Saturday, October 25, 2008

Heed the Call of Nature

Wake me later by dmmaus

Even in a more peaceful socio-political environment, city dwellers are likely to feel the need to get away from it all from time to time. This is because we humans are wired to be right at home among nature. Therefore, when the need to "get away from it all" rises, it simply means that our body and mind are sending us a signal that it is time to return to nature.

This explains why people who try to get away from it all by simply shifting their attention to something else other than their daily routine such as by going to movies, or, worse yet, casinos, never feels refreshed or well-rested during their break from work.

While spas are abundant in any cities nowadays, what humans really need goes well beyond some exotic body treatment. Even the brief sitting posture at the end of a yoga session in your spa visit can not bring forth the sustainable peace born out of wisdom that our mind desperately needs.

What we need is a complete treatment of body and mind that goes far beyond relaxation and rest. Ironically, many holiday-makers, adult and children alike, do not realise that they are not "getting away from it all" at all. Rather, they simply change the place of doing their regular activities. Think about long driving, eating, checking emails or surfing the web on the notebook or phone they brought along, or watching movies on portable DVD players and, for children, playing electronic games.

Considering this, those who opt for a hike or trekking in the wilderness would probably get more rest out of their adventurous activities. The secret is, it is the mind that tells us if we feel relaxed or well-rested. Although, at face value, those hikers' choice of getaway may seems a bit harsh such as sleeping in a tent in a forest, they are the ones that emerge more satisfied from their wholesome holiday.

Even when the trekkers' only "entertainment"consists of trekking along a bubbling creek, listening to various soothing sounds of nature, breathing in fresh air, or taking a plunge in a tiny, virgin pond at the end of a hidden waterfall, they would have sworn that it beats the superficial, temporary pleasure derived from being glued to any electronic devices any day.

If electronic devices need a recharge of battery, so do we. We need to come out of our holiday refreshed and brimmed with positive energy to take on the various responsibilities in our life.

There will be times for all of us when simply going away to a popular commercial resort would not do the trick to make we feel completely relaxed. While it is true that the body gets fresher air, exercise, or enough sleep, the mind still continues its usual day-long workload. Even if those people argue that they really rest their mind by "not thinking of anything", they would be surprised to find it is quite the opposite from what they think.

Unless the mind is trained in mindfulness technique, we would never realise that it is the nature of the mind to work non-stop. Without mindfulness technique, we would not be able to detect how thoughts come about and go. More importantly, we would never realise that thoughts are the number one cause of exhaustion and suffering in our life.

In fact, those who can achieve the mental power of being able to rid themselves of thoughts, completely and at will, are the Enlightened ones only.

If it is the nature of the mind to work non-stop, how best could we put the mind to work for us so that we could achieve the much-needed rest?

The answer is: we all need a mindfulness meditation retreat among nature to be able to tame our thoughts and train our mind to simple relaxation techniques that we can continue to use throughout our life, during holiday or otherwise. Mindfulness is a practice so complete that it would open your eyes to the nature of things, no pun intended. This very wisdom would in turn create a sustainable peace for both the body and mind.

When the mind relaxes, the body would also be free of stress. And, even if the body is in trauma such as grave illness, if you know mindfulness technique, you would not be disturbed by the physical discomfort. This explains why many people can smile through their intense pain calmly. This, dear readers, is the skill we need when we would finally be staring death in the eyes.

While it is true that there are many urban centers offering mindfulness courses all year long, it can never measure up to a practice among nature. First, imagine a mass retreat with 400-600 participants around you in a large air-conditioned hall in a city building where all kind of worldly chats erupts during breaks or when you are back to the room you share with others to try to get some rest.

Now, imagine a smaller group, perhaps one-tenth of that urban class if not less, practicing quietly in a pavilion among a little forest and a pond where various types of fish swimming leisurely among the lotus bloom. Imagine the tranquil time you can get intimate with nature, free from any disturbs of others due to the strict and effective reinforcement of the "noble silence" rule. Now, you get the picture.

It is not that you should say goodbye forever to your yoga or tai chi classes or the usual aerobics type of exercise such as running or swimming. Those exercises do promote health which is the foundation of everything in life, mindfulness practice included. But, as we discussed earlier, the body is only a part of the whole equation. In fact, it is the smaller part. Once you know how to give the mind the attention it deserves, you would never feel deprived of total relaxation again.

If the incentives for going to a mindfulness meditation retreat among nature are not enough to convince you to do it for your own sake, think of it as you are doing a great service for the society. Mindful citizens are ideal citizens, as Lord Buddha would have confirmed to you. And, looking at the socio-political-economic environment of Thailand at the moment, we need mindful people now more than ever. Think of it as killing two birds with one stone - you get the total relaxation you need, the country gets sustainable peace. Not bad, isn't it? After all, peace starts with the mind. Yours, that is.

Until next week, let us stay mindful.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Value-Add Your Walk

Bamboo Forest by wmchuu

Last week we introduced the idea that most of us tend to take walking for granted. This, in turn, led to our going about in our daily life in a semi-autopilot mode.

We also started to explore the concept of mindful walking and ended with a brief introduction on how to try it at home.

If you indeed tried it for the first time out of curiosity, chances are that you probably found it confusing. Not because walking meditation is a confusing act per se, but because you may have found yourself wondering aloud, countless times, “What could be the benefits of this mindful walking?”

In other words, your mind was probably sending out a signal that it needs a clearer incentive of this activity. Otherwise, it finds no reasons to bother, let alone incorporating it in your daily living.

Benefits of Mindful Walking

If you are one of those doubters, you are certainly not alone. Having observed many novice practitioners, the author found that walking meditation did not get as much attention as sitting meditation because practitioners are not aware of the immediate and short-term benefits that walking meditation can give.

The need for immediate benefit is totally understandable given the fact that we are living in the age of distractions and shorter-span concentration (as exemplified in the quick-cutting shots we often see on MTV and the likes). The good news is, contrary to popular belief, there are immediate benefits of a mindful walk.

First of all, it starts with how we experience suffering. Buddhism explains that suffering occurs when our mind wanders into the past or the future. Neither a period five minutes ago nor one second ahead is the same as the very present moment.

Walking, obviously, is one of the most accommodating activities to help ground our mindfulness right into the very present moment, especially for new practitioners. With each noting of, “left, right, left, right (if you are walking fast),” or “lifting, extending, placing down,” we have something physical to firmly anchor our mind on and so many different details of noting (hot/cold, hard/soft, etc.) to help keeping our mind alert.

As a result, the immediate benefit of mindful walking is that it helps prevent our mind to fall into the usual traps of suffering, one that is caused by our mind dropping into the past or wandering into the future.

In a retreat, most often than not, our teachers would ask us to “slow down” in our walk. Initially, this almost always caused frustrations to city dwellers who are used to life in the fast lane. Be careful: slow, mindful walking is not the same as a lazy stroll on the beach that we tend to do mindlessly. While mindful walking is definitely slow, it is deliberate. Each step is performed with a clear purpose. The mental noting has to match precisely with the moment the action takes place as well. And this requires a lot of effort.

By slowing down, to the point of a complete stop in each step in some retreat, we would be able to feel, intuitively, that our life is nothing but a series of separate events, not unlike different static frames of a movie, one after another. This is the first step of our understanding of the Law of Impermanence.

On the side, we also learn that there is a “pause button” that we can actually activate in our life, at least for the purpose of slowing things down. You will also realize that, by slowing things down, you would be able to “see” and understand things much better. It is this ability to understand life better that is the true wisdom of mindfulness.

If discovering life’s true wisdom sounds a bit too far-fetched, at least consider mindful walking just for its practical benefits. Here are some of them as explained by Lord Buddha himself.

Lord Buddha on Walking Meditation’s Practical Benefits

1) People who regularly do walking meditation will have more stamina in long journey. This is not merely body-toning exercise, but mental training as well. We all need this kind of stamina not only for a long journey, but for many strategic and serious events in our life. And don’t you agree that life itself is a long journey?

2) Walking meditation brings stamina to sitting meditation. Those who have been practicing sitting meditation would understand the kind of stamina required for each sitting. There is no better way to boost up one’s stamina by having a walking session before sitting.

3) A balance of walking and sitting promotes good circulation and revives muscles. We all know that the shift of posture and the movements of walking revive the muscles and stimulate circulation, helping prevent illness. This applies to urbanites like us also who may have spent too much of our time sitting unhealthily in our cubicle at work. Next time you take a walking break, try incorporate mindfulness into it as well!

4) Walking meditation assists digestion and prevents drowsiness. Indigestion is definitely one important enemy not only to meditation practitioners but also to anyone of us who have to sit for a long time in one stretch, either at work or during commuting. The same goes for prevention of drowsiness. Woes to them who were caught dozing off at work!

5) Walking meditation helps build continuous concentration needed to gain insight. The keyword here is continuity. To unlock the true nature of things by mindfulness practice, we need a strong, continuous concentration. Every step of continued walking meditation contributes directly to your potential in gaining insight.

Mindful Walking in Your Daily Life: Tips and Technique

If you are intrigued by the idea of adding a dose of mindful walking into your daily life but somehow feel discouraged by the initial experience following last week’s article, don’t give up your hope just yet. Here are a few tips.

1) Start small. Pick the shortest distance that you have to go from point A to point B in your daily routine and starts from there. How about the first walk of the day, namely from your bed when you wake up to your bathroom? Repeat again at bed time as you walk to bed. It would become easier day by day.

2) Daily exercise. If you already exercise by brisk walking everyday, try turning off that iPod and tuning in your own body and mind. Note both your body movement and how your mind reacts to sensorial perception. Catch your thought as it is forming, note it, and let go. Then go back to the movement of your feet. If you are walking among nature, note any phenomena that come into contact with your sensorial perception, too, but do not dwell on any.

3) Disliked paths. When you are “forced” to walk the path that you do not like, either because it is boring, lengthy or otherwise, use mindful walking technique to manage that suffering. Bonus point: if you can maintain your concentration over a certain period, you could even derive pleasure from that otherwise boring walk. But that is just a negligible by-product of your path towards wisdom where happiness is certainly more sustainable than momentarily pleasure.

What would be your first mindful walking?

A Walk Like No Other

Monk Descending Temple Steps by Okinawa Soba

When was the last time you learned how to walk?

If this question prompts you to sit back and try to recall, chances are that it was when you were a toddler.

Of course, there are exceptions. Those of us who were unfortunate enough to sustain knee or leg injuries, the author included, may recall a more recent training during recuperation period.

Either case, learning how to walk is never easy. But once we think we have mastered it, we tend to take it for granted. That is, as we go about doing things in a typical day in our life, we tend to shift ourselves into an “auto-pilot” mode whenever we walk.

Not that we do not recognize the benefits of walking. In every culture there are ancient proverbs related to a good walk. An Arab proverb says, “After lunch, rest. After dinner, walk a mile.” The Roman says, “If you can’t solve a problem, go take a walk.”

In our contemporary living, dog owners know that they have to do their canine friends a favor by walking them. But, isn’t it a bit ironic that, while we consciously take our dogs out for a walk everyday, we never quite did the same thing with our own mind? Your mind needs the exercise that a good walk can provide, too.

“Wait,” you may ask, “Doesn’t our mind automatically get the workout it needs if we make sure we get some physical exercise?”

Well, not exactly. While it is true scientifically that the right amount of aerobics exercise could trigger the release of some happiness-inducing hormone in our brain, it is only just a part of the whole equation. For the vigilant, it is not too difficult to realize that this kind of “high” is something that is very short-lived.

The kind of mental exercise we really need is one whose benefits would remain with us for life. And, yes, it can be cultivated from a good walk.

At this point, the author could not help but think about a book by the late Ven. Buddhadasa, titled, “Handbook for Mankind.”

The title of his book reminds us that, unlike gadgets, we did not come into this world in a neat box, complete with “owner’s manual.” Admittedly, we could learn how to survive, more or less, by trials-and-errors. But if you really want to go for the really “good stuff,” you need some guidelines.

The author used to read somewhere that today’s computer games also have hidden gimmicks or secret functions that only people with the proper code could unlock and enjoy. The same can be said of our body and mind. If we learn how to unlock the code, we would be able to access the hidden treasures that are already there, waiting for us to retrieve. In other words, we already walk around with them, but we do not know how to access and make use of them.

Don’t pull all your hairs off in frustration just yet. For you, too, could learn how unlock the code. Today, we would try to access our built-in, hidden treasure by learning how to walk mindfully.

The first thing you need for a session of walking meditation is not the space, but a ready mind. Unlike common walk that you do everyday in your auto-pilot mode, mindful walking requires a passion from within. It has to start with your desire to walk this walk. Look into your mind and find it.

In some meditation retreat, they may recommend you to say “desire to walk” in your mind prior to actual walking. The purpose of this mental exercise is to familiarize you with how your body and mind work in a cause-and-effect process. Note that we are not using “I” as in “I want to walk.” The idea is that you are just an observer of what happens to the body and mind in your present. Let your “knowing mind” observes and feels your own physical and mental action as if it is watching a stranger from outside. Once your mind understands how this cause-and –effect works, this mental narration can stop.

You might notice right here at the very first step that, with a ready mind, a mind that is brimmed with purpose, there seems to be an inner energy that is ready to “drive” you through the task at hand. This is a very handy skill in itself. Try setting aside a moment of quiet contemplation to prep up your mind before embarking on any task and see the difference.

Initially, it is better to cover a very short distance, preferably in the tranquility of your bedroom, living room or garden. Select a clutter-free path where you could walk a few metres, stop, and turn back. While the ultimate goal is that you should be able to do mindful walking everywhere and anywhere you go, the first stage still has to be limited, just like when you were a toddler.

Start by your standing posture. Be comfortably relaxed and aware of how you stand. Exhale deeply. Notice how your body (and/or mind) changes during and after you exhaled. Do not need to rush or force your breathing. Just continue your regular rhythm for a breath or two and look into your mind for a desire to walk. Once you have located it, note it, and let go.

Then, move your mind as if it is an x-ray machine to your right foot. Don’t look down. Use your feeling only, but intently. Note how your sole touches the floor/grass. Does it feel hot or cold? Is the surface soft or hard? Then, mindfully lift your right foot up while note “up” in your mind. Hold it in the air for a fraction of a second to really feel how your foot is like up in the air. After that brief, mid-air suspension, bring the foot down to complete your step and note “down.” Note your foot’s movement through the moment of impact. Note the changes in the feeling of your foot as your body shifts your weight forward. Note everything. Note it as it is, in that particular moment only. Don’t use your imagination or try to be creative here. Just observe.

Do not continue the next step yet. Pause again for that nano-second to shift your mind to you left foot. Then, repeat the process. Try to keep your feet and body relaxed. Be natural, but deliberately slow.

Frustrating, isn’t it? Note that frustration in your mind, and let go. Wonder why you have to go through all these troubles? Note the doubt and let go. Finding that your mind wandering out to the kitchen, or to a favorite TV program? Note the thought and let go. Once you reach the end of your pre-designated path. Consciously tell yourself you want to stop before you actually stop.

Don’t turn back abruptly. Make an attempt to consciously stand still there first to note how your body is. Use your mind as if it is an MRI machine to scan your body from your head till toe, then back again to head. Repeat at least 3 times. If you find it difficult to concentrate, pair up your “mental scanning” with your breathing rhythm. Then, and only then, tell yourself you want to turn and slowly turn back, one step after another, until you face the other direction. Then, repeat the process again by finding the desire to walk in your mind.

Do not punish yourself in your first walk. Just go for a few laps. You may find that these are the most exhausting steps you have ever taken in your life. Well, probably the most exhausting since you were 11 months’ old! “Where are the benefits?…,” your mind may scream. Note that impatience, too, and let go. Continue this mindful walking experiment once a day for a week. Up next, the benefits of mindful walking, how to successfully incorporate it in your daily life, and how you can use it to advance your overall meditation training.

Hey, we were not saying your first mindful walking experiment would be fun. The title said, “A Walk Like No Other.” Now, it is up to you to discover what “like no other” means! All it takes is your ready mind!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Destiny in Your Hand

筆と筆巻き by Kanko

As appeared in BKK Post, Friday, Oct 3, 2008

It is Friday again and perhaps everyone's mind has already gone away for the weekend, far from the usual daily hustle and bustle.

Weekends, for working people at least, seem to be the only time that we normally devote to being connected with nature and with people close to us. It is time set aside to revitalise, to regain balance of body and mind, and to regain our sanity.

But, incredible though it may be, the very mundane, work-related activities we try so much to get away from could also deliver us similar benefits.

Take writing, for an example. It would not be too out of question to assume that we all have to engage in a written communication of some kind in our work. But, wait a minute. Written? Does anybody still write these days? Actual writing that involves a hand holding a writing instrument, scribbling on a piece of paper, that is.

In every culture there are moving tales of historic letters, diaries, memoirs, and even handwritten copies of literature. Surely we all must have pored over exhibits of that nature in museums all over the world, mesmerised not only by their contents, but also by the sheer humanity in the production of it all.

Many great leaders of the past are usually known for their passion for writing. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), top general and Emperor of France, had sent at least 33,000 letters during his lifetime. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), Japan's leading general who, later, like Napoleon, also became the country's de facto ruler, was known to have left tens of thousands of letters and other writings.

Even without seeing the original manuscripts, we could sense the power of these leaders' characters just by looking at the words they use. Napoleon used to write to inform the wife of a fallen soldier personally. Excerpts: "It is a dreadful moment when we are parted from the one we love. It shuts us off from the world. The body is convulsed with pain, and the faculties of the mind so overwhelmed that all its contacts with reality are cut off by a distorting dream."

Hideyoshi, whose literacy were much less fluent than Napoleon due to his humbler childhood, also tried his best and sent a handwritten sympathy note to a woman who lost both her son and grandson in a military campaign. Excerpts: "I would never presume to fathom the immeasurable grief you must feel at the simultaneous loss of your son and grandson. But from now on, I would be honoured if you would consider me, Hideyoshi, as your second son, however unworthy of that role I might be."

It is this very caring and sympathetic characteristic to their people that made these men the leaders they were. But beneath this obvious leadership quality, their writing reveals their humble side that is no different from ours - the ability to feel deep pain of self and that of others.

Besides the hand-to-hand thus heart-to-heart intimacy, handwritten material is valuable because it reminds us of the effort, patience, and concentration the author had to put into it. Many period movies have made a scene out of characters who, while trying to put their thoughts down by writing, kept crumbling up one piece of paper after another and throwing it away in distress.

Metaphorically speaking, by going through such experience ourselves, we would be reminded that, real life has no delete button nor cut and paste function. If we are not mindful enough in every stroke, we could create a mess out of ourselves.

Here is the very opportunity to rise above your normal self and approach life as a leader you have the potential to be. The conventional wisdom that we already know is that we should strive to write to people by hand occasionally to make them realise how much we value them. But here is a new twist - do write often to get to know yourself, to gain peace of mind, to acquire wisdom, and, seriously, to create your destiny!

The highly revered late Phra Acharn Chah was credited with the following most memorable lines:

"Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny."

Writing by hand is probably one of the most mindful activities that we can have in our daily life. To create a meaningful message that also looks neat and pleasant, one needs to be mindful of both one's body and mind. Frankly, what activity could better let us have a clear penetration into our own thoughts than writing?

The smooth, rhythmic movement of writing itself serves as a very convenient tool for both types of meditative exercise: concentration and mindfulness. Try using different writing instruments and different kinds of writing surfaces and feel the difference it can cause to your mind. Go slow. Pause between sentences and look into your mind to contemplate what you really want to convey. Put down the pen/pencil/brush if need be and give yourself a long, complete, relaxed exhalation. Pick up the pen again only when your mind is ready. Try the long exhalation again before you begin writing.

You would probably be surprised that, by slowing down, not only you will have an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how your mind works, you will also be able to hold your initial anger or negative thinking in check. One reason we see so many angry messages on many web forums is because modern technology enables us to lash out the initial wave of negative thoughts at lightning speed without having the necessary time to contemplate our mind and thus restrain our behaviour. And, as we all know, it is only that very initial wave that is usually fatal. It is not just a wave, it is a furious, unforgiving tsunami! Don't let that initial wave swallow you up.

Imagine if those angry posters have to do it the old-fashioned Chinese/Japanese way - rubbing the ink stick on the ink stone, adding water, adjusting the ink's consistency, dipping the brush into the ink well, wiping excess ink on a piece of cloth, writing a few characters, then back to dipping, etc. Do you think there could be that many lengthy flamed messages on just about any topics on the internet?

Quite obviously, the comfort of the backspace and delete buttons as well as the cut-and-paste function has replaced the original purpose of deliberate, personal penmanship. It makes us forget how we as humans in our purest, simplest, truest form are supposed to be - capable of mistakes.

Therefore, let us put humanity back into our daily life by practicing more penmanship, and, in turn, mindfulness, for the benefits of all. Next time you whip out that post-it note, be mindful and put your heart into it. The person who receives it could feel it, whatever was in your mind. For those who do not have much opportunity to write to others, try keeping a diary. Running out of what to write? Copy your favourite prayer, poems, or other inspirational literature. Don't feel overwhelmed by the illusion that you have to write pages. Even a single line of anything that means something to you could be powerful if you really put your mind to it.

Like Phra Acharn Chah said, it all starts with your thoughts, which then translates into your words and your action. Before long, your writing would bring forth your chosen destiny. And, frankly, who would not want to take destiny in their own hands?