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Learning How to Live January 21, 2012

Posted by Living Abundance in Uncategorized.
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(The following is a post I submitted in October 2010 for an online writing contest for Buddhists under 35, and the original entry can be seen at http://www.35u35.com/submissions/learning-how-to-live/.)

My path to the dharma was brought about by great suffering, and a deep sense of not being able to live my life.

When I was 20 years old, I was working my way through the second year of an Honours psychology degree, and faced a semester of the heaviest coursework I would ever have to experience. While I would emerge out the other end with high marks, a lot of sacrifices were made along the way to achieve those marks. A full course load and a jam-packed schedule meant that I had to plan almost the entire four-month semester worth of exams, research projects, and term papers. Every single waking moment of my daily life seemed to be scheduled. My obsessive need to maximize my work efficiency to achieve the most amount of productive work in the shortest period of time was my way of attempting to grasp control of what seemed to be an out-of-control, chaotic life situation.

In short, school became my life. When I wasn’t working on school, I was thinking about school to relieve the stress of this non-productivity. My mind was always consumed with plans on the future for what I would do and what project I would work on at the next possible moment. My mind had taken over me. I wasn’t able to not think about school, and these thoughts led to stress and anxiety. I had come to view time as a product, a currency, that could be split up into segments, rearranged, and scheduled months in advance. Time was something to use and manipulate, not to experience. I seemed to always have a sense of “time urgency”—I didn’t ever have enough time to do the things I needed. Time was always running away from me. The present moment was something to get through in order to get to the next moment.

At the end of the semester, I was free from my work, and was able to stop and reflect on the months that had just passed. During this reflection, a tiny quiet voice from deep inside of me spoke up, giving me uncomfortable thoughts: The past few months, was that being alive? The answer was obvious: No, it was just trying to get through a series of horrible situations. If this was the case, then the next obvious question was, When was I able to start living my life? Would it be at the end of a four-year degree? Were the upcoming two years just a waste of life to get to the end?

My mind seemed to be drawn to thoughts that have always resonated very strongly within me, specifically, thoughts about death. The crucial question was what if I died before the end of my degree? Would those years have been just a waste of my life?

I felt a deep sense of sadness and grieving at the loss of my “life”, the loss of the ability to be alive. I felt my life didn’t really have a purpose in and of itself. I felt helpless and hopeless, as well as disappointed in myself for letting things work out this way. I had been given a human life, and here I was, choosing to let it waste away. Nevertheless, I learned something from the shock of such an experience: I would need to find a way to be more balanced, or to have more time for myself and not sacrifice my being alive for perfection in my schoolwork. The only question was how to go about doing this?

I eventually, either I found a way to do this, or the way found me. Regardless, I came across a weekly meditation group I could attend regularly within walking distance of my home. The regular support of the group kept me inspired to begin a daily meditation practice, and the brief introduction teachings I heard on the dharma were enough to keep me intrigued and coming back for more.

But it wasn’t until my first weekend meditation retreat I became fully immersed in the three jewels, and I haven’t looked back since.

On the retreat, I underwent a truly transformational experience in the space of less than 48 hours. What happened? I stopped. I slowed down. I reduced my activity to only what was absolutely necessary: breathing, eating, and sleeping, but also sitting, walking, and dharma sharing. For the first time I tried walking meditation and walked with nowhere to go, just walking for the purpose of walking. My impatient, hurried self seemed to vanish. In the safe, warm, and supportive retreat environment, I found relief and refuge from an out-of-control mind, if only for brief moments at a time. But the small amount of time was enough to be assured that such a refuge existed, and that was all I needed. I lived in the moment. I experienced what it was like to be alive now, not in the past or future. I savored my experience, I enjoyed just being alive, breathing, sitting or standing or walking. I experienced mindful eating for the first time, which was a truly eye-opening experience of just how much taste and pleasure a single meal can provide when I took the time to enjoy it. I felt as if my senses were awakening after being dulled and repressed for so long. Before, I had closed my mind to my body in order to use only the mind, but now I felt connected to my body in a new, fundamental way.

Once I returned from the retreat, I had to learn how to reconcile the practice, which had provided me with so much benefits, with a student lifestyle requiring hard work, planning, and absorption in mental activity for hours on end. Nevertheless, my experience on retreat made me fully drawn into the practice, ready to learn all I could. I spent the next few months reading any meditation or Buddhism book I could get my hands on, and would not stop talking about it with the people closest to me.

With time, I realized that the joy and happiness I felt to such extremes on retreat—or as I liked to call it, the “spiritual ecstasy” I felt—was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that would only happen on rare occasions. The amazing feelings that arose were due, in part, to the stark contrast from the stressful life I had grown used to, and in part to the supporting conditions and surroundings on retreat. I was still inspired and determined enough to practice and find a spiritual avenue for healthy positive feelings and experiences. It took time to see that no matter how hard I tried while sitting, I cannot create happiness. Instead I can only create the conditions for happiness by sitting daily, attending groups, and reading or listening to teachers.

I have been practicing for three years, and have seen many changes along the way. Over this time, I have read numerous dharma books, attended many group meditation sessions, and logged countless minutes and hours on my cushion. I’ve witnessed many ups and downs and bumps along the way. There were spaces of time where I couldn’t bring myself to meditate, and instances where I questioned how applicable this was to my modern, North American life. At times my ambition seemed to much for me to live a life in the dharma, where there were times I thought other places would have answers to me. But time and time again I have returned to the dharma, returned to sitting, and found the answers there.

One aspect of the dharma that I have found useful so much is the teachings on impermanence. It seems that the impermanence of life and the knowledge of death that has always had a powerful impact on me. I have learned to fully contemplate the teachings of impermanence, and I have been trying to appreciate this truth in my everyday life. For me personally, there is a need to realize that I will die, and that I could die at any moment. This gives me a feeling that this life is indeed worth living in the only life I know I have—the present moment.

Another aspect of the practice I find so rewarding in my life is opening my awareness to the present moment. Each time I bring myself back to the present moment, I am able to awaken my senses and experience what is happening at a deeper, fuller level. I am able to savour and appreciate the entire range of sensory experiences that make up my human existence: the sight of sunlight on grass wet with morning dew, the warmth of a friend’s embrace, the sound of birdsong at dawn, the rich mixture of restaurant smells in a city street, the taste of a delicious meal. This practice has opened up a whole new and exciting avenue of how to engage in my experiences that I never knew was possible before. I feel more fully alive and enjoying my life when I am able to connect with the experience of being in a physical body. I feel like life isn’t just passing me by when I can dwell in the present moment and appreciate life’s joys and pleasures.

I have faced difficulties along the way, nevertheless. While dwelling in the past seems to not be a big issue for me, my mind still seems to be in the future much of the time. I notice scheduling and planning thoughts where I am trying to anticipate everything that could possibly happen and plan accordingly. Just as before, I still see that being stuck in the future prevents me from fully living my life, although it seems to have gotten better.

I have become more ambitious in applying mindfulness to as many aspects of my life as I can, but I still face struggles. I fully know that there are still situations where I don’t want to be mindful, I would rather block my awareness to what is happening. There are times where I actually am choosing to be in a rush to get through a situation as fast as possible, or where I feel I have to be as efficient as possible to get things done.

Finally, since starting my daily practice, I have only ever been in the role of student. Furthering my personal education seems to be a selfish, unrewarding task, where I am not fully able to benefit others. I don’t seem to be in a position of great power or influence on the entire world, in the grand scheme of things. I comfort myself in the fact that maybe one day what I have learned and achieve will have the potential to help others.

In the meantime, I am inspired by Buddhist teachings on how to live every day. I see that I need to take care of my overall well-being first and foremost before I can be of benefit to others. Thus, my primary purpose is to nurture myself and take care of my consciousness, before I can fully help anyone else. I also know that in every moment, every day, I have the opportunity to treat the people I interact and those closest to me with positivity, lovingkindness, and generosity.

Over and over again, I have been learning that as long as I am not fully living in the present moment, and my mind is in some future moment I want to get to, I won’t be able to live in that future moment when it comes, either. My mind will just jump to the next moment, and think that is the place to get to. It creates an endless cycle of grasping for the future and never stopping to contemplate where I am. This provides a powerful sense of purpose in how to practice. The practice starts right here, right now.

In short, when I reflect on what the practice has given me, I feel that I have a much deeper sense of meaning and purpose. I feel that the practice has given me the gift of life, where it has shown me how to be alive. I am learning what it feels like to be thriving, full of vitality and energy, and part of something bigger than myself.