01 January 2015

New Year's Resolutions

What are New Year's Resolutions if not glimmers from the depths of our own minds of the need for mindfulness? For a little reality check? For a chance to develop some good habits to supplant some of our bad ones? For, after all, mindfulness is nothing other than examination of our own minds. The unexamined life not worth living and all that. I've never been much for resolutions, but here goes, anyway. I resolve to keep it simple. I have been fortunate enough to have received some mind training from Buddhist teachers (most of which, I'm sorry to say, failed to 'take'), but I really believe that these simple ideas are true, irrespective of what spiritual tradition or lack thereof they may bubble up from. These are resolutions for people like me; ordinary people whose minds are conflicted and agitated most of the time, but who have a desire, and some means to hand, to do a little something about it. I realized some time ago that I'm not quite cut out to be a Spiritual Warrior, which is what Buddhism is really all about, but as an ordinary person who wants to be happy, like all living beings, I recognize that there are some simple techniques that help.


1.  I will resolve to, at least once each day, intentionally practice mindfulness for a brief period. Something as simple as calming the mind and focusing the attention on the breath. Being aware of the present moment, even for just a few moments, has a very strong positive effect on your mental outlook all the rest of the time. Whether you call this meditation or not, that's what it is, and countless generations of human beings have found that it works best sitting upright, without distractions such as noise or activity around you, to whatever extent possible. Eyes closed or slightly open. 10 minutes is enough to make a difference.

2.  I will resolve to spend each day at least a few moments deliberately and consciously practicing what Buddhists call the Four Sublime Virtues, or "immeasurables" (Brahma-Viharas), with specific reference to other people in my life, or just in general. (Again, this is hardly unique to Buddhism; it's just common sense, and something very like it is taught in all significant spiritual traditions). If you form a habit of thinking of others with these as templates, your attitudes will change. These "immeasurables" are: Lovingkindness (Maitri). (Think how you wish for another or others to be happy). Compassion (Karuna) (Think how you wish that the causes of suffering in others will stop). Those two are directed towards the present moment and actions affecting the future. The other two are directed towards what has led to the present moment: Empathetic Joy (Mudita). Give your mind a tiny push (that's what's referred to as "Free Will")-- to feel joy at another's or others' happiness, and their achievements. It is actually possible to induce joy in your mind, just by deciding to do it. The last is Equanimity (Upeksha) This one is a little more subtle. You realize that your own mind cannot govern the whole world; others will have their happiness and suffering (according to their own karma, if you prefer to think of it that way), but you can maintain an outlook encompassing kindness and compassion, and remain unperturbed. There is no value in mental agitation, grasping, obsessiveness, regret, etc. These mental states cause suffering, in yourself and others. Keep a calm and happy mind. Forming the intention to do this helps make it so; and when you are calm, others are likely to pick up on that and also be calmer and happier. Try to extend mindfulness to the point where before you speak or act, these "immeasurable" habits of mind inform what you say or do. I've been lousy at this, but it can work: you just stop for a fraction of a second before you say that mean thing, and say something else or nothing. You examine, just for a moment, your motives before taking actions, and try to let the immeasurables in. It can become a habit.

3.  I resolve to spend at least a few moments each day intentionally cultivating wisdom. When you look out over the surface of the sea with the sun low in the sky, and see a complicated pattern of reflected light, you have the certain knowledge that the patterns are no more than just that: they are not intrinsic to the water; soon they will be as nothing. Wisdom comes from realizing that on different scales and in different media, all reality is like that: it is just the play of pattern, and our experience of it is not inherently real, it is merely the motions of our mind. Our lives, and even things like the form of the mountains we see out our window, are just shifting and impermanent patterns in the vast energies of which all reality consists; they have no intrinsic reality, and nothing is permanent. Even our perception that we are the same person we were yesterday is mostly illusory. This pattern of mental awareness is the first glimmer of realization of Emptiness, in its simplest approximation, and it helps us to let go of our self-importance. Even on this simplest level, realizing this, and absorbing its truth, will make it easier to live a life that causes less suffering in yourself and others, and comes a little closer to the spiritual ideal we all would prefer for ourselves and others.

So that's it, and Happy New Year one and all.

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