Staying Focused – The Buddha Dharma Series

The final aspect of the eightfold path is staying focused, which is achieved by effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Effort

Without applying effort, we are not going to reach any of the goals we set ourselves. Here I wish to highlight the effort required to avoid harmful acts and develop helpful ones.

These are split into four parts, namely the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.

This is a list of the harmful acts we need to avoid and overcome.

  • Violence                                           
  • Stealing                                           
  • Sexual misconduct                      
  • Lying                                                
  • Divisive speech                             
  • Harsh words                                  
  • Gossiping                                       
  • Greed                                              
  • Ill-will                                              
  • Inappropriate view                     

We have to put in a great effort in order to avoid these ten harmful actions. This is achieved by setting ourselves boundaries and ensuring we stay within them. In my own case some of them came easy to me and others were fairly difficult, but by putting in the effort and setting myself redlines, I manage to avoid them for the most part. But none of us are perfect, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. 

The next place we apply effortis to overcome the harmful acts that have already arisen. This one is a little trickier, particularly if they have already become a habit. The first thing I suggest you do is to rate the above list of harmful actions from one to ten – one being the act you do the most and ten being the one you do the least. Be honest with yourself, even if it is painful, or there will be no point in doing the exercise. Now, start with number one on your list and each day set an intention to refrain from doing the act. This exercise will help keep it in the forefront of your mind. If you do unwittingly perform a harmful deed, don’t get frustrated, just reaffirm your intention. This is where mindful awareness comes into its own because you are going to have to be vigilant of your actions. Slowly work through the list until you feel confident that you have by and large overcome them.

The set of skilful acts we have to develop and maintain are the opposite of the harmful acts.  

  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Self-restraint
  • Truthfulness
  • Kind speech
  • Pleasant words
  • Helpful words
  • Contentment
  • Goodwill
  • Appropriate view

The third effortis to develop skilful acts that have not yet arisen. The perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful deeds is during your daily meditation or reflection session. If you review each day which actions have been helpful, and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will then be able to see what you need to work on.

During your reflection session, write down the ten helpful acts on a piece of paper. Then grade them from one to ten – ten being the act that comes naturally to you and one being the act that you have to cultivate. Those you grade from one to five are the ones you should work on. At regular intervals, do the grading again. Note your progress every time and recommit to developing the helpful acts you need to work on.

The final effortis to maintain the helpful actions that have already arisen. This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful acts you need to work on. Now focus on the ones that come naturally and need no great work. You should also remain mindful of these helpful deeds, so they can become an even deeper habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at other times; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; getting totally drunk one day and then saying you don’t drink another day; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. These helpful acts must become natural and spontaneous. It needs a great amount of effort to keep these going, because if you do not stay watchful, they can easily drift away from you. Perseverance and vigilance are key here.

Mindfulness

Whether we are on the eightfold path or not, we still should try to be mindful, and maintain an awareness of where our actions are taking us. If we don’t, we are not going to find the peace of mind we are searching for. So, let’s look at the different aspects of the path I have laid out in the last three posts and examine how we can approach them mindfully.

We cannot just jump into our practices without first having an appropriate view. Of course, cultivating positive experience is what our practices are all about, but if we have no clear picture of where we are going and why, we can quite easily flounder. We need to know what and why we are doing any practice and see clearly how it will fit into our lives. We need to study and think to gain a clear picture in our mind before we dive into our practice. A firm and stable foundation is required. Mindfully setting our intentions for travelling on this path and implementing a meditation practice is a wonderful way to become motivated. It allows us to stay on track. It is therefore important to have well thought-out intentions and stay mindful of them.

Mindless speech can often divide people and make them feel disconnected. In contrast mindful speech helps us heal rifts and make better connections with each other. I feel that if we practice mindful listening, which is being totally engaged with the other person and allowing them to finish their sentences, mindful speech arises naturally, and we can enjoy genuine dialogue.

We need to mindfully check in with ourselves during the day to ensure our actions, physically, verbally and mentally, are not harmful to ourselves or others. This strengthens our practice, so we maintain the goal of responsible living.

Usually livelihood equates with survival – earning money so we can live. But when we are being mindful of our work, we can see that it is also about contributing to the common good. It is not just about money; it is also about giving back to society. We have to be mindful of any harm we may be causing ourselves and others.

Of course, we need to put effort into whatever we are doing on the path to ensure success, but there is such a thing as too much effort. We need to be mindful of the amount of effort we are putting in. If the effort is causing tension, it is too much. If the effort is not producing any results, it is not enough. Be mindful of how much effort you are putting into the path and your practices.  

When we are being mindful, we are fully aware of, but not tangled up in, the various aspects of our experience – the emotional, the physical, the spiritual as well as the social. Mindfulness covers our complete engagement with life.

I will talk more about mindfulness in my next post.

Concentration

If we wish for a mind that is at peace we need to learn how to focus single-mindedly on an object of meditation. However, what I want to highlight here is a particular type of one-pointedness. It is a wholesome type of concentration. A killer about to murder his victim, a soldier on the battlefield or a burglar about to break into your home all act with a concentrated mind, but they cannot be classed as a wholesome one-pointedness.

Buddha stated that appropriate concentration is dependent on the development of all the preceding seven steps of the eightfold path:

‘Now what is appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors, appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness, is called appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions’.

While concentrating on appropriate view, you have to stay focused on cause and effect. Whatever intentional actions you do—be it with your body, speech or mind—will create a reaction in the future. You have to be naturally aware of this fact whenever you perform any intentional action. You also have to stay focused on the impermanence of everything, or you may find yourself getting attached to things, which in turn will cause you to suffer. We tend to have a fixed and solid sense of self, which is not an accurate view. This again is going to cause us suffering in the long run. I will talk more about these points in future posts.

Next, you should concentrate on appropriate intentions. Our intentions should be to help and not harm ourselves and others. To achieve this, we have to remain centred on what is motivating us. We have to ensure our mind isn’t being driven by any of the three poisons or is clouded by ill will, because if it is, our actions of body and speech will reflect that, and we will end up harming someone. By reflecting on what motivates you, it will ensure you do not intentionally cause harm.

Now we come to concentration of appropriate speech. A lot of the time we open our mouth before engaging the brain, and because we are not focused, what comes out can be harmful, unkind and unhelpful. We lie, use divisive speech, use harsh words and gossip with such ease, it is frightening. It is as if our mouth has a life of its own. To counter this, we have to concentrate on our speech. Lying is never going to help anyone. When we use divisive speech, we are not making friends; we are just causing divisions between people. Using harsh words to someone’s face is going to hurt them, and gossiping is a waste of time. So, we have to have the appropriate level of concentration towards our speech, and then we will learn to talk in a way that is both helpful and kind.

Concentration of appropriate action is where we direct our attention towards the actions of our body. This will ensure we refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and other harmful actions of the body. Buddha advised his son, Rahula, to reflect on any deeds he is thinking about carrying out in this way: Is the deed going to cause harm to himself or others? If so, do not do it, as it is a bad deed entailing suffering. However, if you reflect on the deed and it is going to be helpful to yourself or others, or at the very least, not harmful, you should do it again and again, as this is a good deed entailing happiness. Thus, we must be sure we are fully in tune with our actions, so that we are aware of when we are helping or harming.

This brings us to concentration of appropriate livelihood. We have to ensure our work does not bring harm to anybody. We may be doing a dangerous job and if we do not concentrate on our actions, we may bring harm to someone.

Whatever we are doing we have to be sure we put in the appropriate effort and appropriate mindfulness. If we do not concentrate our effort on all of the steps in the eightfold path, we could become lazy or distracted, and this could lead to us harming someone or something. If we do not focus our mind on the present moment, it may lead our thoughts to drift back to the past or jump forward to the future. Neither of these are helpful. By concentrating on the present moment our minds will be calm and our actions kind and helpful.

When our mind is not focused it flaps around like a fish on dry land. It simply cannot stay still and jumps from one idea to another, from one thought to another, there is absolutely no control. Such a distracted mind is consumed by worries and concerns about what has happened or may happen in the future. It doesn’t see the whole picture and distorts reality.

But a mind that has been trained in concentration can remain focused on its object without any distractions. This allows the mind to become calm, clear and open. This calm, openness can then be taken off the cushion and used in the outside world. This will allow us to stay single-mindedly aware of all stages of this eightfold path.

**********

Following the eightfold path is not easy because many of the things we have to change or let go of are very dear to us. We are passionate about them and have often invested an awful lot of time cultivating them. Letting these unhelpful things go can disturb us. Therefore, change takes diligence, discipline and mindful awareness. We have to understand each of the eight steps and then implement them. They have to become a part of our lives; only then will our minds be at ease and we will gradually reduce our emotional suffering and start to experience the true peace of mind we have been desperately searching for.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.



The Five Precepts – The Buddha Dharma Series

I have been asked on numerous occasions to lay out, in an understandable manner, the teachings of Buddha. So, over the coming months I will articulate the Buddha dharma in an order that I hope you will find both informative and easy to understand and implement. I am going to begin with the five precepts.

Gautama Buddha said:

‘Now, there are these five gifts, five great gifts—original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning—that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and Brahmans.’

So, what five gifts was he talking about? He was talking about the five precepts.

The precepts are the gateway into Buddha dharma. They are like the training wheels on a kid’s bike. That doesn’t mean they’re elementary and easy to do, because they’re not. They are also not commandments and we are not being told ‘thou shalt not’ do something. They are more like guidelines that will help keep us on the straight and narrow. If we follow these guidelines, we will not bring harm to ourselves and others. These guidelines are undertaken so we can work towards reducing our suffering and the suffering of all beings – this is a theme that runs all the way through the Buddha dharma. If we really want to be a responsible person within society, we have to ensure we are not harming anyone or anything. These five precepts will help us achieve that goal.

I have told this story before, but I believe it is helpful to mention it again. When I first decided to become a Buddhist monk, I was given these five precepts and told to hold them for six months. After six months I had to return to my teacher and discuss how I got on. Only after that was I allowed to take my full vows. I found them easy to understand, but not so easy to keep on a day to day basis. I would recite them before I got out of bed each morning as a kind of a mental reminder and to set my intention for the day. If I strayed during the day, which I invariably did, I would retake the precepts and strengthen my resolve not to break them again. Having this experience has helped me understand how hugely important these precepts are, and what a great springboard into the Buddha dharma they are.

The precepts are:

  • Refrain from taking life
  • Refrain from false speech
  • Refrain from taking what has not been freely given
  • Refrain from harming others with the sexual act
  • Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The Dhammapada (verses 246–247) explain the precepts in this way:

‘One who destroys life, who speaks untruth, who takes what is not given, who goes to another man’s wife or woman’s husband, who gives himself/herself to drinking intoxicating liquors, he/she, even in this world, digs up his/her own root.’

So, let’s go through each precept individually, but bear in mind these are my interpretations and may differ from a more traditional approach. I have tried to make the precepts relevant to today’s world and I have also added my own personal perspective. As with all Buddha dharma, you will have to decide for yourself what does or doesn’t work for you.

Refrain from taking life

This one seems obvious, but it means more than not killing other humans; it includes all sentient beings. It also covers refraining from getting others to kill on your behalf.

For me this goes much further than just killing. I personally believe it covers not eating meat, mindlessly killing insects, picking flowers and cutting trees. It means being mindful of all of Mother Nature’s inhabitants and their contributions to our ecosystem. I believe we should reflect before we chop down a tree, pick a flower or squash a bug. Remember, all actions have consequences, some may be seen and others unseen, but there will be a consequence somewhere down the line.

Everything on our planet has an intention for living, being peaceful, happy and not suffering and their lives are just as crucial as our own when it comes to maintaining our world. 

This precept, for me, means not causing harm to humans, animals, plants and all other living things.  

It is talking about intentional killing and not unintentional killing. It is impossible to go through life without unintentionally killing things. If you go for a pleasant walk across some fields, you will be unintentionally killing small insects. Your intention was to go for a walk, it wasn’t to kill insects, so this precept is not talking about that. Having said that, we must be careful wherever we walk and make sure we don’t mindlessly step on insects.

On a personal note, this precept is talking about not killing or harming things, and so I find it hard to accept the fact that we are breeding animals, keeping them captive and then killing them for food. Eating meat and adhering to this precept are not compatible. I understand this precept is a guideline and not a commandment, but I would ask you to please spare the animal a thought and try to work towards becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

Refrain from false speech

Words hold power and using them carelessly can cause destruction.  Do not say anything until you mentally confirm it to be true, helpful and kind. Don’t gossip, exaggerate or lie. Instead, practice responsible honesty with only good intentions. Dedicate yourself to loyalty and share only useful and credible news and information. 

Once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. Before we know it, we have unwittingly become a liar and that is a label that is difficult to shake off.

I know that people say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but do they consider how that person will feel when they find out they have been lied to? Maybe the truth is painful or difficult to say, but it is possible to say it in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them once you have told them the truth. I believe, it is always kinder in the long run to tell someone the truth.

On a personal note, I get upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.

Refrain from taking what has not been freely given

Do not take what has not been given to you, whether it’s materialistic, opportunistic or emotional. There are a number of activities that are considered stealing, including participating in underhand deals, fraudulent activities, cheating or committing forgery. Borrowing another person’s belongings without permission is also considered forms of stealing.

If we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing. It may be a pen from work, a magazine from the doctor’s waiting room or fruit from someone’s orchard. No matter how big or small, it is still stealing.

We seem to have accepted certain forms of stealing and do not see it as a problem. I am talking about taking things from our place of work, such as stationery items from an office, bread or milk from a catering establishment and nuts and bolts from a factory. We shouldn’t fool ourselves: these things have not been given to us, and so it is stealing.

Again, on a personal note, I believe taking eggs from chickens and milk from cows constitutes taking what has not been freely given. The animal has had no choice in this process and so I feel it is a form of stealing. As I have said before, these precepts are not hard and fast rules, so you have to see how far you are willing to go to adhere to them. I am just giving my own personal view point here and you are free to take it or leave it..

Refrain from harming others with the sexual act

Generally speaking, this precept refers to committing sexual indiscretions such as adultery, rape, incest and sex with a minor. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.

I personally believe that Gautama Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not break any marriage vow or commitment. It does not have anything to do with sexual orientation. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race or gender, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of his or her control.

I think another aspect of this precept that should be looked at whilst considering sexual misconduct is people trafficking, that is, taking people and forcing them to enter the sex industry. It is estimated that around 1.2 million children are forced into prostitution or pornography, and their average age is between twelve and fourteen years old. The human suffering in the trafficking industry is staggering.

Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The last precept is to avoid abusive use of alcohol and avoid illegal drugs altogether, as well as other substances that impact mindfulness and fuel irresponsibility.

I have deliberately put ‘abusive use’ of alcohol because I believe drinking in moderation is not a problem. Nobody is saying you cannot have a glass of wine with dinner or a pint after work. What is being said is that when we are completely inebriated, we lose control of our body, speech and mind. This precept is quite often the cause of the previous four precepts, so is very important to adhere to.

You may be driving home under the influence of drink or illegal drugs and have an accident and kill someone; you may steal money to cover our drink or drug addiction; come out with a pack of lies because you have no control over your mouth; or have unsafe sex with someone you met in a bar, not even considering that you or they may be married, underage or haven’t consented.

Alcohol and illegal drugs are very additive and can destroy your life and the lives of those around you. So, it is important to ensure we don’t lose control of our thought processes because we are under the influence of drink and drugs. 

These are the guidelines Buddha advised us to follow and I believe they are of great help to us in life and on our path to follow the Buddha dharma. It goes without saying that we will fall short sometimes, but that is all part and parcel of the learning process. If you fall, get up and try again. Don’t give up. The more we try to adhere to these precepts, the more they will become a habit, and those habits will eventually become our behaviour, who we are. We all need boundaries in life, and I think these five are a wonderful starting point.  

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.



Why Did That Happen?

Buddhism does not talk about destiny or god’s will. Instead, they understand that things happen through a complex web of causes and effects.

Let’s start at the basics. If you plant a rice seed, you will get rice. You won’t get wheat or tomatoes. So, the cause of rice is the rice seed. Things do not just appear without a cause. For example, look at yourself, you are here because of our parents. You didn’t just miraculously appear. You were born because of cause and effect. Now, all of this is probably easy to understand, but it’s when we go a bit deeper people start to get confused.

When I teach this subject people always say, ‘If everything comes from a cause, why did this happen or why did that happen.’ The truth is there isn’t usually just one cause. Let’s take the rice seed again. The rice planet cannot just grow from a seed. It needs soil, water, air and many other things. So, there isn’t just one cause. There are so many causes each crossing over each other like a giant spider’s web. This is why it is quite often impossible to find out why things did happen. But that isn’t good enough for us humans, we want answers and that is why it is easier to dismiss things as simply destiny or god’s will than it is to understand cause and effect.


I like this teaching because it stops me playing the blame game

Let me give you an example. Ruth is always woken up at 7.00 a.m. by her electric alarm clock. She washes, gets dressed, has a cup of coffee and is out the door at 7.45. She walks down the road to the bus stop, which usually takes 10 minutes, and she crosses the main road and catches the 7.55 bus to work.

On this particular morning, her alarm did not go off because there was a power cut. This meant she didn’t get up till 7.30. She quickly washed, dressed and ran out of the door at 7.50. It was raining so she had to go back inside for her umbrella. This made her even more late. As she was running down the road, she saw the bus pull up. At the same time, Dave was going into work early because he had a lot to do. His wipers needed replacing and so he couldn’t see very clearly. Ruth in her desperation to catch the bus, ran out in front of Dave. He didn’t see her and so ran her over.

Now, Ruth’s friends will say the cause of the accident was Dave’s fault, and his friends would say it was caused by Ruth. But let’s look at all the causes that led to the accident. The power cut, alarm clock not working, Ruth getting up late, it was raining, so she had to go back inside to get her umbrella, Dave going into work early, his wipers not working properly, Ruth running in front of him and him not seeing her. So, you can see it is not always clear what causes things to happen. All we can say is that there was a cause or causes and it wasn’t destiny or god’s will. 

Another thing people tend to say is, especially if they are talking about karma, which is just another way of saying cause and effect, ‘If you do good, good things will happen to you, and if you do bad, bad things will happen to you.’ Well, this would be true if we all lived in our own personal bubbles, but we don’t. What you do will affect others, and what they do will affect you.

This is why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. It is because we all get affected by other people’s actions. So, the cause of your bad fortune may not even be your fault. Here is an example, you may be the best driver in the world and you always stop at red lights and you never go above the speed limit. Again, that would be fine if you drove around in a bubble. But we don’t and we could end up having an accident because of someone else’s bad driving. So, the cause of your accident was their dangerous driving of someone else. The effect was you ended up with a damaged car.


Once you understand the concept of cause and effect, so many other things

start to fall into place

For me, I like this teaching because it stops me playing the blame game. I understand that there is not going to be one thing or person I can say caused what happened. So, that stops me asking why, why, why. It also teaches me that whatever action I take there will be a consequence. So, I always think before I act.

I understand this concept may seem a little difficult to understand at first, so I would suggest you contemplate it during your meditation practice. While meditating ask yourself questions like this:

Can things appear without a cause?

Can things have more than one cause?

Do my actions have consequences?

I can assure you, once you understand the concept of cause and effect, so many other things start to fall into place.  

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.



Dealing with Isolation

So many of us are having to work from home or self-isolate and we are starting to get overwhelmed by it all. That is no surprise because being confined in our homes for days on end can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. We start to over think and focus on the negative and forget the blessings. If you have an obsessive nature or are prone to anxiety attacks, this time can be particularly difficult for you. So, what can we do? Here are a few things you may like to try.

Keep to your routines

It may be tempting to stay in bed longer, go to sleep later, not wash and get dressed or eat at wrong times. All these things will eventually lead to a feeling of desperation, despair and it could even lead to depression. Try to stick to your normal routines where eating and sleeping are concerned. In other words, try to do what you usually do, but without going outside. It would be helpful to create a plan for each day and try to stick to it. As human beings, we crave a little structure – so coming up with a plan for each day will help pass the time and give you a sense of control.

Don’t overdo your devices

Doing a digital detox and limiting the amount of time spent on your phone or laptop can help reduce anxiety and prevent you from feeling negative.

I understand that stopping using your phone completely isn’t very practical, so set yourself time limits. Make a commitment each morning to only use your phone at certain times and for a set duration. Maybe, 30 minutes in the morning, again in the afternoon and then in the evening.

It is true to say that social media can be a great way to keep in contact with friends and family during self-isolation, but we must keep in mind that overuse is known to have a detrimental effect on mental wellbeing.

News overload

There is such a thing as being too well informed. News overload can cause a lot of anxiety and stress. As with social media, you should limit your exposure to it. Rolling news only unsettles us. So, limit your news updates to mornings and evenings.

Start a hobby

There may be something you have wanted to start doing for a long time. Now is the perfect time to start. You could learn cooking, painting, sewing, writing or podcasting. It will not only keep your mind occupied; it will also teach you how to be mindful. When we are focusing on something it prevents our minds from wandering off to dark places.

Do daily exercise

It is a well-known factthat exercising releases all-important endorphins which boosts our mood. There is no need to set up a home gym. You could do Tabata, Pilates or Zumba – there are many good videos on YouTube that will help you with this.    

Get some fresh air

You may be in isolation, but it doesn’t mean you have to shut out fresh air. If you have a private garden, then go outside each day. If you have a balcony, go and sit on that. If all you have is a window, then open it wide and go and sit next to it. Just feeling the sun on your face and breathing in fresh air will boost your mood and help you shake off mental health issues.

Time to meditate and be mindful  

Meditation and mindfulness are great ways to banish feelings of anxiety or restlessness. When we allow our thoughts to control us, they can take us into some deep, dark places, especially when we are having to isolate. So, meditation and mindfulness help us to take back control of our minds.

One reason to meditate is to stop the endless chitter chatter in your head, and to find the stillness and silence that lurks within. It will help you let go of those destructive thoughts that lead to anxiety and panic. In this guided meditation called ‘Allowing Your Thoughts to Flow,’ you will learn to see thoughts as just thoughts and so you don’t need to blindly follow everyone.

Mindfulness practices will also bring your mind back under your control through bringing awareness to whatever you are doing. The quickest and most simple way to bring yourself into the present moment is to watch your breath or your five senses. All you need to do is stop whatever you are doing, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Just become aware of it flowing in and out of your body. There is no need to judge or change the rhythm of your breath, just observe it. You could also focus on what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Again, do not judge, just observe. So, look around you at five things of different colour, touch four different textures, listen to three different sounds, become aware of two different smells and see if you can taste one thing in your mouth,  

Both these practices will bring you into the present moment and help you to stop fixating on the past or the future.  

All of these points may sound quite simple, but even the smallest of changes to your daily life can bring about substantial results when it comes to our mental health.

During this time of isolation, I am conducting live mindful meditation practices on The Buddhism Guide Facebook page, so go to their page and check out the timings. If we can’t connect personally, at least we can do it virtually.   

Please stay safe, stay healthy and stay informed.  

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Experiencing Gratitude

Most neuroscientists agree that the left-hand side of our brain is used to interpret the world. It does this through language, categorising and patterns. It is probably through this process that our fictional self is born. The left-brain groups things by some common feature and then treats it as one unit, such as our thoughts, emotions and bodies, which it puts together and labels it ‘self.’

Our right-hand side of the brain doesn’t see things in parts, like the left-brain does, it sees things as a whole and processes the world as a continuum. It doesn’t use language or patterns like the left-hand side, it is more intuitive. It is focused on the present moment and doesn’t split things into past and future, like the left-brain. During deep meditation or deep sleep, we move from our thinking mind into the non-thinking right-hand side. Remember this side sees things as a whole and this is possibly what the ancient masters meant by ‘oneness.’

A neuroscientist had a stroke and for a while lost the use of the whole of her left-hand brain. During this time, she felt enormous gratitude. This shows us that gratitude seems to be inherent and is also a feature of the right-hand brain.   

Why I am mentioning this is because I feel gratitude is more about experiencing the sensations and less about thinking. It is more about being thankful for reality and less about acceptance of it.

A few years back I did a guided meditation called ‘Experiencing Gratitude’ and at the time many people thought it was strange I was asking them to experience it, as they had been so used to expressing it. But I felt that more can be gained by non-verbally feeling gratitude and not merely thinking about it. Neuroscience these days seems to back up that claim.

In modern mindfulness practices we are encouraged to think of three things we are grateful for and that is obviously a good thing, especially if we are stressed or anxious. But once we have brought them to mind, I believe we should feel the sensations in our body and the warmth in our hearts, without judgement, labelling or categorising. In fact, without thinking at all, just feel. Of course, this is not an easy task, but beneficial things never are.

The best way to achieve this is for you to think of something you are grateful for. It may be a person, a place, your health, your life – it really doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, bring it to the forefront of your mind and sit with that thought for a moment. Now, stop thinking about whatever you are grateful for and start fully experiencing the gratitude. Ask yourself these questions, ‘How does this gratitude make you feel?’ and ‘What body sensations are tied up with this gratitude?’ Just sit with your experience of gratitude for a moment. Let yourself be engulfed by your feelings and body sensations. Truly experience what gratitude feels like. I believe this is how we should be working with gratitude.

The more you do this type of practice, the more you will be able to experience gratitude and not just think about it. Give it a try by visiting Buddhism Guide meditations page and listen to the Experiencing Gratitude guided meditation.   

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.