Strength of Mind

This blog was taken from my latest book ‘Open Awareness, Open Mind’ find it on Amazon and Kindle.

I think it’s true to say that we become distracted very easily and find it hard to stay focused for any length of time. The mind lurches from one thing to another at a rapid speed, and then we wonder why our mind is not at peace. How can it be, it’s exhausted! So, learning how to stay focused on a single object, thought, emotion, feeling, body sensation or experience is going to cut down on distractions and help strengthen our minds.

One of the best ways to achieve single-pointed awareness is through meditation. To achieve the most from meditation you also need to like, or have a positive attitude, about the practice. It’s a long-term process. It isn’t enough to do a 10-day meditation course and think job done. That is just the starting point. If we want to live peaceful, purposeful and fruitful lives we need to develop a mind of resilience and mettle. Without fortitude of mind we will never achieve peace.

To have strength of mind, four mental qualities need to be developed. These are purpose, persistence, sensitivity and analysis.

What’s your purpose?

When I first started meditating many thoughts would pop into my head and start to hamper my meditation practice. I would suddenly start busying myself with non-essential work just to delay meditating. It was easy to lose interest because I wasn’t seeing any immediate results. I even started to lack confidence because I thought I wasn’t doing it right. This was all happening because I hadn’t set clear goals or purpose for my practice. I just sat down and started meditating because I heard it was good for me.

So, the starting point to strengthening your mind is to understand why you are doing the practice, what you would like to achieve and how you will know when you have achieved it. All of these will give you a sense of purpose.

If you wish to succeed in meditation it is important to like the process. We need to allow it to capture our imagination and then it will become easier to get absorbed in it. We cannot just go through the motions and hope it magically leads us to where we want to be. We must have a purpose, an objective.

When we go to the gym our objective is to become fitter. When we go on a diet the purpose is to lose weight. When we learn a musical instrument, we do so because we wish to play it proficiently. My point here is that whenever we start something we should always have an anticipated outcome that guides our planned actions.

Meditation is a practice and as with all other practices, we need to be aware of how much attention we are paying to it, how closely we observe what we are doing, how effective we are being and how much our personal wellbeing is improving. By looking at these points your practice is going to improve.

Once you have made all these points clear in your mind, you will have your purpose and will be ready to move onto the next point.

Can you persist?

Even though we may have a clear purpose to practice, without persistence, success will evade you. To simply have a purpose is not enough, we need to take action. Otherwise, our purpose becomes ineffective and intellectual.

Single-pointed awareness can only be gained through a force of effort and persistence. When these are applied diligently and in a balanced way, only then can our awareness become single-pointed. When I say balance, I mean not too forceful and not too lax. Consider how a guitar string needs to be tuned for it to give a perfect note. If it is too loose or too tight you will not strike the right sound. Our persistence in the same way needs to be tuned.

We have to be willing to put in effort, even though the results may not be noticed immediately. It is no good just to do a meditation practice when we feel like it. I understand that it is not easy to sit when we are tired, or to sit through pain or even sit for extra minutes, but if we don’t, we are not going to progress on the path.

It is inevitable that there are going to be times when you can’t be bothered to do the practice, or you are too busy or too tired. These are the times we really need to stick with it and push through any obstacles we may have created in our mind. This is a key point to remember, these obstacles are all created by your mind. You are the one stopping yourself from meditating.

Are you sensitive?

The next strength is sensitivity. We need to be sensitive about what we are trying to gain from the meditation, what effort we are putting in and what progress we are making.

We also need to be sensitive to what state our mind is in when we come to meditation. Sometimes our mind is overactive and at other times underactive. When this happens, you need to strengthen the mind before you focus on your object of meditation. If you are overactive, you can slow your breathing down. You can also ensure you are breathing from your abdominal region and not your chest. When you are underactive, you can speed your breath up a little. You could even do some light stretching exercises to wake yourself up, such as yoga, mindful movement or Tai Chi.

Try to be fully aware and engaged with what you are doing and what results you are getting. Understand that you are not looking for future achievements or looking back over past experiences, you are being sensitive to what is happening right now, right in this moment.

When we are breathing, we need to be sensitive to each breath. When we are sitting, we need to be sensitive to how it feels to sit. When we look at our minds as though we are looking in a mirror, we need to be sensitive to our mental state. We have to be watchful of every aspect of the meditation.

Going through the motions is just not going to cut it. You have to make the practice your practice, and we do that by having a purpose, putting in effort and being sensitive to what is happening during the meditation.

So, how sensitive are you to your practice? Look at these following points. Are you sensitive to the effort you are putting in? Sensitive to your state of mind before, during and after meditation? Sensitive to the quality of your breath or any other object of meditation? Sensitive to what hindrances are stopping you from meditating? Give these questions some thought.

Do you analyse?

Analysing is another key to strengthen the mind. We need to clearly examine our tendency to fall into bad habits and wrong practices. It also involves learning to work with an imperfect mind and balancing our mental faculties.

We need to analyse our meditation practice and not just sit there and hope for the best. If the mind is in no mood to focus on your object of meditation, don’t give up, investigate other topics your mind may wish to focus on. Try something different, like focusing on a candle flame, chanting or focus on body sensations.  Explore new possibilities. If your new approach works, continue with it. If you notice it is not really working, be willing to stop doing it and try a fresh approach.

I learned this the hard way. I was given a practice and I ploughed on for over a year, even though it simply wasn’t working. I foolishly believed that my teacher knew better. We need to understand that we are all different and there isn’t one practice that suits everyone. We must analyse our practices until we find one that works for us. Now, I am not encouraging you to flit from one practice to another. Once you find a practice that works, stick with it, but until you find one that works it is fine to experiment with different meditation styles. Remember, we are not looking for the most popular practice or a practice that proclaims it will lead you to enlightenment. We are looking for a practice that works for us. A practice that will calm our minds and make our lives less crazy.

So, this is how we can strengthen our minds through various meditation practices. I hope you have understood that more than anything else, it’s what you bring to the meditation that determines the results you’ll get. This places the responsibility and the power with you.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

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Buddhism and the LGBT+ Community

Is being lesbian, gay or bisexual forbidden in Buddhism? Is it sexual misconduct? Let’s look at what Gautama Buddha and Tibetan Buddhism say.

Gautama Buddha stated in one of the five precepts that lay-people should refrain from sexual misconduct. He never really elaborated on this point, only to say that a man should not fool around with a woman that is married or betrothed. He did of course say in the Vinaya, which are the rules for monks and nuns, that they have to take a vow of celibacy, but no such rule was made for lay-people.

So, he left this precept sweet and simple. In some ways this is a good thing, as I don’t think holy men and religions should concern themselves with the sexual act. However, as it is not specific it does give others the chance to interpret it in a way that suits their world view and allows them to tag all of their prejudices onto it. So, here are my personal views on the subject.

I believe that Gautama Buddha taught the five precepts to steer us away from causing harm to ourselves and others. It should be noted here that the precepts are not commandments and are five things we should try to refrain from. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not breaking any marriage vow or commitment. It should also not be abusive, such as sex with an under-age person or rape, and this includes forcing your partner into having sex. So, I believe in this way a consenting, loving LGBT+ relationship isn’t in any way against Gautama Buddha’s teachings.

In Tibetan Buddhism it is viewed quite differently. In fact, Dalai Lama has come out (excuse the pun) and said that from a Buddhist point of view lesbian and gay sex is considered sexual misconduct. Now he is not deriving this view from the discourses of Gautama Buddha, but from a 15th century Tibetan scholar called Tsongkhapa. Here is a brief outline of Tsongkhapa’s medieval thinking:

  • He prohibits sex between two men, but not between two women.
  • He prohibits masturbation, oral and anal sex.
  • He does not allow sex for anyone during day light hours but allows men five orgasms during the night.
  • He allows men to pay for sex from prostitutes.
  • He gave a full list of what orifices and organs may and may not be used, and even what time and place people can have sex. 
    (It must be noted that Gautama Buddha never made these distinctions).

As you can see Tsongkhapa heavily weighed the odds in men’s favour – not surprising, as he was a man. In fact, it appears his list only seems to be aimed at men.

It would appear Tsongkhapa was trying to force lay-people to adhere to rules that were actually meant for monks and nuns. This way of thinking stems not from Buddhism but is a cultural bias.

It does seem that Tsongkhapa’s view is out of step with today’s society and so we have to go back to what Gautama Buddha meant by sexual misconduct. He wanted us to reflect on our acts and see if they bring harm or are helpful. So, in this context, I believe if we want to know if an act constitutes sexual misconduct or not, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Does the act cause harm or does it bring joy?
  • Is the act motivated by love and understanding?
  • Would you like it if someone did it to you?
  • Is there mutual consent?

If there is mutual consent between two adults, it is not abusive and is an expression of love, respect and loyalty, I believe it cannot be classified as sexual misconduct, irrespective of whether it is between a man and a woman, two men or two women.

As I stated earlier, I do not believe religions should get involved with people’s sexuality. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of their control. A recent study published in the journal Science found that there is no such thing as a single ‘Gay Gene.’ Instead, a person’s attraction to those of the same sex is shaped by a complex mix of genetic and environmental influences, similar to what is seen in most other human traits.

Sexuality is dynamic and there are a wide range of different sexualities – some say as many as seventeen. It certainly isn’t as clear cut as most religions would have us believe. They like to put us into neat little heterosexual boxes entitled men and women, but life is not like that. Take transexual people for instance, who experience a gender identity inconsistent with their assigned sex. They have an overwhelming desire to transition to the gender with which they identify and not the one they were assigned. They certainly do not fit into the heterosexual boxes, and neither do bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals or queers, and why should they just because some religion or religious person wants to control people’s sexuality.  

So, in answer to the two questions posed at the beginning of this piece, I believe no form of sexuality should be forbidden in Buddhism, and no one should be made to feel guilty for loving someone else. I also believe no form of sexuality should be regarded as sexual misconduct, as long as it is not causing harm and is loving and consensual.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

This is an update of a blog first posted in August 2014

Chasing Happiness

Searching for happiness seems to be one of the most important things in people’s lives today. Here in India, we’ve got the ‘Art of Happiness’ program, in Bhutan they’ve got their gross national happiness (more…)

The Illusion of Permanence

This is a guest blog post from Stan B. Martin and is taken from his latest book entitled ‘Illusions on the Path.’

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live – Marcus Aurelius

Our inability to face the fundamental truth of our existence, the fact of our physical mortality, was identified by the Buddha as one of the greatest causes of unnecessary suffering in our lives. Of course, we all understand to some degree, at least intellectually, the fact that we will die. But this thought is something that we may wish to sweep under the carpet for fear it might hamper or depress our plans, our dreams, our aspirations, and above all our pleasures. This fear is so ingrained in us that talk of death is frowned upon by many as a taboo subject. To turn the conversation in the direction of our mortality is deemed morbid and ill-mannered. It is certainly not to be found on a list of appropriate topics of conversation to be had at adinner party in the company of polite society.

In light of this cultural bias, it is then interesting, that the Buddha recommended not only that the thought of our death should be cultivated and meditated upon, but that it should become one of the main motivating forces in our lives. It is not that we are dim witted and can’t accept our own mortality. That’s not the problem. The problem is a habitual and harmful belief that deceives us. It’s the idea that death will most certainly not come to us today. This has become our modus operandi. This tacit and unconscious belief plays out in our lives and paints a panorama of future plans and dreams ahead of us. It afflicts us with a sense of complacency and lethargy. We act as if we will be here forever.

It’s as if we are wearing blinkers that obscure this indisputable truth and allows us to mindlessly enjoy the pleasures life has to offer. Of course, the idea that we will all live long healthy lives is good for business. It’s so easy to assume that we will reach the average lifespan of eighty years or so.  When we are young we all think we are immortal, it’s only old people who die. It may seem clever to hedge our bets in this way, then we can just put death out of our minds. When I lived in London and was meditating on the uncertainty of the time of death, I used to walk around cemeteries to read the headstones and contemplate this idea. Seeing flowers next to a small grave of an infant was heart wrenching. Likewise, descriptions of young men or women dying leaving behind their grieving parents. No age group is immune from the possibility of death. As we get older and start to lose friends and family this becomes clearer. But what does not seem to weaken amongst most of us is the enduring belief that it won’t happen to us, certainly not today. Millions cling onto this belief right up to the moment of their death.  Perhaps this is a reflection of some evolutionary instinct, to ignore the most basic fact of life.

To fully accept and face the reality that at any moment our worldly activities and dreams can come to a final end is of course not good news that is easily digested. But the moment we are born, it is the only certainty that we can lay claim to. The experience we call life will one day come to an abrupt halt. We will lose everything and everyone we hold dear. The more you meditate on this reality you don’t discover some silver lining within this horrific realisation. We don’t find some consoling belief that perhaps we really will live forever, we can escape death. It’s more that through accepting this truth, by familiarising ourselves with it, by getting used to it, we gain a new perspective on our life. We don’t necessarily become morose, start wearing black clothes and telling everyone around us about our existential angst. Instead we slowly realise that the time we have left to live is precious. Like any commodity in the world that is not only scarce but is also decreasing moment by moment, the time we have left is extremely valuable. Every moment counts.

To practice living everyday as if it could be our last, widens our perspective and shifts our priorities. It’s not that we should stop planning for the future and instead go on a bender, but rather we become less attached to the plans we make. We become quick to forgive ourselves and those around us for the mistakes we all make. If these could be our last moments together, why argue over trivialities? Why not make this time we have together the best we can? Why don’t we try to be the best people we can, in the time we have left? I often think that people who are given news from their doctors that they have only months or weeks to live are so fortunate to receive this news. They at least have time to set their lives in order and avoid the shock, fear and regret that often comes with the sudden onset of death. Instead of waiting too late to act and put our own lives in order, why not start today? A life guided by the consciousness of death naturally leads to choices being made that enhance the time we have left and eliminates regret from our life. We can make the best of the precarious situation we find ourselves in.  A life lived without regret is a life fully lived.

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We seek security and comfort not only by conveniently ignoring our mortal nature but also by projecting permanence on the objects we attach ourselves to in the world of our everyday experience. The world we wake up to every morning takes on the appearance of being solid and familiar. It seems like it is the same sun that rises every morning and illuminates the familiar horizon and landscape that we inhabit. The people in our lives appear the same as those we said goodnight to the day before. We find satisfaction picking up our favourite mug and making our morning brew. Repeating our daily rituals gives consistency and shape to our lives that feels both intimate and comforting. This sense of solidity makes us feel safe.

The Buddha’s insight into the impermanent nature of the world we live in, a view that counters the solid appearance it often takes, is confirmed by modern science. We learn at school that the appearance of solidity in even seemingly dense objects like rocks is illusory. If we zoom into these objects, we discover a universe of atoms and electrons whizzing around space in a state of flux. Every object we perceive is not simply vulnerable to change but is in fact constantly undergoing change, moment by moment. Change is one of the only fixed attributes of the world we live in. Everything that comes together through various causes and conditions gradually wears down and breaks up.

Even the Himalayas, the world’s greatest mountain range, is subject to constant instability. If it is not the rumblings and earthquakes brought on by the advance of the Indian continental plate below, it is the constant climatic pressures of rain, snow, heat and cold that push down on the mountains from above. If the mighty Himalayas are susceptible to such forces of change, how much more so are the lives of comparably insignificant individuals like us? If change is such an essential quality of our life, it then begs the question, why are we often so resistant to it? What are those things or people in our lives that we are so invested in that the thought of change sends shivers of fear down our spines? How much of our time and effort is spent attempting to hold back the inevitable force of change running like an undercurrent throughout our lives?

If I wake up one summer’s day and am not greeted by a sunrise but instead by the sound of thunder emanating from dark forbidding skies I might feel unnerved. If I then turn towards my partner and find her missing and in her place I see a note recounting her decision to leave me for good to live with her secret lover of many years, I might start to feel shock. Despite this, the force of habit may take me to the kitchen where as I reach out for my coffee mug I notice my hands shaking. The next moment my trusty mug is on the floor in pieces. This is the last straw; my life is in tatters.

Change is inevitable, it might not always play out in such dramatic or tragic ways, but small disappointments and frustrations crop up and afflict us throughout our lives. My new car breaks down. I drop my cherished smartphone and crack the screen. My girlfriend stops loving me. My hair starts turning grey. OMG! We slowly wake up from the old Hollywood fantasy that we can live “happily ever after”. The Buddha’s bleak message of “old age, sickness, and death” may paint a more realistic story but probably wouldn’t sell out in movie theatres. Hollywood might counter this with “facelifts, health care, and cryonics”. Any takers out there?

We may have abandoned the comfort blankets and teddy bears from our infancy only to replace them with more adult surrogates later in our lives. We all share the instinct to crave safety and security in our lives. We want something to cling onto that we can trust and rely on. This instinct proliferates a full range of unskilful behaviours including anxiety in its many forms, fears, jealousy, possessiveness, manipulative and controlling behaviours, anger and violence to name a few. Despite our strategies to find comfort and security in external objects the Buddha pointed out the futility in such endeavours. Our life is inherently insecure. To become comfortable or familiar with this truth takes much thought and meditation, but it results in dispelling many of the unskilful and disturbing responses that afflict our minds. To take refuge in and familiarise ourselves with the impermanent nature of ourselves and the world we live in frees us from our attachments and brings us into more sane and compassionate relationships with those around us.

This is an extract from ‘Illusions on the Path’ by Stan B. Martin.

How Can Buddhist Mindfulness Help Battle Social Media Stress?

This is a guest post from Lucy Wyndham.

Social media is meant to unite people from all walks of life yet studies have shown that it often misses its mark, with many users feeling depressed, anxious, and stressed after using it. Buddhism has existed for thousands for years yet it is amazing to think that its eight-fold path houses the antidote to the stress of modern technology. (more…)