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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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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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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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The King and I

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I had the great fortune to see the Broadway revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The show I saw featured incredible performances by Marin Mazzie as Anna Leonowens, the English missionary and royal tutor and Daniel Dae Kim as the King of Siam (now Thailand). It tells the story of a Buddhist monarch and Christian scholar in the 1860’s facing issues of western imperialism, slavery, and women’s liberation. In the play, Anna represents scientific and social enlightenment and the King represents the struggle to overcome ego and pride in order to be the best person he can be. The story is a musical based on a book, based on the memoirs of a missionary and so the historical accuracy is many degrees removed. Buddhism in 1950 when the play was written did not have the prominence in the West that it has today and it was depicted in the play more as a monotheistic religion with Buddha sitting as a Lord in Heaven to whom people prayed, who favored the good and punished the wicked, rather than an Awakened Nature to be sought and realized to ease the suffering of the world.

I was impressed with what elements of Buddhism survived the interpretation, but curious about how a devout, Buddhist king could struggle so greatly with his ego. I found that the fictional king, portrayed (with great comic effect in this production) as a polygamous womanizer, full of pride in his station was based on King Mongkut, who was a celibate monk for 27 years before assuming the throne and taking 32 wives, fathering 82 children. As a monk, Mongkut crossed social barriers of class to create a form of practice and lineage (Thammayut sect) that followed Buddha’s teaching more strictly than was widely practiced in monasteries of the time. The play tells the story of the king saving his country from British imperialism by working his way around his pride to take advice from a woman and hosting an English style dinner and ball to demonstrate that his country is not barbaric. The historical King Mongkut saved his county from British domination by demonstrating his country’s civility through his mastery of science and astronomy and with skilled diplomacy, which opened his country to free trade.

A great element of Buddhism and King Mongkut’s outlook that survived the fictional interpretation can be found in the song, A Puzzlement, where the king sings about his great uncertainty on many matters. From a Zen perspective the song beautifully represents “Don’t Know Mind” the understanding that knowledge is subjective and relative, which helps ease attachment to ideas that may interfere with seeing things as they are. He sings:

There are times I almost think
Nobody sure of what he absolutely know
Everybody find confusion
In conclusion, he concluded long ago

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know
Very quickly he will fight
He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so

This song shows the king grappling with the necessity to act in the face of great confusion while recognizing the violence and suffering that comes from those who defend wrong beliefs rather than recognize their own confusion. This knowing about not knowing is fundamental to Buddhism and acknowledging it represents the open mindedness and potential for growth of the fictional king. The historical king and former monk, was probably quite comfortable knowing how he didn’t know and that knowledge allowed him to drop ancient beliefs and recognize observable facts such as the world being round. The not knowing contained in this song represents the historical King Mongkut’s enlightenment. It is a central element of Buddhism that Rogers and Hammerstein captured despite generally overlooking the Dharma in the drama.

A cultural practice of Buddhism that was unfortunately misinterpreted at the conclusion of the play is the practice of bowing. In the play’s climactic final scene, as his father, the king, reclines on his deathbed, the Crown Prince decrees an end to the practice of bowing to the king. Although it was meant to depict cultural progress, recognizing the equality of men and women, kings and commoners, it represents bowing as a shameful act of subjugation. In Buddhism, the practice of bowing is a practice of shared humility. Bowing is an act of lowering your ego and becoming Buddha. Bowing to another person is a sign of deep respect and a recognition of their Buddha Nature. Bowing to a statue of the Buddha or to another person is a practice of Buddha bowing to Buddha. It was comforting in the production I saw that within minutes of that decree banning bowing being issued on the stage,  the cast came out for their curtain calls and humbly bowed in gratitude to all the Buddhas in the audience standing and applauding a magnificent theatrical performance.

Despite the fiction inspired by his life, the historical King Mongkut likely died with great awareness and little fear, not distracting himself by whistling a happy tune. His life bears comparison to the Dalai Lama who compassionately practices both Buddhism and scientific inquiry, not to know, but to help ease the suffering of humanity and all beings. The theatrical story has also eased the suffering of many through the years with its delightful rendering of the values of love, learning, freedom and equality with beautiful music throughout.

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Dealing With Other People

Humans are social beings. We need each other. We love each other. We couldn’t survive without each other, but we drive each other crazy. We all share this incredible experience of being human, but we all come at that experience from a different angle. Each region of the world has its own culture, which is an unspoken, or painstakingly codified, set of rules for how to deal with each other. Within the larger cultures of countries, there are smaller cultures of states, cities, neighborhoods, right down to families and individual family members. We each have our own culture that is us, it is our way of being, our way of dealing with other people.

Dealing with other people is difficult because they each have their own culture too. Dealing with people in our own families can be especially difficult because so much of the culture is shared, that we have strong habitual ways of behaving toward each other. We expect our family members to behave and misbehave just how they do, and we then behave and misbehave just how we do in response. We may feel lots of love for our family, but we also experience great frustrations with them as their being who they are makes it hard for us to be who we are.

As complicated as things are in a family, as soon as we leave our families, things get more complicated. Then we have to deal with people who we don’t know. People we don’t know can be scary. They may do anything. We don’t know. Fortunately we are able to get to know people and make friends. We form friend cultures, where we can be something a little different from what we are in our family culture. Then we go deal with the school culture or work culture, or we travel the world and deal with international cultures.

The one constant as we move from our families out into the world is us. Wherever we go, we are the ones who have to deal with other people. We also have to deal with ourselves as we deal with other people. Even though that constant of ourself seems constant, the only thing constant about us is that we are constantly changing. Each micro and macro culture we encounter changes our personal culture. We grow.

If we want to grow happier, we have to deal with ourselves as we deal with other people. When somebody makes us angry, it is easy to blame the other person for our anger, but the anger is only ours. It is our personal culture to get angry and blame others for our anger. It is our culture to get sad and blame our circumstances for our sadness. To grow happier, we practice compassion for ourself, for our family, for our friends, and for people all over the world. We recognize how hard it is to deal with other people, yet how rewarding it is at the same time. When we think we are having trouble dealing with other people, we can remember that we are having problems dealing with ourselves. Even if we have a hard time recognizing somebody else’s suffering, we can recognize our own suffering and remember to be compassionate. The more we practice compassion, the better we get at it. It becomes our culture. It grows to include other people, friends and family, then the world. As our compassion grows, our relationship to suffering changes. We grow happier.

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Everything You Need To Know About Not Knowing

The biggest challenge of life is not knowing. This not knowing can drive us crazy, not necessarily because of the not knowing, but because of how it fits with what we think we know. The amount of things that we know is astounding. Even if we don’t think we know much, we know thousands of words, we know hundreds of people, we know how to communicate what we are thinking and how to guage what other people are feeling. We know ways to comfort ourselves and others when we notice pain and suffering. We have ideas about numbers, negative numbers, zero and infinity. It’s incredible how much we know that helps us function in our daily lives. When we start to examine those things we think we know, we realize that we don’t even know what we know. It’s hard to know what nothing is. It’s difficult to comprehend infinity.

If we compare all that we know with all that we don’t know, what we know is closer to zero and what we don’t know is closer to infinity. Even if we take all the knowledge in the world, everything that everybody, living and dead, has ever and will ever know about anything, it won’t scratch the surface of the unknown. We can and will spend the rest of our lives trying to fine tune what we know, discarding what we find to be false and keeping what we imagine is true. We continually refine our knowledge so that we can happily exist with everything we don’t know.

Not knowing can be either distressing or exhilarating, it can be paralyzing or liberating.  Not knowing what will happen at the end of a book keeps us reading. Not knowing what will happen tomorrow fills the day with possibilities. If we think something horrible will happen, we fret. If we think something wonderful will happen, we feel the joy of anticipation. All we know is where we are, feeling what we’re feeling, thinking what we’re thinking, not knowing how it came about or where it will lead.

When we know that we are stressed or distressed about something we either know or don’t know, we can remember what we know about not knowing and look curiously, openly into our experience and ask ourselves what is happening, knowing that ultimately, we don’t know. When we are able to find comfort in not knowing, we can be comfortable anywhere, because we never know.

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What’s Right With You?

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what is wrong with us.  That kind of inquiry should be balanced with asking ourselves what’s right with us.  If you think that nothing is right with you, then you especially need to practice looking. We all do an incredible number of things exceptionally well. We adeptly handle complex electronics, negotiate social relationships, sustain our basic needs and help each other in the process. We love and are loved.

Each one of us has particular areas of interest. We are naturally skilled at exploring those interests. When we align with what is right with us, we find satisfaction in what we do. If we are not finding satisfaction, we may think that there is something wrong with us. What maybe wrong is not knowing what is right.

To look into what is right with you, notice your posture, take in a deep breath and center yourself in the present moment. Ask yourself what is right in your immediate surroundings. Look for beauty. Think of people that you love. Think of kind things you have done. Think of kind things that have been done for you. When you take time to remember and experience what is right with you, you will discover a refreshing sense of peace. That peace is right with you, wherever you are.

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Happiness Is Not Fun

If you are happy, almost everything will be fun. If you are miserable, almost nothing will be fun. Fun and happiness go together, but there is a big difference. The real work of happiness happens between all the fun.

Today’s world offers so many opportunities for fun that it is possible, without taxing our imagination to fill our hours with fun activities. Life gets in the way of that. Some fun activities cost too much money, some fun activities are dangerous, some fun things we do bring us tremendous aggravation. There are other things that we have to do, obligations, like work, or school, that cut into our time for fun. If we think that happiness comes from having fun, we will get into the habit of looking outside of ourselves for fulfillment.

Meditation is not fun. It is funny. It is a strange thing to do, to sit and do nothing but keep you body still as your mind scrambles to find something fun to do. When you notice yourself scrambling for entertaining thoughts and return your attention to your boring breath …in…out…in…out…in…out… you can feel the discomfort.  That is just the beginning. Chances are, when you sit down and start meditating, your mind will start looking around itself for the most disturbing things it can find. It will find fears, sadness, anger, or even traumatic memories. Those are no fun at all. When you notice that happening, return yourself to the your boring breath …in…out…in…out…in…out.. and notice how boring feels safe and soothing compared to the difficult thoughts and emotions.

Your mind doesn’t like holding onto these negative thoughts and memories anymore than you like visiting them. That is why the mind goes there whenever it has the opportunity. There is strong energy that comes from those thoughts and the mind follows the energy. When you visit a negative thought or feeling with your non-judging, compassionate awareness, and life-line of reassuring, stable, boring breath, that thought and feeling becomes manageable. The energy changes. Working with those difficult thoughts is still not fun, but figuring out how to live with them and transform them makes your mind more available to happiness.

Noticing where you are, wherever you are, will help you distinguish happiness from fun. It is important to make time for fun, but when fun is unavailable, that is a good time practice awareness and compassion, opening yourself up to happiness.

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