Living Meditation, Living Insight by Dr Thynn Thynn
Meditation in Action
D: You say we can work on meditation in our everyday lives. What is the best way to start?
Thynn: Generally speaking, your mind is caught up with the external world and you react to the world in an automatic and habitual manner. When you are preoccupied with the external world, you grossly neglect your mind. The most crucial thing is to realise that you have to redirect this external focus of attention inward, toward your own mind. In other words, learn to be attentive to your mind in the context of daily living – as you eat, work, tend the children, cook, clean, whatever.
R: Do you mean I have to take note of everything that comes into my mind? That would be incredibly difficult. Suppose I’m driving. How can I notice my mind and still pay attention to the road?
That’s a very relevant question. It’s impossible to take note of your mind all of the time. You would tie yourself up in knots and run off the road. Instead of going to an extreme, begin by concentrating on one particular emotion in yourself. Choose the emotion that bothers you the most, or the one that is most prominent in you. For example, if you tend to be a temperamental kind of person, start by watching your anger. If you are easily hurt, then work with your mood swings. Pay attention to whichever emotion is most noticeable and troublesome to you.
For many people, anger is a good starting point because it is easily noticed and dissolves faster than most other emotions. Once you begin to watch your anger, you will make an interesting discovery. You will find that as soon as you know you are angry, your anger will melt away by itself. It is very important that you watch without likes or dislikes. The more you are able to look at your own anger without making judgments, without being critical, the more easily the anger will dissipate.
You may find in the beginning that you notice your anger only when it is about to end. That is not important. The important thing is to decide that you want to focus on your anger. Gradually the watching will become more and more natural. Before long you will notice, suddenly, in the midst of a fit of anger, that your anger drops away without warning. You will find yourself just being aware and no longer entangled in the anger.
A: Can that really happen?
Of course. You see, when you make an effort to turn your attention inward, you are reconditioning yourself. Before this, you were only looking outward. Now you are conditioning yourself anew to look inward some of the time. This looking inward can become habitual; it becomes a kind of conditioning in which your mind automatically focuses on itself at all times. In the beginning this may not be frequent, but don’t be discouraged. As time goes on, you will be surprised to find you are aware of your anger sooner than before.
This awareness, when it becomes stronger, will spill over to other emotions. You might find yourself watching your desire. In that watching, the desire will resolve and you will be left only with the awareness. Or you may watch sadness. Sadness is slower to arise and resolve than some other emotions. The most difficult emotion to watch is depression. But that too can be done with stronger mindfulness.
As you get into the swing of it, you will find your awareness becoming sharper. At the same time, the episodes of anger will get shorter and less frequent. As the intensity of anger lessens, you will find you are grappling less and less with your emotions. In the end, you will be surprised to find that you can be friends with your emotions as never before.
R: What do you mean? I can’t imagine ever being comfortable with anger.
Because you are no longer struggling with your emotions, you can learn to look at them without judging, clinging or rejecting them. They are no longer threatening to you. You learn to relate to your emotions more naturally, like a witness. Even when you are faced with conflicts and filled with emotions, you can be equanimous with them. As you become more stable, you can deal with conflicts without losing your emotional balance.
D: If my awareness becomes more and more sensitive, is it possible for my mind to know anger as soon as it arises?
Certainly. You see, as your mindfulness becomes stronger and more alert, your mind becomes more aware of its own workings. When mindfulness is complete and dynamic, then you know anger as soon as it arises; as soon as you know it, it begins to dissolve.
D: I have tried watching my anger and I can even see it die down for a moment, but it comes back again and again. Why?
In the initial stages, when mindfulness is still weak and incomplete, anger may die for a moment as you watch. Then, the mind may revert back to its old, habitual angry state. The old conditioning is still strong and you have yet to master the art of mindfulness. You are so used to intellectualising about the cause of anger – who’s to blame, why the conflict escalated, and so on. In fact, this is the mind going back to its treadmill of reacting in the old ways.
You yourself restart the old cycle of creating the anger, thinking about the anger, reacting according to the anger. Here you have anger-intellectualising-reacting in a vicious cycle.
The purpose of learning to pay attention to anger with a silent mind is to break this cycle of anger and the intellectualisation on anger.
The only logical solution is to stop intellectualising the conflict and simply watch your own mind in the midst of confusion.
R: Do you mean I should just stop thinking in such a situation and do nothing but watch my mind?
That’s exactly what I mean.
SD: Suppose I find it difficult to focus on anger. What should I do?
If that is the case, then focus on milder emotions like aversion and desiring. The same thing will happen when you do that. As soon as you are aware of aversion, you will find its intensity decreases; and when your mindfulness becomes strong, the aversion or desiring will resolve. As you proceed and build up your mindfulness, you will find you are able to go on to stronger emotions like anger, craving and greed.
SD: What about problem solving? How can I work my way through complicated situations in which anger and judgment interfere with mindfulness?
It is the same in complicated situations. Let’s be very clear – be mindful and watch without judgment. The mindfulness itself trains one towards a pure and simple mind, devoid of judgment and discrimination. To be mindful is a transcending act – transcending anger, transcending judgment. So, if you master the art of mindfulness, you will no longer react with anger or judgment, because paying attention is itself a transcending act.
M: What about other people? How can I react to others? I still need to react to get out of a conflict situation.
That is exactly the point. Most often you are just reacting rather than acting. You are reacting in the ways you have been conditioned. The way to stop reacting is to break that conditioning.
Stop rationalising. Stop the thinking mind and train it to experience itself by watching itself.
When the mind stops its roller-coaster thinking, it sees the entire situation as it is. This is crucial. The seeing, the awareness, is total.
You have to start with yourself. Make the decision to watch the mind and then see the process. Although you start with yourself, the actual seeing encompasses the total situation. You stop seeing yourself in isolation and see yourself instead in the context of the whole situation.
Then, there is no longer an outside or inside. You are part of the whole. “You” now, are not as important as “you” used to be.
Before, you saw your situation and your own importance and you needed to guard your identity, to control the situation. Now, when you see no division between yourself and others, when you are no more or no less important than others, only now are you able to grasp the whole situation, as it is, with clarity. Now you see very clearly where the problem lies, and instead of reacting, you simply act.
D: Can you give us an example from everyday life?
Would one of you like to give an example?
P: Let’s say my young child is crying because I won’t allow him to have something he wants. If I stop to look, I see my own annoyance and frustration. I even feel anger, because I cannot reason with the child. The moment I see that anger, it dissolves – and rather than responding to my son in anger, I am able to be understanding, yet firm, towards him. It’s strange, because suddenly I know how to deal with the problem. I don’t get involved in his anger and frustrations, or my own. He seems to pick up on this and he becomes calmer too.
Yes, that’s it. At that moment of seeing your anger, you transcend your own feelings of anger and frustration. You become centred. You no longer generate conflict, and because you are calmer, naturally the child responds. More often than not, your actions are so complete that the conflict will not continue; you no longer generate reasons for continuing the conflict. This complete, non-generating action in Buddhism is called right action, or samma kammanta in Pali. This right action is what I mean by meditation in action. By so doing, you are already on the Noble Eightfold Path.