How to Live a Better Life

To live a better life, start with the life you have. Right now, that is the best possible life you can have. That life includes a certain amount of suffering, which makes it seem like it could be better. How you habitually respond to suffering influences the quality of your life. If you run away from suffering you develop avoidance habits. As you acknowledge and approach suffering, you develop compassionate habits.

Compassion is an awareness and an action. It is noticing suffering, looking to the causes of suffering, thinking of cures for suffering, and doing what you can to bring about those solutions. Sometimes you can do a lot, sometimes less. Learning what needs to be done and what you can do is part of the skill of compassion.

You can practice compassion for yourself. You are the best place to start because you directly experience your own suffering and you have some good ideas about where it comes from and what might help.  As you learn to recognize how you suffer, you will also notice how other people suffer. When you see others suffer, practice compassion for them.

The more you practice compassion the better you get at it and the better your life gets.

The way to engage your compassionate mind is to breathe consciously. Deep breathing is your go to tool for a better life. Our bodies understand that. That’s why they knock us out every night so we can breathe in peace.

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Counting Blessings

Simple ways to generate good feelings are to practice generosity and gratitude. Counting blessings is an age old practice of being grateful. Counting breaths is an age old practice of meditation. One method of mediation is to rest your attention on your breath and count as you breath in and out. You can set a timer and count your breaths from one to ten over and over again or you can meditate for about 15 minutes by counting 100 breaths. If you want to be extra Buddhist about it you can count 108 breaths.

Whether you mediate or not, you can practice gratitude by thinking of ten things that you are grateful for. That is counting blessings. Taking time to acknowledge the good things in your life helps you feel good.  It contradicts pervasive thinking about problems and scarcity and reinforces the idea that life is good. When we believe life is good, each breath is a blessing.

We don’t have to feel good to believe life is good, but it makes it easier. That life is good is something we often take on faith. Believing it helps us endure periods of suffering. It gives us hope in humanity. It gives us a sense of purpose as we work to create justice and end oppression so that everybody can have an opportunity to experience life’s goodness.

Being alive is our opportunity to experience our connection to the natural world. With each breath we take we support our lives, we support our moods, we support our beliefs. Each breath we take is a blessing, but mostly we take our breathing for granted. Any time we need to remember that life is good we can check in with our breath. If we are breathing, that is good. If we take a minute to consciously breathe 10 times we will relax. If we take only 5 breaths in that minute, we will feel even more relaxed.

When we regularly practice counting our blessings or our breaths we create opportunities to appreciate life’s goodness. Sometimes we have to take it on faith that life is good. Sometimes we feel it.

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Things Are Looking Up

Imagining that things are getting better, that we are slowly, steadily progressing toward a more peaceful world can be inspiring. Looking to the barbaric practices of the past such as burning people at the stake, or state supported slavery, then comparing those practices to positive developments of the present, such as increased ability for global, instant communication, which facilitates awareness and resistance to terrorism and oppression creates a strong sense of progress.

Of course the opposite is also true. If we look at the modern day machinery of war, and compare it to the brutal, but small scale, hand to hand combat of the past, it may seem that things are getting worse. Whether you think things are getting better or worse, if we are progressing toward peace or self-destruction, depends a lot on where and how you look.

How you feel also influences where you look. Where you look influences how you feel. If you feel lousy, you will imagine a lousy future and find evidence to support that. If you feel good, you look at all the good in the world and find evidence to support that feeling. It also works the other way around where a good feeling is rendered lousy by learning bad news and a lousy mood is obliterated with happy news.

Without knowing the future or our future we don’t know if things are getting better or worse. If we pay attention to the present moment, we can see if we feel bad or good. We can see if we are thinking of ourselves or others. The problems of war and oppression fundamentally hinge on shared beliefs about self and other. If we are looking down, at our phones, computers, the road, we are more prone to think of ourselves. If we look up at the sky, the moon, the ceiling, a work of art, the birds, Juliette on the balcony, we may forget ourselves for the moment and engage with the world. Looking up opens your mind. It makes you receptive to the world. Whatever you may be thinking, looking up changes you awareness. Try it. Look up at the ceiling or the sky. Take in the world.

This Is Your Brain on Zen

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Exploring the Emotional Landscape

When explorers go exploring they carry a compass. That way they can always tell which way is North and can find their way back from wherever their travels take them. The work of exploring is to intentionally enter the unknown and see how it connects with the known. When we explore our emotional landscape, our breath is both our compass and our vehicle. We know happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and we feel these and other emotions with various levels of intensity and subtlety. All of these feelings create a vast world for us to get lost in and to explore.

The feeling of happiness we get when our favorite team wins is different from the happiness we get when we drink a glass of water to quench a nagging thirst. The anxiety we feel before speaking in public is different from the anxiety we feel at the dentist. A sadness that lingers is different from a sadness that passes quickly. The feeling we get as we intentionally explore an unknown place is different from the feeling we get when we suddenly realize we are lost. When it comes to our emotional landscape, we are all explorers. Sometimes we forget we are exploring and feel lost. That is why it is so helpful to remember we are explorers and learn to orient ourselves with our breath.

When we regularly check in with our breath, we can take known paths through unknown territories. We can set up camp and make a home away from home. We can learn to recognize our habitual emotions, see where we tend to travel, how we travel and how to get from one place to another. We can intentionally explore an area we unintentionally entered. We can take a moment to break our momentum and notice where we are.

As we practice recognizing our emotional landscape and intentionally engaging where we are, we can traverse the vast mountains, valleys, plains, and planes of experience. We may not always like where we are, but as we practice being there, we get somewhere else.

 

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Breathe Easy

The easiest things we do take no effort at all. Breathing is easy. Loving is easy. Caring is easy. Being aware is easy. These components that are the basis of a mindfulness practice are all things that we do effortlessly all the time. They are so easy for us that we can’t not do them. Practicing mindfulness can be easier than not practicing.

To practice mindfulness you use your natural abilities to breathe, feel, care, love and pay attention, to both create peaceful feelings and to work with whatever feelings you have. To create peaceful feelings you can regulate your breathing to breathe like you would if you were at peace. Then think thoughts that evoke good feelings, like thinking about love or gratitude. To work with more difficult feelings you regulate your breathing to gather your focus and be open and caring toward the pain that you feel.

When you are well and truly relaxed you feel a deep sense of peace. The world may be falling apart around you, but your body and mind are at rest, You can deal with your little part of the world. You have found the way to put down your stress. In that place, in that mind space, you have wisdom. There, you are free to feel love. You can care about yourself, your friends and family, and the world. You can heal from your bumps, bruises and ailments.

When we don’t make time to be at peace we forget how to do it. We imagine that peace is at a spa resort, after retirement, in summer vacation, somewhere half-way around the planet, in the distant future, or lost in the past. We imagine that peace is a particular set of circumstances rather than within our immediate grasp. We forget that peace can be created through controlling our breathing.

When we consciously, intentionally practice creating and experiencing peaceful, easy feelings we learn the way. The more often we visit, the easier it is to get there. Sometimes it is necessary to feel stressed, anxious, afraid, sad or frustrated. It is important to feel those emotions in their time. Yet, when their time passes, it is important to let them pass. There are many things you can do to try to relax and let your breath fall in step with a comfortable circumstance, or you can begin with your breath and find that peaceful feeling right where you are.

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Spiritual Self-Care

In Zen, “spiritual self-care” is an oxymoron.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is the concept of no-self. When the Buddha looked into the Nature of Everything he saw nothing there that was him. He realized that the perception that we are separate from each other and everything else is the primary source of our suffering.

In Zen, spiritual self-care is recognizing the nature of suffering and a way through. The practice involves focusing your attention and observing the nature of your mind. The hard part about observing your mind is that you do it with your mind. Your mind creates all kinds of distractions that suck you in and set your focus wandering. That is the nature of mind. That is what you observe as you practice bringing your attention back to your point of focus.

The ultimate point of focus is the present moment. The present moment is where you live. As long as you are alive, you have your breath. When you focus your attention on your breath, it is grounded in your body in the present moment. Doing that, with a compassionate attitude, recognizing that there is suffering and seeking a way to ease that suffering is the basis of spiritual self-care. It is not so much the self taking care of the spirit, but the spirit taking care of the self.

Spiritual self-care involves taking care of your body and mind with a spiritual sense of caring. It involves eating well, sleeping enough, getting exercise, bathing, and brushing your teeth. It involves connecting with others, practicing compassion toward them and opening yourself to their compassion. It involves slowing down and being present right where you are with things just as they are, even if it hurts. When things hurt, be present with the pain and practice compassion for yourself. See what could be wrong and do what you can to help yourself feel better.

Two reliable ways to practice spiritual self-care and help yourself feel better are practicing generosity and gratitude. Those practices help us abide in our interconnected nature, which tends to feel good.

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Seeing Ego, Being Ego

The ego is mostly who we are. Everything about us that is us is based on our ego. Even seeing ourselves as something separate from the ego is our egoistic outlook. The ego is both a misguided friend and dangerous adversary as well as wise counsel and staunch advocate. To only see the ego as bad is only seeing half the picture.

The ego has its use in society. Our society is built on a collection of individuals. We get a birth certificate at birth and a death certificate when we die. We acquire possessions, things that belong to us, we register to vote and are responsible for our crimes. All of these activities of quantifying the individual stem from an ego based outlook. Our ego is that part of us that is us.

Buddhism is based on the idea of no-self. It teaches that when we look into what it is that is uniquely us, there is nothing there. Every bit of us is interconnected with the rest of the universe. Because no-self is a radical and counterintuitive idea, the idea of ego was born to represent what we perceive as self.

Buddhism also claims that the root of suffering is ignorance, which is believing in the ego, believing in a separate self. That gives ego its bad reputation. We live in a world of egos, so it is helpful to be able to live as an ego, but keep looking for the truth of interconnectedness. When interconnectedness makes more sense than separate selves then we get a good look at ego.

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Same Difference

There is a big difference between ignorance in the common sense of the word and the Buddhist sense of the word. In the common sense of the word, ignorance is being unaware, lacking in general knowledge or understanding. This common kind of ignorance when applied to people who seem different from us, different races, different cultures, different sexual orientations, different abilities can lead to division, derision, hate and violence.  People, ignorant of our ignorance imagine that the problem and threat rests in those we perceive as different, rather than in our own faulty perception.

In the Buddhist sense of the word, rather than a general lack of understanding, ignorance is a specific false awareness, a false sense of self. We wrongly imagine that we are something separate from everything else. Buddhism teaches that this sense of a separate self, this ignorance, causes our suffering. It is one of the three poisons, along with anger and desire, that afflict us. It is the source of distance between ourselves and people we perceive as different from us.

In my college intro psych class we were asked to a simple psychological experiment on ourselves. The professor told us to be aware of the saliva in our mouths and then to swallow it. No problem. Then we were asked to imagine spitting that saliva into a sterile glass and drinking it. Disgusting. The spit that was part of us, became spit that was separate from us and suddenly became repulsive. Like the spit experiment demonstrates, we can have dramatically different reactions to the same thing depending on our sense of separation from it.  Setting ourselves apart from the world and those different from us leads to all the hate, intolerance and violence in the world.

People are different from each other like we are different from the rocks and trees of the planet. Unlike the rocks and trees, as people, we suffer. We suffer from our general ignorance and specific ignorance. We don’t have to be Buddhist to practice awareness of our suffering and the suffering of others and to practice compassion for ourselves and each other by identifying the source of our suffering and trying to make things better. With enough awareness we could uproot our ignorance, see the world from each other’s point of view and create peace. We are one in our desire for peace, personal, interpersonal, and world peace.

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Learning to Swim

A brave and reckless parent may throw their baby into a pool to teach it to swim (please don’t try this at home). The baby would likely be scared entering the water but would instinctively hold its breath, float, and begin crawling back through the water to the safety of its parent, swimming because it is in the water and that’s how to move in the water.

If you throw an older child or an adult, who doesn’t know how to swim, into deep water (also, please don’t try this), they would not have the presence of the baby to see what happens as they fill with fear. They would never notice that brief moment where they were floating, so they wouldn’t float. They would panic and flail and drown. Water is dangerous and unforgiving that way.

Learning to swim, is learning to trust the idea that you can float. It is embracing the buoyant nature of your body and putting it to the test. Once the trust is there, in yourself and your nature, water is no longer frightening, and swimming can be fun and relaxing. Floating in the water, you are weightless.

Fear has that tendency to drag us down. Not only do we not trust in our own nature, we doubt that it is there. In all kinds of situations in life, we doubt our ability to float. We panic and flail within our life circumstances, and we forget to take that moment to recognize that we are floating. We are floating on a planet, hurtling through vast, empty space. The planet gives us air to breath, food to eat, water to drink, and people to keep us company. When we have the presence of mind to think about the great marvel of all of that, in that moment, we are floating. We can test our buoyant nature by taking a deep breath and noticing that this improbable planet is sustaining us. Then we can start crawling through the water to the safety of our parent.

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Living the Li(f)e

We all share in the desire to live a good life. We don’t all want to be saints or heroines, rich and powerful, or daring adventurers. We want a basic level of happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families. The world has provided us with infinite avenues to happiness. It also provides us with an equal number of disruptors and inhibitors to that happiness. We spend our lives trying to create conditions where openings for happiness are plentiful and disruptors are few. Yet for each of us those conditions are something different. Around the world, each culture has its own particular prescriptions and descriptions for a good life. Many of the beliefs that we carry and pass on through our cultures are wrong, but we need to believe something, so we try to create a good life, on good lies.

Between cultures and individuals reality is different. What is true for one person or group is not true for another, yet we live in a shared reality. We perceive a common experience, which involves vastly different interpretations of what is real, true and important. To create a good life, we try to rely on what we believe is true. We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat. We need love. Then we have more beliefs, some of those beliefs may be true, some may be contextually true, some may be dead wrong. As we live with our beliefs, we create ideas of what more we need for the good life, and if our lives don’t measure up to what we think a good life should be, our happiness can be compromised.

Reality is as we perceive it, and not. If we want basic happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families, we have to work with what we perceive and what we believe. Some wrong beliefs help us feel good. Some wrong beliefs are terribly destructive. It is surprisingly difficult to tell which is which. To live the good life and find a basic level of happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families, we must try to create the best lie that we can. It should be built on whatever truth we can discern, and we need each other to figure out what is true to each of us. Then we do our best to make sure everybody has enough air, water, food and love so that we can work together toward creating that good life.

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