This is going to be the first of a series of posts on meditation. I’ll start by talking about the prerequisites and how we can ensure we give our meditation the best possible start. In the subsequent posts I’ll move on to talk about the process of developing and maintaining a solid and reliable practice.
We didn’t realise that we were driving right into the middle of the worst affected areas. My brother Tim and I were in his little white van on our way to Wales. I’d been invited to do a retreat on a supporter’s farm. It was July, 2007, the time of the flooding that wreaked havoc in the Midlands and Wales.
In this practice of the Dhamma there are times of darkness when our minds are clouded and we do not see the progress we are making. In these testing times we may wonder if we’re going the right way. We stand still and scratch our heads wondering which way to go. But these periods pass and the darkness clears. The ways in which the Dhamma works are too subtle for us to see most of the time, and we’re not always aware of how it’s affecting us. And so we must be patient as we allow the Dhamma to work its magic.
It’s like walking up a great mountain on a narrow and winding path. At times the walk is exhilarating, but at others we’re engulfed in fog. When in the fog we cannot see the path clearly. We may doubt we are going in the right direction; we may stumble and fall. But we pick ourselves up and continue patiently through the fog…. But then after a time the fog clears and we can see the path. We look back and we see how far we’ve come. The path ahead is now clear to us and our uncertainty vanishes. And so we walk on with confidence. But then again, after a time, the fog returns. The path disappears from view and we are once more uncertain of our direction. We stumble and fall; we take a wrong turn and come face to face with a precipice, but we turn and continue on. And this is how the walk up this great mountain unfolds. There are periods of clarity and there are periods of confusion. But all the time we push on, understanding that this is how the great walk is.
This path of the Dhamma is the same. There are times of darkness and uncertainty and there are times of wisdom and joy. Sometimes we wonder whether we’re going the right way. We wonder whether we’re still making progress, and even if we’ve ever made any progress at all! We are uncertain of many things but we keep going; we keep patiently working at our meditation. Of course there are times when we stumble and fall in our practice: we make mistakes; we neglect our meditation; we tell a lie in the spur of the moment. We may take a wrong turn and leave the path for a while. We may even peer into the abyss of wanting to give up – but we turn around and continue on.
We must understand that this is how the practice goes. You should be worried if it isn’t like this sometimes! But as on the walk up the mountain, the fog does clear; the uncertainty does clear. While in the fog we couldn’t tell if we were making progress, but once it has cleared we see just how far we have come. At these times of clarity we are so aware of the progress that we’ve made. We look back and we see what a different person we are from what we used to be. And yet while we were practising in the fog of uncertainty and darkness we couldn’t see this. At times of clarity practising the Dhamma is a joy. We see things that we had never seen before and we begin to know for ourselves what the Buddha was talking about. We feel inspired and we see our commitment strengthen. Our meditation consistently improves and our mindfulness may seem almost faultless. We are mindful for much of the time both of our body and of the feelings and moods that arise and fall. We hardly get run over at all on the motorway of mind. We are thrilled with the Dhamma as we see what it’s doing for us. “Wow!” we think. We may shed tears of joy as we reflect on the Dhamma.
But then what goes and happens? — Fog! “Huh?…. What’s happened?! Where’s it gone?!…. What about that joy and that faultless mindfulness?!” The clarity has gone. Once again we’re on that motorway of mind getting flattened by everything. Our concentration now seems as advanced as a ferret’s and we’re left wondering what on earth has happened. But through all this we keep going! Because we know what it’s like when the fog clears. And we know that it DOES clear, because it has before. And we don’t despair. Our practice is not lost. It has merely changed form.
Don’t cling to the periods of clarity. This is very important. We should never wish our practice to be a particular way (which is admittedly a tad difficult sometimes). If you’re flying – just keep going! If you’re crawling – just keep going! That’s all there is to it. Eventually we understand that this is how the practice goes. And we understand that this is the practice! We just keep on going through the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. We practise when its easy and we practise when its hard. But remember that all the time we are progressing.
I don’t tend to read much, but when I do it’s usually the scriptures and Ajahn Chah. I read a bit by Ajahn Chah and it seems so clear what I need to do. What he says makes so much sense. “This is it!” – I think. “I just need to practise in this way!” And so it’s like I’m flying on Concorde for a while. I seem to have found a way that really works. “The defilements don’t stand a chance! – It seems so clear!”…… “Ha ha haaaaa……..” say the defilements. “You clearly underestimate how defiled and deluded you are young monk!” And then the fog descends. “Oh here we go…” And then I’m in darkness and all that beautiful clarity leaves me and I seem to drop several rungs on the ladder to enlightenment. These minds are so tricky and unpredictable! Having some experience in all this I’m getting used to it and I’m not so upset when things change. I just carry on.
I said ‘good’ practice a second ago as we tend to think of practising in this way as ‘good”. But we should try not to think in terms of good and bad practice. Really it’s all just practice. After all wisdom often arises during the difficult and ‘bad’ times. All we need to do is keep on practising. That’s all there is to it! The Dhamma will work its magic.
And so the main thing is that we’re patient and that we keep going. I said earlier that one of the things we see when the fog in our practice clears is just how far we’ve come. Aren’t we always looking for the profound experiences? What is it that we want? – an earthquake?! This path is profound and it brings profound changes. But these changes, for the most part, take place in a very subtle way. You can’t see them instantly. One example is the fact that you are aware that you need to follow this path. This is a huge and profound step that we often don’t appreciate. Think how many people in the world do not see the need to do this! It’s because you have wisdom that you’re doing this. Ajahn Chah said that to see your defilements and to want to do something about them is 50% of the practice. That’s a lot! The Dhamma is subtle and so are the changes it brings. Think about that simile of the mountain. We practise in the fog for some of the time, especially at the beginning. But then the fog clears and we see how far we’ve come. All the time we were progressing but we didn’t see it. We didn’t see how far along the path we had come. It was only when the fog cleared that we could see this. And so all of the time, as long as we are practising correctly, we are progressing. The changes within us take place in a very subtle way.
There’s a very well known simile that describes this imperceptible change. Say a man or a woman wishes to take a walk. He opens his front door and sees that there is a very fine drizzle. He thinks that the drizzle is so fine that it won’t make him wet and so he doesn’t take an umbrella. And so off he walks through the drizzle. He walks and walks and all the time thinks that he isn’t getting wet; so imperceptible is this rain, so subtle and discreet. And then after a time he stops and examines himself. And he sees, much to his suprise, that he is drenched. He’s soaked through! But he didn’t realise! He didn’t realise he was getting wet. This is how it is with the Dhamma.
The next teaching will be on the Half Moon Day,
Wednesday, 30th January
In the last teaching we heard about the importance of developing mindfulness and how it can transform our lives.
Our development of mindfulness should begin with the body. If we can establish this well then we will find we’ll be able to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings much more easily. It’s as if mindfulness of the body is base camp. It’s where we can come back to, to stabilise our mindfulness. Once we are experts in being mindful of the body we’ll be able to live comfortably on the motorway of mind, watching the traffic come and go without being run over. Therefore we must train ourselves to be mindful of the body.
It’s like a football player who has to train himself well if he wants to score goals and beat the opposition. If he sits around all day eating hot-dogs and doughnuts he’s barely going to be able to reach his shoe laces, let alone play football.
Our mindfulness of the body is like this. We need to make sure that we train it. If we’re going to be any match for the opposition we need to be in good form. And what’s the opposition? All those things that keep running us over and ruin our lives: our moods and emotions, our negative thought patterns, and all the rest. To deal with them the mind needs to be fit. If we don’t train our mindfulness we’ll be like that footballer who eats doughnuts all day and then finds himself on the pitch against Manchester United.
The First Foundation of Mindfulness
The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is perhaps one of the most important teachings in the Buddhist Scriptures. The four foundations are: 1. Mindfulness of the Body; 2. Mindfulness of Feelings; 3. Mindfulness of Mind; and 4. Mindfulness of Dhamma. Our development of mindfulness can begin with the body as it’s the most obvious thing about ourselves and therefore the easiest thing to be aware of. We can see it, we can feel it, we can hear it (!), and we can smell it (!!).
So mindfulness of the body is the First Foundation of Mindfulness. We need to train it; we need to develop it. The Buddha taught us to be mindful of the body in the following ways: being mindful of the breath; being mindful of our postures; being mindful of our movements; being mindful of the nature of the body; and being mindful of the fact that it’s going to die. These are the ways that the Buddha taught us to be mindful of the body. For now let’s look closely at mindfulness of our movements. The Buddha called this ‘Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension’. This means that we train ourselves to be aware of what we are actually doing NOW. What are you doing now? What position is your body in? Is your back straight? Are you frowning. Just be aware of the body. Being mindful in this way creates a real refuge for the mind.
In a galaxy far, far away
Most of us when we haven’t heard about mindfulness tend to be experts in mindlessness! So what is mindlessness? Say you’re walking down the High Street, past Marks & Spencer and Boots, on your way to your favourite shop. As you are walking there’s a pretty good chance your mind is already at your destination: it’s chosen the new handbag or the new jacket and it’s already waiting at the checkout, waiting for you to hurry up: “Come on!”, it says, “I haven’t got all day!”. So as we go about our daily activities our mind is often in a galaxy far, far away. This is mindlessness; we are not in the present moment; we are not aware of what we are doing as we are doing it. Without mindfulness of the body we are without a refuge.
When we are mindful of the body, however, then we feel at ease. This is a very important thing to develop. If we are well practised in this mindfulness of the body we will be able to stabilise ourselves no matter what’s happening. The mind has a place to anchor itself. We develop mindfulness of the body to keep us in touch with the present. When this awarenss of the body is established we create a forcefield of calm and stability around ourselves. We are confident and collected even as the world around us is going mad (which of course it is).
The Buddha gave a very famous teaching where he said that: “When walking, just walk; when sitting; just sit; when standing, just stand; and when lying down, just lie down.” So simple, yet so difficult. So easy to grasp, yet so profound.
Set up exercises
So we need to train our mindfulness of the body. Obviously in our busy lives this can be difficult. But just set yourself little exercises in mindfulness. When I was a lay-man I used to have a really good little exercise. I used to take the glasses from the dishwasher and place them on the side beneath the cupboard where they lived. Then I would determine to put each glass away without making a sound. It was a real challenge. But it made me so mindful. I had to slow right down and be so aware of what I was doing if I was to succeed. Just five minutes of doing something like this makes such a difference to the quality of our life. Mindfulness is not boring. We can gain a refined, wholesome pleasure from everything we do if we are 100% there as we do it. Even opening a door can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
So try to be mindful of the body. Keep your mind in harmony with your actions as much as you can. Set up at least one exercise a day to help you cultivate mindfulness, as I did with the glasses. So when you are making the tea, do each acion twice as slowly, and try not to make a noise. Or folding the tea towels…. Anything. Slow down and be aware.
The next teaching will hopefully be on the Full Moon Day, Tuesday, 22nd January.
– I imagine quite a few. You probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, our minds are a bit like motorways. The thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, views and opinions that we experience are the traffic. And unfortunately we tend to get run over by it all. By ‘run over’ I mean that we get consumed; we get carried away; we get lost in the thoughts and moods. These various mental states arise and we get run over. And so through the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years, and, if we’re not careful, lifetimes, we live on this motorway of mind and get hit by every darned thing that comes our way. And what’s it like to be hit? – painful!
I love teaching kids. Several years ago I visited a school in Warwick to speak to ninety eight-year-olds. I sat in this big sport’s hall, surrounded by the climbing bars and ropes, with this little sea of small wide-eyed faces in front of me. I talked about Buddhism: I talked about why we suffer when we don’t get the latest Nintendo (or whatever) for Christmas; and I spoke to them about generosity – “Is it better to share your sweets, or keep them all to yourself?”; and I talked about morality. I also let them in on one of the perils of being a monk: being given ice-cream when all your food has to go in the same bowl – “Urrrgghhh!” Continue reading “Day after Full-Moon Day: “I promise…””
Pheewww. Sorry folks. Optimism got the better of me. I’m all typed out after the last few days – setting things up here and what have you. Stay tuned though; we’ll have a Christmas special tomorrow!