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8: Integrating Meditation into Daily Life
Hurnse Gaper, Hurwenen, Holland (25th July, 1998)
I would like to share some thoughts with you about integrating meditation into daily life. One thing is that we have to be very clear about our priorities. If we give a very high priority to meditation and the spiritual life, then everything flows from that. It will be difficult for such a person to say: "I don't have time to meditate". So one has to be very clear about this point.
Something we might try to do when we wake up in the morning is to spend a few minutes just lying on our bed listening to the sounds, or feeling the body. Perhaps we could do some loving-kindness meditation in the morning, just having this thought: "Today I hope I will get an opportunity to do good to others, to make others happy and to make myself happy." This might take five or ten minutes in the morning while we are still lying down.
Another suggestion is to try to be aware of the small things and routine things we do, like brushing our teeth: this is just a very simple suggestion. You can make a little effort to brush your teeth with awareness. We all know that when we brush our teeth we do it mechanically, habitually, while mentally we are elsewhere. This simple exercise in the morning, brushing our teeth in a very caring way, will help us to develop awareness, and as an extra benefit your teeth will shine in the darkness! Another simple exercise is that when taking a shower in the morning, you can just stand there for two or three minutes simply feeling the water on the body, just being with the feeling. It is a beautiful way to start the day.
During the day we can experience many so-called negative emotions, but can we make an effort to realise when the monsters are not there? Wherever you are, in the office or at home, and whatever you are doing, just take your mind back and remember the times the monsters came, and the times they didn't come. Very soon you will realise that you are spending more time without the monsters, and this can give you inspiration, faith and confidence in the Buddha's medicine. You will be surprised to realise what a good person you are.
Work can be seen as an opportunity to develop spiritual qualities like patience, caring, and compassion for others. I could draw up a long list of spiritual qualities relating to work. So it is possible to see the work you do as something you can use as a practice to help yourself and other people.
In your daily activities you can use your friend the breath to experience the reality of the present moment, even if only for a few minutes. You can make this connection throughout the day, especially when there is a build-up of work and tension and stress. Just pause for a few minutes. You can do it seated on your chair. You don't even have to close your eyes, people do not need to know you are meditating. Thinking of your friend the breath, you can come back to the reality of the present moment and stop this build-up of tension that has been happening so far.
You will be surprised that in the main Buddhist text that spells out the development of mindfulness and awareness, which is called the Satipatthana Sutta, it is said that even when you are in the toilet you can practise mindfulness and awareness! Going to the toilet is a very powerful way of preventing stress and anxiety building up. It is a very nice posture, and I don't know any place where there are restrictions about the time that you can spend in the toilet. Just relax, just use the breath, then if people actually do notice you, they will think: "It is one person who entered the toilet, it is another person who is leaving the toilet!"
A helpful tool in everyday life can be to develop a non-reactive mind. If you are in a situation where you are getting anxious or unhappy, try telling yourself not to react. In most of these situations it is reacting to the things that happen that makes the problem worse. We don't like something and we start resisting it. Naturally it becomes a battle, a tiresome struggle.
Another thing is learning to have a caring connection with the material things you use in your daily activities, like computers. It is a way of making a human connection with the computer, even though it is a machine. A very good friend of mine in Sri Lanka talks with his car, he touches the car, he has got a very special connection with his car. And of course now with the progress in technology cars and computers are talking back to you. These are interesting things I hear about when I travel in the West. A car can speak to you and now we are learning to speak back to the car or to the computer! If you try this, you'll realise that you make an entirely different relationship with the machine, as though with something that has life.
When I say this, I remember an old gardener we had working in the Centre. I considered him as one of my teachers. Although he was teaching he was not conscious that he was a teacher. He was teaching with his being, with his openness, with his gentleness, which is the real teaching. He would speak to the plants, he would speak to the trees, he would speak to nature. It was fascinating to watch because he had a personal connection with nature. One day we were talking and he told me that even in his dreams he sees nature. I asked him to meditate, and after a while I asked him what was happening in his meditation. He said: "I see plants, I see trees!"
I think that in our spiritual practice we also have to learn what we should forget. People often remember only their minuses and they tend to forget their plusses. That way we are using our selective memory to create more suffering for ourselves. This is a very interesting, a very fascinating area to work with. Someone who is self-destructive will remember only the minuses, only the failures, only the mistakes that he or she has made.
Sometimes there are people with whom we have problems, it may be the boss or some of our colleagues at work. At home it may be your partner or your neighbours. We all have situations like that in our everyday life. The greatest challenge we have is to relate to people in whom we see shortcomings and faults. In such a situation one important thing is to remember not to be surprised. Why should we be surprised? According to Buddhism, human beings behave in this way due to the three drives of greed, hatred and delusion, meaning ignorance, not knowing or ignoring reality. We all have these three drives in us.
When you see it in other people you realise: "What I'm having, I see in this other person as well." If you can really penetrate this realisation you can feel compassionate for people who display their frailties, their humanness, without getting angry, without creating a wound. The normal reaction we have is that we immediately give them a big minus. This is a very strong habit that we have, and we do exactly the same with ourselves. We don't see the Buddha-nature in us, we almost refuse to see the good qualities, so we need to make a special effort in this direction. In the Buddhist texts the Buddha often mentions the importance of reflecting on the good things that we have done. This can give tremendous confidence, tremendous joy and considerable lightness and encouragement as well. With this perspective you relate to the human frailties in yourself and others in an entirely different way.
But this perspective can create difficulties as well, because you may use it as an excuse for being reluctant to act when people misbehave. You may say to yourself: "Well, it is due to ignorance", and you don't do anything. If parents are practising meditation they might get the idea that their children can behave in any way they like; or if the boss is a meditator then the people working under him or her may be excused anything, because it is simply due to their greed, hatred and delusion. If the husband is a meditator the wife can get away with anything. But this is not reality.
The question is then: how are we to bring these two perspectives together? One way is that without getting angry, without immediately giving a minus, we might get the person to reflect and to understand why he or she is behaving in a particular way. You'll be surprised to learn that most human beings whom you meet don't know why they are behaving as they are. Their behaviour is simply a habit, it has become a conditioning, and so they behave according to certain patterns; or they may carry unhealed wounds. People are just behaving in a certain way and they don't know why. To give a person a minus and to show your anger and resentment to a person such as this is like taking a crazy man seriously and threatening him just as though he was a sane person.
But some people don't understand this language of understanding, and for such people you need a different approach. The best way to show you this is to relate the story of the cobra. This story comes from the Indian tradition:
Once there was a snake, a cobra that was meditating in a forest. This cobra was meditating on loving-kindness and he was really practising hard, saying: "May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful." He was having a beautiful metta meditation and he had such a nice gentle smile on his face.
Then an old woman came along carrying a bundle of firewood. This old woman couldn't see very well, she didn't recognise the cobra and she thought he was an old rope. She used the cobra to tie the bundle of firewood, and as the cobra was practising metta meditation he just allowed the woman to do that. "May you be well, may you be happy, may you be peaceful", the cobra thought. When the woman had taken the bundle back to her home the cobra escaped after many difficulties. He was in a lot of pain, bearing many bruises and wounds.
So then the cobra went straight to his meditation teacher and said: "I want an interview." The teacher asked: "What is the problem?" "What is the problem!" the cobra replied. "I was practising your meditation of loving-kindness and see what has happened to me!" In response the teacher said very calmly, "You were not practising loving-kindness, you were practising idiotic compassion. You should have shown her that you were a cobra, you should have hissed!" Sometimes we also have to show people that we are cobras. There are times where you have to assert yourself, otherwise people can start exploiting you. They can take advantage of your so-called loving-kindness. But you have to know when to hiss.
We can see the people we have problems with as our gurus, as our teachers. A teacher or a guru indicates to a person what is going through that person's mind. This is exactly what this guru, the boss or someone else, is doing to you, indicating to you what is happening in your mind: your minuses, your irritations. What a good guru you have in such people! Rather than focus on what the other person is doing you can look at yourself in the mirror the guru is showing you.
As you are still human you might get annoyed, you might get irritated, you might get angry, you might want to fight with the boss or whoever. If that happens, don't give yourself a minus; make friends with these unpleasant things, try to say okay to them, try to make them the object of your of meditation. You can use the same principle in relating to other people. If you can see the practice in this way your spiritual practice, your meditation becomes so interesting: a really fascinating adventure. You don't fear to make mistakes, you are ready to learn from everything.
One thing I have been encouraging meditators to do is to experiment, to explore, to discover and find out for themselves. Learn to be your own teacher, especially in daily life. Make your own discoveries about unpleasant experiences like physical and mental pain, and also about positive experiences like joy and bliss.
A point related to this is to have what is called "a beginner's mind", or "a don't-know mind." This is about having a mind that is humble. With that humility we have the openness to learn from anything and anyone. We can learn from a tree, a bird, an animal or a child. When you have this openness they also can be our teachers.
In this connection I would like to share an incident that happened to me some years ago. I was giving a retreat and it was the last day of the retreat. There was an elderly woman there, and in our final discussion she told the group that whatever she had learned from the retreat she had already learned from her dog! So I asked her: "Please tell me something more about your dog." She said: "Well, you told us to be in the present moment, and that's how my dog is; you told us to feel grateful for things, and that's what my dog is; you did something in the retreat called yoga, and that is what my dog does." In desperation I asked her: "Is there no difference between your dog and me?" "Yes", she said, "there is one difference. You talk a lot, but my dog doesn't!"
I was very much impressed with her, the way she was really learning from a dog. In our everyday life, to have this quality is something very important and beautiful.
In everyday life there will probably come situations where we might fail in our practice, so what I want to suggest is that if such a thing were to happen to you in everyday life, don't be surprised. We're still human, and as we are still human it is possible that we'll make some unexpected mistake. Here again, without giving it a minus, without feeling bad about it, without feeling the urge to give up your practice because something unexpected has happened, see if you can learn from it. Say to yourself: "What really happened to me?" In a very friendly, gentle way we can learn from our so-called failures.
Often meditators experience calmness and clarity in a retreat situation. They experience a sense of space and loving-kindness and they are hoping to continue that back home. This is the main problem in retreats: our monsters can go to sleep in a retreat, it happens very easily. Naturally, when you go back to everyday life they wake up and are very powerful, very active: "Now it is our chance!" That's why it is important to keep them awake during a retreat, playing with them, working with them, understanding them, creating space for them.
In everyday life they are bound to arise so don't be surprised, don't give them a minus, and don't give yourself a minus. Welcome them and see how far you can work with them, use them as your object of meditation. Sometimes you will succeed, sometimes you will fail. When you succeed you can say: "Well, the medicine is working." And when you don't succeed you can say: "Well, now I can't take the medicine, but I'll go home and take the medicine later." Then when you go home you can just take your mind back and see exactly what happened, why you got angry, what really provoked you. This is reflecting, this is taking the medicine, and our so-called failures become learning experiences. Life is not like Holland which is always flat; life will have many ups and downs. So when there is a big up, don't give it a big plus, and if you're down, don't give it a big minus. Both are just learning experiences, so try to feel grateful for both situations.
I always emphasise meditation of loving-kindness very much. I also try to use meditation of loving-kindness in different ways. One way is using this meditation to heal the wounds that are created in everyday life when you are bound to have difficulties in relationships. What is important is to discover a tool for healing them. So here meditation of loving-kindness can be something very, very useful.
Another aspect of meditation of loving-kindness is learning to make friends with whatever is happening, especially if it is unpleasant. This perspective can be used in relating to people you don't like and in relating to emotions you don't like. When such an emotion comes, just make an effort to make friends with it, to welcome it. There will be such a difference. When practising meditation of loving-kindness your relationships are bound to improve. To communicate with loving-kindness to others is a beautiful way to relate to oneself and relate to others.
In relation to loving-kindness one can also develop gratefulness. It is such a beautiful quality, but we don't really use this beautiful, wonderful quality. There are so many things that we can be grateful for, even very little things, but we take them for granted. For example, it is such a beautiful gesture just before we eat to feel grateful for our food. Feel grateful that we have eyes to see, there are people who cannot see. Feel grateful that we can hear, there are people who cannot hear. Feel grateful that we have awareness, there are human beings who have problems in their minds and they don't know what awareness and attention is. When you practise awareness, you can feel grateful for being able to do so.
If we can see little things in this way, then we learn to feel grateful for so many things around us. Feel grateful for the computer, feel grateful for the telephone. Feel grateful for the job you are doing, for it gives you a profession and money. Feel grateful for the boss who is teaching you, because you have a guru in the office. Feeling grateful is another way of saying: "No complaints." You are content with what is happening: "No complaints."
A last point that can help you in your practice in daily life is having spiritual friends. It is a beautiful relationship, a beautiful friendship to have, where you learn to grow together, to be a mirror to each other. It's good to join a meditation group, or even to start up a small group yourself. Just two or three people meeting periodically. Sitting together, discussing, doing meditation on loving-kindness, chanting and so on. This can be something that will really help us to integrate our meditation with everyday life.