Question from a reader

Recently I received a comment on my January 28, 2011 post, “The Challenge of Mindfulness,” that I felt expressed concerns perhaps on the minds of others, so I thought I’d answer it here:

Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

As we fare along the path of mindfulness, we encounter obstacles. Many of these are self-made. They are inner hindrances. Meditation master Chih-i of the T’ien-t’ai school called them screens because they act as coverings that obscure our vision. One of the screens Chih-i advises us to remove is the screen of doubt. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, he says, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

Perhaps the hardest doubt to remove is doubt about oneself. We might think that we are not capable of finding inner peace. Chih-i says, “When doubt such as this is at the forefront of one’s mind, the chih-kuan dharma door is closed, and therefore, realization is unobtainable.”

It’s only natural to have some doubts. It’s unwise to be over confident. Then, we may have other kinds of doubts, such as a doubt that we will ever climb Mt. Everest. That’s a perfectly reasonable because not many people do climb Mt. Everest. However, when we doubt our ability to achieve things that are definitely within our grasp, like finding more meaning and joy in our life, this is not reasonable. It’s the kind of doubt that locks the dharma door before we even have a chance to open it.

So we have to let doubt go. Release it.

And there are other screens we need to remove.

We need to let go of expectations. Some people start with a desire to attain enlightenment, to have grand realizations and so on. They set up expectations that become obstacles because they distract from the task at hand. The aim of mindfulness is not that complicated. We merely want to calm our mind and develop more awareness in the present moment. But it takes single-minded focus.

In letting go, we do not give up the intention to realize our expectation, rather we let go of our attachment to expectation. The idea is to transform expectation into aspiration.

We need to let go of fear. Some people feel conflicted about whether or not to take a meditation course because they fear that they might indoctrinated into something. They don’t want to sign up, join up, or anything else. They just want to find some peace of mind. But you don’t have to become a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.

The Buddha did not invent meditation. Yet, his meditation instructions are the first recorded in history. Most forms of meditation, Buddhist and otherwise, begin with the same step-by-step instructions the Buddha gave some 2500 years, and they focus on the same object of meditation he identified as the most effective, the breath. With this in mind, almost any meditation course that teaches you how to meditate while focusing on your breath will do. It doesn’t have to be Buddhist.

I don’t believe you can learn meditation completely on your own, over the Internet, or from a book or video.  Meditation is far too subtle to grasp without some personal instruction. But if you take a secular meditation course and then you want to learn some of the underlying concepts and how Buddhism suggests we utilize this tool, you can always supplement your beginning practice with some reading. Two excellent books are The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

The list of thing we need to release goes on. Letting go helps us approach meditation with an open mind, with fewer hindrances to get in our way. Overcoming these three screens of doubt, expectation, and fear is the best first step.

Anyone, everyone, can find inner peace. It’s not an insurmountable goal. It’s not Mt. Everest. But whether you are climbing a mountain or ascending to the plateau of awakening, you must take steps to get there. The second step is just to do it, to practice, to meditate.

My own daily practice is very simple. Mindfulness and reciting the Heart Sutra. Often I will chant the Heart Sutra mantra for an extended period. I recently saw some discussion about this online. I don’t recall ever coming across any hard and fast rules about how one should chant the mantra. You can chant it once or twice at the end of the sutra or for an hour if you want. It’s up to you. In addition, you can chant the mantra by itself, at anytime. I also chant different mantras and use some other meditation techniques I am familiar with, but I always return to the basics. For silent meditation, that means mindfulness, counting or following the breath the way the Buddha taught.

We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thanks for your comment and I hope this helps.

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2 thoughts on “Question from a reader

  1. MIndfulness in Plain English Yes, overall a wonderful book but someone needs to put to rest the inaccurate theories put here and elsewhere about meditation postures. Our good friend puts forth that numbness in the legs is NOT caused by lack of blood circulation but is “only” nerve pinch and so nothng to worry about…. How can one be certain of the cause? Over what duration of time are we speaking? Trust yourself because some Asians have rather unscientific and insupportable ideas about the human body. Fred

    1. Good point. I think when I recommended both of the books in this post, I was thinking more in terms of the overall philosophy and approach to meditation. You really can’t learn how to “sit” from a book. Even when receiving personal instruction, you have to remember that one teacher will say one thing, and another might have a completely different take. And, as you mention, from time to time we are presented with theories that aren’t very sound.

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