Buddhist mindfulness

Many of the concepts and practices of mindfulness which are now taught in secular mindfulness courses come from the Buddhist tradition. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is uniquely Buddhist – all cultures have various practices which encourage a state of mindfulness. However, mindfulness, or sati, as it’s called in Buddhism, has been researched and developed for more than 2500 years in the Buddhist tradition since it forms a fundamental part of what is known as the ‘eight-fold noble path’. It is considered a key element of the Buddhist way of life, together with ethics and insight. The Buddha emphasised sati as a foundational practice, one of the keys to learning how to become less entangled in our self-centered thoughts and delusions. He also understood that mindfulness takes diligent practice – it’s not something to be learnt so much as practised again and again. In Buddhism, sati is practised not to help us feel better or become more efficient at work, but to support realisation into the fundamental nature of existence, such as impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It assumes a world view where these concepts are accepted. And although modern physics seems to show some interesting parallels with Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness are quite different to Western secular or Christian understandings of the self and the spiritual path. Sati helps to deconstruct our sense of self until we understand that there is no independently existing self – every aspect of who we are is contingent on external forces and conditions.

Sati is also closely linked to ethics in Buddhism – our speech, our jobs, our intentions and actions are all part of the eight-fold path. Buddhist teachers sometimes criticise secular mindfulness teachers for taking mindfulness out of the ethical context in which it is taught in Buddhism. My experience in teaching and practising mindfulness is that a more mindful life does lead to greater awareness of how our behaviours impact on ourselves and others. Many of my students have reported choosing their words more carefully, for example, when they’re having that difficult conversation with their teenager or their colleague, and how this led to a much better outcome for all. I do agree though with Buddhist teachers and also with Jon Kabat-Zinn that mindfulness is a way of life, not a method. When mindfulness becomes no more than a tool to achieve an immediate end, such as reducing staff absenteeism, then most of its gifts and richness are lost.

We are fortunate nowadays that we don’t need to be a Buddhist or join a sect or follow some guru in order to learn meditation and experience its benefits. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who have brought mindfulness from the Buddhist context into the Western clinical setting has made learning mindfulness accessible to many more people, and this has been of tremendous benefit. Very few of those learning mindfulness now would want to become a signed-up Buddhist, and they don’t need to be. Yet we can learn from Buddhism and allow mindfulness to be within our own ethical, spiritual and philosophical framework, rather than just something we want to learn as a quick-fix to a particular problem in our life.

Weekly practice idea:

Do you see mindfulness as a way of life rather than a method? What does this mean for you? Allow yourself twenty minutes to reflect on this question – what emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane

Feeling alive – Part 1

‘What is truly a part of our spiritual life is that which brings us alive. If gardening brings us alive, that is part of our path, if it is music, if it is conversation… we must follow what brings us alive.’

Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk

 
What brings you alive? Is it gardening, music, sport? Going for a run? Scrap-booking? Reading a novel? Cooking?

We often think of these things as hobbies, something to pass the time – in fact we literally describe them as ‘pastimes’. As if our life consists of work and other obligations, such as looking after our house and family. Then we need to take care of our bodies, through exercising perhaps or going to a yoga class. There is spirituality, which we might view as something structured and elevated, set apart from daily life. We try keep up with the news and social media and stay in touch with our friends and community. And, if there is any time left after all that, we might squeeze in a hobby or two.

And yet this so-called hobby might be the time we feel most alive. We are absorbed, passionate, fully engaged. When we meet someone who shares our passion we suddenly sit up more straight, our eyes light up, and we can spend hours in happy conversation.

It’s strange how we often dismiss other people’s passions – we might call them Sunday painters, musical wannabes, dear old nonna who loves to cook for the whole family. A successful chef with restaurants in London, Paris and New York is lauded, while little nonna in the kitchen perfecting her recipes with equal passion might be gently patronised. We don’t need to share the passion to appreciate how much it means for people to live their passion out.

I love Steindl-Rast’s idea that those things which bring us alive are part of our spiritual path. In my work I often ask people – what do you enjoy doing? It’s wonderful to see people come alive as they describe their passions. Mindfulness is about bringing a sense of presence to our everyday life, to not distinguish between ‘special moments’ and ‘ordinary moments’. Many people talk about feeling that sense of being present most strongly when they’re in the garden, or listening to music, or going for a walk. If spirituality is about a sense of connectedness to something greater than our small, self-centered ego, where better to feel that sense of expanded connectedness than when we are engaged in something which brings us alive, and which moves us beyond our absorption with minor worries and concerns?

This is very different from the unhealthy obsession which causes us to neglect our obligations. That which brings us alive cultivates the best in us, and can indeed be a precious part of our spiritual path. Next week, we will look at ways we can bring more of this spirit into our everyday lives.

Weekly practice idea:

What do you enjoy doing? Write down a list of the top five. Then calculate how much time you actually spend with any of these in a given week. Do you allow much time for that which brings you alive?

Anja Tanhane

Peace and goodwill

The time of Christmas, regardless of whether we celebrate it as a religious festival or a cultural one, is meant to be the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind. Yet few of us are probably feeling particularly peaceful at this time of year, and the goodwill can also start to wear thin if you’ve been circling for forty minutes trying to find a car park at your local shopping centre, and someone cuts into a spot you had clearly indicated for yourself. Between end of year parties and Christmas shopping and getting organised for the big day, life tends to be more hectic than ever. Both our finances and our nerves may be wearing thin, and our tolerance for Christmas carols in the shops might be at an all-time low.

We can also feel we are being manipulated to buy more stuff than is needed, eat and drink more than is good for us, and generally add massive quantities of packaging, left-over food and unwanted presents to our landfills. Where then, in all of this, is the peace and goodwill?

The Christmas story is about the birth of new hope, of a new way of being in the world with kindness, love, and meaning. Regardless of whether we are practising Christians or not, most of us can appreciate the teachings of Jesus, his call on us to empty ourselves and live authentically, to follow the golden rule which runs through religions across the world – ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’ We may not like the commercialisation of Christmas, yet all cultures have festivals where normal life stops for a period of time, and people get together with their families and communities to celebrate a story which is evocative to them. We may already have rituals which make this time of year meaningful for us, but if we don’t, or if we would like to deepen our experience, we can create our own.

When do we feel most at peace, and what helps us to feel this way? What can we do, to intentionally cultivate a sense of peace? Some like to sit alone in a beautiful spot to watch the sun rise, while others feel most at peace in the midst of a large and noisy family gathering. It’s easy to get carried away with the busy demands of this season, but we have a choice to grow peace within ourselves, in whichever way is most meaningful for us. In this way, the festive season can indeed become the season of peace and goodwill for us.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take ten minutes with a pen and notebook, and write down all different ways in which you can cultivate peace in your life. Place a tick next to one or two which you will practise over the next few days.

Anja Tanhane

Mystery

‘Our practice is not to clear up the mystery, but to make the mystery clear.’

Robert Aitken, Zen teacher

 

Mystery can be expansive and deeply meaningful – gazing up at the night sky for example, and wondering how such a vast universe can exist, where our planet is the only one we’ve found so far which supports life. Or thinking about the millions of processes which are involved in keeping our bodies alive, this complex system which rarely breaks down. We can study our bodies through science in the minutest details, but still it is difficult to understand how it all holds together. How, for example, do all our cells and hormones and neurotransmitters and antibodies and neurons know what to do, and when? So much needs to happen just for us to take the next breath, let alone find and eat and digest food and so on, and yet the system is able to work seamlessly for decade after decade, keeping us alive if not always in perfect health.

And then of course there is our mind, this extraordinary creation which can be mysterious to us much of the time. When we meditate and become more familiar with the workings of our mind, it can be astonishing to discover where this mind likes to roam. A school excursion in Grade 2, something we read in the paper five weeks ago, still worrying about that discussion with a colleague, and now suddenly here we are in fantasy land, some rich drama is unfolding, we are caught up in that but then before we know it a brilliant solution to a problem which has been nagging us pops into our heads seemingly out of nowhere and we suddenly know how to proceed with a project – and all this within the space of a few minutes. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Yet mystery can also be unsettling, or even distressing – the more we delve into how mysterious life is, the more random it can all seem. If your great-great-grandfather hadn’t had an argument with his sweetheart and gone to the village festival where another girl smiled at him, and after years of ups and downs they did end up getting married, and he was often away and four of their children died in infancy but two survived and one of them fought in a war where he met a girl and after the war he found her and they moved to a nearby town where their seventh child, which almost didn’t survive the birth, became your grandmother… So much had to happen for us to be born. And at any point, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, something different could have occurred which meant that you, or I, never got to exist at all.

We can spend our lives trying to clear up one mystery after the other, or we can, as Zen teacher Robert Aitken suggests, become more clear about the mystery of life. Yes, it can seem random, but at the same time, here we are. Just the fact we exist is wonderful – sometimes we can sit in meditation and just appreciate this simple truth.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a moment to look around you and notice what’s there, and allow yourself to be filled with a sense of mystery. What does it feel like, to be more clear about the mystery?

Anja Tanhane

 

Silence

‘A religious spirit in which one feels there is nothing to which one is not related… This is the experience of silence.’

John Cage

The first performance of John Cage’s seminal piece, 4’33’’, was met by outrage and dismay. It took place at Woodstock, New York, in 1952, in front of an audience which supported the contemporary arts. Yet even for this avant garde crowd of modern artists, the performance, in which virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note (though marking the three movements by opening and closing the piano lid), proved too provocative. They began to whisper among themselves, and some people got up to leave. Thus, along with the wind in the trees outside, and the sound of rain on the roof, they became part of the music. John Cage famously said, ‘there will never be silence’, and the concert hall setting, the prestige of the composer and the performer, the cultural expectations of the audience, created the ideal conditions for a group of people to sit quietly for almost five minutes and simply listen to the ‘sounds of silence.’

There is ongoing debate whether 4’33’’ can be considered music. It is still widely performed, by orchestras, pianists, other instrumentalists. Nowadays the audience, of course, knows the piece, so the performance doesn’t confound their expectations as the original one did.

When we are in silence, we are better able to come face to face with our pre-conceived ideas, biases, our judgemental thinking mind. Everything about a formal concert performance pre-disposes us to take our seat and wait for the performance to start with a clear set of expectations. If a concert pianist is listed as the performer, we expect to listen to accomplished piano playing, not the ambient sounds inside and outside the hall. In a similar way, we take our seat in everyday life, look forward to a mostly predictable day, and therefore often miss much of what is happening.

John Cage was influenced by Zen, and said at one point,

‘Everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.’

Is it possible for our intention to go down to zero, as John Cage suggested? Zero is a big number (ironically!). Yet we can definitely open our attention during meditation, to become aware of a greater range of subtle sensations, thoughts and experiences, to be less selective in what we perceive. And yes, there is a certain magic in simply being aware of life as it is unfolding.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside 10 or 20 minutes (or even better, 4’33’’!) to listen to the ‘sounds of silence’. What is that experience like for you?

Anja Tanhane

 

Touching the ground

We may feel we are a long way from being a Buddha, but the story of his enlightenment can be helpful for us in our mindfulness practice. It is said that, following years of being brought up in luxury, and then a choosing a life of asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat down under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he found complete freedom (luckily he was already close to enlightenment, otherwise he could have got very hungry!). All night long, the demon Mara (whose name means ‘delusion’ in Pali) and his forces bombarded him with rocks and arrows, blistering sands and boiling mud, but Gautama sat calmly through it all. Next, Mara tried temptation, and since Gautama was still a relatively young man, Mara naturally chose to tempt him with three young maidens, who happened to be Mara’s own daughters – desire, pining and lust. Again, Gautama remained centred and undistracted.

It was nearly dawn when Mara confronted Gautama with his final challenge – doubt. Continue reading “Touching the ground” »