“This is the path, no other’s there
for purity of insight”
– Dhammapada 274
One of my best friends and I had a nice talk last week about why people in Western society suffer so much. We drove across town and saw people trudging onward like machines, seemingly doing things that they were not really conscious of doing. They weren’t mindful. We philosophised for a while and my friend came up with the following basic idea of modern Western society, a life consisting of work, Netflix and Basic Fit.
People live to work in order to provide for all kinds of material gain they hardly use because they lack time,
They spend more time with colleagues than with their loved ones,
Maintain the rest of their social relationships in social media,
Order food instead of cooking it when they get home,
Get bored easily and have no time for their hobbies since they are tired of working all day, so they watch Netflix,
They spend their money shopping online, avoiding social contact in stores and in the city,
Try desperately to stay in shape at a fitness concern like Basic Fit
and they use all these brands and commercial instances to create a false sense of individual identity, while they keep working in order to maintain this commercially minded management-induced society.
Then they come to the point where they wonder why life is so short and meanigless, although life is the longest thing they will ever consciously experience.
The featured image in the header of this blog entry by Steve Cutts visualises this idea. Life nowadays seems to be an inescapable rat-race to Nowhere. There has to be a way to escape, right?
Buddhism has taught me that the key to escaping from Dukkha/suffering caused by discontent with modern life is mindfulness. If you live more mindfully you, live more consciously and you are fully aware that you are alive in the present moment! Every moment you are mindful can last a lifetime on its own. A few weeks ago I encountered the sign up here under an old city-gate in Gorinchem, The Netherlands. It perfectly illustrates what mindfulness is all about. When you are mindful you will understand that everything you experience, yet the only thing you will experience is your own life as understood by your own mind! No moment of your life can exist without your presence!
Buddhism teaches us that there is only one path to insight: seeing the truth and the true nature of the things, seeing how everything in this world is interconnected through using your own experiences. I have blogged about the subject of Interbeing and Interconnectedness in previous entries (you can find more information about the topic here). The reason for this is simple: ‘interconnectedness ‘is one of the key terms in Buddhism, it is one of the most principal concepts of Buddhist philosophy. Nothing can exist independently, everything is connected. The entire idea of karma, the teaching of cause and effect, relates to this idea. We often think of karma as something like “What goes around comes around” or “Do good and good will come to you.” But what it basically means can better be expressed as “Every action you undertake will have a consequence.” Action => reaction. it’s that simple. It doesn’t mean that every good action will lead to a good reaction and vice versa. Remember that in the long term even ‘wrong’ actions can lead to positive insights and lessons of life later on. Likewise, positive actions may lead to negative reactions as well.
With that being said, let’s look into mindfulness itself. One of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path, the path leading away from suffering, is the ‘right mindfulness.’ Mindfulness in esence is the ability to be aware. Being aware of your own body, your feelings, your mental states and of general ideas and concepts and the way in which all of this is connected to everything else in the world. This is usually done by focusing on breathing, something that people may recognise from relaxation exercises. You start focusing on your in-breath and on your out-breath. You can think ‘in’ when breathing in and ‘out’when breathing out. That way you are focusing your mind and body on the same thing: they are in total harmony. This mindfulness exercise is the basis of meditation as well.
By being mindful, you slow down your life and you reach a higer level of awareness in which you are fully present in the present moment. Your normal level of consciousness falls away and you enter a state of focused consciousness. Suddenly your senses will change. Sounds that the mind normally blots out in order to function in daily life (like the singing of birds, the wind rushing through trees, the ticking of a clock in the room), the air brushing past your skin, the temperature of the space around you will all come to your attention. Mindfulness teaches you to be fully conscious of yourself and everything around you in the present moment, noticing that everything is changeing at every moment. If you do this often enough you will be more present in the wrold and in your own life! You will gain more insight into what is happening around yo. You will see that every second that passes you are closer to death, without being afraid to die (since death is both inevitable and you are focused on the present moment in which you are actually alive). You will become aware of the karma of things, the actiond and reactions of life around you!
Mindfulness teaches you to reflect about things and to look deeply into them and into their nature. Of course it is not possible to be mindful every moment of the day. If you are totally mindful of all things, you will have reached the state of Nirvana or total Enlightedness according to the Buddha. The ideal moment of being mindful is meditation. Sit down comfortably and close your eyes for a moment. Now focus on your breathing for a few breaths and then open your eyes a little bit, so you will not fall asleep! Now start focusing on your breathing. In and out, in and out. You will notice that it is hard to escape from the thoughts arising in your head. You will be distracted by them, they pull your focus away from your breathing. The more you focus on your breathing, the more waves of ideas will come up from your subconsious! Don’t attach yourself to them, just let them float away. You are a mountain, immovable and still and the thoughts are clouds flowing around you.
Keep on going, for eventually the thoughts will stop arising and you will reach a state of non-thinking. Your subconsious ideas will cease to arise and your mind will be at peace. All this time you have been mindful of what was going on in your mind. You have seen thoughts come and go, like leaves that flow by in a river, never being in the same place. You have seen that they are perishable. You have been aware of the present moment and when the thoughts have ebbed away, you will have entered a state of full awareness in which you are fully present in the present! From there on, pick a subject or idea to contemplate and look into it deeply! You have escaped from suffering by staying in the same place!
Meditation is not the only place for awareness. You can build little moments of mindfulness into the day.I first encountered this idea in the book ‘Present moment, wonderful moment’by Thich Nhat Hanh. It describes many Gatha’s, small verser and poems about mindfulness in daily life. There are small verses about brushing your teeth, washing your hands, eating your food, hearing a bell , doing dishes, driving your car and so on. Every Gatha is a small lesson about mindfulness related to that action. They teach you to be aware of what you are doing when you are undertaking an action. If you eat for example, don’t just shove down your food. taste it, think about where it came from and what it is in essence. Think about how it feeds you. Be thankul and realise that others are hungry.
Little moments of mindfulness during the day can teach you to be more content with life, because you look at life while being alive and you will realise what is actually happening!
When I get caught in a traffic jam I try to be mindful for example. I can become angry and frustrated, but the fact is that i cannot go anywhere. Everyone around me is trying to get somewhere, probably home. I also want to go there. Being angry will not solve anyhting. I will just have to wait it out, just like anyone else. I can spend my time better by focusing on what is going on at that moment. Another example: at the supermarket I sometimes choose to stand in a longer line at the cash-desk on purpose. It is an ideal moment to slow down for a bit and be present. While standing in line, I focus on my breating and become aware of myself and my place in the world in the present moment. I am aware that I am alive.
I took the picture when I saw the sun reflecting in my Chinese tea and I started to wonder about how the sun touches the world around me, the persons and the things and the animals and the other planets. I was aware of how the sun had fed the tea leaves from which the tea was made when they were still a plant, how they were picked by people sweating in the sun, how the sun gives life to everything. I saw the interconnectedness of things, I was aware of my place then and there. I was only sunken in thoughts for a short moment when my best friend called me to attention and said: “Hey, what are you staring at?” And I replied: I just beheld life in a cup of tea.