What to do? What to do? You are sheltering in place. Feels like prison. Or punishment, like being sent to your room when you did something bad as a kid, or husband…, “off to the man cave with you!” No matter the reason animals don’t like to be caged. However, we aren’t caged or punished, we are being protected like a diamond in a safe. We shelter in place to prevent horrific illness and death.
Many spiritual traditions advise keeping death at the forefront of your mind so you don’t waste time. Knowing that life is fragile, and not as long as we think it is or would want it to be, hopefully inspires a greater appreciation of life and it’s purpose. The global pandemic and the large number of deaths being tracked on the news keeps death on our minds; so we may as well use that focus to progress in spiritual practice at best, and at worse keep from going insane through the gratitude that we and our loved ones have not died.
Using awareness of the brevity of life as motivation to make the best use of it is often misunderstood to mean we should live it up and get as much pleasure out of life as possible. Oddly, the more we have of something the less pleasurable it becomes. The first or second bite of something is always the best. The first sip of beer always taste the best, but too much alcohol or sweets will make you feel sick.
So what do spiritual people mean by the best use of life? It means to develop a kind, loving, compassionate being, and the best way to that is meditation, but the practice of meditation is elusive. A large part of its elusiveness is due to a lack of coherent description of the process and practice. Some of the lack of definition is on purpose. There is a danger that a student seeking peace will get too caught, stuck, in intellectual play and neglect practice. Still some clarity is useful.
Take for example the word mindfulness. For some strange reason mindfulness has come to mean mind-emptiness or mind blankness, which is one small aspect but not the whole. This misunderstanding is due to the fact that one goal of Buddhist practice is the recognition of interdependence. To acknowledge interdependence is to be aware that all things lack, are empty of, a completely independent existence. Mind-fullness is a state of mind open and not clinging to anything so it can be full of everything. Sati, or mind, is the ability to be cognizant. Sati or mind is neutral, it is like a mirror. Alone it is not cognizant until something is before it and it’s image is reflected. The image doesn’t get caught or stuck on the mirror, but passes across it like clouds in the sky. The image on a mirror or dust on the glass are two metaphors for the defilements that block pure awareness. Meditation changes the way you relate to and identify with mind by helping you become aware of and then progressively more identified with pure mind. Awareness caught and stuck is like a mirror on a dresser in a bedroom that only reflects what’s in the bedroom. Meditation allows you to be free.
Mind is not only the intellect. It includes sensations, emotions and heart. Meditation is the act of taming and getting control of your base animal nature in a kind and humane way. The more primitive aspects of your mind are like a pack of wild animals. Sensation, memory, craving, hunger, being horny, that cute dress, those cool shoes, oh that car, and that house or mansion. It’s easy to get distracted by potential threats and the search for food and shelter, but it is just as easy, maybe easier, to be distracted by desires. When your primitive mind is the alpha of your behavior your higher mind doesn’t have time or ability to engage in higher functions, or ironically, even enjoyment. Think of the last time you ate sometime but didn’t really taste it because you were talking or watching television. Meditation places the higher mind as the reassuring alpha.
The irony is that you, yes you sitting there reading this, are capable of being aware of the fullness of your being without ever leaving where you are sitting. You can be aware of oneness with the universe without leaving your seat much less your apartment or house.
The first step is mindfulness. Mindfulness is practicing the ability to maintain awareness of an activity or object. Typical activities are: breathing, walking, washing dishes. Typical objects are: a candle flame, image of Buddha or other religious figure like Jesus, Ganesha, Quanyin, Krishna, Mother Mary, a sound or mantra. Try it. Sit with your back straight, but not forced or tense, on a chair with your feet flat in the floor or cross legged on the floor on a cushion or seiza. Keep your eyes half open and gazing down a few feet in front of you or at your chosen object. The object can be physical or imaginary. The usual advice for the angel of your gaze is to follow the angle of your nose. Thoughts, memories, emotions, sensations and their responses will cross your mind like images across a mirrors surface, and like the mirror, let nothing get stuck there. For many people walking meditation, which is done by being aware of the way your feet touch the earth with each step, is easier to begin with than seated meditation. Dish washing meditation, washing the dishes to wash the dishes rather than to clean the dishes or get the chore done, is also easier and more pleasant.
Thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions will be there, just let them be. Look at thought and sensations like watching clouds pass in the sky. If you get caught or carried away by them just return to what you were doing after catching yourself being caught. The more you catch yourself being caught, the more aware you are becoming. Soon you won’t so easily get caught or stuck. Your mind, which includes your heart, will become more open, fuller, and less reactive. This is the first step to true freedom and a mind that is full with life.