Training a cute little puppy

Imagine your mind is a little puppy – cute, playful, boisterous, and, above all, determined to run around and explore every nook and cranny wherever it goes. While you might have a notion that the puppy should be sitting quietly in a corner all day until you call it for a walk, the reality is that puppies just aren’t made to sit quietly in a corner, and there is no point getting angry at the puppy for simply doing what puppies do.

Our minds also love to run around, to explore, to jump all over the place, and to get excited whenever there is the slightest indication that a treat or a walk or some playtime might be coming up. In part, this constant curiosity and excitability has served us well – as a species, we’re forever searching for new and innovative ways to improve our lives, and what we can achieve. On the other hand, our minds, like puppies, do benefit from some training. Dogs are happier when they are well-trained, and our mind is also more contented when it is trained with gentle discipline.

There are two aspects to this mind training. The first is to understand that our busy, racing mind is simply doing what it’s designed to do – there is no point in getting angry at ourselves for losing focus during a meditation, just as we would be unreasonable dog owners if we started yelling at a puppy every time it moved away from its spot in the corner. We often have highly exaggerated notions of what our mind should be capable off during a meditation – as if we can simply flip a switch and our mind will go from unfocused and distracted to calm and serene simply because we happen to be sitting in a meditation posture wanting to meditate. It’s just not the way our mind is set up, both from our evolutionary history, and also because most of us live very busy, overstimulated lives.

The second aspect is that we should not be afraid of applying some ongoing discipline to ourselves and to our mind. This discipline can be gentle, loving, patient, just like a good dog owner is gentle, loving and patient with a new puppy. Yet just as a puppy which is allowed to do whatever it wants does not grow into a contented, well-adjusted dog, so we too need to bring some discipline towards our minds, and we benefit from training our mind on an ongoing basis.

This is why mindfulness meditation is more than simply learning to relax and blissing out. There are many activities which are enjoyable and which benefit us – gardening, going swimming, watching a movie, and so on. Mindfulness asks more from us than simply having a relaxing, enjoyable time. Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will increase our appreciation and enjoyment of life, and help us feel less stressed. But when we are meditating, our mind could be all over the place, and we gradually learn to bring it back, again and again, just like we might train a puppy to walk on a lead and sit on command.

Weekly practice idea:

Take some time to examine your attitude to bringing discipline into your life. You’re probably already disciplined in all kinds of areas – work, household chores, personal hygiene, diet etc. How do you feel about a disciplined meditation practice – is this something you already do, or something you find challenging?

Anja Tanhane

 

Balancing discipline and dogma

‘It seems to be human nature to take anything that works (ceremony for example) and then make it solid and rigid. It’s when we put ego and solidity and rigidity around it that we make a problem.’

Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher

 

If you would like to live as a monk in Thailand, you will be required to follow 227 precepts or rules. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as not committing murder, stealing, or slandering your fellow monks. Others, such as the injunction not to carry wool with oneself for more than three walking days, are a little more obscure. To live as a monk is to choose a highly disciplined life, one which is designed to create the right conditions for spiritual development. We may regard some of those rules with a certain bemusement, or even feel that rules are not for us – we should be free spirits, able to act in whatever way feels right to us. Yet our lives are also bound by countless rules, probably more than 227, mostly designed to help us live in peace with others. Even something as simple as driving to the shops to get some milk requires us to follow road rules, such as stopping at a red light, as well as the driving conventions of our culture, which will determine how generous we are when it comes to giving way, how respectful we are of bikes on the road, and so on. There are rules about how to behave in a supermarket queue, what we can wear at work, what we are allowed to say and when, how late we can keep the whole neighbourhood awake with our party, whether we’re allowed to check Facebook at work, and countless others.

Then there are the disciplines we set for ourselves to keep us healthy and happy – that early morning run in drizzling rain, saying no to the extra glass of wine, meditating regularly regardless of whether we feel like it. Just as religious groups work out over time which practices and ceremonies are helpful, so we too might figure out for ourselves that yes, regular exercise is important to me, I will regret getting drunk, my day goes much better when I’ve made the time to meditate in the morning. Some form of discipline seems to be essential for us to lead a ‘good’ life. Groups of people need structures and guidelines if they are to work well and efficiently together. Yet often, within a generation or two, these guidelines can become ends in themselves – rigid rules everyone has to obey, or else! There is a Zen saying which illustrates this:

‘Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’

Our rules are like fingers pointing at the moon – they are helpful, but only if we don’t forget they are simply there to point us in the right direction.

Our lives are a constant balancing act between becoming too rigid on one hand, and on the other hand lacking the self-discipline to choose those actions which will benefit us. As we grow and change, the rules which served us well two years ago may no longer be appropriate now. It’s not always easy to get the balancing act right. If I wake up with a sore throat, is a morning run in pouring rain a good idea? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Mindfulness can help us tune more deeply into our present-moment experience, and discern what is really going on – is my desire to sleep in just laziness, or do I need to be flexible with my exercise routine this morning? Hopefully, as we keep tuning in, over time we will have a clearer sense of when flexibility or discipline may be needed.

Weekly practice idea:

What are the rules you live by? Do you think you generally have a tendency to be too rigid, or not disciplined enough? Perhaps you are very disciplined at work, for example, but not so good when it comes to self-care. Stop and pause from time to time, and ask yourself – is my current action about healthy discipline, rigid dogma, or a bit too laissez-faire?

 

Anja Tanhane