What do we know of Buddhism? Most of us are aware of the Dalai Lama, Tibet, karma, reincarnation, meditation — and, well, that’s about it, isn’t it?
This article will hardly help you reach enlightenment, and it doesn’t aim to “convert” you to this beautiful religion. The author herself is a follower of a different path. But as many millions of Buddhism practitioners can assure you, there’s a lot of small Buddhism-inspired changes you can make to transform your life into a better experience. Starting today.
Buddhism & psychology have a lot in common. Take, for example, self-development. Buddhism has bhavana for that. And while bhavana is commonly translated as “meditation”, its literal meaning is development, cultivation, or growth. And just like we can cultivate plants & flowers, so we can grow our emotional reactions, feelings & character traits.
The principle of this is rather simple, and even a little practical & cynical at first glance. Every thing we refer to as an emotion, or a feeling — be it joy, bliss, compassion, worry, amazement — can be cultivated or produced by following a few simple exercises.
Buddhists believe that we’re at fault for the lion’s share of our own sorrows & troubles. We react to annoyances as if we didn’t have any choice in the matter. What meditation does is change our perspective on such commodities as worry, anger, or sadness. But meditation isn’t only a tool to help you relax & fight stress. Many other things, like fitness, walks, your favourite hobby, a good book, a massage session or, yes, a bowl of your most favourite least healthy comfort food, can help you reduce the day’s pressure. What meditation does is help you fight your nasty psychological habits & dependencies. A bowl of sour cream crisps can be quite invigorating, but by “rewarding” yourself with it after a stressful day, you tell your system that every time it decides to experience stress, it’s going to get a tasty treat! Therefore,you unconsciously program yourself to fail. For a pack of crisps.
Think about it.
When you learn to decipher your emotions, you give yourself the power over them. You tell your body, mind, spirit, that you are the master. As you stop idly reflecting everything that’s going on around you, you break the dependency & finally learn the skills to look deeper into yourself. You begin to understand how your system really works, and you experience change — thought after thought.
Human brain is plastic, not static. Every experience changes it, changes its neuron structure. I.e., an artist’s brain changes after every sketch. A writer’s brain changes with every story written. An actor’s brain changes with every audition. Every new site alters web-developer’s brain.
As we meditate, we gradually strengthen these nervous endings that are responsible for “the thinky”.
There’s no need to become a hermit. Every short meditation session will greatly help. 30 minutes of daily spiritual exercises can be compared to the effect of mild antidepressants.
Technology is wonderful. But when it comes to concentration, it can be a right pain in the side. Computers and internet, phone calls and SMS, IM and e-mail, television, radio, news, RSS aggregator — that’s your example of “too much information”. Sometimes it seems as if everything in this world is designed to not let you focus — and there might be some truth to that statement; but this article is not about that. Such stream of information renders our ability to choose to nearly unconscious.
So let’s focus (forgive the pun) on choosing, instead of choices.
Ultimately, internet, phones, and television are not at fault. In the end the problem lies within ourselves. We have the power to dismiss unwanted calls. We can click the [x] at the top right corner, and we can push the “off” button on our television sets. But it doesn’t solve the problem. Focussing is hard work. And this is where meditation comes in.
The goal of the following exercise is to teach yourself to see the essence of things and to cultivate (here is the word again!) the natural understanding of what happens around you.
What you’ll need:
1. Relatively quiet surroundings. The quieter it will be, the easier it’ll be for you to practice this technique at first.
2. An object. Any object, really. It can be an Altoids tin, a ruler, a cellphone charger… I’m naming everything currently in my sight. But for an easier start, I recommend you fetch a candle, a plant, a really inspiring picture, … or a companion animal. Which is not an object, but makes excellent watching material. I find that cats and fish are especially great for this task, but I’m heavily biased.
Now that we’ve prepared ourselves, let’s begin.
1. Sit and relax. The straighter your back will be, the deeper your breathing will become, but don’t make your back rigid.
2. Breathe in and out. Focus on your breathing. Take note of every inhale and exhale.
3. Now transfer your attention to the Object. Note its qualities, its colours. Think about how small or big it is. Note its movements, provided that it moves, or its smells, provided that it, well, smells.
4. Continue watching the Object. Don’t let your focus wander off to anything else, no matter how deep and profound your thoughts may be!
These exercises are like fitness for your mind; they help build its strength and durability, just like push-ups will help make your body stronger. You’ll note improvements in the nearest future. The usual feeling of “so much to do, but where to start” will go away. Absent-mindedness will give its reign over to awareness and clarity. It’ll improve your productivity and artistic potential considerably. Soon you’ll be basing novels off a ten-minute exploration of a stone.
And think of how this will affect your relationships with others! People love it when you give them undivided attention and really listen to what they have to say.
A great part of any person’s emotive experience consists of bright flashes of negativity. These emotions blind us, strike us. They cause us pain, and what we do is connect this pain with circumstances and persons involved.
Buddhism points out that feelings and emotions aren’t events or people. Emotional flashes are separate entities. Your boss isn’t your enemy, your reaction to him is. It doesn’t let you adequately assess what’s really going on.
Negative feelings literally cause physical pain. They can even damage nervous endings in those sections of the brain that are responsible for memory and ability to learn. They also weaken the immune system.
Psychologists hold special trainings, aimed to change thoughts and, as a follow-up, change your life’s events. Buddhism has a different approach.
Meditation doesn’t change emotions, it changes the way we relate to them. It helps us consciously assess them, and as a result, control them, not be controlled by them. Nervous breakdowns, depression, anger and rage can therefore be prevented.
Meditation will teach you to see yourself from the side and track the moment of “boiling”. No more volcanoes!
You will have power over that section of your brain that’s responsible for emoting. Your feelings will become conscious and understood. It will be like listening to an inner voice: “Oh, this is where I’m enraged.” Or, “Ouch, I think I’m intimidated now.” Better than immediately screaming your head off or running for the hills, don’t you think?
It’s not easy to reach this ability, as the time between the cause and the follow-up is extremely short — a heartbeat or two. Consistent spiritual practice helps you break this chain.
Here is a simple exercise that will help you gain control over negativity in your life:
1. Recall a situation when you were angry. Very angry.
2. Recall every little detail. Rebuild this emotion as if you were solving a puzzle.
3. As you begin to feel anger rising, concentrate on the emotion, not on the cause. Don’t let the anger take control — take control over it instead. Separate your anger from you.
4. As you cut this emotion from its energy source and observe it from the sidelines, it will begin to lessen, and, in the end, disappear entirely.
5. As you meditate (but not dwell! Never dwell!) on your past experiences, you’ll be able to transfer this skill on present. This way, instead of going boom yourself, your negativity will go boom before it even has the chance to bloom. (Do forgive the puny rhyme. … Actually, use this annoyance to practice separation from your emotions. … Alright, alright, I know, bad humour attempt!)
Meditation is a long look inside yourself. As you begin to hear your inner voice and consciously assess your feelings, you also begin to understand the feelings of others. And it’s common knowledge that constructive productive communication requires the ability to see where others are standing and where they come from.
Our system is designed for compassion. Not only can we feel emotions — tenderness, joy, excitement — of others, but we can share ours as well.
To learn this skill better, try the following.
1. Think of someone very dear to you. It can be your friend, your lover, your parent, child, or animal companion…
2. Wish them all the good in the Universe. Imagine them a happy, healthy, complete and content individual.
3. Imagine the feeling that the knowledge of your loved ones’ happiness gives you.
4. Stretch it as if it were a blanket. Imagine it covering everyone. Yes, even your annoying neighbour. And those that you believe to be your sworn enemies, don’t leave them in the cold!
5. The next step would be to assign a personal blanket to everyone you know, no matter how indirectly. A polite cashier, a creative person whose talents you admire, a bus driver… Let every vaguely familiar face feel this warmth.
This can be a bit hard to do at first, especially the enemies and personal blankets parts. But if you make it a regular practice, this feeling will soon turn from sporadic to quite constant.
It’s important to note that even if you fancy yourself a die-hard egoist, and care not to spread the love, this exercise is still very beneficial. It’s not just an act of altruism and philanthropy. The first one to benefit from this is you.
The skill of understanding others is invaluable in understanding your own malaise. It’s a reminder that we all get our share of hard times. And this reminder will come in handy in a rainy day.
Instead of the useless rhetorical “why me?”, you’ll get a “how did I get here and, most importantly, how the heck do I get out!?”
The most elusive concept in the world.
The ultimate goal.
“Don’t worry, be happy.”
“I wish you happiness.”
We all want it for ourselves and our favourite people — but what do we really know of this condition? The usual perception of happiness is… What is it? Joy, love, money, health, entertainment… and the more, the better.
Buddhism teaches us that happiness is everyone’s birth right. But it doesn’t mean wealth or beauty. It means to move towards the inner freedom, it means to realise your own full potential.
We’re all interconnected with each other and the overall environment. We go through unique experiences on a constant basis, and undergo day-to-day transformation. However, humans are so transfixed on uniqueness, or being unique, they forget that they’re part of the greater being. This disconnection causes suffering.
Meditation lets you take your self less seriously. It lets you shut off the persistent Self, the Ego, at will — and connect to the greater whole.
This connection to a whole world of Wisdom is the sure road to harmony and, as a result, happiness.
Have a great journey!