But it looks so easy…

Watch your breath… so simple. But, as you will know if you’ve ever tried, simple is not the same as easy. I think that’s why it’s so easy to get frustrated with meditation – because the idea is so simple, we expect to be able to do it. But ease only comes through familiarity – this is true of everything. I remember when I first started learning to drive: it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to co-ordinate all those hands and feet to do separate, seemingly disconnected, things. In fact, it carried on feeling that way for a long time – over two years worth of lessons and two failed driving tests – but it did eventually become easy. How? Just through familiarity.

It’s the same with meditation: we’re trying to do something very unfamiliar to us, i.e. relax. We try to relax all the time: we soak in the tub or go on foreign holidays, depending on our budget; but however much money we throw at the problem, relaxing is a lot harder than it sounds, because we’re simply not used to it. If our mind is busy, we will not feel relaxed. So although meditation might not be easy, don’t give in to the frustration.

Meditation would be a lot easier if we stopped having such hign expectations of ourselves, if we stopped thinking ‘but I should be able to do it by now.’ When I first started meditating, I would get so frustrated every time a distracting thought came up. Eventually, I strated to judge how well a session had gone not by how well I had been able to concentrate, but by how well I had been able to accept the fact that I couldn’t concentrate! When I learnt to be patient with myself, I was naturally more relaxed and therefore less distracted.

Trying to push distracting thought away doesn’t work; it’s better to accept they are arising, then gently let them go. And it is hard work – but that hard work will pay off. We will gradually develop familiarity with stillness.

Further practice: Learn to Meditate | Lunchtime Classes

Dependency & Interdependence

We are so determined to be independent. When people try to help me, my instinct is to say ‘I’m fine; I can manage by myself.’ But it’s not true: I can’t. I can’t do anything by myself.

I had my breakfast: I didn’t need anyone else to make it for me. Really? Did I make the bread myself? The flour? Did I grow the wheat (or, in my case, the weird gluten-free alternative that I wouldn’t even recognise if I landed in a field of it)?

Actually, I’m like a little kid going ‘look at me, I’m all grown up, I can do it all by myself,’ and then needing mummy to get the milk off the top shelf of the fridge.

“Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others; we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write. Even the language we speak is not our own invention but the product of many generations. Without it we could not communicate with others nor share their ideas. We could not read this book, learn Dharma, nor even think clearly. All the facilities we take for granted, such as houses, cars, roads, shops, schools, hospitals, and cinemas, are produced solely through others’ kindness. When we travel by bus or car we take the roads for granted, but many people worked very hard to build them and make them safe for us to use.

 Wherever we look, we find only the kindness of others. We are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourself. Everything we have and everything we enjoy, including our very life, is due to the kindness of others. In fact, every happiness there is in the world arises as a result of others’ kindness.”

– Geshe Kelsang, Eight Steps to Happiness

If we’re going to be realistic, we are completely dependent on others: that’s OK. In fact, that’s quite beautiful: we are all part of the vast web of kindness that makes up life on Earth. Why would we want to separate ourselves from that?

Of course I’m not saying that this interdependence is a form of dependency. In fact, I think it’s because we try so hard to be independent that we do develop such an emotional dependency on others. Our drive to prove our self-sufficiency builds a wall between ourselves and others; we isolate ourselves behind our façade of ‘the self-made man,’ ‘the independent woman.’ And because we feel so isolated, we grasp onto anyone we feel can breach that wall, cling to them and feel we need them to be around. But this mental stickiness of attachment only arises because we can’t see that we are all connected; that wall around ourselves is only a mental construct.

When that wall comes down, we feel so free – we can rejoice in the connection we share with the whole world:

“Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.”

– Geshe Kelsang, Eight Steps to Happiness

What is Mindfulness?

Image result for mindfulnessMindfulness seems to be the new big thing, but although it’s popular it is also quite misunderstood. Essentially, mindfulness means staying focused on, or remembering, something. So the most important thing is choosing what to be mindful of. In Buddhist practice, we chose to focus our mindfulness on a virtuous object, a thought or feeling that gives rise to inner peace.

For example, in meditation we may try to generate a special feeling of cherishing love for others and focus on this feeling. Then, after we have finished our meditation, we remain mindful of this feeling of cherishing love throughout the rest of the day. So this feeling of love is our object of mindfulness: we try never to forget it, whatever else we are doing. Because we are being mindful of a virtuous object, we will stay peaceful and positive.

Simple, eh? Yes, it really is: we just chose a positive thought or intention to remember, and we hold onto it no matter what. Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds – mindfulness is like a mental muscle that needs exercise to become strong. But if we strengthen our mindfulness just a little bit every day, we will gradually improve our ability to hold onto a positive mind.

To help you practice: Mindfulness half-day courses