Cultivating Virtuous Qualities

I believe there are three qualities everyone should cultivate. Not just for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of everyone we come into contact with. The three qualities are being humble, contented, and grateful.

Setting Pride Aside: Humility

I personally feel more at ease in the company of humble people. They do not waste time bragging about what they have, who they are, or where they have been. They play down their achievements and are more attentive to others’ needs.

The opposite of this is true for proud and conceited people. It is a challenge for me to spend much time with someone who boasts. They are only interested in selling themselves and seem to have no interest in who you are or what you think or know.

I have always found people with pride to also have the biggest egos — and usually the biggest mouths to go with them. But a humble person is quiet, respectful, and attentive. Which one would you rather be around? Which one would you rather be?

We must stay open-minded at all times. Just because we know a way to do something doesn’t mean another person doesn’t know a better or easier way. We shouldn’t assume we know best. Humble people will continue to learn throughout their lives.

So, what are the causes of pride? There are many, but two main causes are dualistic thinking and an inflated sense of self.

When people think in a dualistic way, it can stir up pride because they start thinking “I am good and others are bad,” “I am handsome and they are ugly,” or “I am intelligent and they are stupid.” It is this type of thinking that causes us to fixate on “I am this, I am that.” We start to emphasize the sense of self, which leads us to become attached to who we think we are. Both of these lead to pride and conceit. In the Sutta Nipata, Gautama Buddha states:

“By being alert and attentive, he begins to let go of cravings as they arise. But whatever he begins to accomplish, he should beware of inner pride. He must avoid thinking of himself as better than another, or worse or equal, for that is all comparison and emphasizes the self.”

It is clear that humility is a trait we have to work at, or we could find ourselves getting wrapped up in pride. The pride I am talking about here is our overinflated sense of self. It is not the pride we have for our children, loved ones, and so on, which stems from love and compassion — this overinflated sense of pride stems from our ego.

Meditation Practice for Humility

In a meditation session, look at pride and humility. Which one do you lean toward? Think back over the past few days and see what situations stir up pride in you, and which ones make you humble. Only when we become focused on these situations are we able to make changes in ourselves.

Need vs. Greed: Contentment

Oh, to be content. If only we could, but it seems human beings have a natural urge to never be content. Or can we? We have to look at what is need and what is greed. I think we can satisfy our need, but we will never satisfy our greed.

What we need is food, clothes, work, money, and human contact. These bring us security and are things we can satisfy to some degree.

What we want is the latest smartphone, expensive clothes, big cars, huge houses, exotic holidays — in short, we want to not only fit in with society, but we also want to stand out.

We have to train ourselves to know when enough is enough. If we just blindly follow our desire to want more, we will never be content. We have to think carefully to see if we really need something or if we are just trying to buy happiness. That is a fool’s game. If we buy something to be happy, it will not last. As soon as a new version comes out or the thing breaks, we will become unhappy and discontented. To try and buy happiness is like drinking saltwater to quench your thirst — it will only lead to dissatisfaction. Just think, if you could buy happiness, all the wealthy people in the world would be totally content, but they are not. They are just like the rest of us, always searching for something to make them happier.

The desire to want more and more brings us anxiety, worry, and stress, whereas contentment can bring us peace of mind and calmness. The fear of losing our happiness leads us to frantically search for more happiness.

When we cannot obtain the thing of our desire, we become sad and angry; disappointment and despair set in. There are two main reasons for this type of suffering. One is our inability to be content with the present moment. The other is when we make our happiness dependent on someone or something outside us. Our discontentment leads us to have more desires in the hope of escaping this type of suffering.

A note of caution: We shouldn’t take contentment to mean we don’t have to put in the effort to better ourselves — of course we do. We have to find our own level of contentment, and once we do, it will be better than any wealth or material belongings.

As Gautama Buddha says in the Dhammapada, verse 203, “…contentment is the greatest wealth.”

Meditation Practice for Contentment

In a meditation session, look at the following questions:

  • Am I content?
  • Do I have enough to satisfy my needs?
  • Do I chase after happiness in material things?
  • Do new things bring me happiness?
  • How long does it last?

Give all of these points a lot of thought.

Everything Is Interconnected: Gratitude

Gratitude means to be thankful for, and to remember, the help others have given us. We should also try our best to pay back any help we have received if and when the person who has helped us needs it.

In the Dullabha Sutta, it states:

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.”

Lately, it seems that people have very short memories where being grateful is concerned. Gratitude is a virtue we should do our best to cultivate.

This is only one part of gratitude as far as Buddhism is concerned. The Pali word katannuta has been translated as “gratitude,” but this doesn’t quite cover it. It literally means that you know what someone has done for your benefit. So, instead of it being an emotional thing as gratitude is usually seen to be — for example, we say things like “I feel grateful” — the literal meaning makes it more intellectual. This translation seems to involve an element of knowledge; we know what has been done for our benefit.

This is an important point because it takes in the interconnectedness of everything. If we just sit down and eat our dinner without being aware of what we are eating, who planted and harvested it, who packaged and delivered it, we will not be fully grateful. Being grateful is connected with an awareness of the world around us, how it works, and who is doing what to benefit us.

Meditation Practice for Gratitude

In a meditation session, think about your last meal and follow the process back from your plate to the seed in the ground. Think about all the people involved in the process. It could be a fairly long list. We should be grateful to all of these people because they have benefited us by providing food that we can eat.

It isn’t always easy to set pride aside, focus only on what you truly need, or recognize how everything is interconnected, but it’s worth it to try. Allow yourself the room to learn from past ways of thinking that have kept you separate from the benefits of these essential qualities of humility, contentedness, and gratitude. As you cultivate these virtues, you’ll find you’re giving a gift not only to yourself, but to the world around you.

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. You can also visit my website.

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.

Coping with Change

Change is never far from our door, whether it’s breaking up with an ex, moving to a new city, the death of a relative, a pandemic, or the loss of a job. Even good changes, such as having a baby or getting a new job, can be stressful.

Change isn’t easy but here are some ways to help you cope with change and make it feel less scary.

Acknowledge your feelings. 

If you feel resistant to change, then it is important to acknowledge your feelings. Don’t avoid your emotions, listen to them. Emotions are part of self-awareness. They help to tell a story. When you acknowledge and accept an emotion, you stop fighting it and are able to understand it and learn from it.

  • Often, change brings up feelings of anxiety, worry, uncertainty and fear. You have to tell yourself that ‘It’s okay to feel worried and fearful.’ It is all part of being a human.
  • If you need to grieve, then grieve and take care of your feelings. Even if the big change in your life is a happy one, accept that there will still be some emotional losses and work through them.


Remind yourself that you can’t control the outside world, but you can control your attitude and actions.
 

Change may turn your world upside down, but you still have control over how you respond to the situation. You can choose to approach the situation with anger and become frustrated or take your feelings out on others, or you can choose to see the situation as a new opportunity and approach it with an open and curious mind.

Journal about your worries. 

  • Change can bring about lots of insecurities, worries, and negative thoughts. Especially if you feel overwhelmed by change, start writing down all the things that contribute to you feeling overwhelmed. Writing things down can help you see that things are less negative than you first imagined.
  • Firstly, write down what has changed in your life and what is challenging about it. Then, write down possible solutions.

But don’t just write down the negatives, write down the positives that have come from this change. There are always going to be pluses and minuses.

  • Maybe due to this change you have met new people. Maybe you started practicing healthier habits. Maybe you became more positive or confident. Maybe the change helped you prioritize what is most important in your life. Change presents us with the opportunity to grow, and it’s important to acknowledge how things have become better as a result.  

It is always helpful to talk to others who have had similar experiences. 

It can be comforting to talk to someone who’s going through a similar change as you. Talking to someone who’s “been there” can be really helpful, knowing that he or she got through it okay.

  • Ask for advice on what you can do to get through the change.
  • Don’t bottle your feelings up; talk to someone. Talking always helps.

Try relaxation techniques 

Relaxation can help decrease stress and increase emotional wellbeing. Techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and pranayama can help you relax and cope with stress more effectively.

Do light exercise. 

Exercising two to three times a week has been found to significantly decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even just walking around locally can help you feel better. I am not necessarily talking about going to the gym or doing a workout. You could swim, cycle, walk the dog or go jogging – all of these are going to help you feel more positive.

Let go of what has happened and move on. 

Focusing on the past will not help you to move on with your life. We cannot move forward when we are constantly looking back. It’s no use wanting your ‘old life’ back or spending all of your moments wishing things would go back to what they used to be. That type of thinking is just going to hold you back.

  • Instead of focusing on the past, anchor yourself in the present moment by doing mindfulness practice.
  • Try not to rehash the past or rehearse the future. Each time you find yourself doing this bring yourself back to the present moment by using mindful breathing practices.

Keep up your regular schedule as much as possible.

  • The more change that is happening, the more important it is to stick to your regular schedule. Having some things that stay the same, like walking the dog every morning or waking up at the same time, gives us an anchor. This anchor is a reminder that some things are still the same, and it gives your brain a little bit of a rest. The brain loves routine, so try to stick to a daily schedule.

Calming Self-Talk

The way we talk to ourselves during times of change is so important. If we talk in a harsh and negative way, we are going to make ourselves feel worse. But if we talk to ourselves in a calm, positive and supportive way, it is going to help us go through the change easier.

Here are some supportive phrases we could use:

  • Change is a part of life
  • Everyone finds change challenging
  • I am not alone in the way I am feeling
  • I acknowledge and accept my feelings
  • Things change and that’s ok
  • I will get through this challenging time
  • I will learn and grow from this change
  • Change is a part of life

Finally, give yourself a break. Everyone finds change challenging. You may feel a little out of control – and that’s ok. You may feel like you are not living up to your expectations – and that’s also ok.

My last piece of advice is to make a point to laugh more. Laughing increases dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins—and that makes you feel good. Laughing also decreases cortisol—a stress-producing hormone. So, times may be challenging but there is always time to smile.

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. You can also visit my website.

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.

Four Immeasurables: Compassion – The Buddha Dharma Series

Compassion is the third of the four immeasurables and it is an understanding that the world is full of suffering, and a heartfelt wish that this suffering will come to an end or at least lessen—for ourselves and others.

Some people are so wrapped up in their own world of suffering that they forget to have compassion for other people’s suffering. It can seem at times that we live in a selfish world in which people close their eyes and ears to the constant stream of tears. Some people are even able to watch the news or read the newspaper in a dispassionate way. Of course, we all have our own problems to deal with, but simply focusing on our own troubles is not a kind or helpful way of thinking. This is not the type of world we should wish to live in or leave for our children. If we do not have compassion for others, why should they have compassion for us?

Through focusing on compassion, the fact that everyone is suffering remains vivid in our minds. Sometimes we may feel that we are not suffering, even though on some level we are. This should not stop us from having compassion for those who are suffering. Compassion should be ever present—not just for family and friends, but for everyone, even people who are acting in an unhelpful way. Once we start to discriminate who should have our compassion and who doesn’t deserve it, true compassion is lost. Everyone is suffering, so everyone deserves it. Keep in mind that compassion is for the person and not their behaviour. If we think like this, we will be able to cultivate compassion for all human beings.

I believe it is beneficial to see compassion as a verb; something we have to put into practice. Having said that, we do have to be intelligent with our compassion. It is of no benefit to give money to drunken homeless people. They are just going to spend it on more drink, compounding their problems. It is far better to give them food, or to give your money to a homeless shelter that helps these people.

Compassion isn’t just about giving; it’s about giving sensibly, and that could include money, clothing, food, your time and so on. In a nutshell, compassion is the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something to alleviate it.

The best way to ensure that compassion arises in you is to do a meditation such as this one:

Fostering a Compassionate Mind

Sit comfortably on the floor or on an unarmed chair with your back straight but not too rigid. Gently close your eyes and do the follow breathing exercise.
I want you to breathe in deeply, hold and then breathe all the air out.
Let’s begin:

Breathe in… hold…breathe out…
Breathe in… hold…breathe out…
Breathe in… hold…breathe out…

Now breath normally. Making sure your breath is slow and natural.
This exercise brings you comfortably into the present moment, the here and now…. rest there while I briefly explain about compassion.

Compassion is the wish that others do not suffer, as well as having the aspiration to help end the suffering of others. Compassion is a mind free from hatred and discrimination. Cultivating compassion is a wonderful source of peace and harmony in your mind.

Keep yourself in your relaxed state and start to picture someone who is close to you, someone you care about and are very fond of. Notice how this fondness feels in your heart… (Pauses between each question) Notice the sensations around your heart… Perhaps you feel a sensation of warmth, openness, or tenderness…

Focus on these feelings as you visualize the person you care about standing in front of you. As you breathe out, imagine that you are sending light rays out from your heart and these light rays hold your warm feelings of compassion. Imagine the light reaches out to the person you care about, bringing happiness and relief from suffering. At the same time, silently recite these phrases three times. “May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering.”

Now sit for a moment with these feelings of compassion in your heart.

Now visualise someone you neither like nor dislike, but someone you may see in your everyday life, such as someone from work you are not familiar with, a shopkeeper or a stranger you pass on the street. Although you are not familiar with this person, think of how this person may suffer in his or her own life. This person also may have conflicts with loved ones or struggled with an addiction or may have suffered an illness. Imagine a situation in which this person may have suffered.

Visualise this person standing in front of you and imagine that you are extending the light rays from your heart to them, and that the light is easing his or her suffering. Extend this light out to them while exhaling, with the strong heartfelt wish that they be free from suffering and they experience happiness.

Silently recite three times to him or her: “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

Now rest a moment with the warmth of compassion in your heart

Now visualize someone you have difficulty with or dislike. This may be a parent, ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, a roommate, or a co-worker.

Although you may have negative feelings towards this person, think of how this person has suffered in his or her own life. This person has also had conflicts with loved ones or has dealt with failures or may have suffered illness. Think of a situation in which this person may have suffered.

Visualise this person and imagine that you are extending the light rays from your heart to him or her, and that the light is easing his or her suffering and bringing them happiness. Extend this light out to them while exhaling, with the strong heartfelt wish that they be free from suffering and they have happiness in their lives.

Silently recite this three times to him or her: “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

If you have difficulty in wishing for this person’s suffering to be relieved, you may think of a positive interaction you have had with this person in the past that can help you in wishing them joy and happiness. Perhaps there were times when you got along, laughed together. It is important to remember that they are just the same as you – they want happiness and do not want to suffer.

So, silently recite this phrase three more times to this person, “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

Now rest a moment with the warmth of compassion in your heart.

Now, when you are ready, start to slowly open your eyes and gently introduce yourself back into the world.

Off the meditation cushion, you can have a set phrase ready to mentally recite once you feel you are not caring for another person’s suffering, something like, ‘May they be released from their suffering, may all beings be released from suffering and may compassion arise in my heart’. But, as before, it is important that you decide on your own wording, so it resonates with you. This is only a suggestion.

Sometimes when we are being harassed by a homeless person, annoyance arises in us instead of compassion. Next time that happens, mentally recite your set phrase. It doesn’t mean you are going to give that person all your money out of compassion, but it does mean you will feel compassion towards them. You should recite your phrase every time you feel that you are not being compassionate. What these phrases do is connect us to others. We appreciate that they are suffering just like us, and once we have this connection, it is easier to radiate compassion towards other beings.

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.

Four Foundations of Mindfulness – The Buddha Dharma Series

Mindfulness is traditionally based on the four foundations and that is what I want to address here, but before I do that, I want to discuss an issue I have with the modern mindfulness movement. To be more specific, their definition of mindfulness. People who know me will tell you that I am not a traditionalist and my issue is not about secularism versus traditionalism, it is solely about their interpretation.

Mindfulness cannot be summed up in a single statement, it is too vast for that, yet that is what has happened. Their definition is:

Mindfulness is an awareness of what is happening in the present moment, brought about by purposefully paying attention in a non-judgemental way.

Mindfulness was never meant to be a standalone practice. It was part of the three basics of the path, namely ethics, awareness and wisdom. The above definition only covers one of these basics of the path; awareness. A thief breaking into your house, a solider on the battlefield about to kill someone and a person putting poison into someone’s food are all examples of being aware of what is happening in the present moment. All of them lack ethics and wisdom.

My next gripe concerns the part that reads, ‘Paying attention in a non-judgemental way.’ I wonder if that is even possible and I certainly think it is not beneficial. We make judgement calls all the time, from what we wear, what we eat, the job we do and so on. It is impossible to live without some form of judgement.

If I am harming someone and I bring myself back into the present moment and I don’t judge what I am doing, how am I going to change my behaviour?

If mindfulness is going to be affective it needs to cover all three aspects of the basics of the path and that is why I have devised a practice called AWARE. I feel this can be a bridge between traditional and secular mindfulness.

You bring yourself into the present moment by using a breathing exercise, focusing on your senses or bringing your awareness back to your body. Once you are in the here and now, you can start the AWARE practice.

AWARE stands for Attention, Why, Assess, Reality, Examine

A – bring your clear attention to what you are doing. Are you on autopilot? Are you being led by unconscious habits, behaviour or biases? This covers the awareness aspect of the three basics of the path.

W – ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing it. What is my motivation, what is my intention?’ This covers the wisdom aspect.

A – assess if your behaviour is beneficial. Is it ethical, is it helping me to be the person I want to be? Is it compassionate or hurtful to myself and others? This covers the ethics aspect.

R – is it based in reality? Or am I generalising, catastrophising or letting my imagination run wild? This covers the wisdom aspect.

E – examine a more mindful, beneficial and compassionate way to act. A way that is based in fact and not fantasy. A way that helps support me and others. This covers all three aspects.

I personally believe by adopting the AWARE practice once you have brought yourself back into the present moment, you will be able to make changes to your behaviour, you will be able to change and grow. That, I feel, is the whole purpose of mindfulness. So, now let’s look at the four foundations.

The four foundation practices of mindfulness are of being aware of our bodies, of our feelings, of our minds and of our mental states.

The purpose of these practices is to get to know ourselves better. It will help us understand what is working for us and what isn’t. This will allow us to change more effectively and positively.

Awareness of body   

The first practice is for the body. We need to be aware of our body and all the actions carried out by it. But we do not need to see it as ‘my’ body. If we think of it as ‘my’ body, it could lead to attachment and give us a false sense of identity. Reflect on the time and effort we spend on this body just to look good. Imagine how much money is spent each year on plastic surgery and beauty products. It would appear we are completely obsessed with our bodies. We might be mindful of how the body looks but very rarely spend time on observing the actions it carries out. 

There are many ways of contemplating the body, but a simple and effective one is doing a full body scan. You can find guided body scan meditations on my website.

In today’s world, we always seem to be running from pillar to post, so this meditation will help you get back in tune with the body and calm your mind at the same time. I am sure you will be surprised at how much tension you are carrying around with you and what different sensations you have in various parts of the body.

The full body scan is one of my favourite practices and I am always surprised at the sensations I am carrying around. Over the years I have noticed certain sensations correspond to different emotions and experiences. When I was young, I started to have asthma and I noticed that 10 to 15 minutes before an attack I would start to get an itching sensation under my chin. This gave me ample time to take my tablet and prevent the attack from taking hold. Many sensations in the body are there for a reason, but unfortunately, we have lost the art of reading our bodies and rely too much on our minds. This application of mindful awareness will bring you back in touch with your body. 

As we become more in touch with our bodies you may ask how can we integrate this awareness into our daily practice? Whatever you do with the body affects you and those around you. So, this is where a daily reflective practice will help you. Look back on the day and see what actions you have carried out with the body. The ones that are conducive to responsible living should be noted. This will ensure that, through repetition, they can become spontaneous. The ones that are not conducive to living responsibly should also be noted and a clear effort should be made to refrain from doing them again. It is through staying mindful of our bodily actions that we will be able to live responsibly.

Awareness of feelings

Another application for mindful awareness is feelings. Now, I am not talking about emotions here, many people get the two mixed up. Emotions are mental states whereas feelings arise when our senses coming into contact with something. There are three types of feelings, namely pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. One of these three are present during every moment of our experience. They may be strong or weak, but they are always present.

Here are some examples of how feelings occur. You may be walking down the street and you pass a good-looking person; this brings up pleasant feelings. As you walk further, a dog barks at you and unpleasant feelings arise. A bit later, you walk past a group of people you do not know, none of them are of interest to you, so you have a neutral feeling.

If we are not mindful and leave our feelings unchecked, pleasant feelings can lead to clinging desires, painful feelings to hatred and neutral feelings to apathy. When paying attention to feelings, the important thing is simply to notice them, become aware of them, without either clinging to them or pushing them away.

Here are two ways we can mindfully get in touch with our feelings. Firstly, during meditation, after you have spent some time watching your breath, notice what comes into your mind and observe what feeling is attached to that experience. Don’t try to change or judge the feeling, just become aware of it and then let it go on its way. Then do the same with the next object that comes into your mind. You can do this for as long as you like and then return back to your breathing awareness. This practice helps you notice how you feel and what’s going on with you. It also helps you to understand that a feeling is present in every experience you have.

As with your awareness of your body you can also review your feelings during your daily reflective practice. When you think of an incident that happened that day, check to see what feelings it invoked in you. Did it bring up pleasant, painful or neutral feelings? Don’t try to control the feelings, just be mindful of them.

Being watchful of our feelings helps us see what desires we are chasing when a pleasant feeling is present and what is being invoked by our unpleasant feelings. We can also learn to simply observe an experience, without getting all tangled up in it. This will help us to form neutral responses, instead of getting attached to pleasant feelings or repelled by unpleasant feelings.

Awareness of mind

The next area of focus is on our minds. We can apply mindful awareness to explore deep into our minds. If I am honest, this was always the most difficult for me to get my head around. How can the mind look at itself? The answer that came to me is that we look at the mind as though we are looking in a mirror. When we talk about the mind we tend to think of it as a single thing, but it is actually a sequence of instances that arise from moment to moment in response to the perceptions coming to us from the six senses – things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch and from internal mental states. The mind is a process and cannot exist alone. So, when we look at the mind, we are actually looking at the processing going on in the brain.

We rarely stop and spend time observing our minds. We just let thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams come and go unchecked. But our minds, if left unrestrained, can lead us into all kinds of situations. So, we practice simply observing our minds. We do not engage with what we see – we just allow it to arise and go. I understand that this is easier said than done, but with practice, patience and effort, it is achievable.

During your meditation or a daily reflective practice, observe your mind and see what state it is in: is it tired, lazy, angry, happy or disturbed? Note the state, but don’t try to change it. Ask yourself, “How is my mind at the moment?” “Is it full of desire, full of anger, or full of ignorance. Is it present in the moment or distracted?” We need to look at our mind in this way, and just see it as it is, not pass any judgement or think of it as ‘my mind’.

You can also focus your awareness on the way each thought arises, remains and then moves away. This helps us to stop blindly following one thought after another. We gain insight and understand that we are not our thoughts and we do not need to chase after each and every one. In fact, we cannot find any part of our mind to identify with, it is just a constantly changing process.

Once you have learned how to dispassionately watch your mind, whenever your mind is disturbed, you should firstly examine it and then, with calmness, act in a proper way – a way that is not going to harm yourself or others. Developing awareness of the mind will help us lead a life where we are not becoming disturbed or disturbing others. We come to know the mind as it really is – a process.

Awareness of mental states

The final application of mindfulness is concerning mental states. A mental state is an awareness of objects that come in contact with our senses, which occur on a moment to moment basis. As we bring awareness to these moments of consciousness, we begin to strengthen our ability to take mindfulness into our daily lives.

There are pleasurable mental states, such as happiness, compassion, empathy, contentment, and painful mental states, such as greed, apathy, anger, selfishness and so on.

We are not looking to oppose these mental states, but just become aware of them, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. There are several ways of letting the mental states go and here are the ones that have worked for me.

You can change the painful into a pleasurable, such as replacing greed with generosity or hatefulness with compassion. Thinking of the consequences of the painful mindset can be another way of letting go. If we understand that this mindset is leading us down a wrong path, we should not follow it. We could for example bring to mind the insight that all things that arise are impermanent, the painful mental factor is not going to last, so just let it go. All of these practices are not easy, but they are doable, it just takes effort.

Reflection

We should also look to reflect on mental factors and here is a suggested practice.

Sit comfortably and place your awareness on your breath.

When a mental state arises, and it will, if it is strong enough to disrupt your focus on the breath, rest your awareness in that new state, allowing yourself to be aware of what the state is, such as joyful mind or angry mind, fearful mind or contented mind, until it naturally subsides. If the mental state is strong, notice what it feels like in the body. Is there tightness, discomfort, pain? Where is it located?

Now look at the consequences of this mental state. Will it lead to a sense of peace in your life or lead to more difficulty?

If another mental state arises and is strong enough to hold your attention, continue to practice with it. If one doesn’t, then return to watching your breath until your meditation session has finished.

This brings us to the end of the four foundations of mindfulness. If we are going to be mindful and live a responsible life, we have to be fully aware of, but not tangled up in, our bodies, our feelings, our minds and our mental states. By being mindful, we will be able to take full responsibility for all of our actions. This will ensure that our minds become calmer and we spend more time in the present moment, not being tossed backwards and forwards from past to future. Being mindful means being conscious of every thought, feeling, emotion and action. Repeatedly during the day, take a few moments to bring mindful awareness to your breath, body sensations, mind, feelings and mental states. Then use the AWARE practice as this is a good way of helping yourself to settle down into the present moment and to expand your formal meditation practices into your everyday life.

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.



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.