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Buddhism in everyday life

The immediate image that many people may have of Buddhism is of monks in robes: people living in a rarified environment, far away from the busyness and chaos of our everyday lives. Yet in the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings from the Buddha, he says that every action is preceded by a thought. In this sense, Buddhism or a Buddhist perspective is in every moment of our everyday life.

The essence of Buddhism is the practice of meditation, mindfulness/awareness: to watch one’s mind and notice what arises, without having to act on it.

The essence of Buddhism is the practice of meditation, mindfulness/awareness: to watch one’s mind and see what arises and notice this without having to act on it. Bringing attention to every detail of our life and every movement of our mind is an act of loving kindness to ourselves and to others. We spend most of our time trying to manage the external situation, what others are doing, but when we practice, we are turning our attention back towards ourselves.

We can do this on the cushion when we practice meditation, and we can do this in everyday life, by cultivating our awareness of our thoughts, feelings and actions as we go about our daily lives. This is what the Buddha meant when he said, “If the world is covered in thorns and you do not want to hurt your feet, you can either cover the world in leather or put on a pair of shoes.” We can either attempt to control others, everything that is happening in our world, or we can put on a pair of shoes by learning to work with what arises in our mind: our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

1. Buddhism in Everyday Life: Awareness of Our Thoughts

Thought is so habitual that we don’t even notice that we are thinking, or, indeed, projecting our thoughts onto others or the situation. We are lost in the film. It is like looking through a pair of tinted sunglasses: everything is coloured by the lenses. Everything is coloured by the filter of thought through which we see things. If we are down and it is raining we might feel depressed; if we are a gardener, we might be delighted.

This reminds me of a story one of my early meditation instructors, Werner Wunsche, told me: “It’s raining. Joe is depressed. Peter is happy. Joe and Peter work hard all week. Joe works for his boss who he feels pushed around by but he can stand this because every Saturday they play golf together and Joe always wins. Every Saturday Peter visits his elderly Aunt and takes her out for a brief walk which he doesn’t enjoy and it’s a four hour round trip. No-one else visits her so he feels obliged and he has an eye on the inheritance he might get from her. Because it’s raining he has an excuse, they can’t go walking and he doesn’t like driving in the rain, so he has four hours for himself to do what he wants to do. So Peter is happy and Joe is depressed and all that is happening is it’s raining.”

The rain doesn’t make us depressed; it is the meaning we give to the rain, what we layer on top of that event, that causes our emotions. What we think creates our reality. When we experience thought, we can either be aware of this or be on automatic pilot and be driven by this. By noticing our thoughts and learning the familiar patterns of how we think we can start to understand how we configure our world, how we make sense of it. We can get to know the projector.

When we understand that our way of interpreting things shapes what we experience, then we have some control over our minds.

This is like the movie Groundhog Day, whose main character gets the chance to live the same day over and over again and to try different ways of responding to the same situation. However, what is precious about life is that we can’t relive everyday. When we understand that our thoughts, our way of seeing, shapes what we experience, then we have some control over our minds. We have a clutch, the ability to disengage the wheels from the engine, a pause, a break between our thinking and our action. Rather than be on automatic pilot, we can be aware. We have a choice; we are not driven, we are driving.

When we are driven, we have no flexibility, no choice. Our experience is driven by the underlying thoughts that we hang onto, often thoughts of right or wrong. This is illustrated by a Buddhist story: Two monks were going for a walk when they came across a woman standing by a river. The water was fast and quite deep, and she was afraid to cross. One of the monks offered to pick her up and carry her over. He carried her over and put her down on the other side and she thanked him for his help. After several minutes, one monk says to the other, “We are not supposed to touch women or carry them. You are breaking your vows.” The other monk replies, “I am not carrying the woman. I put her down 10 minutes ago. It is you who are still carrying her.”

The one monk is holding onto his thought that carrying a woman is wrong. The other monk knows that to help someone is not wrong and is not breaking his vows, and can let go of both the action and the thought. Often we hold onto our thoughts as solid truths, and remain stuck with them rather than being able to let go and open to the next moment, to the flow of experience.

2. Buddhism in Everday Life: Being with Our Feelings

Feeling is what gives our life meaning: it’s how we orientate ourselves in relation to others. Feelings are also what drives our behaviour and where our life can feel out of control. An example is when we feel road rage. A driver has cut across us and we feel frightened; they could have crashed into us and we feel rage, the desire to protect ourselves which is often expressed as anger at the other person. The anger attempts to push away the hurt so that we can feel better.

This happens between two people, between two groups, and between two countries. When we are hurt by others and lash out and attack back, even in subtle ways, we create a cycle of violence. Someone has to break the chain by being able to feel the pain, the hurt that someone has caused, and understand that this comes from their own hurt, their pain.

As Shantideva said, 

“Although it is their sticks that hurt me, I am angry at the ones who wield them, striking me. But they in turn are driven by their hatred; Therefore with their hatred I should take offence.” SHANTIDEVA, THE WAY OF THE BODHISATTVA

Thus, when we deeply understand where people’s behaviours come from, we feel compassion or understanding for what caused their behaviour. We understand it arose from their confusion or their attempt to try and be safe.

The value of the anger is it tells us that we are hurt, we are vulnerable. The ability to feel our hurt, to relax with our vulnerability is perhaps the most important quality to cultivate in order to create a kinder world. At some point we have to face the truth that we feel hurt, we feel vulnerable. When we are able to do this, to relax into our vulnerability we no longer need to defend ourselves and being with our vulnerability becomes a strength rather than a weakness.

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”BRENÉ BROWN

We often see everything that happens as being for us or against us: it’s personal, permanent and pervasive, as if deep down if something goes well its a sign that we are a good person or special or lovable and more often when things go bad it confirms our feeling that we are bad or wrong or stupid in some way. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Success is not a reward and failure is not a punishment.”

There is a famous Zen story of a samurai warrior who went to visit a monk named Hakuin. When he arrived at the monk’s village and found him sitting in meditation he shouted, “I want a word with you. If you are so wise, tell me all you know about heaven and hell.” The monk said, “Why should I tell a stupid man like you?” The warrior was furious and drew his sword shouting, “I’ll cut your head off for insulting me.” Without flinching the monk said “That is hell.” The warrior instantly realised he had been caught in the grip of anger and relaxed. A smile came to his face. The monk said, “That is heaven.”

Heaven and Hell are not so much external situations but internal feelings, states of mind. Two cars can be stuck in a traffic jam and one driver could be furious and irritated and another could be quietly listening to the radio. It depends on the context, the situation we are in, and the personal meaning we bring to this.

How to soothe ourselves? 

Feelings arise in the body. In order to soothe ourselves, to relax our body, we need to bring attention to the upset or pain.

Thus, in order to live well, to be at peace with ourselves and others we need to practice soothing ourselves, learning to hold and comfort ourselves when we feel hurt, distressed, lonely, and so on. Feelings arise in the body. They are responses from our nervous system, our animal body. In order to soothe ourselves, to relax our body, we need to bring attention to the upset or pain. This is how the whole mindfulness movement started: when people found that when they attended to the pain directly rather than struggled against it they were less distressed; they felt less pain.

The practice of meditation—either on the cushion or in daily life—is precisely this: practicing sycnhronising our body and mind, our feeling and our attention. When we can place our attention on our moment-by-moment experience, our bodily experience, our feelings, our thoughts, the movement of our mind, we relax; there is no fear. Even if we feel anxious or afraid, when we feel into this, place our mind on the physical sensation that we are experiencing in our body in that moment, the body and mind relaxes. I know this is not easy: our habitual patterns are deeply ingrained. This is why it is called a practice, a path. We are learning to drive, moment by moment.

3. Buddhism in Everday Life: Noticing Our Actions

As the Buddha says, although we often don’t notice it our actions are driven by our thoughts: underlying thoughts create feelings that drive our behavior, what we do. So because it’s hard to notice the underlying thoughts often the best we can do is to reflect on what we did: “How come I got angry when So-and-So said that?” We have to rewind and notice the sequence of moments that made up our experience. This is another way that we care for ourselves: we take ourselves seriously and we notice how others impact us, how they trigger our wounds, and we then attend to those wounds.

Another way we care for ourselves is to take ourselves seriously and notice how others impact us, how they trigger our wounds. We then attend to those wounds.

In the Buddha’s time, there was a famous murderer called Angulimala who was terrorizing local villages. He had a necklace of fingers around his neck, taken from the people he had killed. He was driven by trying to control others to make everyone afraid of him so that he would never have to be hurt. The monks were too scared to go out and beg for food. The Buddha was not worried and walked into the nearby village to beg for food. He heard a man starting to run from behind him. It was Angulimala. Angulimala shouted, “Why aren’t you running? I am going to kill you.” The Buddha said, “I have stopped running a long time ago. You are the one who is still running: running from your mind.”

In order to work with how we behave we need to notice the underlying thoughts or feelings that are driving our behavior: the emotional impulse or motivation behind why we say something or do something in any particular moment.

Bringing Buddhism into Everyday Practice

Buddhism is in everyday life, it is in every moment. We do not need to pump ourselves up that we are better than others or put ourselves down for being less than others. All we have to do is walk the path, noticing our thoughts, feelings and actions and what brings us joy and what brings us distress.

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