When I teach people how to use the breath to calm the mind and focus attention, I often mention something the Buddha said: that you should know, upon awakening, whether an inhalation or an exhalation is happening. He also said that while you’re falling asleep, you should realize, “Falling asleep inhaling,” or “Falling asleep exhaling.”
People generally laugh when I say this, registering some disbelief. But I do not take that instruction literally. “What I think it means,” I tell them, “is that we should pay attention all day long, morning till night, in all activities.
“The goal,” I continue, “is not to become a breathing expert, or even an excellent meditator. The goal is to see clearly the causes and the possible end of mental suffering. It’s to experience, and then want to cultivate, peace of mind for oneself.”
When I explain that, I am usually touched by how soon disbelief passes, how settled the tone of the class becomes. The phrase, “peace of mind” seems to strike a resonant chord in people’s minds.
Then there’s the Buddha’s own insights, as expressed in the form of the four noble truths. My teaching colleague Howard Cohn says that the first time he heard of these truths, he was so relieved that he cried. I think of the four noble truths this way:
1. Life is continually challenging because circumstances keep changing.
2. Suffering is the inability of the mind to accommodate these changing circumstances.
3. Peace is possible.
4. It is possible to systematically cultivate, through lifestyle practices and mental training exercise, a mind that accommodates changing circumstances wisely, avoids confusion, and does not suffer.
There is a story from the Buddha’s life—in fact the story of his enlightenment—that I feel addresses the challenge of being a layperson in modern times, or indeed, a person at any time:
One the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be sat down to meditate, vowing to discover the cause of suffering. He surrounded himself with a strong field of balanced equanimity that he maintained through steadfast feelings of goodwill.
The Buddha-to-be found himself attacked by representations of armed assailants that could have easily aroused fear and anger in him. But he remained poised, safe in the field of his own benevolence. Next, he was faced with seductive, erotic images. But again, his calm steadiness kept him unmoved by such temptations.
He had experienced firsthand the mind’s capacity to not become confused by stress. Because he remained unconfused, he was able to understand three liberating insights about the nature of every experience. They are known by Buddhists as the three marks of existence:
1. Everything is temporary; experiences are continually changing. This insight makes difficult situations less painful and frightening because they can be thought of in the context of “This, too, will pass.”
2. Every experience has the potential for startling the mind into confused resistance, which manifests as tension, or mental suffering. The mind thinks, “I need more of this right now,” or “I need less of this right now,” rather than, “This is what is happening now. Let’s see what happens next,” which re-balances the mind from its brief suffering state into equanimity.
3. Everything is contingent. External events or internal experiences like moods or thought arise for reasons. Nothing happens without having been caused by something and without impacting future events.
When I am dismayed by a situation, if I can remember that “This is the result of a huge number of lawful causes far beyond what I want or I don’t want,” I am able, at the very least, to avoid adding anger to an already difficult situation. If there are wise responses to the situation, I can try them. If they are not successful in changing the situation, perhaps I can remember, “Struggling with what is beyond my control will create more suffering for me” and use all of my energy to accommodate the situation.
Here’s an example of the liberating potential of understanding contingency. My friend Martha died of pancreatic cancer several years ago. As her condition worsened she said to me, “I don’t think I am being a very good Buddhist about this, Sylvia. I am not calmly opening to my experience.”
I said, “Of course you aren’t. You have a very undesirable disease. You just need not to be angry at it.”
“I know that,” Martha replied, “but I am.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Just try to not to be angry at yourself for being angry.”
“But I am angry at myself,” she responded. “I know I am making things worse. When I let myself think, ‘Why me? I don’t deserve this,’ I suffer. When I think, ‘Why not me? People get pancreatic cancer and I’m a person,’ I stop suffering. I’m not any happier about dying, but I’m not suffering.
While our circumstances may not be as dramatic as Martha’s when she was facing death—or the Buddha’s on the night of his enlightenment—all our lives are a continual unfolding of potentially confusing experiences. Because things are always changing, it’s hard to get and remain comfortable. Life is like a continuous quiz show where the only question ever asked is, “How are you going to manage whatever is happening now without confusing yourself and creating suffering?”
We are always vulnerable to becoming sidetracked by pleasure and pain Pleasant cues seduce us. The enticing smell of pizza that wafts out the restaurant door as you pass by initiates the thought, “It would be great to stop here now for lunch.” And alert mind can override that idea with the awareness, “If I do that, I’ll arrive late for my meeting.”
Unpleasant experiences arouse negative thoughts. You are disappointed by the news that the affordable-housing initiative you supported lost by a few votes. “What’s the matter with those idiots?” you blurt out angrily to a co-worker before you learn that she is one of the people who voted against it. You are chastened by your impulsivity and resolve to be more moderate in your public speech and less impulsive.
Even when our experiences are neutral, the mind is not safely poised, because if it is untrained, the mind will lose interest when nothing dramatic is happening. It stops paying attention, and can’t be depended upon to make wise decisions.
One enduring challenge we all have is our recurring awareness that (unless we die suddenly and unusually early) we will lose our youth, our health, and our vitality—as well as all the people who are dear to us (unless they lose us first).
In terms of maintaining our energy and enthusiasm for living, it’s probably a good thing that the sickness and death and loss all around does not reoccupy us constantly. I’ve discovered, though, that recognizing the ever-present possibility of being parted from what we love wakes up the mind. Here’s an example of that, from my own experience:
A few years ago, my husband Seymour fell desperately ill and was in a coma on a respirator for nine days. It was unclear whether he would survive. As I sat alone with him in the I.C.U., I thought, “Either he will live or he will die. I cannot do anything about it. My life will be one way if he lives, and another way if he dies. Either way, I’ll manage because it will be the only choice I have.”
My mind was steadily concentrating all day, assessing the monitor screens with their moment-to-moment calculations of his bodily functions, seeing the periodic flashing of red warning lights, and hearing the beeping of signals to call the attention of the nursing staff to changes. I was alert, but not frightened. I knew that the period of intense stress would pass. I also knew that the outcome depended on circumstances totally beyond my control, and that was a relief. There was nothing for me to do but wait.
Also, because Seymour’s life was in jeopardy, I realized just how dear he was to me. My mind was so focused by the high-alarm situation that recollections of petty annoyances simply could not arise in it. I thought, “If he lives, I will never again get annoyed about such-and-such a habit of his.” As I described it to a friend, “All the nonsense falls out of your mind when your head is screwed on straight.” Or as Tibetan Buddhists say, more elegantly, “All defilements are self-liberating in the great space of awareness.”
He did live, and recovered completely. Pretty soon I found his habits irritating again. But they were less irritating and easier to overlook if I brought to mind what I now think of as “the experience that shocked my mind into clarity and reorganized my values.”
These days, if an aversive reaction starts to form in my mind in response to any long-held “I don’t like what’s happening” pattern, I think to myself, “Wait! Don’t disturb the peace!” I think of the Buddha’s teaching that anything that the mind “ponders and dwells on, by that will it be shaped.” Part of my meditation practice these days is noticing, when I meet or even think about people I am in relationships with, whether old grievances associated with them come up in my mind. If they do, I pause in my thinking, take a long, calm, breath, and try to hold that person, and myself, in warm affection. I recognize that the stories that fuel long-held negative opinions are holding my natural good heart hostage. My everyday practice is denying them “air time” in my mind.
Of course, it would be wonderful if we could so thoroughly incorporate the insights we gain in times of particular clarity into our lives so that habits of confusion never again arise. My experience, though, is that the development of wisdom is incremental. The unfolding of daily life is an unending display of situations that lure the mind into liking or not liking. The ordinary annoyances—think traffic jams and parking tickets and worrisome letters from the IRS—alternate with sudden beguiling preoccupations like the new “flirt” on the dating website you’ve joined, or the notice in your email of a half-price offer on a luxury dream cruise on the Danube.
Stop now and think back through your day so far. Notice the times your mind became ruffled by the unexpected, then soothed again and comfortable, then ruffled again, and then soothed. I think you will find there have been many such potentially upsetting moments.
Perhaps when we make a wholesome decision, we should go out of our way to congratulate ourselves: “I did that! I preserved my peace of mind! I almost got caught in bewilderment, but I didn’t!” Each such experience of, “My mind is peaceful, by choice” is both a confirmation of the third noble truth—“Peace is possible”—and a moment of confidence-building. And even when distraction confuses us and we blurt out or do something we regret, we usually feel remorse and resolve to develop our patience. In either case, we become wiser. The crucial element is paying attention.
Think back to the image of the Buddha. Under siege from external events and his internal responses, he preserved his peace of mind with alert steadiness and unshakeable goodwill. Following his enlightenment, the training path that he prescribed for developing those capacities is a summary of lifestyle choices and mind training that we can undertake as well. It is called the eightfold path of practice:
“Wise action, wise speech, and wise livelihood specifically pertain to being engaged in the world. The Buddha is said to have counseled his son, Rahula, “Before (or during or after) doing or saying anything, you should consider if what you just said or did is good for yourself as well as good for everyone else.”
All our actions, even our choice of livelihood, should meet the criteria of kind intent. Committing to that intent involves wise mindfulness, the precision in the mind to notice the motives that precede actions, and wise concentration, the steadiness in the mind that makes it less likely to become confused.
Wise effort is the resolve, at every choice-point, word, or deed, to discern and choose wholesome actions. Wise understanding is our deepening conviction that peace of mind, and the natural goodwill and compassion that grows from it, depends on wholesome choices. Wise intention is our ever-renewing dedication to all the practices that promote these wholesome choices.
Beginning dharma students often ask me, “How will I take this practice out into the world?” I say that it is important to set aside some time every day to sit quietly, or have a quiet walk, specifically to encourage the mind to relax. Just taking “time off,” in whatever healthful way works for you and your schedule, removes the uncomfortable sense of imperative that is likely to arise in a day crowded with tasks. The main thing I want to share, though, is this:
Daily life is practice. Because life in the world is as complex as it is, it is the optimal setting for developing the capacity of equanimity and the habit of benevolence. The techniques that we learn in classes and retreats are techniques for living life.
The Buddha began his spiritual quest hoping to discover the answer to the suffering of regular people. He did, and we are the beneficiaries of his example. For now we know that we too can wake up to the unconscious habits of our minds and transform them, through wisdom, into compassion.