In The Sound of Music, Fraulein Maria sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin A B C…” In practicing mindfulness, start at the very beginning too. Go back to kindergarten, or preschool. Begin with not knowing anything. When you take away everything that you know, you are left with awareness, breathing and compassion. The very beginning of the rest of your life is now. That is always where you begin a mindfulness practice.
The reason that it is important to practice mindfulness is that it helps you to train you mind to feel better. Most people begin a mindfulness practice because they are suffering. Pain can be located in the body, but suffering is located in the mind. Attending to your mind will help you to work with and through your suffering.
If suffering brings you to a mindfulness practice, then you begin by being mindful of suffering. Suffering can be complicated, if you try to sort out all the things that contribute to your suffering, you could sort forever. To cut right through the complications, put all that down. Go back to the beginning, by bringing your mind back to the present moment. Now.
What reminds you of mindfulness is awareness. You are always aware of something. When you become aware of your awareness, you are being mindful. Often, what brings you to mindfulness is a painful feeling, suffering. The natural reaction to suffering is to try to get away from it. With mindfulness, you don’t try to get away from your suffering, you acknowledge it. When you notice suffering, recognize your awareness. Recognize your awareness of your suffering. When you notice that, you are present.
The next step is breathing. After recognizing your awareness, to remain with your awareness, breathe consciously. Breathing allows you to be in the present moment, grounded in your body and able to observe the activity of your mind. As you breathe and watch the activity of your mind, the activity will change. Although it will change anyway, when you attend to the change, you influence the change, with compassion.
Compassion is the attitude you adopt toward yourself as you breathe into your suffering. Recognize that you do not enjoy the feeling, and that you would be feeling differently if you could. Recognize that you do not deserve to suffer and that you would like to find a way to not suffer. Acting on compassion involves quieting your mind and looking into your experience to see if there is something you can do. If you notice something you can do. You can try to do it. Being aware of your feeling and your breathing as you activate compassion, is already compassionate action, but you may notice something else you can do too.
Meditation and mindfulness go together because meditation is the practice of awareness, breathing and compassion. You practice meditation when you are not acutely suffering. Practice when you have time to sit and rehearse the skill of focusing your awareness on the present moment. By practicing meditation, you strengthen the habit of attending to your experience, whatever it may be. When you regularly practice meditation you are more likely to turn to mindfulness in a moment of need, rather than turning toward avoidance habits.
The ABC’s of mindfulness, Awareness, Breathing and Compassion, are simple and always available to you when you need them. Now is the beginning. Now, you are aware, breathing, and feeling compassion. It is so simple you are already doing it. If you practice often, returning to the present, cutting through the complications of life with the simplicity of life, in good times and trying times, you will recognize the power of this practice. You will be able to grow through suffering and expand your compassion to the entire world.
“In early June 2020 I made my first pilgrimage by subway to the Brooklyn disaster morgue perimeter. I have returned every 10 to 25 days since then, on behalf of all our vigil-keepers across the country.
Standing quietly outside the chain-link fence, walking slowly from one
vantage point to another around the end of the pier, I bear witness to
the morgue trailers surrounded by abandoned warehouses and dilapidated hangars, cracked asphalt and roaring motors…
At one angle I can glimpse the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor beyond, her torch raised over the morgue trucks even during the hours that remain uncovered by our human vigil.”
More at Lion’s Roar
“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I
think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air,
but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we
don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black,
curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
- Life on planet Earth will always have an element of unsatisfactoriness. This may range from full-blown hellish suffering to simply wanting more despite having so much already. There is no creature on this Earth that is without some form of suffering.
- The cause of the unsatisfactoriness is existential confusion. Because we don’t know what we are, we take ourselves to be what we are not: a body, a mind, an agenda, a history with an intended future, a personality. All creatures seek happiness and avoid suffering. But what we think will bring us happiness and what we think will cause us suffering both depend on who we think we are. If we do not know who and what we actually are, we will never know how to really be happy and how to truly be free from suffering.
- Existential confusion is not permanent and can be ended. Over the millennia, there have been humans who have realized enlightenment and became free. There is nothing preventing you from doing the same.
- There is a path available that features deliberate practice to end existential confusion: the Dharma. Dharma is the no-nonsense, just-the-facts approach to finding insight into your existential condition and enjoying freedom from its limitations. More information and guidance is available today than any other time in history.
Some people suffer too much and it makes it almost impossible to practice the path. If you are one such person, do not give up. There are adjustments you can make to support you. And it is our job to find ways to help reduce your suffering so that you can practice.
Other people suffer too little. Due to their privilege and/or immense good fortune, they have not suffered enough in this life to allow them to realize something is wrong. They haven’t noticed this sense of unsatisfactoriness even though it drives much of their daily activity.
However, the majority of humans fall in-between those extremes. So why are they not on the path?
Either they haven’t encountered clear and true teachings, they were never told freedom is possible, they have yet to see clearly their own suffering, or they have yet to clearly discern the cause of their own suffering.
These Four Noble Truths of the Buddha are The Good News that buddhists offer the world. Contemplate each for yourself:
- Are you suffering? Are you unsatisfied? Do you feel a lack of wholeness? What elements of your daily life trouble you? Why?
- Regarding your answers to #1, ask yourself how your identity plays a role. How might your sense of self, your sense of being an individual, be a cause behind your suffering?
- Have you ever tasted freedom from your sense of self? Or tasted a freedom that is beyond this human world and its unsatisfactoriness? Think about what that was like and how it differs from your ordinary feeling of pleasure or happiness from daily life.
- Ask yourself what you are doing to free yourself. Is it working? Does it make sense in light of the contemplations of #1-#3? Are you feeling enthusiastic about your path and practice? If you lack energy or motivation, it can help to return to these contemplations.
The Noble Truths were the first teaching of the Buddha and you can see why. It establishes the reasons to practice the path in earnest. 🙂
May all beings be free.
“You pick up a seashell not just because it is pretty, but because its twirled perfection and the way the light through its walls remind you of the most important thing you have ever forgotten.”
“For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient.…In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind.
When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.
Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.”