Mindfulness is a term that has gained a lot of popularity in recent years with advocates showing the benefits of just being in the moment. I have heard a number of different interpretations of what mindfulness is and all of them are accurate in their own way. Mindfulness can be about sitting and just concentrating on the breath or other body sensations and processes. This is a great way of focusing concentration and taking a measure of control over the often erratic back-and-forth motions of our thoughts. In a lot of meditation disciplines, this form of concentrated attention is the first step in focusing one’s mind and getting to the deeper stages of the practice.
What I want to write about in this post is a slightly different aspect of mindfulness. One skill that is very important for humans to hone is the ability to observe one’s own mind. This ability, when practiced correctly, can reap many benefits for the practitioner. It can help people look at the way they think and the way their thoughts give rise to emotions, how these emotions turn into habits, and how these habits then become truths. Most of our ideas that we hold onto tightly and defend are ideas that have developed in this way. We don’t have to go far to see that there are people who defend their truths with their lives and others who use violence to impose their truths on others. If we base our lives and our actions on what we believe to be truth, don’t we owe it to ourselves and to humanity to take some time and really address why we have arrived at these conclusions?
Every day we meet people that annoy us or people that we don’t like. Most people will reach the conclusion that they do not like a certain person and firmly believe that the reason why they don’t like this person is because something is wrong with him or her. We completely remove ourselves from the equation. “I don’t like this person because there is something inherently dislikeable about him.” This of course is an illusion of the mind. When we analyse our internal reasons and processes that have led to our dislike, we see that it in fact has nothing to do with the other person at all.
We can observe the emotions that arise when we think of that person or are around that person and follow the path back to see why these emotions arise. When we do this, we will clearly see that our aversion is rooted deeply within ourselves. We may feel threatened by others, we may disagree with how they conduct their lives, but these feelings are all rooted in our belief that our way is better. Which it isn’t. Doing something a different way doesn’t make that way better or worse. When we have understood the root of our aversion to this person, we are in a better position to make a choice between continuing to hang onto these feelings or letting them go. What is important is taking ourselves to that point where we have that choice based on our own internal reflection.
We can use this skill not just with things we like or dislike but also with ideas that we believe are unmovable truths or absolutes, our attachment to our religions and to our philosophical, moral and ethical outlooks. If we believe that the meaning and purpose of our lives is to follow a specific creed, it is of paramount importance to analyse our reasons for believing this. I have discussed this in previous posts but will go over it again. Most religious people that I walk through this exercise arrive at the conclusion that they follow their creed because they want to go to heaven. They worship for reward, for the need to be assured that this life isn’t all there is, for the certainty that after death their thoughts, hopes and dreams will remain. They worship out of fear – a fear that they are not immortal. The founders and developers of most of the world’s religions understood this to a great extent. This is why a lot of them are based on fear and reward. I have seen religious leaders and elders telling followers it is wrong to question, to think, to read outside of the faith. These are all tools of control. I am always wary of people who tell me to not question, to follow blindly and to not think for myself, because these people want to control me.
For humanity to move past the endless violence and hate we seem to be stuck in, we all need to look at ourselves and undo the mental patterns that we have created over our lifetime. We look at the world through a warped lens that has developed over our years of conditioning. When we can take this lens off, our experience of reality will change. We can begin to relearn and relate to our world and our fellow humans in a more skilful way.
I will leave you with a very famous Zen story to ponder; it concerns a Buddhist scholar and a Zen Master.
The scholar had an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and was an expert on the Nirvana Sutra. He came to study with the master and after making the customary bows, asked her to teach him Zen. Then, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.
The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, she poured the tea into the scholar's cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, "Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can't get anymore in."
The master stopped pouring and said: "You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about Buddha's Way. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can't put anything in. Before I can teach you, you'll have to empty your cup."
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!