Recently, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama spoke to a large gathering of college students at the University of California, Berkeley. In his speech, he said, “You should prepare in your mind that life is not easy. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” This is good advice to all of us. How do we stay open to what is beautiful and nourishing while preparing ourselves for life’s inevitable challenges and difficulties? Can we develop a sense of happiness that survives even when outer circumstances are troubled or uncertain? Can we establish a foundation of peace within us as we deal with chaos around us? Even though we may not realize these aspirations completely, we can increase our ability to maintain well-being in all situations and find our way back to a balance point when we lose our way. There are ancient traditions that address these issues deeply. As a beginning, here are a few simple ways to cultivate a ground of being.
The most direct and immediate way to center ourselves is to turn our attention to the process of breathing. No matter what the circumstance, from the moment we are born to the time we die, we are breathing in, breathing out or holding our breath. By developing a conscious relationship to the ongoing process of breath, we establish a refuge that is available to us regardless of where we are or what is happening around us. By tuning toward our breathing, we create connection to a flow that reminds us how to open and how to let go.
Once a day, at the same time every day, simply rest and follow the movement of breathing for 5 minutes. Also, remember to notice the movement of your breathing throughout the day. Sometimes notice just 2 or 3 breaths. Other moments, stay with breathing for a minute or more. Do this a few times each hour and in as many different circumstances as you can: in the middle of a meeting, talking on the phone, walking down the street, brushing your teeth, or riding on the subway. Anytime you feel confused, tense, excited, scared, happy, stressed or any type of feeling, consciously notice a few breaths as you feel that. Include awareness of breath when you find yourself noticing a physical sensation, whether that is pain or pleasure. Step by step, train yourself so that awareness of breathing is effortless and a consistent touchstone in the changing landscape of your life.
To read a traditional Buddhist description of breath practice, see the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing translated by Thich Nhat Hanh. For a more detailed modern version of breath practice, see the description at Wildmind.
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. We are in charge of our attitudes.”
(Charles R. Swindoll quotes (American Writer and Clergyman, b.1934)
Preparing our mind to stay steady in all circumstances requires noticing our thoughts, particularly our attitudes. There are many ways to see what is happening around us and within us. The views we take are our responsibility but these views of the world are often conditioned and habitual. It is as if we have forgotten that we are wearing tinted glasses and mistakenly think that everything around us is actually the color we are seeing. We may come to realize that, although we actually perceive some of what is before us, we are also adding things that are not there and missing elements of what we are seeing. What is, is. But how we see things has flexibility. This is not the same as ignoring or denying what is real. This is an exploration of the stance we take in our life, our view of reality. When we discover choice in our attitudes and views, we become flexible and free to choose how we will relate to the circumstances around us. At this point, we become less a victim of circumstances and more a co-creator. Our first step is to become aware of our attitudes and filters. This requires noticing our expectations, assumptions, prejudices and preferences. We can then consider what might be true if we were to drop those attitudes or adopt different ones.
Choose one of the writing suggestions below.
- Write about three expectations you have of others.
- Write about three assumptions you have about life.
- Write about a prejudice you hold toward something outside yourself. (rejecting attitude)
- Write for 3-5 minutes on that topic without censoring. Keep your pen moving as much as possible. Don’t edit.
- Read what you wrote. Notice if these views cause you or others any suffering.
- What else is possible, even in theory? Write whatever comes to your mind, even if it is outlandish or seems impossible. This is a practice to open your mind, so don’t censor yourself. Consider whatever arises. Write at least three alternatives attitudes or other possibilities to your current expectations/ assumptions/ prejudices.
- You can also use this same process to become aware of your expectations, assumptions, and prejudices toward yourself. (ie, Write about three expectation you have of yourself.)
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.”
Verses on the Faith Mind – by Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-T’san, The Third Patriarch of Zen
Connection to a Bigger Perspective
“Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object; and on a certain level, it is. But when you look more closely at the tree, you will see that ultimately it has no independent existence. When you contemplate it, you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretches across the universe. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that sways it, the soil that nourishes and sustains it, all the seasons and the weather, moonlight and starlight and sunlight – all form part of this tree. As you begin to think about the tree more and more, you will discover that everything in the universe helps to make the tree what it is, that it cannot at any moment be isolated from anything else, and that at every moment its nature is subtly changing.”
— Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Facing life without awareness of our place in the larger web of existence is unnecessarily difficult. Like the tree described by Sogyal Rinpoche, our individual lives are dependent on the support of many other beings and circumstances, past and present, visible and invisible. Without the air around us, the field of gravity and the warmth of the sun, our physical existence would cease immediately. We are completely dependent on the elements. Thousands of things that we depend upon every day are the result of the efforts of many others we never meet and rarely think about. We are also alive now because of countless moments of support we received throughout our lives: support of our physical existence, our emotional health and our mental and spiritual development. Recognizing these realities can provide a powerful background from which to face any circumstances that may arise in our current life. This perspective also allows us to see things in their proper proportion. Connected to the big picture, the situation immediately in front of us may not seem so overwhelming.
- Imagine yourself as a tree. Imagine that there is a root into the earth for each person, place or idea that ever supported you from your birth until now. Let yourself remember those forms of support and imagine them still here in the moment, connecting to you through the ground beneath you. For example, this can include remembering a childhood friend, visualizing places you felt happy or recalling books that inspired you. Anything that nourished or supported you, briefly or over time, can be felt as a root to the ground of your being.
- Still imagining yourself as a tree, think of your life now. Imagine that each of your limbs is extended into spaciousness, receiving everything that supports you in this moment and each day. Again, include elements of nature, people, concepts, and physical places. Open to the nourishment on your inhale and send gratitude on your exhale.
Do this as often as you like, and especially when you are relating to circumstances that feel overwhelming. Do it so often that it is second nature to recall all the good experiences you have ever known and your place in that aliveness at this moment. It is our right and responsibility to keep our hearts open and our spirits nourished. Awareness of our relatedness to all life is a prime way to thrive.
“A tree uses what comes its way to nurture itself. By sinking its roots deeply into the earth, by accepting the rain that flows towards it, by reaching out to the sun, the tree perfects its character and becomes great. … Absorb, absorb, absorb. That is the secret of the tree.”
— Deng Ming-Dao, Everyday Tao
The success to maintaining presence in difficulty is to establish our capacities through consistent practice. “Practice makes Perfect”. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, in his research on expert performance and it’s relationship to practice, has determined that innate talent is not what leads to success but rather depth of practice, motivated by clear goals and open to feedback. The practices suggested in this article, or any process you use to develop inner capacities, rely upon repetition and consistency to serve their purpose. Whatever we do frequently and regularly is what we do well. If we worry a lot, we will get very good at worrying. If we criticize ourselves frequently, it will become second nature to criticize. These may be our current habits, but they can be replaced with other, more sustaining ways of being. Bit by bit, positive practices help us open to the best and keep us in shape to face the worst, if and when it comes.
Beyond Circumstance: An article, written by Christine Price, was published in ACHIEVE, a Japanese business magazine, Summer 2009.