Building Calm

New meditators, whether in recovery or not, are often surprised to discover just how much mental clutter they have been living with.  It can be a real revelation.  Some stay away from meditating because of a fairly steady stream of thoughts, sensations, and so on, which prevent them from paying attention to the rise and fall.

To grow in wisdom, we need insight.  That insight is not just theoretical.  It is born of our own experience which is used to validate the teaching we receive.  If we don’t have some measure of calm, we can’t do this important work of validation.

There are, of course, other reasons one might have for building calm in one’s life.  In addition to seeing more clearly in meditation, the work becomes easier to do.  Plus, a peaceful life has its own more subtle benefits.  One doesn’t have to race out to find and purchase the latest gadget.  Instead there is contentment with less.

It is important to remember, however, that a calm mental state is a transient thing.  Eventually, as the supporting conditions and circumstances align, the calm can disappear.  Meditators seeking calm as the outcome of their practice stay vigilant to preserve and recreate the calm as best they can; those seeking wisdom using the disappearing calm to see yet again that all things are transient, without satisfaction, and non-self.  Eventually, they are freed from the bonds of craving, hatred, and ignorance.

Here are some “how-tos” for building calm:

  • Choose calm and wise friends.  Speak with them about your spiritual practice.  They may have helpful suggestions.
  • Visit your teacher regularly and put into practice what he or she suggests.
  • Read books that are uplifting to your practice.
  • Be vigilant about your personal ethics.  If you do nothing wrong, you have no need to worry about being caught.
  • Take care of your personal appearance, the place where you live, and your possessions.  Messes can be stress-producing.
  • Don’t take on too many activities in your life.  Set boundaries and stick to them.  This applies to work, school, community service, household renovations and the like.
  • Pace yourself.  Use the AA slogan “Easy Does It (But Do It).
  • Do “First Things First”.  You can’t do everything you’d like, so do what’s most important first.  By all means keep a large task list so you don’t forget things.  Just don’t be overwhelmed by it.

Above all, continue to do your meditation.  It helps with settling the mind and seeing places in your life that could use some change.  Don’t be alarmed by the clutter in your mind.  You’ll get more skilful at handling it as you walk the path.



When You’re Not Sure What to Do

I remember the week I first met my meditation teacher.  He came to Canada to lead us in a retreat and enjoy Ontario cottage country.  He had been teaching for many years in England and we had a small group of meditators in Toronto under the care of one of his senior students.  He led some of our meditations, and met with us to discuss our progress.  It was very generous of him to come so far to help us make progress in our meditation.

Central to his teaching is mindfulness.  Mindfulness, or “bare awareness” as he has called it, has many uses.  It has attracted the interest of the medical and psychological communities as a tool for healing.  It certainly can be that.  It can also be a developed skill that helps to detect the arising of mental states like depression, giving people an early warning to apply useful coping skills.

But what about its uses beyond this?  The Buddha taught that it is possible to overcome all forms of mental dis-ease or suffering.  This is done by rooting out the wrong views we have of reality and mindfulness is the tool for the job.

My teacher told me that whenever I’m not sure about what I should be doing in my mindfulness practice, I should watch transience — the arising and passing away of things, particularly in my mind and body.  The more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realized that those things don’t last for very long, and I needn’t get too involved with them.  It’s become easier to accept more things as they are, and I suffer less. 

For many years I’ve applied my teacher’s advice, and have carried it into my recovery.  In AA, we say “This Too Shall Pass” and “Keep Coming Back.”  I’ve learned that many more things in life make a brief appearance and are gone.  I’ve also learned that his advice is like a signal beacon in a storm, showing me the way forward when I might other words continue to be tossed and adrift.  I simply have to steer in the direction he pointed me many years ago.