By David L. Stanley
Samurai sword sharp cleaver in hand, my concentration was total. I was cutting a chicken in half as I prepped it for the grill. Cath and her best friend walked into the house from the backyard, giggling. My concentration shifted. I looked up. A small piece of my finger ended up on the cutting board.
When carrying water, just carry water.
I am a voice-over artist. Earlier this summer, I received a job from a new client who wrote his own copy. He wrote a wonderful essay. It was not good copy. I was pondering how to discuss this with the client as I got on southbound I-75 at mile marker 122. When I arrived at my exit, mile marker 118, I was slightly terror-struck. I realized I had no awareness of the last four miles just traveled at 70 mph. That’s about 30 meters every second. Scary stuff.
Be Here Now.
Not long ago, at our local grocery, I watched an older woman returning some grapes. She raged at the customer service rep. I was standing behind the grape lady. The CSR apologized for the mold. She offered ‘raging grape lady’ a fresh, larger bag of grapes. She offered a refund. This young CSR was pleasant and polite in the face of a very angry and unreasonable woman. After a bit of yelling and screaming, the woman took her new bag of grapes and stormed out. I looked at the rep.
“You were great,” I said. “You couldn’t have been any more reasonable. She was bat-crap crazy about those grapes. I mean, it’s fruit. It happens.”
“I’m glad you get that. She’s in here like that all the time. I’m not supposed to say this, but I really wish she’d start shopping somewhere else,” said the rep.
“I hear that. Can you imagine how frickin’ miserable that woman must be, she’s that whack about some grapes? Man, talk about a horrible life,” I said.
“I know, right? I just try to find some love in my heart for her, praise Jesus. But it ain’t easy,” she said.
My religion is simple. My religion is kindness. –The Dalai Lama
Mindfulness training is about all of these. Mindfulness is about being more present with those you love, and those who most infuriate you. Mindfulness is about making your heart soar. Mindfulness is about your ability to find grace under pressure. It is about finding peace where before you could not. It is about accepting that which cannot be changed. Mindfulness is about seeing the world as it really is.
Mindfulness will not give you Jedi mind powers, although it does give one insight into how others see the world. Mindfulness will not give you Ninja powers, although in the midst of extreme physical exertion, one finds strength previously unknown. Mindfulness will not allow you to heal the sick, but one will find the love and courage to sit with those deep in pain and ease their struggle.
Mindfulness does not require that you give up your faith. Whether you are Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindi, Jew, Moslem, Shinto, Wiccan, or Zoroastrian, mindfulness will increase your love of the human spirit. Mindfulness will allow you to truly pay attention by removing the blinders we all wear.
Mindfulness is not magical. Many years ago, as I began my mindfulness practice, I recommended an article on meditation to a friend. Some weeks later, the friend reported back.
“I tried your meditation thing. It didn’t work. I went out to the end of the dock at dawn. It was nice out, misty, the sun was coming up, and I sat there on a life jacket cushion and did just what that article said to do. I sat there, and I counted my breath up to four and started over again. I did that for, like, ten, fifteen minutes. Nothin’ happened.”
He was right. Nothing in life ever happens like magic. Mindfulness training is athletic training for the mind. If you wish to play golf, the first step is to take a lesson and learn to take a stance and grip the club. After the lesson with the pro, you go to the practice range. And. You. Practice.
If you wish to learn how to pay attention, to ‘work with your mind,’ one must practice. That is the essence of a mindfulness practice- to learn to pay attention to our basic human spirit.
All of us have, at our core, the essential perfect human nature. Through mindfulness training, we sit in motionless silence and learn to let fall away all of the layers we have created in our mind which hides our perfect nature.
Every day, I have a conversation with myself: “Gee, I’m really busy today. I don’t have time to sit for twelve minutes right now. I’ll do it later. Or tomorrow.” Why twelve minutes? I like numbers divisible by 3, 4, and 6. Really.
Let me describe what I do.
- I put my zafu (meditation cushion) on a folded blanket, remove my shoes and sit cross-legged on it. I can’t do the lotus thing. Kills my bad knee. You don’t need a zafu. I used to meditate at work in my desk chair.
- I set the timer on my phone. I downloaded a meditation timer. It rings a gong three times at the start and finish of each sitting. The gong thing started in Tibet thousands of years ago. You don’t need a special timer. I used to set the alarm clock on my phone. I usually sit for 12 minutes.
- I wriggle around until my butt is comfortable.
- I make sure I am sitting upright, like a rope is pulling my spine towards the ceiling. Not Marine at attention-straight, but straight enough. (I recommend several books at the end of this piece which go into more detail.)
- I place my hands on my thighs. I take several very deep breaths whilst shrugging my shoulders up to my ears and back down.
- I breath slowly through my nose. I count each breath up to ‘four’ and start again.
- As I sit, thoughts arise. At first, as I quiet down, those thoughts seem to be coming like a river over a waterfall. I remind myself that I’ll think about those things later and I go back to counting my breaths.
- Pro tip – don’t try to stop your thoughts. You can’t. Acknowledge them, and return to counting. They’ll slow down when they’re ready to slow down.
- When the timer-gong rings, I turn it off and sit quietly for a few moments. I usually take a few more deep breaths and slowly stand. Done. That’s it.
- Don’t expect a mystical experience. This isn’t mystical. Don’t expect magic. It’s not magic. You might feel calmer. If you do, that’s a bonus.
So, why do this practice?
In a mindfulness practice, we learn to turn the arrow of our heart’s awareness from ourselves and direct it out into the world.
Mindfulness sneaks up on you in the best of times, and in the worst of times. You might find yourself hearing what a colleague means, not just what the colleague ‘says.’ You may find yourself holding your tongue with a loved one, when in other times, you would have had a sharp retort. You may feel your heart swell as you watch an elderly couple teeter along, holding hands. At a funeral for a friend’s parent, you might find your friend holding onto you for dear life because they sense that you are truly present with them. When you’re out for your run, or swim, or bike ride, you might find yourself pushing through what you once perceived as a barrier. You now realize that such barriers are a construct of the conscious mind and have no impact on true human reality.
I am not a Buddhist. I am a Jew. Still, I find great wisdom in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths.
- Suffering is a natural state.
- Suffering arises because we are attached to our dreams and desires.
- In your Mindfulness practice, you learn to let go of attachment.
- In your Mindfulness practice, you will learn that freedom from suffering is possible.
Once you commit to a mindfulness practice, you find the discipline for your life. You find that as you come to understand the causes of suffering, you can more easily find compassion for all – for yourself and for others.
It’s a very simple practice, yet, it is a most difficult practice.
Sit down. Breath. Count. Get up and go about your day. That is all.
Now, go and sit.
If you feel inspired to take up a mindfulness practice, please share your story in the comments. Thank-you.
Recommended readings: There are plenty of solid reads on Zen. These are books I have found useful, enlightening and entertaining. Goodreads.com has an excellent shelf of Zen recommendations.
- Turning the Mind into an Ally-Sakyong Mipham. A hands-on guide to mindfulness training. Strengthening, calming, and stabilizing the mind is the essential first step in accomplishing nearly any goal. Mipham comes from a long lineage of Buddhist leaders and this book has a decidedly modern feel.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki. Published in 1970, this book is a transcription of talks given by Suzuki. He is very down to earth and practical. This book, from one of the first Zen masters to travel to the USA, is still a great read, forty years later.
- The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying- Sogyal Rinpoche. “Sogyal Rinpoche presents simple yet powerful practices from the heart of the Tibetan tradition that anyone, whatever their religion or background, can do to transform their lives, prepare for death, and help the dying.” (From the book jacket.) This is book to ponder. Read a few pages. Put it down. Think. Think differently.
- The Zen Way to Martial Arts – Taisen Deshimaru The author is a direct descendant of an ancient Samurai family. He uses a combination of stories, question and answer sessions, and koans to start a conversation about what it means to be a peaceful warrior in modern times.
- Zen and the Art of Archery- Eugen Herrigel “Eugen Herrigel, a German professor who taught philosophy in Tokyo, took up the study of archery as a step toward the understanding of Zen. Zen in the Art of Archery is the account of the six years he spent as the student of one of Japan’s great Zen masters, and the process by which he overcame his initial inhibitions and began to look toward new ways of seeing and understanding. As one of the first Westerners to delve deeply into Zen Buddhism, Herrigel was a key figure in the popularization of Eastern thought in the West, as well as being a captivating and illuminating writer.” From the book cover.
Resources: Several sites I have found useful along the way.
- Shambhala. Books, audio books, DVDs, courses, meditation supplies, art, and readings.
- Daily Zen. An online zendo (meditation center) with an adjustable timer, plus great inspirational readings, blogs, ecards, and more.
- Tricycle Magazine online. The original US-based Zen Buddhist magazine.
Thank-you. Namaste` and shalom.