“Be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life.”
What is it?
Definition: Being aware and observing one’s present mental state to avoid being caught up and experiencing suffering.
What’s the Story?
Mindfulness is derived from the Buddhist practice of meditation to enhance awareness in the present moment. Although there is debate regarding details of the life of the Buddha, the popular story is that 2500 years ago in the Nepalese Himalayan foothills a young prince Siddhartha Gautama was born into wealth and all the privileges that accompanied it. Protected from the outside world he lived a sheltered life. He married, had a son and one day ventured outside the castle walls. There, he witnessed the squalor and suffering of the common people. This affected him profoundly. He became compelled to understand the nature of human suffering. He knew the answers would not be found in the comfort of his existing life. One night, while his wife and son slumbered, he silently bade them farewell and slipped into the night to seek his answers.
Siddhartha sought out gurus and became a star disciple, yet did not find the answer to the question of “Why is there suffering?” After six years and two gurus he took to subjecting himself to extreme deprivations of food and shelter to attain spiritual enlightenment and yet, he was no closer to finding his answers. Finally, realizing he was stuck and starving himself, he accepted a bowl of rice from a young girl and then bathed in the river. He then meditated for six days underneath a Bodhi tree and finally he awakened to the simple understanding that the answer he sought actually resided within his initial desire. That suffering is a product of wanting or attachment in all its forms. In that moment, Siddhartha recognized Four Noble Truths and became the Buddha (the Awakened One) .
The Buddha as a Physician
The First Noble Truth, like in the practice of Medicine acknowledges the Chief Complaint or main problem - it states that “all life and existence includes suffering or being unsatisfied.” This universal truth on the surface may seem obvious, but its power lies within its act of humility in accepting the truth. For things to get better one must acknowledge the problem and then find a way to improve. With acceptance of the problem one can now ask, “Why is their suffering?” Naturally, like all creatures, humans try to avoid pain, but can mental pain serve as an opportunity? If so, what is it? To answer these questions we must first raise our awareness of common destructive ways of dealing with pain. We may comfort pain with food, substance abuse, escapism, medications, wishful thinking, pleasure seeking, etc. Covered up and ignored, the pain becomes another fossilized layer - in essence our archaeological biography. Our emotions and their negative triggers become solidified and trapped. Locking us into unhealthy predictable future responses to dissatisfaction and pain. Automated and unconscious, our mental state becomes governed in a Pavlovian manner. The opportunity - the gift of deeper understanding fades into extinction. Lost to the whims of distraction and our looking outward for happiness. Being present, looking inward and acknowledging our pain is the first step to the gift of a more deeper understanding, authentic existence and eventual freedom.
“You only lose what you cling to.” – Buddha
Acceptance of The First Noble Truth naturally leads us to The Second Noble Truth by asking, “Why do we suffer? ” In his moment of clarity, the Buddha diagnosed that suffering originates from wanting or attachment to greed, desire, delusion, ignorance destructive urges or hatred. At the root of this is a source known as the “Self” or “I.” Many refer to this as ego with it’s natural tendencies for wants, desires, delusional dreams, worries, fears, etc. The ego is about being better, special, in control and serving its own self interest. It is unaware of itself. Ego is part of who we are and serves a purpose, but unchecked it becomes an unconscious source of endless wanting and dissatisfaction. There is never enough money, power, fame, recognition, reassurance or longevity to keep it satisfied. Shakespeare summed up an ego driven life nicely, “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that frets and struts his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
We see this character when it performs acts of hatred, greed, attention seeking, self-delusion, selfish desire and ignorance. All of these behaviors and mindsets distract us from what truly makes us happy and gives us health. Being aware of ego and its shape shifting forms is essential for freedom and healing. We suffer because we are conditionally unconscious that ego is running our life and that it will never be satisfied.
“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.”
– Jack Kornfield
When we see the ego for the tragic Shakespearean character that it is, we are naturally repulsed from living the cliche’ of its drama and entanglements; but how does one end the foolish buffoonery? The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth is about celebrating the cure for suffering. There is a way to put an end to the nonsense by unchaining ourselves from attachment-no matter what form it takes. Detaching ourselves from thoughts and acts of unhealthy wanting or desire are profoundly empowering. Wanting means chasing something for a future benefit. Freedom of want or regret leaves us with only one place to reside which is the present moment - this is the most natural place for us to be - it’s the only place we can live our lives from. Ironically this is a rare or fleeting for most.
Our thoughts are like a tennis ball volleying back and fourth between the courts of past and future. The present is represented by the mid-court net. Our thoughts spend only a fraction of a second at the net before crossing to some future worry or past regret. Yet, it is in the present where we become focused, create, take action, contribute to the world, connect with others, identify ourselves, show respect, experience value, gain new perspective, grow, see new possibilities, love and much more. We are skimming across the surface of the most meaningful place of our existence in the pursuit of ghosts and zombies - we are literally the living dead preoccupied with nostalgia or sentimentalism. Even when there are moments of happiness and joy, they slip into the past. Instead of creating happiness and joy in the present moment, the human mind clings to those past events and tries to recreate them - which of course is impossible. The stronger the clinging, the greater the dissatisfaction.
Our thoughts can bounce back and fourth so fast that we miss out on the beauty, joy and opportunity flowing right in front of us now. Only by being still in the present moment can we tap into and express to the world the immense reservoir of possibilities and potential energy lying within us. The Third Noble Truth tells us that our minds can balance the ball skillfully on the center court net and free ourselves from regret and worry. This visualization creates stillness and a sense of fulfillment - give it a try now.
An expansive feeling of bliss soon follows as distraction, delusion, fear, worry, greed and hatred are replaced by inner peace. There is no want, no regret and no meaning to the concept of time. This has been described as Nirvana which means to “extinguish.” This mental state creates a demeanor of naturally relaxed energy that is readily perceived by others. It is here that our potential is realized. This in turn helps to calm the inner chatter of others to a mindset that is curious, receptive, relaxed and in sync with ours. Now that wavelengths are dialed in, clear authentic connection occurs and from this arises a wellspring of value, creativity, wholeness and new possibilities. Conversations naturally take on deeper meaning versus small talk. This transforms not only ourselves but our relationships, community, nation and world. This is not a nebulous concept. It’s proven track record is echoed by the names Gandhi, King, Mandela and many others. By remaining detached from violence, revenge, greed and hatred they peacefully liberated peoples and nations from oppression and tyranny. Each of us has the responsibility and opportunity to liberate ourselves from a life of quiet desperation.
With The Fourth Noble Truth the Buddha actually prescribes the cure for suffering in the Eight-fold Path. Interestingly, this strategy resonates with many of the major faiths and tribal belief structures globally. The Buddha’s teachings are not consider a religion but simply a practice that can be adopted independently or integrated with other beliefs.
Right Understanding -
The Buddha was very clear with his teachings and even in his moment of death to not follow blindly. He urged followers to practice mindfulness and prove for themselves the practice was valid for them personally. Looking within without attachment by simply observing our ego and emotions is the first step. With practice and persistence, we become less tangled up in our emotions and our confidence grows. Strength and commitment deepens with each success. In the beginning, the seedling is fragile…it must be carefully nurtured.
Right Intention -
For a garden to flourish and nourish us a commitment to habitually cultivate the right attitudes and remove the weeds of negativity is essential for a bountiful harvest. We must know what we seek with courage, commit to the journey and not quit.
Right Speech -
Words are powerful. All speech originates from thoughts. Thoughts arise from attitude and mindset. Being honest, avoiding gossip, slander and not being verbally abusive to ourselves and others are by products of an attitude of self-love, abundance, gratitude as well as not judging ourselves or others. The story we tell ourselves is the tale we share with the world.
Right Action -
Like dominoes, a healthy mindset leads to right thought, then speech and finally action. Awareness of this sequence leads to behavior that is in alignment with our most precious values- health, self respect, respect for others, peace, connection, contribution, meaning, avoidance of gluttony and addictive behavior. When our conduct aligns with our values the world can now see us authentically and respond in a consistent and harmonious manner of synchronicity and “good luck.” Things “magically” get better. The acts we put out into the world come back to us in time.
Right Livelihood -
We must all make a living in this world. Right livelihood is an expression of our values achieved by applying our natural talents and following our passions to make the best contributions to ourselves and the greater good. It avoids exploiting and harming people and all sentient beings.
Right Effort -
Change is initially hard and can get downright messy at times but our failures give us wisdom. The faster we fail the faster we learn what right effort is necessary to achieve freedom from suffering. With patience and persistence the work leads to vastly more than we could ever imagine. This effort is unique for all of us. It’s a long journey, be comfortable and consistent with how you exert yourself. There is a genius to patience and persistence.
Right Mindfulness -
Once one awakens and breaks the reflex of reacting and starts observing one’s mental state everything slows down. Emotional projectiles fired from others are a consequence of their past and present pain. What was once an arrow or bullet now becomes a frozen object in space time and we can now calmly walk around it, observe it from different perspectives and choose to respond from our values. Consciously choosing a mental state of peace and not “taking the bait” frees the mind, protects the inflammatory response within the body and acknowledges the suffering of others with compassion.
Right Concentration -
Creating consistent focus and mindfulness is achieved by establishing and maintaining habits that create inner peace and focus. There are many distractions in our lives. Routinely prioritizing time for meditation, contemplation, reading, writing, connection with Nature and like minded people leads to healing and discovery of our life purpose.
Take the First Dose Now!
“Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.”
– Thích Nhất Hạnh
The “Cure” is not a pill with a quick fix. To heal and reach peak experience, one is invited to raise awareness by putting into daily practice these strategies. For many this can seem daunting and the reward too far off, however the rewards are immediate. Calming the mind with starting a meditation practice immediately reduces blood pressure, cortisol (stress hormone) levels, reduces activity in the amygdala (fight or flight) center of the brain, reductions in anxiety, depression, increases creativity and much more. A feeling of calm and being more centered is usually experienced immediately.
The Eight-fold path is ultimately a conscious exercise to put out positive energy, speech, intention and action into the world daily using greater wisdom, ethics and mindfulness. It is also a practice that changes our physiology, mental focus and ultimately the story of our lives. The Great Law of Karma says: “Whatever we put into the Universe will come back to us." or biblically from Galations, “As you sow, so shall you reap." These ancient sayings carry profound and powerful meaning for what it means to be human and alive.
The Eight-fold Path is a vehicle, like a raft for crossing a raging river. The stronger our commitment to paddling in octopus mode with all eight oars, the safer and faster we cross the torrent. This endeavor is a process but the Universe will respond favorably in many ways - so pay close attention. Old habits take time and practice to replace but change they will. Once we step onto the opposite shore, a reality of greater inner peace and wholeness reveals itself - it was there all along and we are now a part of it. We are now free to explore our unique path, express our talents and gifts to bring deeper meaning and contribution to the world
To your journey,
Reed Miloy MD