Just as Christianity has its center the story of the life of Jesus and his teachings, and Islam has at its center the story of the life of Mohammed and his teachings, so the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha are at the center of Buddhism.
The young Buddha was a high-caste Brahmin prince who left his family at the age of twenty nine to search for a way to end his and others’ suffering. He studied meditation with many teachers, and after six years, he went to sit under a Bodhi tree. He vowed not to stand up until he was enlightened. He sat all night, and it seemed to stretch almost forever as he resisted the enticements of demons and wrestled with his own mind, but as the morning star arose, he had a profound breakthrough and became enlightened. He spent the next forty-nine days under the Bodhi tree, enjoying the sense of peace and also struggling to maintain it.
Then he returned to the order of ascetics with whom he had been studying, and began travelling and teaching about his awakening, beginning with the Four Noble Truths.
The first noble truth is that all life is dukkha, a word usually translated as ‘suffering.’ It could also be translated, though, as “resistance to what is.” Suffering arises from our unwillingness to accept reality. Pain is not suffering; suffering is the mental process of resisting or being unhappy about being in pain.
The Second noble truth is that the source of suffering is attachment. When we are in pain, we suffer because we are attached to the idea of being not in pain. We suffer as we age because we have to let go of all the joys and benefits of being young and strong.
The third noble truth is that there is a cure! We can learn to stop suffering, or rather, we can choose not to suffer. We can choose not to engage that mental process of resisting reality.
The fourth noble truth is the eightfold path, which leads to the cessation of suffering. I’ll get into that in more detail shortly. First, let me share this modern, loose translation of the four noble truths by Alan Peton (in a piece called “Understanding the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism (with Coffee)):
- Life really sucks sometimes.
- It sucks because we worry about things and want things. Things change, and it’s hard to let go of things.
- Life doesn’t have to suck. When we understand why we are attached to things, we can break the chains of those attachments, and
- We have an 8-step program to help make life not suck.
So what’s the 8-step program? The eightfold path consists of Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Right view, or right understanding, speaks to developing a capacity to see the world according to the four noble truths. Right thinking involves establishing habits of thought that help unhook those pesky attachments. Right speech means avoiding lies, gossip, slander, or meanness. Remember the Quaker test I spoke about several weeks ago: before we open our mouths, we ask, “Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind? Is it helpful? And is it necessary?”
Right Action is about ethical living; it requires a commitment to non-violence and non-exploitation. Right livelihood means finding a way to support ourselves that doesn’t harm anyone, and that includes animals and the environment. Right diligence was captured in our first reading; this is a practice, and it takes discipline and commitment. Right mindfulness has to do with cultivating self-awareness. This is a lifelong journey of owning our stuff, figuring out why we do what we do and feel what we feel so that we can be more deliberate and less habitual.
Lastly, right concentration, basically, is a synonym for meditation. We have to be willing to settle the mind so that we can do the work. One of my kids came home from Sunday School- I think he was in Kindergarten- saying, “Mommy, I think I am Buddish.” “You do, sweetie? And why is that?” “I like looking at blank walls and stuff.” It was cute, but also reflective of a longing, even at that age, for ways to quiet the constant internal dialog and find a sense of peace and simplicity.
The hymn that we just sang was about another core Buddhist principle: loving-kindness, or compassion. Called “metta” or “maitri”, the practice of living with loving kindness follows a particular path. We begin by extending loving kindness to ourselves, and then broaden our circles: treating with loving-kindness our loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally all sentient beings. While discipline is important in developing a mindfulness practice, so is self-compassion. And no- we’re not allowed to beat ourselves up for not having enough self-compassion.
Legend has it that with his dying breath, the Buddha said “be ye lamps unto yourselves.” As a result, the teachings- the dharma- have continued to evolve. At this point there are more teachers, versions, streams and schools of Buddhism than anyone can keep track of.
In recent years, these spiritual practices and principles have been adopted and adapted by secular practitioners. There are an abundance of studies proving that mindfulness and meditation are good for our mental and physical health. More than just stress relief, there are numerous demonstrably fruitful therapeutic approaches that combine modern scientific knowledge and ancient Buddhist principles. Pretty wild, when you think about it.
So there you have it- a quick synopsis of the origins of the Mindfulness craze. Please note: I am not the foremost expert on Buddhism in this town or in this room, for that matter…but hopefully it helps to start with this very basic, shared foundation.
Now. Some things I have learned as I’ve practiced mindfulness over the last twenty years or so:
“Mindfulness” is almost a misnomer, in that it sounds very cognitive. My experience has been that the key is to quiet the cognitive processes, and slow things down so that the deep wisdom of the heart, the deep wisdom of the body, the deep wisdom of the intuition can gently rise to the surface. It might be more accurate to call it “wholeselfness.”
Second, about discipline. Any practice requires discipline, but, and this was really huge for me, discipline doesn’t require that we do it right, meditating for twenty minutes at dawn and twenty minutes at dusk, while seated on a zazen cushion with perfect posture and a perfectly quiet mind. Not going to happen. My dear friend Rick, who has been practicing for over thirty years, recently announced with much joy that he finally found himself able to maintain focus in his meditation practice through ten full breaths.
So when we talk about discipline, what matters is that we do something every day. Just maintaining focus for one breath every time we come to a red light is a good and solid practice. Thinking I had to do it the ‘right way’ got in my way for a very long time. It’s less important to do it ‘right’ than it is to do it often.
For me, it’s been important to integrate mindfulness practice into the activities of my daily life. Yes, I also do brief seated meditations, but primarily my practice has to do with things like giving my full attention to chopping carrots when I am chopping carrots, giving my full attention to listening when I am listening to someone, walking slowly and mindfully through the woods, that sort of thing. I probably shouldn’t confess this, but I love scrubbing tile floors by hand. Square by square. I have a system- soapy water with scrub brush. Rinse water with rag. Towel to dry. Full attention on the sensations of scrubbing the floor.
Mindfulness is not very helpful when it comes to keeping on schedule. There’s a timeless quality to being in the present moment. It’s also not very helpful when it comes to one’s memory, in my experience. The Dalai Lama talks about this. As you cultivate the practice of being fully present, you stop thinking back over things that have happened, which means that particular memories don’t necessarily get shifted into long term storage.
But when I’m doing it right, there’s a flow to my life that happens effortlessly. It feels good. It feels right. I start my days with a gentle curiosity, eager to see what will unfold, and I end my days well satisfied.
When it comes to understanding myself, to changing the thought patterns that aren’t useful, that same gentle curiosity comes in handy. Say I’m in a situation and somebody says or does something that pushes one of my buttons, something that hooks me. Rather than giving in to the tug, I can breathe, and say to my self, “self, that is really interesting. You just got hooked. What is it here that pushes your buttons? Are they buttons that you want to have pushed right now?”
I can respond mindfully. That doesn’t mean I always do respond mindfully.
In relationships with others, mindful interactions are largely more satisfying. I hate it when I’m talking to someone and my phone rings or I have to respond to a text. This constant connectivity- it’s both a blessing and a curse. Slowing it down, giving each other the gift of our undivided attention, our mindful and compassionate gaze, makes healing possible.
There’s something about bearing witness to other people’s pain that lessens their suffering. And there’s something about doing that– holding other people’s pain– that lessens our own. The more we hold, the more lightly we find ourselves able to hold it.
What most often gets in the way of being present is fear. We have an experience of pain, we are afraid to feel it, so we resist it, and bam! We are suffering. We have an experience of loss, and we are afraid to admit it, so we resist, and bam! Suffering again. Instead, we can choose meet all of life- the wonderful and the terrible- with equanimity and a gentle curiosity. Wow. This hurts. I will allow it to hurt. I will be fully present to the pain. And then- it passes. Everything passes given enough time.
Above all, what I know about mindfulness practice is that it helps. It makes being human a little bit smoother. It happens over time; it’s a process, not a magic pill. A sense of trust and peace seeps into the ground water and buoys me up. The space between stimulus and response gets more spacious. Pain and grief and the other burdens of life feel lighter. Delight waits around every corner, as I notice the beauty I see, the sweetness I taste, the softness I feel, the music I hear, the goodness I smell. And the sensory experiences that are not so pleasant, they don’t have as much sting, because I remember they are transitory.
The great gift that the Buddha gave with his last words is permission. All of us have permission to make this practice work for us. If you need structure and clear instructions to follow, they are there for you. If you are more like me and it works best to go with the flow and integrate practice into daily life, that’s fine too. If you need books, oh, are there books- from the secular to the mythological, I guarantee you can find people whose take on Buddhism resonates. Some of my favorites are Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron, Thich Naht Hanh and, of course, the Dalai Lama.
If you like having a group to practice with, we have a Buddhist meditation group that meets monthly. There’s also a local Zen Buddhist group. If you feel like you need the peace and serenity of a retreat, the nuns at Srvasti abbey near Spokane would be delighted to host you. Jay Feldman teaches classes on Buddhism at the U of I, as well as facilitating our Buddhist group here. Nick Gier is also a fount of knowledge.
And. If you need to keep it simple, it can be oh, so simple. Bring your attention to your breath. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. That’s enough.
We Unitarian Universalists, we are known for being opinionated. We are known for being fiercely ethical. We are known for our good works and our dedication to social justice.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to be known for our mindfulness as well? To be known for our practice of loving kindness? For the careful way we approach life and one another? For the deliberate way we engage the broader community?
It may well be the ultimate counter-cultural move. In a world that pushes on us to do more with less, faster and faster and faster, we can choose to slow down. We can decide to do less, but agree to do it more thoughtfully, with our full, undivided attention.
Balance. Sweetness. Peace. Joy. These are the fruits of mindfulness. And they are right in front of all of us- just waiting to be savored.