What is Buddhism?

* Just a quick overview of Buddhism from my point of view. Remember that  there are many traditions under the Buddhist umbrella. This overview comes from my understanding /education of Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism is a group of various traditions that follow the Dharma ( teaching of the Buddha and wise beings).  It  involves rituals, meditations, contemplations and guidelines ( such as the eight-fold path) in order to either achieve enlightenment or to work towards the betterment of all conscious beings.  The Buddhist Dharma is not a closed cannon. In other words, it applies to material  within and outside of sacred texts(Buddhist sutras). Buddhist cannon can included any teaching that helps establish mindfulness or that are geared towards the betterment of humankind. Therefore, the cannon includes Buddhist teachings to books on science, psychology,environmentalism from ancient times to current popular works.

Buddhist teachings and schools  are often broken down into three categories:  Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and Vijñāna.   Hīnayāna is sometimes considered a disparaging term as it literally means lower wheel. These categories are created mainly by Mahāyāna and Vijñāna schools.

However, it is best to think of Buddhist teachings or schools of thought as a Wheel with first teaching ( first turning of the wheel),  the second and the third. The teachings are a circular as opposed to hierarchical and each serve as an aid to the other teachings.

Buddhism is also a karmic religion. Understanding karma is considered to be a a lifetime task or even lifetimes. But this simplest definition is cause and effect ( though I was taught that karma is cause and effect is the results of karma.). Therefore, Buddhism is a karmic religion because it analysis how causes, conditions, consequences, thoughts, actions and emotions effect our daily lives, our minds and our next lives.  It poses that karma determines how we view the world, and act within in and it  determines the path of our next life.

Reincarnation is an important aspect of Buddhist thought. Each Buddhist sees reincarnation in different ways. Some view it as the constant death and rebirths in one’s current life and might not believe in an actual next life. But the traditional view is  that fueled by karma, each person reincarnates in different realms of existence until they reach enlightenment or Buddhahood. However, enlightenment beings are no longer controlled by karma and do not  have reincarnate. Unless they have vowed to do so ( such as the reincarnations of Dalai Lama or Karmapa)

General speaking the purpose of Buddhism is either to achieve self-enlightenment or to help all beings achieve enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and wise teachers have developed tools from Buddhist debate to meditation in order to aid humans in free oneself of conflicted, unmindful and harmful patterns.  They can see enlightenment as being uncluttered emptiness that allows us to see ourselves or the world as it truly is.

The paradox of meditation goals

Everyone has to decide what their own personal goal for practice. My goal had to do with (like many other) dealing with suffering. This also seems to be one of the tradition views of why we should meditate: to end suffering. Others come to meditation to deal with stress, health problems, to learn about themselves and their mind, etc.
All these goals are valuable because we may need a reason to keep ourselves practicing. I, personally, I am not a big believer in doing something because a tradition say so; our practice should in part be based on trust from our actual experiences with it. With that said there are benefits to eventually getting to the point of having no goals. In this sense, that meditation is about acceptance and discovering one’s true self.

Sometimes having goals can get in the way cultivating mindfulness as we may be adding to our judgments. Instead of observing our minds we may be dictators trying to cure our minds. Instead of returning to the present moments, goals can take us to a place of looking to future success. Therefore, we should find a place between knowing why one is practicing yet holding non-judgment altitude. This way, we are not distracted by a of view success, future plans and goals.

Meditation advice: working through common problems

Here are  some common issues that can keep people for meditating and simple advice on how to work through them in order to keep practicing. This is all my opinion from my personal experiences and education but I hope it is helpful for others to have some suggestions.

Physical pain

First, adjust the posture as needed to not farther aggravate the pain including sitting in a chair or laying down. If lying down do practice at a time when they are less likely to fall sleep.

If it is difficult to focus on the breath during moments of pain, the pain can be used as a practice. Instead, of sitting with the breathe, the practitioner can touch the pain, feel it, experience it, let it go and then return to the sensation. Of course, one should make sure they are not adding to the pain either physically or emotionally. If meditation becomes too intense it is fine to take a break. Do not use meditation as a way of ignoring pain or the body.

Sleepiness

Sleepiness is common in meditation practice. It can be another tool for working with returning to the present moment. We fall asleep, we notice it and then we return to breath. However, one way to combat sleepiness is picking a good time for practice when we are not exhausted and raising the eye gaze. Still, it is important to be accepting and gentle with ourselves therefore sleepiness can simply be used as another part of practice. Or a sign that one needs more rest.

Wild thoughts and fantasies:

In practice we work with thoughts by labeling then as thinking and returning to the breath. However, I was taught by one teacher if we are struggling with a persistent thought or fantasy that it might be time to have a thought party. Allow the thought to play itself out. Stop running from the thought, embrace, accept it, let it play out and when it is ready to be release, let it go and return to the breath or whatever the object of meditation is.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness in everyday life means being fully attentive, alive and awake in every way. When one washes the dishes, they are only doing the dishes and are completely involved in that task. There is no need to be in the future or past or to be multitasking or daydreaming. This person can engage and be content with the current moment.

As far as recognizing the moment, I think the experience is similar to when artists and performers talk about “flow”. In this “state” the person is fully connected with the project, words or action. Their actions flow almost effortlessly, they are no longer only in their heads. The mind and hearts are working together, and concerns seem to vanish because there is no fear or need to focus on the next moment. It feels as if the person is finally alive.

Another example is when you hug someone you loved. Perhaps, the person has been gone for a long time. When you finally get to embrace them then suddenly all the noise stops in your head and your awareness is simply on that direct experience and sensations of that hug.

A person who is mindful in everyday life feels, sees and experiences every moment fully, completely and without fear or judgment.

Why practice Mindfulness?

What is “mindfulness”?

Mindfulness is being completely present in every moment. It involves cultivating acceptance and curiosity about one’s inner and outer-world. Mindfulness means no longer being stuck in the past, present or future. Finally, we let go of the pressures of who were or want to be. In this way, mindfulness is the practice of discovering who we really are without boundaries.

Why practice  mindfulness meditation?

I think the purpose of training in mindfulness can depend on the individual. Traditionally, mindfulness practice is about awaking from suffering, which is caused by negative mental habits. Mindfulness practice is then seen as a way to work with troubling mental and emotional states. Therefore the cure for suffering is to be present and accepting with any mental arising which leads to a lessening of attachment to negative states.

However, other good purposes of mindfulness meditation are relaxation and learning how to directly experience our reality as opposed to allowing mental projections to disconnect us from our lives.

It is really up to the individual to decide what keeps them practicing, I cannot think of many wrong reasons for meditation and mindfulness practice but one big one is  escapism. Mindfulness is about accepting reality and not running away from it.

Buddhism Theology: What is Aliveness

I see basic aliveness  as the willingness to be curious, open and influenced by our  experiences and the  world. Basic aliveness means living life to its fullest extent.

I usually experience this in nature especially when I am near water. In those places, my mind expands, thoughts seem to disappear and I am simply in the moment. I am sharing that moment with the waters, listening to rumblings and feeling the breeze  For some reason, in these moments, suddenly life  feels simple yet wondrous.

Aliveness are those moments.

Aliveness represents that ability to embrace all the lessons that the world has to offer. It allows us to be content and joyous about the wonders and mystery that come our way.

In meditation practice, basic aliveness teaches that life is doable because it is our natural ability to be awake in any situation.

This aliveness is fluid. In this way,  the teaching of basic aliveness shows us that we can handle our emotions because of their impermanent. Aliveness means that we are not stuck by any emotions, thoughts or situations.  In fact, we experience this aliveness when we practice letting go.

Emotions do not have to be a hindrance but are a gateway to tap into our humanity. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to want to run away from our humanness because it means a tender heart. We shield ourselves from our emotions at the cost  missing our basic aliveness. Therefore, practice with the emotions is crucial in order for life not to become stale and heartless.

As Buddhist Psychologist, John Welwood in Awakening the Heart states:

Although we often feel most alive when involved in emotional dramas, meditation helps us realize our basic ongoing aliveness that is always present in both dramatic and undramatic moment.

In this way, practice with this sense of aliveness demonstrates the possibility of remaining “stable” through the chaos of life, and also remind us what a gift it is to be human and alive.

Simple meditation Instruction

This semester, I was thrilled to be able to take Mindfulness instructor training. Basically, this class prepares students to teach the basic steps of meditation and also become a kinda meditation guide (Someone who can check in with  you about your practice).

The first session we went over the basic procedure of mindfulness meditation.*
I figured this might be  usual  information for  people starting out in meditation or people wanting  a refresher. There is always some wisdom in coming back to the basics when you are feeling ungrounded in practice…

Basic meditation Instruction in three steps:

1. Working with the posture:

We began meditation by taking our seat and grounding into the body. Beginning with bringing attention to one’s seat, making sure we are seated in the middle of cushion. Then, moving to the legs, place them in a comfortable relaxed position. Legs do not need to be in lotus pose but one leg can be place in front of the over, slightly crossed in front of the groin area. Knees also should be lower than the hips.  If in a chair make sure you are seated with feet firmly placed on the ground. If necessary place a pillow under your feet.                                                                                                                      Now, move one’s attention to the arms, they should be loose, relaxed with hands placed slightly above the knees (or a comfort distance depending on the length of one’s arms.)                                                                                                                Next, imagine the torso raising up, like a string with a balloon at the end is moving toward the spine and out the crown of the head. The back should be upright but not stiff. The shoulders should be relaxed with chest and heart open. The head floating up, relaxed with a slight tuck to the chin.                           Relax the jaw with mouth slightly open and tongue placed behind upper teeth.                                                                                                                                          Finally, the eye gaze, about six inches ahead or a comfortable distance, lids can be partially open, with a gentle soft focus. If one becomes sleepy, opening the eyes more and raise the gaze.

2. Working with the breath:
In order to practice mindfulness of the present moment we bring our attention again and again to  a particular object. In this way, we are learning to keep coming back, returning to our direct experience. Usually in mindfulness practice we use the breath as our anchor. In order to practice with the breath we simply breath normally and notice where in our bodies we feel the breath. We do not hold on to the breath. We experience and let it go as it fades away. Then we return to the newly arising breath and continue that process.

3. Working with thoughts:

When we lose awareness of our breath it is because we are thinking. We label the thought “thinking” and there is no need to have judgment about the thinking.  Thoughts are not a problem and are a part of the meditation process. Just label them and come back to the breath again.

Finally, if you like writing, you can journal afterwards by asking yourself what you observed or experienced during the meditation.

*meditation is taught in a Shambala Buddhist fashion though can be used by non-Buddhists, of course.