By Andrew Goodman (Won Bup Woo), Psychotherapist
A theme that runs through Sotaesan’s teaching is that for Buddhism to flourish fully it needs to reach as many people as possible. Traditionally, Buddhism was practiced mainly in centers far removed from where most people lived. The public was expected to provide financial support and food to the monasteries, but not to practice meditation or study sutras.
Sotaesan extended Buddhism to reach ordinary people. Temples were located in towns rather than the mountains, and the distinction between monks and lay practitioners was reduced. In bringing Buddhist practice more actively into people’s lives, Sotaesan wanted people to integrate Buddhism into their every day lives. He said, “there will be no distinction between our work and our practice, thus if we handle worldly affairs well, we will be persons who practice the buddhadharma well, and if we practice the buddhadharma well, we will be persons who handle worldly affairs well” (WBS p.97). This quote means to me that Buddhist practice needs to involve being aware of how we approach dealing with other people and situations that arise in our lives on a daily basis. Sometimes this is how we respond to the small but recurring annoyances and tensions that come up. At other times it involves how we deal with major challenges and problems in our lives. I think most of us focus on how our meditation practice is going. Are we making progress or do we feel blocked. Meditation is crucial to Buddhist practice, but I think that it is also important to consider how we apply Buddhist concepts into our everyday lives.
It might seem daunting to ask oneself how can I apply Buddhist principles to the stress and difficulty of daily life. I might be able to be calm and kind when I go to the temple, but can I really expect to act that way at work or at home? The other side of the coin is that there are so many different concepts to choose from that there is a wide range of things to work on. For instance, one person might want to make an effort to be more generous toward others, another person might want to acknowledge being grateful for what he or she has, someone else might work on being more patient. The point I am trying to make is that you can focus on whatever dharma teachings that speak to you, that you feel a connection with, and to be more observant about how you attempt to apply them in interacting with other people. I am going to discuss two concepts, which I try to be aware of practicing in my life as a way of opening up a discussion about this area of practice. I think that just the attempt of trying to be more self-aware of certain habitual reactions is useful. I have found the concepts of conditional experience and mindfulness to be very helpful guidelines in responding to difficulties that happen in my life. Obviously these are two big topics in and of themselves. I am not going to so much discuss the essential qualities of conditional experience and mindfulness as much as try to give a sense of how they can be applied to certain situations.
Conditional experience refers to a basic Buddhist principle that our lives are shaped by various conditions in the world, as well as our responses to these conditions, and that conditions are both impermanent and constantly changing. Rather than describing our experience as either good or bad, buddhism uses the terms favorable and unfavorable conditions. The idea that life is always changing, and therefore conditions are always changing, is something that seems self-evident. Yet most people have difficulty fully coming to terms with this simple fact. The question arises why is this so hard for us to accept? One reason is that most of us cling to the wish that if we try hard enough we can control our lives. This is like trying to build a house on a foundation of sand. It isn’t going to work. Realizing that conditions are always changing and that many things are not in our control, paradoxically can give you more of a sense of control. When I can say to myself I will try my best to handle a situation, but I know I can’t control the outcome, then I feel more in control because I am clearer about what I can and can not do. I have found that thinking in terms of favorable and unfavorable conditions is extremely helpful. There is an implicit lack of judgment in the concept that helps me to approach a situation for what it is. So often people have the tendency to react to difficulties in their lives with the feeling that the situation is not fair. Common expressions like “why is this happening to me”, “it shouldn’t be this way”, “why don’t I ever get a break” reflect an attitude that the world is against the person, and that he or she is somehow being judged. These kinds of feelings and thoughts lead to depression, giving up, resentment, and bitterness. These reactions usually result in a person either withdrawing or getting angry, neither of which help deal with a difficult situation.
When you view a situation as an unfavorable condition you tend to focus on what is the best way to improve or resolve it. The question shifts from why did this happen, to where do I go from here? It is a little like the weather, you don’t get angry at the sky for raining or snowing, you adjust to the change in weather.
I think a lot of times in personal relationships people refuse to see others as they are, rather than the way they wish others would be. For instance, you may be married or in a relationship and there are a lot of things that you like and love about your partner, but you get frustrated at him or her for not changing a behavior that annoys you. Many couples fight often about certain recurrent issues because of an underlying assumption that “if my partner really loved me he or she would give me the emotional response I need”; they would be more attentive, more open and communicative, would understand me better.
Much of the time though we don’t see two important things about the reasons for tensions in a relationship. One is that our partners are not frustrating us intentionally, but that they are struggling with their own problems and issues. The other factor is we don’t look at ourselves honestly or openly and acknowledge what we are doing to push the other person away, or how do we contribute to power struggles. We often hold onto a wish of how we want our partner to be, rather than deal with the realistic mix of positive and difficult traits in their personalities.
We tend to think of conditions as being external factors that effect us. I think that the concept of conditional experience can be applied to how we see ourselves. Our bodies, our minds, even the self are all conditional because they are always changing and they all have limitations. By viewing ourselves as a compilation of conditions we can be more patient with our own internal unfavorable conditions such as upsetting thoughts, feelings, and moods. This can help us let go of being overly attached to a particular feeling or mood. There are times when it seems so important that we get what we want, but a day later it doesn’t seem so necessary and we ask ourselves “why did I get so upset about that”? Having a perspective that our internal experience can be a succession of favorable and unfavorable conditions that pass and evolve helps decrease feelings of disappointment and frustration that often eat away at us.
One aspect of mindfulness is the ability to be in the moment. Buddhism teaches us that the only reality that exists is in the present. The past is not only gone, but it is also clouded by memories that are tinged with regret, guilt, denial and other emotions. The future is subject to so many variables that are outside of our control that it is unknowable. Although we are all aware of this, we persist in spending so much time reviewing the past and anxiously anticipating the future.
Focusing on being in the moment grounds and centers us. One reason is most of the time if we are in the present we realize that we are okay. We are safe, nothing terrible is happening. When there are problems, then dealing with what is at hand, rather than the fear of what may happen, helps us to break down a problem into more manageable parts. By taking one step at a time we don’t get overwhelmed and can handle a situation more effectively.
We often associate the idea of being in the moment with a pleasant feeling of appreciating life, going with the flow, feeling calm. I think all of these things are a part of being able to live more in the present. I also think that mindfulness can actually help us a lot in our work environment. Often people are stressed at work because they have more to do than they can possibly manage. They may in fact be getting pressure from managers about deadlines, or there is a culture in the workplace that places great importance and status on working as hard as possible. There are additional internal pressures that come from our feelings of ambition, of being self-critical and never feeling we are doing an adequate job, and being competitive towards others and assuming our co-workers are judging us.
By trying to shift to a perspective of mindfulness within the workplace, we can develop the ability to focus on the specific task we need to do in the moment. Being in the moment at work I think involves taking satisfaction in doing a good job and then letting it go and moving on to the next task. Letting go means not going over and over again in our minds about whether we made a mistake, did we make the best decision possible, what will people think of us.
Shinryu Suzuki described this kind of letting go in the following way: “usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to concentrate on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived notion.... When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward” (ZMBM, p47).
Suzuki talked a lot about doing an action with leaving no trace. The traces he is referring to involve the kind of repetitive thoughts that we engage in as a way of constantly evaluating ourselves. This kind of obsessive thinking is often an expression of our anxieties and insecurities. It certainly takes us outside of the present.
On another level traces refers to the karmic attachments we bring to an activity which reinforce and perpetuate negative consequences for ourselves and others. It is not only negative karmic activity that we need to let go of though; we also need to let go of positive karmic attachments in order to really be free. In this sense leaving no trace means leaving no karmic imprint.
The other facet of mindfulness I wanted to discuss is the use of mindful thought and speech. Developing mindfulness in everyday life I think involves trying to widen your perspective on situations as they come up. We are often very reactive and defensive towards other people, we can quickly feel criticized, controlled, or rejected. Then we counterattack by responding with a stubborn no when we feel controlled, by shifting the blame to the other person when we feel criticized, and becoming withdrawn and distant when we feel hurt and disappointed.
Mindful thought and speech involves giving ourselves more inner space to consider a situation before we respond. We usually need time to sort out whether we are overreacting to someone because they are touching on a sensitive nerve of ours, such as a tendency to feel unappreciated in relationships. At other times we find ourselves in the middle of dealing with other people’s issues, someone comes on as being very demanding because he or she does not expect to be treated with respect or consideration. Many times it may be a mix of how someone initially acts and then how we respond. This is a juncture where mindfulness and accepting the variability of favorable and unfavorable conditions meet. If we realize we cannot control many situations or conditions in life that can help us to be aware that the most we can do is to try to voice our opinions, feelings, and thoughts in a reasonable and non-aggressive way. We can ask other people to consider our needs and perspective; we can’t make them agree to do what we want.
When we can express ourselves clearly, directly, and concisely we are more likely to get a positive response. When we don’t get the reaction we want then we need to be able to accept the situation for what it is. If we can be patient and tolerate our disappointment without retaliating, the situation sometimes changes and evolves without our overt efforts. Being patient can be a mindful choice of responding in the most positive, least destructive manner. Often you may get an initial negative reaction to something you want. Waiting to address it at another time, or asking the other person to think about what you have suggested, can be part of a necessary process of working out disagreements either at work or at home. Time can be an important factor that enables ideas to percolate for both people so that an eventual compromise can be reached.
I have talked about two things that I try to focus on in everyday life. There are many more to choose from. Whatever you practice will be helpful in sorting out challenges and difficulties in life, and help to cultivate a calmer, simpler mind.
This in turn helps being quieter during meditation. The stream of distracting thoughts that we all have experienced decreases if we are making more mindful choices in the various interactions and situations that we encounter in our lives. We have less experience that we regret, and less feeling of anger and anxiety that we carry with us. Everyday practice helps develop stillness and silence in meditation. Meditation helps to develop responding mindfully to the shifting conditions in everyday life. Maybe this is one meaning of the saying that “Zen mind is ordinary mind and ordinary mind is Zen mind”.