“Last year a foolish monk; This year no difference.” – Ryokan (Zen monk)
“Just because it seems like the world is imploding, doesn’t mean that the world actually is imploding,” says Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist and one of Time’s Most Influential People in the World Today. His new book Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, cites reasons for optimism: child mortality, undernourishment and famine deaths, world population growth and oil spills (even though total oil shipped is up), have all declined; meanwhile on average, life-span and IQ are up.
Good news continues…
Pinker’s last opus—The Better Angels of Our Nature — disputed the notion that violence is on the rise. Research shows that people tend to judge the frequency of an event by how quickly it is recalled. Plane crashes make sensational news, so many people fear flying not driving, despite the odds of dying in a car crash being higher. It’s similar with terrorism: people’s fear is generally not aligned with the risk.
The bad news…
For Buddhist psychology, even if life is better, we remain existentially vulnerable. We suffer from birth through inevitable sickness, old age and death. We don’t get what we want or we get what we don’t want, or things change. Even if all the material problems were solved, suffering would remain.
But there is good news…
Happiness depends only on the mind; That is what must be fixed.
How are we to fix the mind?
“You are your own enemy and you are your own saviour.” – the Buddha
The Buddha saw that thoughts, emotions and actions are the source of suffering. Paradoxically, they can be the source of joy and freedom.
The first step in this transformation, conscious intention, is a purposeful approach of self-awareness and focused effort. When we take responsibility for thoughts and actions, we begin to live skillfully and reaffirm the direction for our life.
The following exercise can be done for 2-5 minutes sitting comfortably. Relax your body, stretch if necessary, especially your shoulders and back. Close your eyes if it helps to focus, take 3-5 deep, abdominal breaths, inhale to fill your torso. Slowly exhale and expel all the air you inhaled. Exhale from your mouth if it helps. Inhale… and exhale…
Once settled, contemplate the following:
What do I value deeply?
What do I wish for myself, my loved ones and the world?
Ponder and see if any answers come. If not, simply stay with the open questions. This may feel discomforting, since we usually expect ready answers. Trust that the questions are working, even if we don’t have answers. If answers come, acknowledge them and stay with the accompanying thoughts and feelings.
Next, conscious intention setting with directive phrases, eg:
Today, may I:
- be mindful of my body, mind and speech when interacting with others,
- strive to avoid hurting others,
- relate to myself, others, and events with kindness, understanding and less judgment,
- live in-tune with my deeper values.
With practice, we can check-in with our intentions in a minute or less.
Some doctors who have taken compassion training do this as they wash their hands after seeing a patient and report it helps them feel more centered and present for the next one.
You can even do a quick reset by chanting something, such as a few lines from the Four Immeasurables:
May all beings attain happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings never be separated from joy that is free of misery.
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment and aversion