Once we have established a basic meditative disposition, as it were, towards daily life, we can be more pro-active; we can take the offensive; we can search for techniques which will enhance our lives the more.
The first thing we can do is to tackle the ‘tough nut’. We all have habits or personality traits we would dearly love to lose. It could be a strong habit such as smoking, or a social nuisance such as a loud voice or a habit of always opinionating. The first thing to do is make the resolution to change. Then we need to use our self-observation techniques. (Here a diary is very useful in order to observe when, where and with whom the habit is likely to occur.)
As we get to know when the habit occurs, we can form strategies — firstly so that we are not overcome by it and secondly so that we can undermine its hold on us. My father used to be a heavy smoker, forty cigarettes a day and the full-blooded, thick tar stuff. He also used to sing in a choir, but had to stop because of continual sore throats. The doctor even then — this is fifty years ago, mind! — advised him to stop smoking if he wanted a long singing life. He did. And he hit the habit where it hurt most. The one cigarette most difficult to abandon was the one after lunch when he would sit and relax, and perhaps doze. He decided that instead of getting irritable with others, he’d take it out on the piano. Not only has he never smoked since, but he has become a dab hand at the piano.
This is positive action. It hurts, we’ve got to work at it, but it does work! What are the factors involved? Firstly an insight into the harm of a particular habit. Then the resolute determination to change it. After that, the strategy. And then, most important, the prize! My father returned to the choir he loved.
But it’s not only against our negative side that we must take the offensive; we must put energy into the better side of our personalities as well. We need to set the mind to ‘positive’ from the first moments of the day. After the morning meditation practice, we should practise metta, loving-kindness. Metta means goodwill, openhearted loving-kindness, care, a universal impartial love. Again, it is by making an inner decision, suggesting to oneself a better way to be, that the ground for resolute determination is established.
By setting the mind at ‘goodwill‘, goodwill automatically arises once negative states have passed. This goodwill stands almost as a shield against habitual negative responses such as anger; it allows the heart to feel things from the other’s point of view.
Now, in this practice, it is very important to be able to offer love to oneself. At first most people think this is selfish, but actually it’s self-care; it is the difference between buying clothes to keep warm and buying clothes to keep up with fashion. Knowing the difference between self-care and self-indulgence is crucial to undercutting any feelings of hate we might have towards ourselves. Just as we can care and comfort others, so we can care and comfort ourselves.
In this vein, it is good to take one of the Perfections as a special practice. Maybe it’s patience: I’m impatient with myself and others; I’m easily irritated and angered. So let this be my special practice. As we develop one Perfection, we shall discover that the whole personality is affected and all the other Perfections are also enhanced.
Since our personalities and relationships are all interdependent and interrelated, this bettering of ‘me inside myself will begin to better my relationships with others.
So far, we have talked on a psychological and social level, But how does all this lead to spiritual insight, to the experience of the supramundane beyond the body and mind? The whole process of continual effort in awareness is all to do with purifying the mind. When the mind is pure, the spiritual faculties (confidence, effort, concentration, and awareness, and wisdom) can emerge and intuitive knowledge arise. So it is that through the development of the meditative life, our liberation from suffering is assured.
Practising as a lay person:
In the late seventies I began to meditate in the Soto Zen tradition with my first Buddhist teacher, Vajira Bailey in Birmingham. In August 1979 I underwent Jukai and committed myself to Buddhism as a Zen Buddhist at Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland.
During this period I was living in Birmingham where a Burmese monk, Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma, had set up a Vihara. I began to visit and out of interest joined a course of meditation in the vipassana technique with Achaan Sumedho, now the Chief Monk of the Thai Forest Tradition based at Amaravati Buddhist Centre near Hemel Hempstead. That experience convinced me that Vipassana was to be the technique that most serviced my needs.
Soon after I met my core teacher, Sayadaw U Janaka of Burma (Myanmar). He is one of the main teachers in the Mahasi Tradition. I went to spend six months with him in Yangon. It had a deep effect upon me. I returned to my former job, but I began to have thoughts about joining the Sangha in order to do even longer periods of intensive meditation.
First published in Buddhism Now February 1990
More articles by Bodhidhamma Bhikkhu here