Aware & Present: Some Mindfulness Tips

The psychological problems associated with modern-day consumerist societies (unrealistic aspirations, warped opinions, extreme emotions, stress, etc.) are well documented and all too commonly felt. Similar problems appear to have existed also in the Buddha’s time, around 2500 years ago, when societies were arguably simpler. The Buddha saw that these perennial existential problems arose from delusion, aversion and craving (aka the ‘three fires’) and his solution was mindfulness…

 

 


 

AWARE & PRESENT: SOME MINDFULNESS TIPS

Introduction: the benefits of mindfulness.
The psychological problems associated with modern-day consumerist societies (unrealistic aspirations, warped opinions, extreme emotions, stress, etc.) are well documented and all too commonly felt. [1], [2] Similar problems appear to have existed also in the Buddha’s time, around 2500 years ago, when societies were arguably simpler. The Buddha saw that these perennial existential problems arose from delusion, aversion and craving (aka the ‘three fires’) and his solution was mindfulness –

“Mindfulness, I declare, is all-helpful.”[3]

“All things can be mastered by mindfulness.”[4]

“This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of pain and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness.” [5], [6]

 
The default behaviour of suffering human beings who are searching for happiness is to ignore the unwholesome consequences of impulsive actions motivated by delusions, aversions and cravings. Fortunately, as the Buddha discovered and subsequently taught, the destructive power of the three fires is tempered by mindfulness or attention. Basically, mindfulness works because no two thoughts can occupy the same mind at the same time, and so there is no room for aversion, craving or boredom when the spotlight of attention is focused upon physical or mental phenomena.

Directing one’s attention to a physical or mental object is easy enough; the difficulty lies in maintaining concentration evenly to a degree that is sufficient to extinguish the three fires (fuelled by sensory overload). To that end I have found the following mindfulness tips most helpful.

Get Motivated.
How wonderful to have the trust and goodwill of one’s associates. How useful to remain cool, calm and collected in a crisis, when everyone around you appears to be losing their heads. How peaceful to live well and contented, without fear of recrimination or regrets. These and many other benefits are likely to flow to one who has developed mindfulness [7], and their frequent recollection helps to motivate my own practice.

Use a prompting device.
Anything may serve as a prompt to remain mindful. Some meditators wear a wristband or carry rosary beads in their pocket, for example. Some write mindfulness notes and leave them visible around the house or workspace. Some rely on frequently performed activities – such as walking through a doorway, or spotting a particular model of car on the road – as their cue to be mindful. For me, the most effective mindfulness reminder is the Buddha’s ‘Five Precepts’ against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. To observe these daily training rules without breaking any of them requires mindfulness of one’s mental, verbal and bodily actions.

Stop multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking doesn’t really work for me. When I try performing two or more tasks simultaneously, I find my attention rapidly switching from one task to another rather than concentrated equally and firmly on each. Watching TV or reading while eating breakfast, for example, may seem efficient. But I find this sort of efficiency to be at the expense of quality and conducive also to daydreaming. Single-tasking, on the other hand, allows the attention to fully focus on the job at hand and is better for skills learning, memory retention, and present moment awareness.

Focus on breathing.
My initial forays into meditation focussed solely upon breathing. In particular, I allowed myself to breathe naturally, making no attempts to control the breaths but merely noting whether ‘long’ or ‘short’. I learned to recognise the slightly cool sensation at the tip of the nostrils on inhalation and the slightly warmer sensation on exhalation. Whenever the attention wandered, I simply refocused it on breathing naturally. (If my concentration happened to be especially poor I would try to savour each breath as I might if I knew it to be my last one before dying!) This exercise was done mainly while sitting first thing in the morning for 30 to 45 minutes, but also when walking and at other times during the day whenever I remembered. Nowadays, recalling the breath is almost second nature and I find it very helpful in times of stress.

Become sense aware.
In addition to breath awareness I now practice sense awareness. For example, I may relax my awareness of breath to focus instead upon eye awareness when I observe the sights in front of me. Or I may switch to ear awareness and observe the sounds I hear around and inside me. Or I may switch to body awareness, observing bodily sensations and the way it feels to touch and be touched by something or someone. Or I may switch to nose awareness, observing smells in the air. Or I may switch to tongue awareness, observing tastes in my mouth. Or I may switch to mind awareness (within Buddhism consciousness is regarded as a sixth sense along with the five physical senses), observing the mind’s condition (alert, drowsy, etc.) and the absence or presence of thoughts and emotions. Whichever sense I choose to observe, I first note the decision before making the switch.  Simply reacting to sensory phenomena as and when they arise makes drifting and attention loss even more likely, I find.

Accept how it is right now.
Being present in the moment requires acceptance of reality as it is right now.  If pain is present it is ‘like this’ right now. That is the experience of present moment reality. If pleasure is present it is ‘like this’ right now. That is the experience of present moment reality. There may be longing for the past and/or fear for the future. There may be hatred for the past and/or yearning for the future. However temporary such feelings are, they are the present moment reality, and like all mental phenomena these feelings will remain perceivable and therefore real until their causal conditions are exhausted. Recognising when one is wishing for the facts to be otherwise is a step towards acceptance of ‘the way it is’. Arising from this right understanding is the potential for right intention, right action, and all the other Path factors that the Buddha recommended as an antidote to the stresses of delusion, aversion and craving.


Keep practicing
.
Most mornings I make the effort to sit quietly and meditate for at least 30 minutes before engaging with normal routines. In order to keep grounded throughout the day, I continue to practice breathing awareness and sense awareness while single-tasking. Rather than deliberately avoid ‘distractions’ and general unwholesomeness, I aim instead to notice the way it is when I am doing a particular thing and the way it is when I stop doing it. The decision to continue doing it or not then becomes a natural choice that is more in accordance with reality and less in accordance with prior-conditioned thoughts like I must do this! Or I mustn’t do that!

Conclusion: mindfulness requires simplicity.
Far be it for me to tell anyone how to live. However, my opinion is that one’s mindfulness efforts are unlikely to be assisted by a hectic work and social life, and I discern from scriptures and commentaries that the Buddha thought likewise. [8], [9] Regular time out away from the daily grind in order to re-charge one’s mindfulness batteries is especially important during the beginning stages of practice and helpful, too, I would say, when mindfulness is more established. I aim therefore to reduce consumerist activities gradually, making small changes here and there, as and when appropriate, and I recall frequently this following observation made by Robert Bogna:

“We require only four basic kinds of physical sustenance: wholesome food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Complementary to these, we have four mental needs: right knowledge, virtue, guarding the doors of the senses, and meditation. These are the two sets of basic requisites for leading a lofty life.” [10]

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References

[1] ‘The Problem With Consumerism’. Life Squared, 2009.
<http://www.lifesquared.org.uk/content/problem-consumerism>

[2] ‘The Happiness Conspiracy’, by John F Schumaker. New Internationalist Magazine, 2006.
<http://newint.org/columns/essays/2006/07/01/happiness-conspiracy/>

[3] ‘The Power of Mindfulness: An Inquiry into the Scope of Bare Attention and the Principal Sources of its Strength’, by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel121.html>

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference’ (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html>

[7] ‘Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life’ (DN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html >

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘Lifestyles and Spiritual Progress’, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 16 June 2011.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_39.html>

[10] ‘A Simple Guide to Life’, by Robert Bogoda. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bogoda/wheel397.html>

Image: ‘Red Sky, Calm Sea’ by PJL 2015

 



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