As you get started on the Buddha’s path, you will naturally wish tomodify your lifestyle and attitudes to support your practice. Here are afew changes that many have found useful in advancing along the path;they will help you overcome obstacles in the work you undertake as you read the following chapters. Do not be dismayed; some of these sug-gestions present great challenges that you may work with for quite along time.
Simplify Your Life
A good place to begin is by honestly assessing your habitual daily activ-ities. Look also at how you spend your time. Make a habit of askingyourself, “Is this task or behavior really necessary or is it just a way tobe busy?” If you can reduce or eliminate some activities, you willachieve greater peace and quiet, which is essential to advancing in thetraining.
Right now you may have many responsibilities to your family orothers who depend upon you. This is good, but be careful not to sacri-fice opportunities to calm your mind and develop insight. Helping oth-ers is important, but as the Buddha stated clearly, tending to your owndevelopment is a priority.
Cultivate the inclination to spend time each day in solitude andsilence, rather than always being in the company of others. If all yourtime is spent with other people, it’s easy to get caught up in unnecessaryactivities and conversations. That makes it harder to maintain a con-templative practice. No matter where you live, if you wish to deepenyour understanding and wisdom, from time to time get away from yourcommitments and spend time alone.
Of course, outer quiet is not always enough. Even in a quiet and soli-tary place, we sometimes find ourselves besieged by anger, jealousy, fear,tension, anxiety, greed, and confusion. We’ve also experienced timeswhen our minds are completely quiet and peaceful despite all the com-motion around us.
The Buddha explained this paradox. If we have little attachment andcraving, he said, we can live in solitude in the midst of a crowd. We canlet go of our sense of possession and ownership. Our loved ones, ourpossessions, our jobs, our obligations and ties, our views and opinions—all these we cling to. As we reduce our grasping, we move closer to innerfreedom, the essence of solitude. Real solitude is in the mind. A personwhose mind is free of the bonds of possessiveness and attachment, said the Buddha, is “one living alone.”And someone whose mind is crowdedwith greed, hatred, and delusion is “one who lives with a companion”—even in physical solitude. The best support for our practice, then, is awell-disciplined mind.
Some people may find that traditional rituals help them calm themind and remind them of what is really important. You and your fam-ily can chant together, light incense or a candle, or offer flowers to aBuddha image every day.These simple, beautiful practices will not bringenlightenment, but they can be useful tools to prepare the mind for adaily mindfulness practice.
A well-disciplined life can also be a source of happiness. Take a good look at your physical surroundings. If your bedroom is strewn withdirty laundry, if your desk is a jumble of books, papers, computer disks,and old magazines, and if last week’s dishes are still in the sink, howwill you be able to organize your mind? Practice develops from the out-side in. Clean up your house first and then move inside to sweep awaythe dust of attachment, hatred, and ignorance.
Practice also benefits from a healthy body. Yoga and other forms ofphysical exercise contribute to our mental health. At least take a longwalk each day.Walking is both good exercise and an opportunity to prac-tice mindfulness in solitude and silence.
A healthy and moderate diet also supports spiritual practice. Eatinga good breakfast, a reasonably substantial lunch, and a light supper willmake you feel comfortable the next morning. There is an old saying,“Eat your breakfast like a king, share your lunch with your friend, andgive your dinner to your enemy.” (I would add, however, that youshould not do something that could hurt your enemy!) Junk food, alco-hol, coffee, and other stimulants make it more difficult to concentrate.Eat to live, don’t live to eat. Try not to make eating a mindless habit.Some practitioners engage in an occasional fast, which quickly demon-strates that much of what we think of as hunger is really just habit.
Finally, discipline yourself to meditate every day. A session of med-itation in the morning as soon as you get up and in the evening before you go to bed will help you progress. If you find that you are unable tomaintain a regular practice, ask yourself why. Perhaps you doubt theimportance of meditation, or fear that it will not help you solve yourproblems. Examine your doubts and fears carefully. Read the life storiesof the Buddha and others who have used meditation to achieve perma-nent happiness. Remember that you alone can change your life for thebetter and that meditation has proven effective for countless others.Then apply a bit of self-control, especially at the beginning, to maintainthe discipline of regular, daily meditation.
The cultivation of goodness—generosity, patience, faith, and othervirtues—is the beginning of spiritual awakening.
Generosity is taught in every religious tradition, but it is a naturalstate of mind that all living beings possess inherently. Even animalsshare their food. When you are generous, you feel happy, and youdelight in remembering the recipient’s joy.
Also practice patience. Being patient does not mean giving someonefree rein to abuse you. It means biding your time and expressing your-self effectively at the right time, at the right place, with the right wordsand the right attitude. If you impatiently blurt out something, you mayregret what you say and cause pain.
Patience also means trying to understand others as best you can.Misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and suspicion cause pain and dis-satisfaction. Remember that others have as many problems as you—maybe more. Some very good people are sometimes in a bad place andmay say or do things unmindfully. If you remain patient in spite ofprovocation, you can avoid getting upset, and your understanding ofthe human situation will deepen.
Try not to blame others for your pain or expect others to make youhappy. Look within, discover why you are unhappy, and find a way tobe content. Unhappy people tend to make others unhappy. But if you’resurrounded by unhappy people, you can maintain your peace of mindby keeping your mind as clear as possible—and your patience andunderstanding might cheer them up.
Finally, have faith in your potential for lasting happiness. Thisincludes confidence in your religious teaching, in yourself, in your work,in your friends, and in the future. Faith or confidence leads to an opti-mistic attitude to life. You can increase your confidence through exam-ining your own experience. You already have evidence of your manyabilities. Have faith as well in those you have not yet manifested.
Find a Teacher and Explore the Teachings
A good meditation center and a meditation teacher who is sincerely will-ing to assist you are important aids. You don’t want a teacher whorequires submission or promises magical powers. You are looking forsomeone who knows more than you, whose life is exemplary, and withwhom you can develop a long-term relationship. The Buddha’s pathmay take several years—in some cases, several lifetimes. Choose yourguide wisely.
The Buddha described the perfect teacher as “a good friend.” Such aperson speaks gently, kindly, and earnestly, respects you, and is caringand compassionate.A good friend never asks you to do anything wrong,but always encourages you to do the right thing and helps wheneveryou need assistance. A good friend is learned and resourceful, ready toshare knowledge with you without hesitation.
Observe a potential teacher carefully. Deeds are more important thanwords. Daily contact with someone who has followed the Buddha’s pathfor at least ten years is a good way to see for yourself whether the teach-ings work. Beware of teachers who charge high fees; they may be moreinterested in your money than your spiritual development.
Just as a master craftsman trains apprentices, not just in the tech-niques of the craft, but also in the personal characteristics needed toapply those skills, so, too, a good teacher both guides your practice andhelps you make the lifestyle changes necessary to support it. If you arereally seeking happiness, take the time and make the effort to appren-tice yourself to such a master.
Next, follow the course of gradual training that the Buddha pre-scribed. The gradual training essentially involves learning how to quiet down and observe your thoughts and behavior and then to change theminto something more conducive to meditation and awareness. It is a slowprocess, not to be hurried. One reason why so many people drop medi-tation is that they haven’t taken the time to lay the foundation for effec-tive practice.
Finally, make time to read and discuss the Buddha’s teachings. Booksare readily available, as are discussion groups and classes. You can eventalk about the Buddha’s message online and via email lists. Readingabout and discussing the Buddha’s teachings is never a waste of time.
While these requirements for progress might seem obvious, veryfew of us live quietly, eat moderately, exercise regularly, and live sim-ply. Even fewer study with a qualified teacher, discuss the Buddha’steachings regularly, and meditate daily.This emphasis on simplicity andmoderation does not mean that you cannot start to follow the Buddha’spath right now, whatever your lifestyle. It simply tells you what youmay need to do over a period of years—or even lifetimes—in order toadvance toward the highest happiness.
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