Henry David Thoreau famously wrote that most people (‘the mass of men’) live lives of quiet desperation. Most of us probably wouldn’t describe our daily experience as ‘desperation,’ but there may be an uncomfortable feeling that we are drifting along, not having a clear aim, not having achieved what we dreamed about in the past and yet not knowing quite why.
Usually, this feeling is not painful enough to drive us into making any real changes, so the danger is that we can drift along like this indefinitely. Many people who have made significant advances in life have had periods of intense discomfort which have forced them to go inside, reflect and become more aware.
For most of us, there are things we can do to become clearer about where we are, what we want and how to get there. These practices may be less radical that sudden upheavals and painful experiences, but they can be uncomfortable – learning new things usually is – and a gentle persistence will be an important attitude to adopt if you attempt them seriously.
The kind of meditation the Buddha is said to have taught is most closely reflected in Vippassana or ‘insight’ meditation. The technique is extremely simple: no special apparatus or prior knowledge is needed, just a quiet place and a period of time. All you have to do it sit comfortably with a straight back and observe your breath. Nothing more. In time, the practice is intended to bring about clarity and insight into the nature of the self, and that of reality.
Some years ago, I attended one of S. N. Goenka’s famous ten day Vippassana retreats. The Goenka organization is a worldwide group dedicated to teaching the practice of insight meditation. The retreats are tough – many hours of meditation, only two small meals per day, basic communal facilities such as dorms, and a strict code of silence. Attendees are not allowed phones, books, journals or any other form of intellectual stimulation.
The Goenka courses are excellent in the sense that they force you to meditate – there are quite literally no distractions, and one is forced to face up to the many obvious – and subtle – ways in which we try to avoid a practice which is so alien to our restless mind and which forces us to face some uncomfortable realities. But for those not quite ready to take the plunge, there are plenty of online courses available, such as those offered by Wildmind. It is also usually possible to find a local meditation centre offering guided evening sessions.
Meditation is a way of focusing on the present moment in a very intense kind of way; the practice of mindfulness is a way of being present throughout the day. It just means watching yourself, being a silent witness to your own feelings, thoughts and reactions, in order to gain clarity about everything you do, feel or think. We usually move through life in a fairly unconscious state, responding to circumstances in a conditioned way, unconscious repetition of learned behaviors.
Becoming more mindful is not easy – it requires a great deal of practice but will, in time, lead to a great deal of clarity and insight into what drives us. With this knowledge, we can make better choices and exert more control over how we respond to situations and hence what we experience.
Two books I particularly recommended are Awareness by Anthony de Mello and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. De Mello’s book is full of anecdotes and stories which underline the importance and the (sometimes surprising) consequences of being more ‘awake .’
Our connection with the natural world
Although we might sometimes be tempted to see ‘nature’ as ‘something out there,’ separate from our experience, we are, of course, very much a part of the environment, and we naturally feel more centered and clear when we are close to our natural environment. We haven’t been living in houses and apartments for very long, and city living is a particularly new innovation which can be very stressful.
It is helpful to find time regularly to spend time in a more natural environment. This doesn’t have to mean trekking through the jungle – even walking through a park or a garden can bring great benefits. In Hong Kong, where I have lived for many years, it can be extremely difficult to find the time and the opportunity to get out into nature, but it is possible, and making a conscious effort to do so enables me to maintain more balance and perspective. If I can do it here in Hong Kong, I think almost anyone can!
Making friends with our mortality
Death is something we often try to avoid thinking about, and yet it is one of the very few things we all have to face up to sooner or later. Only when it is forced into our attention – such as when a friend or loved one dies – do we really think about it.
Some months ago, a very good friend of mine died after a long illness, and I was forced – as he was, although in a less intense way – to come to terms with the fragility and the brevity of life. I can personally attest to the clarity such a process brings.
It has been said that all our fears stem from an underlying fear of death, and so coming to terms with this most basic and primordial event may hold the key to living more fearlessly and achieving more. The rapper 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) attributes his success partially to having had to face death – quite literally. He was shot nine times just as he was on the verge of signing a lucrative record deal. He almost died and spent quite some time in hospital, alone with his thoughts.
I once attended a series of talks given by a Buddhist monk. He said the reason monks are so happy is because they think so often about death. They truly understand the shortness and the sweetness of life. They don’t waste time.
Facing the truth
Clarity, in a sense, is the key to everything – a deep understanding of how the world works and, most importantly, what drives and motivates us, allows us to act with skill and to be more successful and content. There is no end to the stories we tell ourselves and the mental gymnastics we perform to hide ourselves from the truth. But a radical and comprehensive honesty is a prerequisite for gaining clarity.
Fifteen hundred years ago, a wise man wrote, ‘Know the other, know yourself, and the victory will not be at risk; know the ground, know the natural conditions, and the victory will be total’ (Sun Tzu, The Art of War).
Photo by Robby Mueller