by V.J. Leventhal
Last week I began my column with a general discussion of external versus internal power. I’d like to talk about what I mean by “internal” or “spiritual” power.
I’ve been studying Buddhism, especially Zen, and Taoism for many years in my own sporadic but dedicated way, and I have found these teachings to be a useful pathway to personal evolution and inner transformation. This study is not simply an intellectual exercise although it is certainly that but also a very specific practice of meditation and expansion of the mind, which includes learning about other states of being. The goal of this practice is to increase one’s awareness of both inner states and outer realities, in order to learn a peaceful and balanced way of living. Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Zen master and founder of what is called “engaged” Buddhism (because it practices both service and contemplation), teaches that wisdom (or enlightenment), requires both clarity of understanding and the practice of lovingkindness. Both the mind and the heart must be developed to live in balance in the world. The Dalai Lama also emphasizes that the key to wisdom is through compassion. Buddhism is a sort of scientific approach to comprehending the true nature of reality, in order to reduce suffering. The Buddha taught that the reality of the world is suffering and also the cessation of suffering. The Tao talks of the rising and falling of the “10,000 things” in trying to describe the fact that everything is impermanent, and in constant motion. By increasing your awareness of the flow of thoughts, emotions, and physical discomfort or mental anguish, you can learn to put things into a larger perspective, and to become more detached and calmer in your life.
Most people live in a constant stream of mental chatter about the mundane tasks at hand, plans for the future, fears, resentments and so on. It is difficult to turn off this chatter, called the “monkey brain” by the Zen masters, even for a few seconds. The practice of meditation is the tool for finding another, deeper, state of mind.
The simplest way to start this practice is with a basic breathing exercise. Sitting in a comfortable, alert pose, begin to breathe in and out deeply and regularly through the nose, filling and emptying the lungs as fully as possible, while focusing the mind only on the breath. The mind will constantly want to wander, and so each time it strays, gently but quickly return it to paying full attention to the breath. Most people need something to assist in holding their focus, so you can say the words “in” and “out” in your mind as you breathe. Some people use a candle or similar object to help them focus as they do this practice. Eventually, with time and repetition, you will find a deeper state where the mind is empty except for the awareness of the moving breath. I find that if I do this breathing meditation even for a few minutes I am greatly calmed and energized.
There are also many ways to practice changing your mental state during your regular day. The key is to still the mental chatter by focusing completely on the task at hand. If you are walking, feel the earth under your feet, notice the sights and sounds around you, expand your awareness to include the small things and the large, the ants and the sky, the buildings and the smell of the wet pavement. If you are washing dishes, feel the water and soap, the weight of the cup you hold, the stretch in your back and legs, and always the breath. This is mindfulness: being fully in the present moment. When you let your thoughts run ahead to the future or back to the past, you aren’t truly alive in the moment.
Learning to be present, to engage with full attention is the first step toward enlightenment. Our culture makes this difficult practice even more daunting, with its encouragement of multi-tasking, and the constant barrage of ever more and ever faster sensory input. Slowing down is the first step toward wisdom and inner power. When you are working with your breath moving slowly in and out and your mind focused and calm, you begin to notice that pain and tiredness disappear, and that you are filled with energy and a sense of well-being. You are tapping into a universal power source that is always available to you. The more familiar you become with the feeling of mindfulness, the easier it will be to engage. I can’t overstate the importance of spending some part of your day in a mindful state. It is where all our healing happens, where we can recover from the toxic exposure of our daily lives.
People who have mastery of their internal states can begin to see reality differently. Once you see that everything is impermanent, for example, because you observe for yourself that thoughts and emotions and sensations of the body come and go and that change is the only constant, it becomes easier to let go of fears and outdated ideologies. Once you observe your own mistakes and lapses of judgment, it becomes easier to have compassion for the mistakes of others.
Mindfulness has taught me not to tailgate in traffic, to be patient, because I observed that my own sense of urgency was unnecessary and was creating disharmony in myself, and in those around me. Once you start to examine your own thoughts and behavior for logical inconsistencies, a whole world of understanding opens up. Then you can see that there is never a justification for cruelty; that behaving unkindly to anyone else is the ultimate hypocrisy, because you wouldn’t want to be treated in the same manner. Once again, we come back to the Golden Rule. It’s such a great basic guide for living.
Years ago I took a class in Buddhism, which left me with a valuable insight on the nature of reality. The teaching said that we live as if looking through a vast stencil at the world. We see objects that look like this kind of shape or that, so we label them and believe that they are these separate things that we have named, and ever after will stay as these things. We study them in detail and feel that we “know” about the world. Buddhism asks us to pull away the stencil and try to perceive the entirety of existence: everything is connected to everything else and all is part of a whole, which is in a constant state of flowing and changing and it’s all happening at the same time. We need to have more humility and be more open to the possibility that we may have misinterpreted something.
In closing, without self-awareness, and awareness of our connection to the whole, everything we try to accomplish in the world may be tainted by the toxic beliefs and behaviors we carry unknowingly into every activity. One way to begin to understand ourselves is through meditation. There are infinite layers to the onion of self-mastery, so you will never run out of work to do and you will never fully achieve the end goal. Just try to go a little deeper each time. And as you build your inner resources, you will also become more able to reach your goals in the outer world, and to be of service to others.
Till next timeI wish you peace.
2009 V.J. Leventhal. All Rights Reserved.