A cure for stress

From the last paragraph of Andy Olendzki’s essay (previous post),

Meanwhile, peace is accessible. This too is an empirically demonstrable fact: try turning off the radio, the phone, the computer, and the TV; sit comfortably in a quiet place, relaxing the body and mind; mindfully breathing in, mindfully breathing out, and abandon – just for now – any thought or response that tends to disburse and divide your awareness… The Buddha might have said, “I know of no single thing more healthy than than doing one thing at a time”.

I’ve just done this experiment myself, spending some time with less input. No TV, no computer, no books, no human interactions (except a bit of food shopping). It was pretty extreme, and I don’t recommend it to those who haven’t done a number of meditation retreats beforehand. But it was revealing. One discovery was the joy to be found in doing one thing at a time, with full attention.

Each of us can evaluate our current situation and look for ways to stop multi-tasking and start doing one thing at a time. Habits resist change, so it’s best to start small. Try driving without the radio or other auditory input; when driving, just drive. Or have breakfast without reading, talking, or listening to anything; when eating, just eat.

Another approach: it can clear the mind to get outside, regardless of the weather. When we are entirely cut off from nature, it’s easy to get into an endless loop of activity and lose perspective. Try just walking when walking – feel the air, smell the odors, experience the sensations of foot striking ground, notice where the hands are and how they feel. If you can’t get outside, go to a window and check out the weather, the color of the sky, whether there is any wind. Take a few deliberate breaths before returning to whatever you were doing.

Other things we might do one-at-a-time:
– play with children
– cook
– wash dishes
– ride the bus
– listen on the phone or in person
– make a plan
– sew or knit
– study
– think or write
– brush teeth

Anything can be done more mindfully simply by slowing down. It takes an extra beat of time to be aware of what’s happening with all of the available senses, but this is the activity of mindfulness – knowing what we’re doing while we’re doing it.

To start deconstructing the causes of our stress, we need to resist the external and internal signals telling us, “Do more!”, “Do it faster!”. We can answer, “I’m just going to do one thing at a time!”

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One Thing at a Time, part 3 of 3

One Thing at a Time, an essay by Andrew Olendzki [from his collection, Unlimiting Mind, published by Wisdom Publications/Boston]

Continued from the previous post…

Our contemporary view of consciousness is so different from this (unified, stable, luminous and attentive), so much less. It is as if the accomplishment of mere tasks is of primary value, while the quality of awareness with which these tasks are undertaken is irrelevant. One can hurtle through the day doing this, that, and the other thing, often simultaneously, with great busyness and pressure, only to relax in the evening by trying to keep up with images that flash across the screen multiple times per second. For many of us, the deep states of tranquil alertness of which the mind is capable are entirely unknown.

Yes, the chattering, cavorting, cacophonous monkey mind is capable of clever deeds and great mischief, and these things are not entirely without value. But the mind is also capable of settling down, gathering its power, and turning its gaze upon itself, and in such instances it can come to know itself deeply. Buddhists call this gaining wisdom, and this too is a valuable thing to do.

More importantly, perhaps, it is a healthy thing to do. It is now well known that a restful body is healthier than a body in constant states of stress. It is becoming better known that a restul mind is more healthy than a mind beset with anxiety, compulsion, addiction, and other agitating states. It may even turn out to be the case that a restful society is healthier than one beset with tension, prejudice, exploitation, and war. I hope we have a chance to find out some day.

Meanwhile, peace is accessible. This too is an empirically demonstrable fact: try turning off the radio, the phone, the computer, and the TV; sit comfortably in a quiet place, relaxing the body and mind; mindfully breathing in, mindfully breathing out, and abandon – just for now – any thought or response that tends to disburse and divide your awareness. Let go, for the moment, the impulse for sensory gratification, hold off annoyance towards what you don’t like, settle down any restlessness in mind and body, stir up energy when you feel sluggish, and postpone thinking over any doubts you may have. As you do this successfully for several moments is a row, you will find the mind gradually becoming more tranquil, more focused, more clear, and more powerful. The Buddha might have said, “I know of no single thing more healthy than than doing one thing at a time”.

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One Thing at a Time, part 2 of 3

One Thing at a Time, an essay by Andrew Olendzki [from his collection, Unlimiting Mind, published by Wisdom Publications/Boston]

Continued from previous post…

Of course being deeply aware of what we are doing is the very crux of the Buddhist teaching, which is why the practice of meditation is so important for unifying and consolidating the mind. The Buddha also said, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great welfare than a developed mind” [AN 1.4]. Concentration practice, known as samadhi, consists of gathering together (the prefix sam-) and placing (the root dha) the mind upon (the middle a) an object of the senses or upon a mental object. We do this all the time reflexively, but in Buddhist practice we are invited to do so with deliberate intention, with sustaining energy, and with consistency over multiple mind moments.

It is natural for the mind to resist such discipline, and to wander off to any aspect of experience that is new, unusual, or apparently more interesting. We did not survive in nature by ignoring incoming stimuli, and like birds or chipmunks are more accustomed to glancing around constantly, attentive to both threat and opportunity. But we are no longer crouching in a hostile natural environment, and the states to which our mind restlessly turns in the meditation hall are generally internally constructed threats and imaginary opportunities. The cultivation of mental focus, the consistent return to a primary object, and the settling into ever deeper states of tranquility has the effect of gradually reining in the mind’s random wandering and settles it down in a way that gathers and consolidates the power of awareness.

Each moment of consciousness is a precious gift. Awareness itself is the primary currency of the human condition, and as such it is inherently of immense value and deserves to be spent carefully. Merely sitting quietly in a serene environment, letting go of the various petty disturbances that roil and diminish consciousness, and experiencing as fully as possible the poignancy of this fleeting moment – this is an enterprise of deep intrinsic value, an aesthetic experience beyond words. The more unified, stable, luminous, and attentive the mind is at this moment, the more profound the experience.

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One Thing at a Time, part 1 of 3

I’ll be off-line for two and a half weeks for a self-retreat. Meanwhile, I’ll be sharing an essay that may be helpful to you, as it is to me.

One Thing at a Time, an essay by Andrew Olendzki [from his collection, Unlimiting Mind, published by Wisdom Publications/Boston]

(Part 1 of 3):

Don’t go back over what is past,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be.
What has passed has been abandoned,
And the future is not yet here.
The state arising here and now-
see it with insight as it is!

– from MN 131, translated by Andrew Olendzki

When the Buddha says, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great harm than an unrestrained mind” [AN 1.4], I think he is referring to the current passion for multi-tasking. When the mind tries to do several things at once, it does not do any of them very well. This is an empirical fact attested to by numerous experiments, and is easily demonstrated for oneself: try simultaneously texting a message while driving, guided by your GPS through an unfamiliar neighborhood, while catching the latest sports scores on the radio and discussing some recent relationship difficulty with your partner.

It is not that the mind is incapable of such feats of parallel processing, it’s just not a very healthy thing to do. One image in the Pali texts [AN 5.51] compares the flow of consciousness to a mountain stream flowing swiftly downhill. If there are several outlets through which the water is dispersed, then when it reaches the plain it will be little more than a trickle. Mental energy is finite, and our mind is diminished in direct proportion to how much its attention is fractured. The problem is not so much attention deficit as it is attention dispersion, when the available attention is spread thin. Just like water spreading out to cover a surface, the wider the expanse the shallower the depth. By trying to do many things at once we are training the mind to process information in ways that may well be effective and even become habitual, but the price to be paid for this is no longer being deeply aware of what we are doing.

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Finding balance

The Buddha spoke about the middle way. Sometimes it meant the middle way between self-mortification and sensual indulgence. Sometimes “the middle way” was used to describe avoidance of fixed views, for example, eternalism and nihilism.

With acknowledgement to Patrick Kearney, one of my teachers, I confidently state that the middle way does NOT represent “splitting the difference” between two options; it is not the same as compromise.

The middle way is a matter of direct experience rather than philosophical positioning. If we are balanced entirely in this moment, not leaning towards the past or the future, then there is nothing to cling to and nothing to identify with.

Thus have I heard. At one time the Blessed One was dwelling at Bārāṇasī in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five thus: “Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one gone forth (into the homeless life). What two? That which is this pursuit of sensual happiness in sense pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of the ordinary person, ignoble, not connected to the goal; and that which is this pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, not connected to the goal. Bhikkhus, without veering towards either of these two extremes, the One Attuned to Reality has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to Nibbāna.

“And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the One Attuned to Reality which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to Nibbāna? It is just this Noble Eight-factored Path, that is to say, right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right mental unification. This, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the One Attuned to Reality, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to Nibbāna.
– from SN 56.11, translated by Peter Harvey (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.harv.html)

So the real answer to the question “What is the middle way?” is “The Buddha’s Eight-fold Path”, which summarizes the Buddha’s instructions for us. The 8-fold path is not a fixed place; it’s a framework for reflecting, speaking and acting. If we make use of it, even in a beginner’s way, we are less likely to fall into the traps of sensual indulgence or self-mortification. We have a way of protecting ourselves from harmful views and unwholesome habits. The path supports our efforts to find balance, to whatever degree we follow it.

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Starting small

We’ve been looking at ways to support our efforts to turn our attention inward, away from blaming others for our unhappiness and away from expecting things to always go our way. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful practice that helps us channel our minds in a wholesome direction, but some of us need “warm-up” exercises.

A recent conversation with a massage therapist included the following:
MT: “You do yoga every day?”
me: “Yes.”
MT: “I can’t do it unless I’m in a class.”
me: “Well, maybe you can. Give this a try for one week: do three sun salutes before breakfast each morning. Just three sun salutes, but every day. See if it makes a difference.”

A month later, the same massage therapist told me that she was doing a half-hour of yoga every day before breakfast and it had changed her life. There was a dramatic shift from thinking that establishing a new, wholesome habit was impossible to discovering that in fact, she was perfectly capable of taking charge of her life, at least in this small way.

Many times I’ve heard people claim that they couldn’t get motivated to exercise, meditate, etc. on their own. It’s a false story we can tell ourselves. The trick is to start small; don’t make a big deal out of it, just make a small commitment to a simple practice that you know helps you calm down and become more aware of your body. The two-minute meditation recommended earlier is a possibility, but it could also be a short prayer; a few yoga postures or a breathing exercise; writing down what you are grateful for; walking backwards for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter exactly what it is – it’s the dailiness that matters.

Too often, we look at people with disciplined lives and think, “No way I could do that!” Well, sure – why should you? But what about setting the bar lower? A lot lower. Say, a day without alcohol once a week; a half hour where you just sit or walk by yourself and don’t worry about or respond to outside demands; a deliberate act of forgiveness; keeping truthfulness or silence for a half-day. These are small but powerful acts.

Consider what you might do to loosen the grip of compulsion or confusion on your mind. What small step might help? Give it a try; you have nothing to lose but your unhappiness.

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Metta sutta chant-along

One way to internalize teachings of all sorts is to memorize them. Most of us learned the alphabet this way, singing the letters out loud to a simple tune, probably in a group.

In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, chanting is generally done in a restricted melodic range (three or four notes), both to keep things simple and to prevent the chanting of sacred texts from being perceived as entertainment.

I invite you to listen to the audio file linked below. It is a version of the Karaniya Mettā Sutta that was translated from Pali to English by a group of monks and nuns affiliated with the Ajahn Chah lineage. It is chanted regularly in monasteries all over the world, and it’s one of my personal favorites.

The words are below, in case you’re inspired to chant-along (or even memorize) this uplifting sutta.

Sn 1.8, Karaniya Mettā Sutta, translated by the Amaravati Sangha:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

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