LIVING THE DHARMA - ONE MAN'S FIRST BABY STEP
by Tan Chade Meng
The Dharma (the Teachings of the Buddha) is a living knowledge. The Dharma is neither just a collection of discourses, nor just a system of belief. It is an art of living in peace and happiness. The Dharma has to be "lived".
What does one mean by "Living the Dharma"? For me, the entire essence of living the Dharma can be summarized into one very skillfully coined word, "Mindfulness". "Mindfulness, I declare, is useful everywhere", declared the Buddha some 25 centuries ago. After practicing Mindfulness for a while, I found the fruits of the practice to be enormous! I discovered that by being mindful of myself, my body, thoughts, state of mind, feelings and emotions, I became much happier.
Firstly, I learned to appreciate things much more. In life, there are too many things most of us take for granted most of the time. The love and company of our families, friends and loved ones, the roof over our heads, the fact that we are not in some form of extreme pain, even the very air that we breath in! We take all our blessings for granted. The unfortunate thing is that most of us don't appreciate what we have until we lose them. Only if we go blind will we start to think, "it was so nice when we could see". I discovered that if we are constantly appreciative of what we have, we become much happier. Mindfulness certainly helped me towards this end. By being constantly mindful of myself, I found that I become more able to appreciate all the little things around me. Hence, this is a source of happiness.
Perhaps the more important power of Mindfulness is its power to deal with distress. After practicing Mindfulness for a while, we would make an important discovery, that we tend to REACT towards situations. When something happens, or somebody says or does something, we react with anger, or happiness, or hatred etc etc. From here, I learned the first and most important lesson about happiness, that I am fully responsible for how I feel. Thus, it is not skillful to say, "he MAKES ME feel angry". If he "MAKES me" feel angry, then why is it that ten other people in the same situation would react in ten different ways? And not all of them would be angry.
The truth is that *I* react with anger to the situation. So it's more skillful to say, "*I* feel angry about what he said", instead of "*HE* makes me...". There is an important difference here. The difference is that I take full responsibility for my own feelings instead of putting the responsibility on somebody else, and I started to look towards myself for my own happiness. That, I realized, is the key to happiness. If only we could work with our reactions, we would stop being angry, or be less angry, in the same situation. The same applys to other painful feelings like disappointment, hatred etc.
This is where the power of Mindfulness lies. When I am mindful of my state of mind and emotions at all time, I begin to get a "feel" of how it works. When something happens, I notice "anger arising...arising...", and after a while, "anger falling ... falling..., feeling of regret arising ...", and so on. What is most amazing is that after a while, I began to develop some mastery over my reactions! So when anger or hatred arises, I was mindful of its arising and thus able to dissipate it. I was no longer a slave of my reactions, getting swamped by my feelings, but I had developed some say of how I should feel.
The wonderful thing is that now, I was able to practice what I already knew. In the past, I knew, for example, that I should not have shouted at my friend. Unfortunately, I couldn't control myself, and this "I knew I shouldn't have" becomes just an elusive, useless knowledge. It's just like a compulsive gambler, he *KNOWS* for a fact that what he is doing is hurting himself and his family, but he simply couldn't help it. He has no mastery over himself. With Mindfulness, I began to develop some mastery over myself and I became more able to apply the "I should not do it" knowledge to make my life better.
I discovered that with Mindfulness, I am more able to work with my feelings. I became more patient, less likely to be angry, more able to take disappointments, more able to accept myself and those around me. I am also more appreciative, my emotions more peaceful, and my mind more concentrated. Simply put, I feel better.
I learned the art of developing Mindfulness from a few Teachers. The instructions I received for the practice of Mindfulness is surprisingly simple.
The first step of the practice is some sitting meditation. Find some place quiet and sit in a comfortable position, keeping the spine straight. Put your hands on your lap, close your eyes and be aware of your breathing. When you breath in, know that you are breathing in. When you breath out, know that you are breathing out. After a few minutes, when you feel calm, bring your awareness to your body. Be aware that your body exists. Be aware of its sensations. It is amazing how much of our sensations we miss out when we're not observing our body. If an itch develops, be aware of that. Try to observe it, and observe your reaction to the sensation. Learn not to "judge" the sensation. Don't think, "this is *MY* itch", just think of it as "this is itch". Just observe it as a feeling and try to accept it and come to terms with it. If the itch becomes unbearable, observe your aversion to it, observe your intention to scratch. If you really have to scratch, slowly reach out to the "hot-spot", observe every step of the movement, and observe the the entire process and sensation of scratching. After that, observe your reaction to the scratching and slowly put your hand back.
After observing your body, try to observe your thoughts. If a thought arises, observe its arising. If one thought leads to another, observe that. Observe your reactions to your thoughts and any intentions you may have. Upon observing your thoughts, try observing your emotions. How do you feel? If you feel happy, observe this feeling of "happiness". If you feel sad, observe this feeling. Try not to think of them as "*MY* feelings", but just think of them as "feelings" and fully experience them. See how they feel like, see how you react to them. Try to come to terms with your feelings and fully accept them. After observing your feelings, repeat the full cycle again for as long as you feel comfortable about it.
After sitting meditation, it is extremely useful to do some walking meditation. The meditative state of mind we developed in sitting meditation helps us to be mindful about ourselves. Walking meditation is an extremely good compliment to that because it helps us to maintain that Mindful state in non-sitting situations. In other words, it helps us to maintain Mindfulness in our daily lives.
The instructions for walking meditation is very simple. There are a few forms of walking meditation, but we'll just discuss one. Just stand straight and look 5 feet ahead of you. Mindfully lift one foot, and observe that you are doing so. Slowly thrust it forward and be aware of that. Then slowly step it down and observe that. Do the same with the other foot and so on. When you reach the end, remain standing and observe "standing .... standing ....", then slowly turn back, observe "turning .... turning ...", and continue walking again. Do it for as long as you feel comfortable with.
With some practice, we will find that we can gain some degree of constant awareness about ourselves. We will find ourselves more able to experience our feelings, and more able to come to terms with them. We will also begin to gain some insights about ourselves, how our minds and emotions work, how we keep reacting to sensations. In time, this insight can give us some mastery over our reactions. That is when we begin to be able to dissipate anger, handle disappointments, etc. It is here that I understood the Zen saying from the great Bodhidharma, that when one gains insight into oneself, one walks towards Enlightenment (the cessation of all sufferings).
Many of us face one problem, we try too hard. We get very tensed up expecting fast results. When we don't get the results within a few days, we get very frustrated. I discovered that in meditation, and in life in general, learning to love oneself is very important. One very important point is learning to be gentle to ourselves. If we are not getting fast results, remind ourselves that we have just started. Think of ourselves as babies learning to walk. See the baby trying to make a step and falling. So cute, isn't it? Notice we never blame the baby, but instead just laugh at that failure and gently encourage the baby to try again? Such loving gentleness. Try putting this feeling towards ourselves. The least helpful thing for us is to be ashamed of our failures. Accept our failures, and try to give ourselves some gentle and loving encouragements like we would to a baby. This attitude of loving oneself is extremely important, for life in general and meditation in particular.
Many beginners have a problem "breathing". We have this problem because we think that the breath should be smooth and steady, but when we try, we often run out of air and have to take in deep breaths every now and then. Then we start to blame ourselves for doing it "wrong". Actually, there is no "wrong" way of breathing. If we have to take a deep breath, just do so, and just observe that we're doing it. If we take short breaths, or run out of air, we just remedy it if necessary and observe it. In time, our breaths will be smooth like experienced meditators' because we stop being worried about what is the "right" way to breath. This is one example of a problem that exists only because we worry about it.
Of course, there are also many of us who often go to sleep in the 2nd or 3rd minute of sitting meditation. Here again, I suggest that loving oneself is important. If we feel we're not trying hard enough, try to give ourselves some loving and gentle encouragements to try harder. It is very unhelpful to feel guilty. Laugh at and with ourselves and give ourselves gentle encouragements.
One wonderful thing about this meditation is that it can be practiced by anybody, regardless of religion or lack of religion. The meditation asks for one to be aware of one’s breath, thoughts etc. Whatever our religion is, we will definitely have breath, thoughts, emotions etc, and no religion would say it is wrong to be aware of them. Most importantly, whether or not we believe in some God or gods, the same benefits of Mindfulness can still be reaped. The Dharma is truly an universal teaching.
In recent years, "meditation" has become some sort of a popular sport. People makes all sorts of claims about the miracles their "meditations" can do. I'm sorry, but the Mindfulness meditation I described above is *NOT* designed to help us to hear celestral sounds, or see images, or go out-of-body, or "feel-God", or float in the air. All the Mindfulness meditation did for me was to make me more mindful, develop insights about myself, develop more mastery over my reactions, and make me more able to be happy. The only "miracle" it can give is the miracle of happiness. If you are looking for other miracles, sorry for your time wasted with this article.
Mindfulness is a truly wonderful thing. The Buddhist meditation for the development of Mindfulness is Vipassana Meditation (or Insight Meditation), which is the meditation I have learned. What I described in this essay contains what I have learned, but I do not claim to teach Vipassana because I have only learned so little.
I have only taken my first baby step. There is still a lot more ground to cover. I believe that I have found a most wonderful teaching. The Dharma is like a great lake. It is calm, deep, wide and beautiful. It is a great nourisher of life within and around it. When its full potential is unleashed, it is awesome. I wrote this article to share what I have found with you. I hope your path towards peace and happiness is a fruitful one.
"Everything we do is an act of poetry or painting if we do it with Mindfulness" -- Thich Nhat Hanh