Excerpt From "The Mindful Manifesto"
by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell
The following excerpt is taken from the book The Mindful Manifesto by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell. It is published by Hay House (Available Apr. 1, 2012) and available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com.
The word meditation can refer to a wide range of practices. Some involve repetition or contemplation of a word or phrase, some make use of visualization, while others are based more on physical movement, such as in martial arts or yoga. The Latin word meditatio originally meant any kind of exercise, physical or mental. While not all meditation practices are mindfulness meditations, most of them involve paying attention to an object of some kind, and as such are likely to foster mindfulness.
The mindfulness practices we are exploring in this book—including the mindfulness of breathing exercise at the start of this chapter—are often associated with an Indian prince called Siddhartha Gautama, who lived 2,500 years ago. Although born into great privilege, and despite his father showering him with luxury, Siddhartha eventually realized that the riches of the world couldn’t save him, or anyone else, from the inevitable pains of human life—from the suffering associated with growing old, sickness, and death, and with other kinds of loss and change. Realizing that there must be another way, he decided to leave the material comforts of his royal palace and seek liberation from the discontent that accompanies so much of our existence.
The story goes that, after studying with a number of teachers, and a further period of training in isolation, Siddhartha declared that he had found a way out of anguish. For the next 45 years, he taught his methods to those who also sought release from their suffering. Siddhartha became known as the Buddha, which means the Awakened One, and he spent the rest of his life showing others how to access this same sense of freedom and peace.
With its institutional forms, spiritual leaders and scriptures, Buddhism is often considered to be one of the world’s great religions. But if he were alive today, the Buddha might well be considered a psychologist rather than a religious leader, and his instructions would probably be considered a form of psychotherapy. While there are elements of Buddhism that may seem religious, its essential teachings are focused on handling life in the here and now—a process of investigation leading to insight about how things are, rather than a system of belief about what may be. It’s a pragmatic approach to life that asks “What is the nature of things?” and “How can we live our lives well?”
The Buddha discouraged his students from metaphysical speculation about the hereafter. He also advised them not to trust what he said on faith alone, or on the basis of religious authority or scripture. The only true test of his teaching, he said, was whether it resonated with their own experience. When they put it into practice, was it helpful for them?
At the core of these teachings are a series of observations called The Four Noble Truths. These four truths give a concise diagnosis of the trials of human life, and a prescription for how they can fruitfully be worked with.
The first truth seems obvious—that as human beings we experience suffering. We are born, we get ill, we die and, in between, we undergo all kinds of physical and mental pain. Our bodies go wrong, wear out, and eventually fall apart, and our minds are often in turmoil—we get angry, upset, frightened, and depressed. No matter how rich we are, how well-toned our bodies, or how mentally balanced, we still experience a basic level of stress, disappointment, and dissatisfaction that seems to come with the territory of being human.
The Buddha’s second noble truth is that there is a root cause for this suffering. We’re troubled not so much because we experience the inconveniences of life, but because we constantly want not to experience them—we crave, cling to, and chase after pleasure and we try to resist and escape discomfort. We don’t want to face aging, sickness, and death, even though these and life’s other unpalatable difficulties are part and parcel of being human. We try to hold on to pleasurable experiences, and avoid, blank out, or distract ourselves from painful ones. We cling to the way we wish things were, and resist how they actually are.
In one memorable analogy, the Buddha said that our experience of suffering was a bit like being struck by two arrows. When we’re hit with the first arrow, rather than thinking that this is unpleasant enough, we then shoot ourselves with another one. The first arrow is the unavoidable pain of life, and the second is all the mental and emotional anguish we heap on top of it.
So it isn’t pain itself that causes our suffering, so much as our attempts to avoid unpleasant experiences and cling to comfort. What we’re trying to achieve is impossible, and what we’re trying to escape from is inevitable. All our efforts to change things which can’t be changed are futile, doomed to failure. In making all these efforts, we’re out of step with the basic facts of life, jarring with reality—and it hurts.
We might think we know the facts of life (“Of course I’m going to die, that’s obvious.”), but knowing them on an intellectual level and accepting it in our hearts are two different things—we resist these truths with our emotions and our behavior. Witness the explosion of cosmetic surgery in our culture—more than 12 million such procedures are carried out in the U.S. each year.2 Yet none of these expensive treatments will help us live longer, and they can only ever delay or mask the process of aging. We may die wrinkle-free, with our faces fixed in a state of youthful paralysis, but will we really be any happier? The more we try to deny reality, the more suffering we experience. But we just keep on struggling anyway—raging at life’s insults, trying to run away from them, or taking elaborate steps to pretend they aren’t happening. We are like animals trapped in a cage.
Fortunately, there’s good news—the third noble truth states that there is a release from our predicament, and it comes in the form of the fourth truth, known as the eightfold path. This path is a program of training, designed to help us come into step with reality and move with the flow of life, rather than against it. This is to be found in a different way of seeing, and a different way of being. To use the Buddha’s analogy, we may have no choice about getting hit with the first arrow, but we can learn how to respond wisely to the distress it causes—we can learn not to fire the second arrow. Transformation of our experience is possible, by discovering how to relate to it differently.
The path, as it was laid out 2,500 years ago, consists of eight elements; right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right exertion, right concentration, and right mindfulness. With right understanding and right thought, we come to accept the truth that things are impermanent, always changing; rather than railing against seemingly awkward realities, we can instead learn to appreciate, ride with, and even celebrate the constant fluctuations in life. We might be able to appreciate the changing of the seasons—enjoying the delights of autumn and winter, rather than always wishing it were spring or summer. We can start to see that we’re not fixed entities in isolation but part of a flowing dynamic of interconnection with all things—with this view in mind, change becomes less of a threat and more of an opportunity.
As we develop this view, we can also cultivate the right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right exertion that acknowledges, incorporates, and works skillfully with these realizations. We can develop an attitude of compassion to others: we see that if we are interconnected, then everyone else’s welfare is inextricably bound up with our own. We see that by helping others, we can help ourselves.
But there’s still something of a problem. If our minds remain distracted and speedy, we’re likely to find that we often think, speak, and act hastily, perhaps before we’ve even noticed what we’re really doing. If we aren’t able to cultivate right concentration and mindfulness,3 how can we practice any of the other parts of the path? Without some sense of calm in our minds, we’ll continually be drawn into impulsive, unconscious activity—spinning around helplessly in old patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior, even as we are trying to let go of them.
In traditional Buddhist descriptions, the distracted mind is like a wild animal. Sometimes the description is of a monkey, chattering away and throwing itself crazily all over the place, and at others times it’s a rampaging elephant, plowing heedlessly through the jungle, leaving devastation in its wake. If our mind is like this—frantic and untamed, or heavy and heedless, it’s unlikely to listen to our command. However, it’s said that with practice, our minds will settle, and we can develop stability, clarity, and strength—mental qualities that can help us relate with life more effectively.