s flashing red! The car’s fuel gauge, that is. There’s only one thing to do when we see this warning and that’s to start looking for a petrol station. To ignore it and carry on would of course be very stupid.

Our mindfulness also has a gauge, and we need to learn how to read it. If we sense that thoughts and emotions are taking over, that we are losing perspective, and that problems are beginning to overwhelm us, then it’s clear that our mindfulness levels are getting low.

So it’s crucial that we become skilled at topping it up when a suitable opportunity arises. It may not take many minutes to do this – even thirty seconds of concentrated mindfulness amidst an hour of chaos will bring relief and revitalised awareness.

Short spells of deep mindfulness punctuating our day will also have a cumulative effect: at the end it, we will find that the day’s events have rolled off us as if they were water drops that have fallen from a lotus leaf.

1. QUIET

When I was a lay-man, shortly before I came to live at the monastery, I had this little exercise that worked wonders for my mindfulness. Firstly, I would take all of the drinking glasses out of the dishwasher and place them on the work-surface beneath the cupboard. Then, I would try to put each of those glasses away without making a sound.

As you can imagine, it made me exceptionally mindful. If I was careless, if my mind wandered off on some trail of thought, the glasses would tell me – ‘CLINK!’ – and I’d be brought right back into the moment.

You could say that the glasses functioned like the rumbling strips between the lanes on the motorway and the hard-shoulder – if you doze off and veer to the left you’re suddenly awoken by gudukgudukgudukguduk as you cross the strip. Then you promptly straighten back up.

Trying to be silent forces you to concentrate on every moment. Every action, even down to the most insignificant of movements, must be precise and executed with great mindfulness. Afterwards, even though you move with normal levels of speed and noise, you will find you are naturally much more mindful.

2. STOP

Yes, it’s as simple as that: just stop. Put down your pen, take your hand off the mouse, cease chopping the carrots, turn off the lawnmower, and just stop. Then, put down everything you’ve been carrying in your mind. Let it all fall away and focus entirely on the stillness of your body. After one or two minutes, or however much time allows, make a deliberate and fully conscious decision to carry on with what you were doing as mindfully as possible.

If you are anything like most people, however, you will probably find that just stopping is not as easy as it sounds.

Up until the moment of stopping we are a passenger on that great locomotion of desire. And until we stop it’s been whooshing along unhindered. So what happens when we do stop? It wants to keep going. You will want to grab the pen, the mouse, the knife, the lawnmower – you may even find your hand flies out without warning! But try to be still. Even the fastest train will come to a halt if you stop adding fuel. Our desire is the same. So just stop, put everything down, and allow it to come to a halt.

Of course, desire may not be the only thing in the driving seat – it may be aversion, frustration, impatience or even fear – and all of these will similarly want to keep going. But it is important that we let go of these too, and focus on simply remaining still.

Once the desire, aversion, etc. have slowed down, and the thoughts that were running rings around our mind have settled, we begin to open to the experience of just stopping. A still body and mind will quickly pay dividends: we will feel light, refreshed and focussed. The more deeply we can stop, that is – the less mental movement we can experience, the more powerful these results will be. Then, when it’s time to return to what we were doing, we can confidently pick up the pen, the mouse, the knife, the mower, and carry on with mindfulness revitalised.

 

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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