Meditation in Daily Life
There are two main reasons for extending meditation practice into daily life. The first is that you create a momentum that carries through from one session of formal practice to the next. If you chop up your life into times when you meditate and times when you don’t, the energy built up with each meditation session dissipates in the interim. Each time you sit down to meditate, you have to start again from scratch.
It’s like keeping a dog on a leash. If the dog is left on a long leash, it tends to get the leash wound around all sorts of things: lampposts, trees, people’s legs. You’re faced with the long, laborious process of untangling the leash to bring both the dog and the leash back to where you are. But if the dog’s on a short leash, then when you sit down, the dog and the leash are right there. In the same way, if you try to maintain the center of your meditation throughout the day, then when the time comes to sit down in meditation, you’re already in your center. You can continue from there.
The second reason for extending meditation practice into daily life is that it allows you to bring the skills you’ve developed in the meditation to bear right where they’re most needed: the mind’s tendency to create stress and suffering for itself throughout the day.
Having a sense of your center as a safe, comfortable place helps keep you grounded in the midst of the turmoil of daily life. You’re not blown away by outside events, for you have a solid basis inside. It’s like having a post at a rocky beach at the edge of a sea. If the post is simply left lying on the beach, the waves will drive it back and forth. It will be a danger to anyone who plays in the waves. Eventually, the waves will ram the post against the rocks and smash it to smithereens. But if the post is set upright and driven deep into bedrock, the waves won’t be able to move it. It’ll stay safe and sound, and pose no danger to anyone at all.
Some people complain that trying to practice meditation in the midst of daily life simply adds one more task to the many tasks they’re already trying to juggle, but don’t see it in that way. Meditation gives you a solid place to stand so that you can juggle your other responsibilities with more ease and finesse. As many meditators will tell you, the more mindfulness and alertness you bring to your responsibilities, the better your performance. Instead of interfering with your work, the meditation makes you more attentive and alert in doing it. The fact that you’re staying focused, instead of letting the mind wander all over the place, helps to husband your energy, so that you can bring more stamina to whatever you have to do.
At the same time, having a clear sense of a still center helps you to see movements of the mind you otherwise would have missed. It’s like lying on your back in the middle of a field. If you look up at the sky without reference to anything on the ground, you can’t tell how fast the clouds are moving, or in which direction. But if you have a still point of reference—the top of a roof or a tall pole—you can clearly sense the clouds’ direction and speed. In the same way, when you have a still point of reference, you can sense when the mind is heading in the wrong direction and can bring it back before it gets into trouble.
Meditation in daily life is essentially a more complicated version of walking meditation, in that you’re dealing with three main areas of focus: (1) maintaining your inner focus (2) while engaged in activities (3) in the midst of the activities around you. The main differences of course are that (2) and (3) are more complex and less under your control. But there are ways to compensate for the added complexity. And you can use what measure of control you do have over your actions and your environment to create better conditions for your practice. All too often people try to push meditation into the cracks of their life as they’re already living it, which doesn’t give the meditation much room to grow. If you’re really serious about treating the problem of suffering and stress, you have to rearrange your life as best you can to foster the skills you want to develop. Place the training of your mind high in your list of priorities in everything you do. The higher you can place it, the better.
As I stated in the Introduction, some of the advice given here in Part Three may assume a greater level of commitment than you’re currently ready to make. So read selectively—but also in a spirit of self-honesty. Try to be clear about which members of your inner committee are making the selection.
I : Your Inner Focus
You may find that you can’t keep clear watch on the in-and-out breath when you’re deeply involved in a complicated task, but you can maintain a general sense of the quality of the breath energy in the body.
This is an area where lessons you’ve learned from sitting meditation can be of help. Two skills in particular are helpful here.
1. Try to notice where the trigger points are in your breath energy field: the points that tend to tense up or tighten most quickly, leading to patterns of tension spreading into other parts of the body. Typical points are at the throat; around the heart; at the solar plexus, right in front of the stomach; or the backs of your hands or the tops of your feet.
Once you’ve identified a point of this sort, use that as the spot where you center your attention throughout the day. Make sure above all that the spot stays open and relaxed. If you do sense that it’s tightened up, stop whatever else you’re doing for a moment and breathe through it. In other words, send good breath energy into that area and allow it to relax as soon as you can. That will help disperse the power of the tension before it takes over other parts of your body and mind.
In the beginning, you may find yourself wandering away from your spot more than you’re staying with it. As with the sitting meditation, you have to be patient but firm with yourself. Each time you realize that you’ve lost your spot, come right back to it and release any tension that’s developed in the meantime. You might find it useful to set reminders for yourself: for instance, that you’ll make a special effort to be in your spot each time you cross a road or come to a red light. Over time, you can set your goals higher and aim at longer stretches of time where you’re centered and relaxed.
You’ll be fighting some old subconscious defensive habits as you do this, so it may take time to master this skill. But if you persist in keeping your spot relaxed, you’ll find that you carry less tension throughout the day. You’ll be less burdened with the sense that you’ve got something you need to get out of your system. At the same time, you’ll gain more enjoyment out of trying to maintain your center because you feel more stable and at ease. This helps to keep you with it. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re simply sitting with nothing much to do—as in a meeting or a doctor’s waiting room—you can bliss out on the feeling of ease in your center, and no one else will have to know.
Keeping your center spot relaxed also helps make you more sensitive to the little things that trigger you. This gives you more insight into the workings of your own mind. You gain a place where you can step back from your thoughts and watch them simply as members of the committee. You don’t have to take up everything the committee proposes. If something unskillful is brought to the floor, you learn to recognize it as unskillful and breathe right through it.
As you strengthen your ability to keep your center spot relaxed and full in all situations, you’re developing a foundation for your inner observer. Developing this identity in the mind helps you to go through the day with less emotional expense, and to notice things in yourself and in your surroundings that you never noticed before. In other words, it’s a good foundation for discernment to arise in the course of your daily activities. It also strengthens the discernment you bring to your formal meditation.
2. The second useful breath-skill as you go through the day is to fill your body with breath and awareness when you’re in a difficult situation, and especially when you’re confronted with a difficult person. Think of the breath as a protective shield, so that the other person’s energy doesn’t penetrate yours. At the same time, visualize that person’s words and actions as going past you, and not as coming straight at you. This helps you feel less threatened, and enables you to think more clearly about how to respond in an appropriate way. And because you’re creating a force field of good solid energy, you might have a calming and stabilizing effect on the people and the situation around you.
This is also a good skill to master when you’re dealing with people who come to tell you their troubles. All too often, we subconsciously feel that if we don’t absorb some of their pain, we’re not being empathetic. But our sense of absorbing their energy doesn’t really lighten their load; it simply weighs us down. You can still be empathetic—and even see their problems more clearly—if you stay inside a clear cocoon of good breath energy. That way you don’t confuse their pain with yours.
Ideally, you want to combine these two breath-skills into one, as you would in walking meditation. In other words, keep your focus on your chosen spot as your default mode, but learn how to expand the breath and the awareness from that spot to fill the whole body as quickly as possible whenever you feel the need. That way you’re prepared for whatever comes up in the course of the day.
II : Your Activities
You’ll quickly discover that the things disturbing your meditation in daily life don’t all come from outside. Your own activities—what you do, say, and think—can also throw you off-balance. This is why the principle of restraint is an essential part of the practice: You make a point of refraining from doing things and directing your attention in ways that will undo the work of your meditation.
It’s important not to think of restraint as confinement, restricting the range of your activities. Actually, it’s a door to freedom—freedom from the damage you do to yourself and the people around you. Although some of the traditional forms of restraint may seem confining at first, remember that only the unskillful members of the committee are feeling hemmed in. The skillful ones who have been trampled underfoot are actually being given some space and freedom to develop and grow.
At the same time, the practice of restraint doesn’t mean restricting the range of your awareness. All too often, when we think of doing something or looking at something, we focus simply on what we like or dislike. Restraint forces you to look at why you like or dislike things, and at what happens as a result when you follow your likes and dislikes. In this way, you broaden your perspective and gain insight into areas of the mind that otherwise would stay hidden behind the scenes. Restraint is thus a way of developing discernment.
Some members of the mind’s committee like to argue that you’ll understand them only when you give in to them, and that if you don’t give in to them, they’ll go underground where you can’t see them. If you fall for that argument, you’ll never be free of their influence. The only way around it is to be persistent in refusing to believe it, for then you get to see their next line of defense, and then the next. Finally you’ll come to the level where they reveal themselves, and you’ll see how weak their reasoning really is. So here again, restraint is a way of developing discernment into areas that indulgence keeps hidden.
Another way of thinking about restraint is to regard meditation as an exercise in developing a home for the mind—a place inside where you can rest with a sense of protection and gather nourishment for the mind. If you lack restraint, it’s as if the windows and doors of your inner home were open 24 hours a day. People and animals can come and go and leave whatever mess they want. If you close your windows and doors only when you practice formal meditation, you get forced into the role of a janitor each time you start to meditate. And you’ll find that some of the people or animals that have wandered into your home won’t be willing to leave. They’ll eat up all the nourishment you’ve gathered, and you won’t have any left for yourself. So you have to gain a sense of discernment as to when you should open and close your windows and doors. That way your mind will have a good home.
If you’re afraid that restraint will deprive you of your spontaneity, remember the harm that untrained spontaneity can cause. Think of the things that you said or did on the spur of the moment that you then regretted for a long time afterwards. What you thought was your “natural spontaneity” was simply the force of an unskillful habit, as artificial and contrived as any other habit. Spontaneity becomes admirable and “in the zone” only when it has been trained to the point where skillful action becomes effortless. This is what we admire in the greatest artists, performers, and sports stars. Their spontaneity required years of training. So look at restraint as a way of training your spontaneity to become effortlessly skillful. This may take time, but it’s time well spent.
There are three traditional ways of exercising restraint: developing a sense of moderation in your conversation, following precepts, and exercising restraint over your senses.
Moderation in Conversation
Lesson number one in meditation is keeping control of your mouth. If you can’t control your mouth there’s no way you’re going to control your mind.
So, before you say anything, ask yourself: (1) “Is this true?” (2) “Is this beneficial?” (3) “Is this the right time to say this?” If the answer to all three questions is Yes, then go ahead and say it. If not, then keep quiet.
When you make a habit of asking yourself these questions, you find that very little conversation is really worthwhile.
This doesn’t mean that you have to become unsociable. If you’re at work and you need to talk to your fellow workers to create a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace, that counts as worthwhile speech. Just be careful that social-grease speech doesn’t go beyond that and turn into idle chatter. This is not only a waste of energy but also a source of danger. Too much grease can gum up the works. Often the words that cause the most harm are those that, when they pop into the mind, are allowed to go unfiltered right out the mouth.
If observing the principle of moderation in conversation means that you gain a reputation for being a quiet person, well, that’s fine. You find that your words, if you’re more careful about doling them out, start taking on more worth. At the same time, you’re creating a better atmosphere for your mind. If you’re constantly chattering all day long, how are you going to stop the mental chatter when you sit down to meditate? But if you develop the habit of watching over your mouth, the same habit comes to apply to the meditation. Your committee members all start learning to watch over their mouths as well.
This doesn’t mean that you have to give up humor, just that you learn to employ humor wisely. Humor in our society tends to fall into the categories of wrong speech: falsehoods, divisive speech, coarse speech, and idle chatter. There’s a challenge in learning to use your humor to state things that are true, that lead to harmony, and actually serve a good purpose. But think for a moment of all the great humorists of the past: We remember their humor because of the clever ways they expressed the truth. You may or may not aspire to be a great humorist, but the effort spent in trying to use humor wisely is a good exercise in discernment. If you can learn to laugh wisely and in a good-natured way about the foibles of the world around you, you can learn to laugh in the same way at your own foibles. And that’s one of the most essential skills in any meditator’s repertoire.
A precept is a promise you make to yourself to avoid harmful behavior. No one is forcing it on you, but wise people have found that five precepts in particular are very helpful in creating a good environment for training the mind. When you take on these five precepts, you establish the resolve not to intentionally engage in five activities:
1) Killing any person or animal
2) Stealing (i.e., taking something belonging to someone else without that person’s permission)
3) Having illicit sex (i.e., with a minor or with an adult who is already in another relationship or when you are already in another relationship)
4) Telling falsehoods (i.e., misrepresenting the truth)
5) Taking intoxicants
These precepts are designed to counteract some of the blatant ways in which your actions create disturbances, inside and out, that make it difficult to maintain your inner focus. Outside, they protect you from the sorts of actions that will lead to retaliation from others. Inside, they protect you from the two attitudes with which you can wound yourself when you know you’ve harmed yourself or others: low self-esteem or defensively high self-esteem.
These two forms of unhealthy self-esteem relate to the two ways people tend to react to their own misbehavior: You either (1) regret the actions or (2) engage in one of two kinds of denial, either (a) denying that your actions did in fact happen or (b) denying that they really were wrong. These reactions are like wounds in the mind. Regret is an open wound, tender to the touch, whereas denial is like hardened, twisted scar tissue around a tender spot. When the mind is wounded in these ways, it can’t settle down comfortably in the present, for it finds itself resting on raw, exposed flesh or calcified knots. When it’s forced to stay in the present, it’s there only in a tensed, contorted, and partial way. The insights it gains tend to be contorted and partial as well. Only if the mind is free of wounds and scars can it settle down comfortably and freely in the present, and give rise to undistorted discernment.
This is where the five precepts come in: They’re designed to heal these wounds and scars. They’re an integral part of the healing process of meditation. Healthy self-esteem comes from living up to a set of standards that are practical, clear-cut, humane, and worthy of respect. The five precepts are formulated in such a way that they provide just such a set of standards.
• Practical: The standards set by the precepts are simple. You promise yourself not to engage intentionally in any of the five kinds of harmful activities, and not to tell anyone else to engage in them, either. That’s all. You don’t have to worry about controlling more than that. This means that the precepts don’t require you to focus on indirect or unintended ways in which your actions may lead to someone else’s breaking the precepts. You focus first on your own choices to act.
If, after time, you want to expand your promises to yourself to avoid behavior that might indirectly cause others to break the precepts—such as buying meat—that’s entirely up to you. But in the beginning, it’s wisest to focus on what you yourself choose to do, for that’s an area where you can exert true control.
It’s entirely possible to live in line with these standards—not always easy or convenient, maybe, but always possible. Some of the precepts may be easier for you to keep than others, but with time and patience—and a little wisdom in dealing with lapses in your behavior—they become more and more manageable. This is especially true when you start noticing the benefits that come from keeping them, and the harm that’s caused when you lapse.
Some people translate the precepts into standards that sound more lofty or noble—taking the second precept, for example, to mean no abuse of the planet’s resources—but even those who reformulate the precepts in this way admit that it’s impossible to live up to them. Anyone who has suffered from having to live up to impossible standards can tell you of the psychological damage such standards can cause. If you can give yourself standards that take a little effort and mindfulness but are possible to meet, your self-esteem soars dramatically as you discover within yourself the ability to meet those standards. You can then face more demanding tasks with confidence.
• Clear-cut: The precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations. An action either fits in with the precepts or it doesn’t. Again, standards of this sort are very healthy to live by. Anyone who has raised children has found that, although children may complain about hard and fast rules, they actually feel more secure with them than with rules that are vague and always open to negotiation. Clear-cut rules don’t allow for unspoken agendas to come sneaking in the back door of the mind. When, through training yourself in rules like this, you learn that you can trust your motivations, you gain a genuinely healthy sense of self-esteem. At the same time, holding to a clear-cut rule saves you the time you might otherwise waste in trying to blur the line and justify unskillful behavior to yourself.
• Humane: The precepts are humane both to the person who observes them and to the people affected by his or her actions. If you observe them, you’re aligning yourself with a humane principle: that the most important powers shaping your experience of the world are the intentional thoughts, words, and deeds you choose in the present moment. This means that you are not insignificant. With every choice you make—at home, at work, at play—you are exercising your power in the ongoing fashioning of the world. Keeping the precepts ensures that your contribution to the world is always positive.
As for your effect on other people: If you follow the precepts, your contribution to the world is in line with the principles of goodwill and compassion. This helps you to develop the brahmaviharas with no fear of hypocrisy or denial.
• Worthy of respect: The five precepts are called “standards appealing to the noble ones”—people who have gained at least the first taste of awakening. Such people don’t accept standards simply on the basis of popularity. They’ve put their lives on the line to see what leads to true happiness and have seen for themselves, for example, that all lying is pathological, and that sex in violation of a committed relationship is unsafe at any speed. Other people may not respect you for living by the five precepts, but noble ones do, and their respect is worth more than that of anyone else in the world.
Some people are afraid of keeping the precepts for fear of becoming proud that their behavior is better than other people’s. This sort of pride, however, is easy to drop when you remember that you’re observing the precepts not to make yourself better than others, but simply to cure the problems in your own mind. It’s like taking medicine: If you take your medicine when other people are not taking theirs, that’s no reason to look down on them. You may encourage them to take their health more seriously, but if they refuse to heed your encouragement, you have to drop the matter for the time being and concentrate on recovering your own health.
The healthy sort of pride that comes from observing the precepts focuses on comparing yourself with yourself—in other words, on the fact that you’ve learned how to be less harmful and more thoughtful than you used to be. This sort of pride is much better than the opposite sort: the conceit that views the precepts as petty, claiming to be above them. That sort of pride is doubly damaging: both to your mind and to the happiness of others. It’s much healthier to respect yourself for submitting to a strict training and mastering it. That sort of respect is good for you and for everyone else.
In addition to creating a healthy attitude and peaceful environment conducive to the practice, the precepts exercise many of the skills you need to get started in meditation. They give you practice in setting up a skillful intention and then sticking with it. They also give you practice in dealing in a mature way with any lapses that may occur. To keep to them successfully, you have to learn how to recognize and acknowledge a mistake without getting tied up in remorse and self-recrimination. You simply reaffirm your intention not to make that slip again, and then develop the brahmaviharas to help strengthen that intention. This way you learn both how to take your mistakes in stride and how not to repeat them.
The precepts also develop the mental qualities needed specifically for concentration: mindfulness to keep them in mind, alertness to keep watch over your actions to make sure that they stay in line with your precepts, and ardency to anticipate situations where you might be tempted to break your precepts, so that you can plan a skillful strategy that will keep your precepts intact. This then develops your discernment.
For example, there will be situations where telling the truth about a particular topic might be harmful to others. How do you avoid talking about that topic and yet still not tell a lie? When you promise yourself not to kill, you have to anticipate that pests may invade your home. How can you keep them out without killing them?
In these ways, the precepts help to foster a conducive environment around the practice of meditation, at the same time exercising skills you need to develop within the meditation itself.
Restraint of the Senses
The senses here are six: your senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, along with the sense of ideation—your mind’s knowledge of ideas. Restraint of these senses doesn’t mean going around with blinders on your eyes or plugs in your ears. It actually forces you to see more than you normally might, for it requires you to become sensitive to two things: (1) your motivation for, say, looking at a particular sight; and (2) what’s happening to your mind as a result of looking at that sight. In this way you bring the questions of discernment to bear in an area where you’re usually driven by the questions of hunger: the search to see or hear delicious things. You learn to view your engagement with the senses as part of a causal process. This is how restraint helps to develop discernment. At the same time, you learn to counteract causal currents that would disturb the mind. This helps to develop concentration.
To resist getting swept away by these currents, you have to maintain your center of awareness within the body. That type of center is like an anchor for securing the mind. Then make sure that your center is comfortable. That keeps the mind well fed, so that it doesn’t abandon its anchor to flow along with those currents in search of food. When the mind isn’t hungry for pleasure, it’ll be much more willing to exercise restraint over the currents going out the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Once the mind is firmly centered, you’re in a good position to step out of the currents and view them in terms of both aspects of their causal patterns.
1. Each time you direct your attention to the senses, try to be clear about your motivation. Realize that you’re not a passive receiver of sights, sounds, etc. The mind actually goes out looking for sensory stimuli. And often it’s looking for trouble. There are times, for instance, when there’s nothing in your surroundings to inspire lust, but lust arises in the mind and goes looking for something to nourish itself. The same thing happens with anger and all your other emotions.
So when you look at things, what are you looking for? Who’s doing the looking? Is lust doing the looking? Is anger doing the looking? If you let these emotions direct your eyes, they get used to ordering your mind around as well. You’re strengthening the very committee members that you’ll later need to wrestle down during the meditation.
If you see that unskillful intentions are directing where you focus your attention or how you look at something, change your focus. Look at something else, or look at the same thing in a different way. If you’ve been contemplating a beautiful body, look for the aspects that aren’t so beautiful—and they aren’t far away, just under the skin. The same principle holds for anger. If you’re thinking about someone you really hate, remember that there’s another side to that person as well, a good side. Be a person with two eyes, and not just one. Or if you find that when you drop the lust or the anger, you’re no longer interested in looking at or thinking about those people, you realize that the problem wasn’t with them. It was with the committee in your mind. You learn that you can’t really trust some of its members. This is a good lesson to learn on a daily basis.
2. A similar principle applies when you take note of the results of your looking. If you realize that the way you’ve been looking at something has started to aggravate unskillful mental states, either look away or learn to look at the same thing in a way that counteracts those mental states. The same applies to what you listen to, what you smell, what you taste, what you touch, and especially what you think about.
If you can keep your attention focused on the way in which the mind initiates sensory contact and is affected by sensory contact, you’re staying focused inside even as you look or listen outside. This helps to keep the center of your focus firm and resilient throughout the day.
III : Your Surroundings
The values of human society, for the most part, fly right in the face of a meditative life. Either they make fun of the idea of a true, unchanging happiness, or they avoid the topic entirely, or else they say that you can’t reach an unchanging happiness through your own efforts. This is true even in societies that have traditionally been Buddhist, and it’s especially so in modern society, where the media exert pressure to look for happiness in things that will change. The practice of meditation for the sake of an unconditioned happiness is always counter-cultural. No one else is going to protect your conviction in the possibility of true happiness. You have to protect it yourself. So learn how to skillfully shelter your practice from the conflicting values of society at large.
There are three basic ways in which you can do this: choosing admirable friends, learning to live frugally, and finding seclusion as much as you can.
These three issues require a fair amount of renunciation, and renunciation is easiest when you regard it not as deprivation but as a trade. In trading the pleasures of an ordinary life for a meditative life, you’re trading candy for gold. Or you may think of yourself as an athlete in training. The game of outwitting your unskillful habits is far more worthwhile than any sport. Just as athletes are willing to live under certain restrictions for the sake of their performance, you should be willing to live under certain restrictions for the sake of true happiness. And just as an athlete restricted to a healthy diet comes to prefer healthy food to junk food, you often find that the restrictions you place on the way you interact with your surroundings actually become your preferred mode of being.
When you associate with a person, you unconsciously pick up that person’s habits and views. This is why the most important principle in shaping the environment around your daily meditation is to associate with admirable people.
Admirable people have four qualities: They’re virtuous, generous, wise, and have conviction in the principle that skillful qualities should be developed, and unskillful qualities abandoned. If you can find people like this, try to associate with them. Notice their good qualities, try to emulate them, and ask them how you might develop more virtue, generosity, wisdom, and conviction yourself.
So look around you. If you don’t see any people like this, search them out.
The problem is, what to do with the people around you who aren’t admirable, but with whom you have to spend time at home, at work, or at social occasions. This issue is especially difficult if they’re people for whom you’re responsible, or to whom you have debts of gratitude, such as your parents. You have to spend time with these people; you have to help them. So learn what it means to spend time with people without associating with them—i.e., without picking up their habits and values. The primary principle is that you don’t go to them for advice on moral or spiritual issues. Also, try to excuse yourself every time they try to pull you into activities that go against your precepts or principles. If the activities are unavoidable—as when there’s a party at work—take the attitude of being an anthropologist from Mars, observing the strange habits of earthlings in this society at this point in time.
If there are people or situations that tend to bring out the worst in you, and you can’t avoid them, sit down and devote a meditation session to planning how you can survive the encounter without getting your buttons pushed and with a minimum of unnecessary conflict. Learning how to prevent unskillful qualities from arising in the mind is an important part of the path, but all too often it’s overlooked. Not every meditation has to focus on the present. Just make sure that planning doesn’t take over your meditation and go beyond the bounds of what’s really helpful.
In some cases, if a friendship is centered on unskillful activities, you might consider putting it on hold. Even though the other person’s feelings might be hurt, you have to ask yourself which is more precious: that person’s feelings or the state of your mind. (And remember: Simply hurting another person’s feelings is not the same thing as causing that person harm.) You’ll eventually have more to offer that person—if you practice seriously, you can become that person’s admirable friend—so don’t think of your pulling away as an unkind act.
If your friends are concerned that you’re becoming less social, talk the issue over with someone you trust.
The principle of being selective with your friends applies not only to people in the flesh, but also to the media: newspapers, magazines, television, radio, internet, internet, internet. Here it’s easier to turn things off without compunction. If you do feel the need to spend time with the media, ask yourself each time: Why am I doing this? What kind of people will I be associating with when I do? When they say something, why do they want me to believe it? Can I trust them? Who are their sponsors?
Even reading/watching the news has its dangers for someone training the mind. There’s nothing wrong with trying to stay informed of current events, but you have to be sensitive to the effect that too much attention to the news can have on your mind. The basic message of the news is that your time is unimportant, that the important things in the world are what other people are doing in other places. This is the opposite of the message of meditation: that the most important thing happening in your world is what you’re doing right here, right now.
So exercise moderation even in the amount of news you watch. Instead, watch the news being made right at your breath. And when you have news of this sort to report, report it only to people who have earned your trust.
Buddhist monks are encouraged every day to reflect on why they use the four requisites of life: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. The purpose of this reflection is to see if they’ve been using these things to excess or in ways that will develop unskillful states of mind. They’re also advised to reflect on the fact that each of the requisites has come about through the sacrifices of many, many people and other living beings. This reflection encourages the monks to live simply and to aim ultimately at a truly noble form of happiness that places no burdens on anyone at all.
Lay meditators benefit from reflecting daily in this way as well, to counteract the way society at large encourages you to focus your attention on consumption and acquisition with no thought for the consequences. So stop to think, for example, when you eat: Is it just to keep yourself strong enough to fulfill your duties? Or are you, in the words of the Buddhist texts, searching out the tip-top tastes with the tip of your tongue? Are you bulking up just to look good? If so, you’re fostering unskillful states of mind. Are you too picky about what kinds of food you will and won’t eat? If so, you’re spending too much time and money on your eating—time and money that could be used to develop generosity or other skillful mental states.
You have to realize that in eating—even if it’s vegetarian food—you’re placing a burden on the world around you, so you want to give some thought to the purposes served by the strength you gain from your food. Don’t eat just for the fun of it, because the beings—human and animal—who provided the food didn’t provide it in fun. Make sure the energy gets put to good use.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you should starve yourself. Starving yourself to look good is also unskillful, in that it drains away the energy you need to practice, and keeps you inordinately fastened on the appearance of the body. The traditional term for wise eating is moderation in eating: having a sense of just right, of exactly how much is needed to keep you healthy and strong enough to stick with the training of the mind.
The same principle holds true for the other requisites. You don’t want to be a miser, but at the same time you don’t want to waste the resources that you or someone you depend on worked so hard to acquire. Don’t be a slave to style. Don’t take more from the world than you’re willing to give back. And learn to undo the perceptions—so heavily promoted by the media—that shopping is a form of therapy and that a purchase is nothing but a victory or a gain. Every purchase also entails loss. To begin with, there’s the loss of money that could be used to develop skillful qualities of mind—such as generosity—rather than unskillful qualities, like greed. Then there’s a loss of freedom. All too often, the things you own begin to own you. The more things you own, the more you have to fear from the dangers that can come to things, such as theft, fire, and flood. So learn to restrict your purchases to things that really are useful, and use the money you save to help advance the higher qualities of life, both for yourself and for those around you. Think of frugality as a gift both to yourself and to the world.
Seclusion enables you to look directly at the issues created by your own mind without the distraction of issues created by other people. It’s a chance to get in touch with yourself and to reaffirm your true values. This is why the Buddha advised monks to go into the wilderness, and to create a wilderness state of mind even when living in society.
There are several ways you can create that state of mind in your life.
Chanting. To foster a sense of seclusion around your daily meditation session, you might find it helpful to chant before you meditate. This is especially helpful if you notice that your mind is carrying a lot of issues from the day. The sound of the chanting is calming, and the words of the chanting help to put you in a new frame of mind. There are many chanting texts available on-line, and many sound files showing how to pronounce the words. It’s possible to chant in any of the Asian Buddhist languages, in your own language, or a combination of both. Experiment to see which style of chanting is most effective for putting you in the best frame of mind to meditate.
Retreats. In addition to your daily meditation session, it’s helpful to find times at regular intervals when you can set aside longer periods of time for meditation practice. This allows you to go deeper into your mind and to recharge your practice in general. There are two ways you can do this, and it’s useful to try both. The first is to find time on a regular basis every week or two to devote a larger part of the day than you normally do for the practice. The second is to go on an extended retreat once or twice a year.
• Traditionally, Buddhists set aside four days out of the month—the full-moon day, the new-moon day, and the two half-moon days—for more earnest practice. This is called observing the uposatha (oo-PO-sa-ta). The most common way of observing the uposatha involves taking the eight precepts, listening to the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings), and meditating.
The eight precepts build on the five. The third precept is changed from no illicit sex to no sex at all. With the remaining three precepts you promise yourself that for the duration of the day you’ll refrain from:
6) Eating food during the period from noon until the following dawn
7) Watching shows, listening to music, using jewelry, cosmetics, and scents
8) Sitting on high, luxurious seats or lying on high, luxurious beds
These precepts essentially add the principle of restraint of the senses to the five precepts. Because they place limits on the pleasure you try to take from each of the five physical senses, they encourage you to examine your attachment to the body and to sensual pleasures, and to look for pleasure in training your mind instead.
To listen to the Buddha’s teachings, you can read a Dhamma book aloud or listen to any of the good Dhamma talks available online.
Of course, you can adjust these observances as fits your schedule. For instance, you can vary the number of times you attempt them in one month. You can schedule them for days you’re normally off work. If you can’t eat before noon, you can simply promise yourself that you won’t eat food after the mid-day meal.
If you have friends who are meditators, you might try scheduling an uposatha day together to see if the energy of the group helps or hinders your practice. Although it may seem strange to seek seclusion in the company of others, you may find that it makes the practice feel less lonely, for you can see that you’re not the only person bucking the values of society at large. To help foster an atmosphere of seclusion in the group, agree on the amount of conversation you want to engage in. Avoid discussions of politics. Generally, the more silence, the better. You’re not meeting to teach one another through words. You’re meeting to teach and support one another through example.
• As for extended retreats, there are many meditation centers offering retreats throughout the year. The advantage of centers like these is that they tend to enforce a set group schedule, which helps to structure your day. This can be important if you’re just getting started with meditation and have trouble being a self-starter. Also, the work schedule tends to be minimal. Your food will be cooked for you, so you’ll have more time for formal meditation.
However, you have to be careful in choosing a good center. Many are run as businesses with sizable staffs. This drives the fees up and drives the Dhamma away from what the Buddha taught and in the direction of what pleases a large clientele. Some centers will apply subtle pressure at the end of the retreat for you to give a donation to the center or the teacher(s) of the retreat, claiming that this is an ancient Buddhist custom. The tradition of giving donations is a Buddhist custom; the tradition of applying pressure for donations is not.
If the Dhamma taught on the retreat goes against what you know is true, avoid the Dhamma talks and meditate someplace else in the center. If you’re not sure, meditate during the Dhamma talks, giving all your attention to your meditation theme. If anything in the talk is relevant or helpful to what you’re doing, it will come right to your attention. As for everything else, you can let it pass.
Even the centers run on a donation basis can teach very strange versions of the Dhamma. If you sense anything of a cultish atmosphere at a center, leave immediately. If they refuse to let you leave, make a scene. Remember, you have to protect your mind.
Meditation monasteries are another alternative. They charge no fees, as everything is run on a donation basis. But because you will be expected to help with the daily chores, you may have less time for formal meditation. Also, meditation monasteries often don’t have set group schedules, so you’ll have to be more of a self-starter. And even here, you have to be discriminating in how you listen to the Dhamma.
You can also search the internet for centers that allow you to rent a small cabin to meditate on your own.
Another alternative is to go camping. In the United States, state and national forests and federal BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land tend to provide more opportunities for seclusion than state and national parks, as they don’t force you to stay in campgrounds. Being in the wilderness also helps to put many of the issues of your daily life into a larger perspective. There’s a reason why the Buddha went into the wilderness to gain awakening.
On examining your intentions: “The Road to Nirvana is Paved with Skillful Intentions” in Noble Strategy