The Four Keys to Living Mindfully
If we want to live a meaningful life with attention and intention, developing the freedom to live consciously, we need to start training our busy, distracted mind and be able to make healthy choices that are beneficial to the life we want to live. The four key areas of mindfulness to make this transformation possible; attention, values, wisdom and an open heart.
Attention – The first step is to begin developing our attention by establishing a daily meditation practice. In this way we will start training the mind to attend to what we choose to attend to, instead of having it constantly drag us around. In order to live a meaningful life, we need to be present in our life. This means we have to be able to consciously bring our awareness into the moments of our life, instead of constantly being distracted with thoughts, worries, desires, or lost in some past event or future possibility. One of the best methods to cultivate attention and train the mind is the practice of concentration or shamatha meditation.
Shamatha is often translated as calm abiding, allowing the mind to calmly abide on its object of focus. Our mind is usually in one of two states, excitation or laxity. It is either overly active or dull and tired. Our mind gets distracted and is constantly jumping from one thought to another, or is tired and cannot focus. The practice allows one to bring their mind into balance, not too excited or lax, making it serviceable and productive. The building blocks of this meditation practice are relaxation, stability and vividness. The foundation is relaxation, without it there is no sustained progress. First we relax our body and our mind and then direct our attention to our object of meditation. By continually bringing our attention to our object of meditation, over time we develop stability. Eventually, having cultivated relaxation and stability we increase the vividness and clarity of our meditation practice. All of this takes time and a continuous practice. However you will make progress with every meditation session and see great benefit from simply learning to relax. While there are many forms of shamatha practice, we primarily focus on mindfulness of breath.
Values – Values are a critical component of mindfulness and yet, unfortunately, it is left out of so many programs. The source of finding inner peace, genuine happiness and wellbeing is living a life that is in alignment with one’s values and is of benefit to oneself, others and to the greater good. This is an easily verifiable, universal truth that we have learned our whole life. Lasting happiness does not come from outside sources such as other people, places things and events. It comes from how we live our life and what we bring to the world. When our actions are not in harmony with our values, it is easy to recognize that we don’t feel good about ourselves or others. However, when we live a life of integrity, ethically, in alignment with our values, it is much easier to find inner peace and a lasting sense of well-being. When we are mindful, we are aware of when our thoughts and actions are out of alignment with our values, creating disharmony with ourselves and others. The point of mindfulness is to cultivate healthy habits that are beneficial to yourself and others and in alignment with your values.
Often people think of their mindfulness practice as their time in meditation. While this is in fact practice, the majority of your true practice is how you live your life. All too often there is a disconnect between meditating on loving-kindness in the morning and yelling in anger at someone later in the day. Unless you are one of those rare individuals that has the precious opportunity to devote the majority of your life to meditative practice, most of your day will be spent engaged with others as you participate in daily activities of work, play and family life. The bulk of our mindfulness practice is learning to live in harmony with others and the demands and challenges of our daily life. It is easy to be peaceful and calm on the meditation cushion, but much more challenging to be kind to a neighbor that we don’t like. Our meditation practice provides us with the fuel to take our practice into our daily life. It’s hard to make good choices if were not present in the moment. In order to make a choice we have to be there. Conversely we will find that as we make healthier choices in our life, living ethically and in alignment with our values, we will find more inner peace and this improves our ability to meditate. These practices are interrelated and help each other. The more we progress in our meditation, the better able we are to be present in our life and make healthy choices. As we are more mindful in our daily activities and able to make healthy choices that are beneficial to oneself and others, we develop a sense of well-being and calmness which improves our meditation sessions.
Wisdom – As we begin to increase our attention through meditation, we are now more able to consciously bring awareness into our daily activities. We can start observing ourselves, others and the world more accurately, recognizing unhealthy habits and tendencies, biases, projections and emotional triggers in our lives. With this level of awareness, we recognize the impermanent nature of emotions, thoughts, events, and identify the true sources of our suffering as well as the true sources of our genuine happiness and wellbeing.
We often hear that mindfulness is supposed to be nonjudgmental. The context of that is true in mindfulness meditation where one does not judge any thoughts or emotions that arise during meditation. It also applies to making absolute judgments, prejudging people and events in our lives and judgments based on our biases, projections and labeling of others. However, the whole point of mindfulness is to cultivate wisdom and clear discernment, essentially to have good judgment. “Mindfulness, when it arises, follows the courses of beneficial and unbeneficial tendencies: these tendencies are beneficial, these unbeneficial; these tendencies are helpful.” In fact it’s impossible to live without judgment. We use our judgment constantly to make the choices in our lives. To eat healthy or not, to exercise or not, to return a phone call or not, what to wear each day, and the list goes on.
Every time we make a choice we make a judgment. The key is to be able to make healthy choices that are beneficial to yourself and others with discerning wisdom that is based in reality. Bringing discerning awareness into our daily lives we are able to identify three primary misperceptions – ways our mind causes confusion and create suffering:
Impermanence – We try to make things permanent that are not permanent. We forget that everything is constantly changing and try to preserve things that cannot be preserved. Our relationships, our jobs, our homes, our towns, our bodies, our feelings, our attitudes, our personality, etc. are all impermanent and constantly changing. We create a lot of suffering in our lives when we forget this and try to unrealistically keep things as they are. We make a plan for a day and when things don’t go our way, we get frustrated rather than simply adjust and make a new plan.
Unsatisfactoriness/Happiness – We keep trying to find lasting happiness in things that can only provide a temporary pleasure. There is no person, job, relationship, house, car, vacation, family or activity that can provide any lasting happiness. The most that any person, thing or events can provide us is a temporary pleasure. In fact, when we look at the source of our worry and suffering, it is usually the very things that we thought would bring us happiness. There is absolutely no problem with enjoying our friends, relationships, activities and vacations. We just need to be realistic about what they can and cannot offer us. This is also true of suffering, we can exaggerate even very small troubles in our life, allowing them to dominate our whole day.
Misperception/understanding of self – We tend to have a strong sense of “I” that is independent of others and has a unique set of characteristics, qualities and personality that is the same from day to day. However, when we investigate this we find that we are actually very interdependent. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the books we read, the ability to read, to drive, to recreate, to communicate, etc. is all dependent upon others, as well as our environment, culture, society and government. The “I” that we grasp onto is also actually very fluid, changing day-to-day. We are not the same person that we were five years ago, ten years ago, or even yesterday. Another way we misperceive our self is by strongly identifying with our feelings. Imagining that “I am sad,” “I am angry,” “I am happy,” etc. You are not your feelings, you experience your feelings. Feelings will come and go and you will still be here. The misperception of our self and our relationship with others, create much suffering, such as jealousy, pride, low self-esteem, fear, resentment, and discontent and prevent us from engaging fully with the world and opening ourselves up to all our potentials. Not only can we change, we do change all the time.
The more we are able to recognize and assimilate these three truths into our own lives accurately, the less we will suffer.
An Open Heart – It is a universal truth that we cannot feel both love and anger at the same time for the same thing. Love can switch to hate in a second and hate to love, but they cannot be simultaneous. It is like turning a light on in a dark room. It is also a universal truth that what we water grows. That is to say the mental states and tendencies that we nurture grow. As the neuroscientists say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Or as an old wise Cherokee parable states:
One evening an old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’ The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’ The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’
When we cultivate equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion and empathetic joy in our hearts and minds, we grow the antidotes to attachment and aversion, hatred, ill will and jealousy.
© 2015 Mindful Life Program Inc
If we take a moment to truly examine our lives accurately, we will find that nearly all of our worries and stresses are actually unnecessary. In fact, we will discover that compared to most of humanity, we get to experience an incredible quality of life that is filled with both opportunity and leisure. We have abundant resources such as food, clothing, electricity, education, healthcare, and running water in our own home. Most of the world’s population do not have access to these resources that we take for granted. We have an incredible amount of leisure time to pursue activities we enjoy, while most other people in the world are simply trying to survive. Yet with all of these resources, time and opportunity, we suffer with increasing levels of stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, high blood pressure, and high degrees of overall dissatisfaction. We have an incredible amount of technology to make our life easier, yet we find it difficult to relax, to be calm, or find contentment and well-being in our own life. Even with deluxe beds that we can customize to just the proper level of firmness, climate control in our own homes to make our environment as comfortable as possible and a myriad of resources to entertain us, it is difficult to find true comfort and inner peace. In our quest for the good life, we wind up needing whole industries dedicated to reducing our stress and mental suffering – the pharmaceutical industry, the mental health industry, massage and relaxation therapies, as well as a growing healthcare industry that deals with the physical symptoms resulting from our stress and poor coping strategies.
How is this possible? We are intelligent people with education, opportunity, and resources and yet we find it difficult to be content, at ease and present in our own lives. The root of the problem is clearly described by Alan Wallace when he explains that we suffer from a mind that is obsessive, compulsive and delusional. Instead of us directing our attention where we like and responding to life with reflective and healthy choices, our mind constantly is dragging our attention from one thought or feeling to another and, all too often, we are simply reacting rather than responding to life. Our mind is obsessive in the sense that it is constantly producing thoughts. We are unable to stop thinking even for a minute. So even when we try to calm our mind and relax, we notice that the mind continues to produce thought after thought over and over again. It’s one thing to be obsessive, but it is also compulsive. The mind does not merely produce thoughts, it compulsively draws our attention away from what we are doing and directs it to the referent of the thoughts. It tells us what to worry about, what to desire, what to be irritated about, etc. Even when we know we have nothing to worry about, the mind will insist there is! We can tell ourselves, “Oh no, that’s not a problem”, and the mind will say, “Oh yes it is”. We can see the difficulty of having a mind that is obsessively thinking and compulsively directing our attention to the thoughts and the stories it’s creating. Unfortunately, it gets worse, our mind is overwhelmed with delusion. The thoughts and stories, worries and fears the mind is obsessively and compulsively telling us is rarely based in reality. Essentially this is the crux of the problem, we have a very distracted mind and it spends most of its time in a world that doesn’t correspond with reality.
Our mind lives in a world that believes that if we exercise and eat right we will be healthy and live long, if we maintain our car it won’t break down, that if we get just the right job we will have it made, and that if meet the right person, we will live happily ever after and find lasting happiness. While these are admirable goals and a valuable way to participate in life, unfortunately that world does not exist. Because we have such unrealistic expectations we are often ill-prepared for the realities of life.
In truth, life is messy. People get sick even if they exercise and eat healthy, cars break down, relationships are not perfect, they require effort and compromise, and no matter how good they are, at some point they will end. In the real world, fatal diseases are common, jobs come and go, accidents happen, injuries happen, traffic happens, recessions happen, and even the government shuts down from time to time. The amazing thing is that even though we see this every day, for some reason our mind believes that it should not happen to us. There is a whole industry built on the principle of cars breaking down. It is called the automotive repair industry. Yet we are constantly surprised and frustrated when our car breaks down. We see hospitals, medical clinics and cancer centers, but we surprised and often devastated when we, or our loved ones, get sick. This same phenomenon applies to getting stuck in traffic, a flight getting delayed, luggage getting lost, laid off from a job, canceled vacation, loss of a relationship, our children not getting good grades or getting in trouble. We know they happen but still don’t expect them to happen to us, causing a reaction that adds to our suffering. These are just a few examples, but you can see how this phenomenon applies to nearly every facet of our lives.
When we really take a moment to reflect, we will see that nearly all of our mental sufferings such as anger, resentment, jealousy, depression, stress, low self-esteem, etc., have no other source but our own mind. As Venerable Pema Chodron states, “It isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that make us suffer, it’s how we relate to the things that happen to us that makes us suffer.” Unfortunately, we usually relate to people and events in our life in unrealistic ways. Let’s look at two ways of relating to finding out that our car won’t start:
Delusional and reactive – We think our car should not break down. We become angry, upset or panicked, quickly calling to mind our bad luck and asking why now? Our mind presents us with how terrible this is, possibly looking for who to blame such as our mechanic, our partner or the car company, how inconvenient this is, how much money this could cost and what a bad day this has turned out to be. Eventually, we do make an alternative plan to get where were going and have the car fixed. However, we carry our frustration and perceived bad luck throughout our day, sharing it with our friends.
Realistic and responsive – Understanding that it is natural that cars sometimes don’t start, after a moment of surprise, we accept and assess the situation and move into solution mode. We get a jumpstart or other needed help and make an alternate plan to get where we are going. We then make a plan to get the car fixed. Instead of asking, “Why me?” and thinking of our bad luck, we find that it is more realistic to be grateful that we have a car when so many don’t and a place to go when so many do not. Instead of letting this ruin our day, it reminds us of our resources and friends that can help us.
In both of the above cases, the event is the same but the outcomes and level of suffering are very different based upon the attitude one brings to the situation. It is a very common practice and complete misunderstanding to blame the source of our mental and emotional suffering on other people, events or things. However, the true source is our own mind that lives in an unrealistic world and wants things to be different than they are. When we investigate the root of our sufferings it is inevitable that we will discover at least one of three primary delusional activities at work; our mind is constantly trying to find lasting happiness in things and people that cannot provide it, trying to find permanence in things that are constantly changing, and grasping on to a misperception of self and others.
The good news is that we can tame our unruly mind, cultivate wisdom and learn to cultivate genuine happiness as we live in the real world. We do this by learning to live mindfully.
Mindfulness is much more than present moment awareness, mindfulness includes and facilitates the cultivation of concentration, wisdom, and the ability to make healthy choices that foster genuine happiness and a meaningful life.
The tools of mindfulness empower us to be aware of our thoughts, feelings and the environment with clarity and discernment. It enables us to recognize healthy tendencies from unhealthy tendencies, harmful habits from beneficial habits, delusional grasping from clear understanding, and be able to make choices that are in alignment with our values, healthy, beneficial and meaningful. In doing so, we cultivate inner peace, genuine happiness and a meaningful life.
© 2015 Mindful Life Program Inc