“One of the extraordinary things about liberation is that you do not feel the need to control things when you’re free, because the illusory nature of control becomes clear to you.”
Sometimes it is hard to write in English when you’ve been talking to your great-grandmother on the phone but she is also your niece, and in her language there are no separate words for time and space. In her kinship system every three generations there is a reset in which your grandparents’ parents are classified as your children, an eternal cycle of renewal. In her traditional language she asks you something that translates directly into English as ‘what place’ but actually means ‘what time’, and you reluctantly shift yourself into that paradigm, because you know it will be hard as hell to shift back out of it again when you go back to work. Kinship moves in cycles, the land moves in seasonal cycles, the sky moves in stellar cycles and time is so bound up in those things that it is not even a separate concept from space. We experience time in a very different way from people immersed in flat schedules and story-less surfaces. In our spheres of existence, time does not go in a straight line, and it is as tangible as the ground we stand on.
Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World
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.
“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.”