Before Buddha gained enlightenment he vowed to sit under the Bodhi tree until it happened. No matter what. Not until his bum hurt or his knees ached. Not until he got a bit thirsty or his friends came round to call. Instead he was going to stay right there until he got it completely done.
But as he sat for longer and gained more and more insight, things got trickier. It was at then that Mara appeared. In Buddhist history/mythology Mara is the Lord (or demon) of death and the desire realm. His aim is to stop people reaching Enlightenment. He’s the kind of guy who delights in helping others fail, so he wanted to do anything to tempt Buddha away from his spiritual path. He plied him with images of riches and beautiful women, showed him the lands he could rule, but none of this worked. So his final trick was his sneakiest as he tried to convince Buddha that going for Enlightenment was all a waste of time and not worth the effort at all. “I mean what is the point? When you get there you’ll be disappointed and you’re not good enough to do it anyway.”
There in the hours before his Enlightenment, supposedly at the peak of his spiritual path, Buddha experienced self-doubt, temptation, desire and distraction. Of course when we sit in meditation it is the same. Within a split second of hearing the instruction and guidance our mind is away, turning over old stories and running with future fantasies. When this happens the technique is to simply recognise that meandering, that mindlessness and return to the focus of attention. Pema Chodron suggests saying ‘thinking’ when we realise that has happened. I heard Mark Williams use ‘gently escort’ in his guidance. But any instruction to ‘return to the breath’ is just helping us to learn how our awareness functions; its patterns and habits, or as Christina Feldman calls it, ‘our whole world of reactivity’. It is said when Buddha was faced by this onslaught of his mind by Mara he simply said “I know you” to each new wave of attack and that to me sounds like the ‘return to your breath’ tecnique when it has been perfected.
In mindfulness we are instructed to be curious and open minded, to notice and accept whatever arises. Of course normally when something appears our familiar stories rear up and gallop down the same old rutted tracks and before we know it the autopilot of our mind has stolen us away from the present moment into some past story or some future possibility. But if we can do what Buddha did then we can learn to live in a way that takes power away form all these thoughts and self-uncertainty and live in a way that we our in control of our own lives. As Akong Rinpoche said “When obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.”
So there are three ways in which practicing mindfulness can help in achieving this. Firstly, we need some of that resolve learn and patience to want to change. Secondly, to pause and find a sliver of stillness in the daily hurly burley of our lives and the life of our mind. And finally when that develops we can start to recognise and understand how our mind works.
The good news is that every time we sit down to practice we will eventually notice that our mind has wandered – even if it is only when the bell rings at the end of the session – and then we can delight in having been aware and having found a pause from all that stuff and chatter. Even that one moment is a fabulous thing, because when we learn to pause and uncover a quiet moment out of the gusting wind of our minds, we can start to explore the habits and patterns that lie underneath. True self wisdom can start now. “Ah there I go again” strategising a future that will probably never happen or replaying a slight and an argument from yesterday” Whatever our particular well-worn paths, they will start to appear as we sit and patiently, deliberately, slowly notice them. Right there is what Tchich Nhat Hanh meant when he said “In the sunlight of awareness, everything becomes sacred.”
The book that prompted me to write this is Christina Feldman’s “The Buddhist Path to Simplicity” all the good points from this were generated by the 6th chapter on emotion.