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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Meditation: The key to being mindful

Meditation: The key to being mindful
By Rajah Kuruppu
- The Sunday Times. LK

The human being comprises mind and body. Modern medical science is now according an important place to the mind, but over 2, 500 years ago the Buddha emphasized the invaluable role of the mind. In fact, the opening lines of the Dhammapada, a collection of important sayings of the Buddha, state that the mind is the forerunner of all states of being, mind is supreme, mind made are they.

Accordingly, Bhavana, commonly translated to English as meditation, is assigned an important role in the practice of the Dhamma. Bhavana means the culture or the development of the mind and perhaps the English word meditation does not adequately describe Bhavana but it could be used for want of a better word, provided the true meaning of the term Bhavana is understood.

There are two kinds of Bhavana-- Samatha or the pointed concentration of the mind on a wholesome subject to the total exclusion of any others and Vipassana Bhavana (insight Bhavana) or to see things as they truly are as anicca, dukkha and anatta or impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and the absence of a permanent, enduring, unchanging self or soul or ego. Importantly, Bhavana also includes sati or mindfulness, to be aware of all activities of the body, feelings, thoughts and phenomena. So, on one hand there is the formal Bhavana where one sits in a given posture and on the other, the informal, where one is aware of one's activities all the time.

Objective and results

The final objective of Bhavana is to overcome the root mental defilements of greed, aversion and delusion, to see things in their true perspective and realize the Buddhist goal of Nibbana. However, there are benefits to be gained here and now if Bhavana is practised in the correct manner, namely, the decline of negative emotions such as the deep desire for pleasures, aversion, conceit, jealousy and the gradual development of Upekkha or balance of mind to face better the vicissitudes of life, the pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

It is often remarked that many who engage in Bhavana do not reflect on their behaviour-- the decline of negative qualities mentioned earlier or the development of positive values such as metta - loving kindness, karuna -compassion, mudita - joy in the success of others and Upekkha - equanimity or balance of mind. This may be due to many confining their Bhavana to formal practice in the recommended posture for a specific period of time in the morning and night and believing that they have performed their task for the day. Actually Bhavana should be undertaken as a full-time exercise where one has sati or mindfulness of all activities throughout one’s wakeful life.

In relating Bhavana to everyday life, one should be aware of what is happening in the mind and the body as often as possible. This observation should be undertaken wherever you are, whether it is at home, at the place of work, driving or being driven in a vehicle, exercising, during leisure and ablutions. One should also be alive to one's posture—whether it is sitting, standing, walking or reclining.

When one is aware of what is happening in the mind and body, one is in the present. The Buddha advised His disciples to be in the present and not in the past which is already gone and which we have no control of or the future that has not yet come. We have to plan for the future, but that should be done with our feet on the ground in the present.

Breath Bhavana

One of the best ways to be in the present is to anchor the mind to the anapana sati Bhavana or mindfulness of inhaling and exhaling the breath. The breath is always with us from birth to death and some Bhavana masters say that it is our best friend that will never desert us through life. The Buddha has prescribed a precise posture for this Bhavana -- to be seated upright on the ground or on a chair, looking forward, hands on the lap one over the other and eyes closed or slightly open. However, this does not mean that one should not observe the breath in any posture and at any time. It is said that when one is agitated, depressed or even overjoyed, the concentration on the breath for a short time would bring the mind to a state of balance and develop the great quality of Upekkha or equanimity. This is an important aspect in the mindfulness of the activities of the body.

The well known Bhavana master, Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Nayaka Thera, Head of the Theravada Buddhist Meditation Centre and Forest Monastery in West Virginia, USA, in a recent Buddhist discussion with this writer over the English Services of the SLBC recommended the practice of Bhavana on the breath for one minute every hour. This would help he said to calm the mind which is often bombarded with sense stimuli and consequently confused and disturbed. This is relating Bhavana to daily life and it would help to be in the present and engage in the mindfulness of all activities, mental and physical.
When undertaking anapana sati Bhavana, some Bhavana masters advise to mentally recite the words 'arising' when inhaling and 'ceasing' when exhaling the breath. Such recitation would bring to the forefront the impermanence and changing nature of things. This in turn would help the mind to ease itself from the attachment to things which is at the root of mental suffering. Here we are changing from samatha or tranquil Bhavana to vipassana or insight Bhavana. The development of the practice of letting go is an important aspect of bhavana. Formal bhavana is helpful in that it is a training ground to let go when other thoughts come to the mind while engaged in bhavana where one casts them aside and returns to the subject of Bhavana. When this habit is developed in formal Bhavana it could be gradually extended to everyday life. When engaged in some work and other thoughts come to the mind we could let such thoughts go unless they are relevant to the work that is being undertaken.

To be in the Bhavana mode in daily life one should also observe the thoughts. During wakeful hours thoughts occur in the mind, about oneself, others or both. They could be thoughts of the present, past or future. When observing the thoughts it is realized how often they are of the past and the future and seldom on the present except in a well trained mind. Through mindfulness, our task is to wean away from unwholesome thoughts to wholesome ones. In everyday life we have our emotions and experiences, some pleasurable, some not so and others neutral. We have a problem with unpleasant emotions and experiences as we do not like them. One way to dissolve the unpleasant experience is to make it a subject of Bhavana. If there is pain you concentrate on the pain. Unbearable and excruciating pain due to serious ailments has been eventually overcome by practising Bhavana on the experience of pain. Initially, it is said that the pain would be aggravated by being alive to it but by persistent effort it could be overcome.

Another unpleasant experience is the problem we have with some people with whom we associate in life. If there is a person who makes life difficult or even miserable, we should treat that person not with ill-will but as a teacher. He teaches us or provides us an opportunity to develop the great quality of patience or santi.

We could also observe our mental reaction to the trouble maker and see that the problem is not so much with the other person but our own way of relating or reacting to him. If we react with sympathy, understanding and goodwill considering that that person may have a problem or deficiency and extend compassion to him, a better relationship could perhaps be established. In any event that person provides us an opportunity to observe our own mind in a difficult situation.

Pleasant emotions and experiences also give rise to problems. They encourage negative factors such as over confidence and conceit which could lead towards one's own down- fall. So we should be mindful of accepting our successes with a sense of humility and equanimity noting that they are also impermanent and a passing show.

If we are mindful of our thoughts we would be vigilant and careful before speaking and acting. Gradually, we will become aware before speaking and acting reflecting whether what we intend to say or do is harmful to us or others. Thus our intended speech or action could be modified or totally withdrawn if necessary.

Thus, one should not confine one's Bhavana only to formal Bhavana undertaken in the usual Bhavana posture. It should be extended to the mindfulness of daily activities in wakeful hours, both physical and mental, as far as possible. For the latter exercise the training that is developed in formal Bhavana is undoubtedly an asset.

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