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January Path Update: Right Mindfulness

January 1, 2017
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‘My Parents Don’t Pay Attention to Me’ by Tina Leggio via Flickr.com

This post is part of a continuing series launched in October 2016. It is an experiment to bring the Noble Eightfold Path more deliberately into my life, to walk the Buddhist path in  21st century California.

December Update: Right Effort

I knew this one would be a strange month. I started late, holidays, family, and work obligations made any kind of regular schedule unlikely from the start. Yet, I met these goals fairly well for about two weeks mid-month and I felt better for it.

Round 1: Nail that routine. Pre-decide and stick to it, for work, relaxation, and necessary self-care.

  • Morning routine: Nailed getting up on time and putting in an hour of work; frequently skipped the meditation. That’s so like me.
  • At work routine:Took more walks, which gave me more exercise and more dedicated thinking time, which benefited my projects. Didn’t knit. Still fell a little behind each week, but didn’t sweat it due to factors beyond my control.
  • Evening routine: Pretty good, but when I say walk the dog every day, that really is every day. Not every other day, not two out of three. Every day. Did my reading. Didn’t meditate. So what else is new?
  • Saturday goals: Took this day off as planned, but now it’s January and I’m going to be working Saturdays until I finish my qualifying exams in six weeks. Then I plan to return to no work Saturdays as it’s been good for me and my relationship.
  • Sunday goals: Did good, keep it up.

What I Learned

I was really surprised that I was able to get up so early so consistently. I think I even surprised my parents, who were visiting for a week, by my pre-dawn routine. I’ve read that one’s circadian rhythm changes as one gets older. I believe it, which also makes me think it’s criminal to insist teenagers start school anytime before ten in the morning.

I don’t know why, but after all these years, I still skip the meditation. Ten minutes shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? But nope. Some days I just forget and some days I remember, but choose not to do it. It’s all the same in the end.

One thing that threw me off a little this month was reading. Over Thanksgiving I took up a series of novels on the flight to Omaha. It was a series I’d read before, so I thought I’d put it down when we returned. That was not the case.

Years ago, I gave up reading novels during the ‘school year.’ When I get into a novel I don’t get out until it’s over, homework and projects be damned. So I gave it up and confined my literary adventures to winter and summer break. During spring and fall breaks, I’d usually reread something I was familiar with, so as to let it go when I returned.

The problem this time is that I chose to reread the first novel of the seventeen book Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh. And then I just couldn’t put it down. I did manage to confine my reading to evenings, which is more than I could manage with a new book. Still, I think there were a few hours I should have spent working on my exams rather than on the world of the atevi.

It really makes me wonder about my own mind, that can leave me feeling so choice-less sometimes about the things I do. I want to meditate and make a commitment to do it, then don’t. I don’t want to read and make a commitment to avoid it, but then do. I understand exactly why Shantideva urges us to tame the mind. Now, how to do it?

January Plan: Right Mindfulness

That brings us to January and Right Mindfulness. There are about a thousand books, podcasts, YouTube videos, weekend retreats, webinars, and 8-week courses out there to teach someone about mindfulness. Some of them are even good. Some of them are just good marketing. Despite all that (or perhaps because of it), I still don’t feel like I have a good understanding of just what mindfulness is.

Years ago, I attended five weekend retreats in the Shambhala tradition based around introducing western students to shamatha meditation and the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa. They were very good and still form the basis of my meditation practice, such as it is. I wrote about each one at the time and have written about my struggles with meditation – mostly with my struggle to just plain do it. I have yet to integrate meditation into my life in any regular way, although I am recently coming to realize that it has nevertheless had a profound effect on my practice as a chaplain (more on that later).

But is meditation what the Buddha meant by Right Mindfulness? I don’t think so. I believe mindfulness and meditation are conflated due to the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) which demonstrates how mindfulness can be used in or applied to meditation and because meditation is a good method for teaching basic mindfulness. But Right Mindfulness is mentioned in several other contexts in the Pali Canon in which it can best be understood as paying attention, but not just to anything, to the right things, including the other factors of the Eightfold Path, doing what is right and abandoning what is wrong, and mindfulness of death.

I was very mindful of my commitment to practicing the path during October, when I used a habit tracking app to monitor my progress. I was less mindful in November and December, except, of course, close before and after my blog posts. This is also because I have a task management app that reminds me to make an update about my path practice.

Naturally, when the Buddha advised us to be mindful, I don’t think he meant to get an app. But even in his time and into the present day Buddhists have used the social equivalent – rituals. The morning chant in Thai Forest Monasteries such as Wat Metta, (available online here in both audio and text) still include reminders of the Four Noble Truths, Three Refuges, Three Hallmarks of Existence, and many other factors of which basic, daily mindfulness is extremely helpful in our practice. Likewise with the evening chants, meal chants, and regularly monthly and annual ceremonies. Rituals such as these were the original app, a social and cultural mechanism for the maintenance of mindfulness of the Dharma. It works beautifully within such an intentional community.

What is the place for something like this in the layperson’s life? Especially the layperson not active in a sangha? Those questions are part of this entire experiment. The purpose of this path practice is mindfulness of the Buddhist path, in a concrete way someone can develop and follow for themselves no matter what kind of life they lead. Where can rituals, apps, and the nine-to-five job all come together?

Round 1: Daily and weekly mindfulness

  • Meditate, dammit! Ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening, five days a weeks. Track progress with a meditation app.
  • Keep a mindful journal and make at least three entries a week based only on “Where was my attention today?” Limit entries to ten minutes at a time.
  • Reflect on the mindful journal at the end of each week.
  • Continue habits established in October (except about no-work Saturdays) and daily routine established in December. Remind oneself about these comitments once a week.

Round 2: Monthly and yearly mindfulness

Round 3: Mindfulness over the lifespan

February: Right Concentration

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