Buddhism doesn’t change the world, but how we engage in it. Buddhism—in its application—is a fundamental shift of thinking, where we see that we are not fixed identities but a grouping of ever-changing processes and conditions continually in motion. That realization dissolves the concepts of self, separateness and isolation that are cornerstones to the illusions which cause our suffering.
Unfortunately, the gathering of Buddhist wisdom is much easier than its application. It requires a great deal of reprogramming of habitual conditioning that starts in the womb and is reinforced by our parents, community and our biology.
We all know the three heavenly messengers: sickness, old age and death. Intellectually, we comprehend our mortality, but do we really live our lives within the truth or our temporary nature? Of course we do not.
Instead, we spend our youth acting as if our lives were forever. We spend our young adult life working and planning for “tomorrows” and “somedays.” In our maturity, we doggy paddle against the currents of time to slip in a few more precious moments afloat. We spend so much time building, crafting, negotiating our lives that we often forget to live it.
If Buddhist practice does not bring us full enlightenment, it should at least bring us the wisdom, mindfulness and skillful nature to live the fullest life possible. Through meditation, education and application we can develop our aware consciousness to at least brighten if not enlighten.
One of the first starting points in this practice is to develop our ability to be still. Sitting still in meditation is the first challenge hurdle for any practitioner. Within seconds the mind goes from empty vessel into a tempest of images, thoughts and fantasies. The harder we try to push the thoughts away, the more they push back. Even when we let them pass by like driftwood on the ocean, we are always tempted to pick one up that looks particularly interesting.
This sort of “monkey mind,” where the mind jumps from thought to thought restlessly, is always present to some degree, but for beginners the monkeys are very active. Why? Because we are bored.
Boredom is the opposite of excitement. Excitement is stimuli created from the outside to tickle our senses. When we are conditioned to find pleasure from the external world, the thought of sitting still feels like deprivation and punishment. The mind then turns to fabricated external stimulation through fantasy, planning, and desire.
However, when the mind continues the practice of stillness, by steadily and actively opening our awareness to the world and ourselves at rest an interesting result occurs. We become more sensitive to the more subtle experiences that we were previously numb to before. It is possible to feel and hear our hearts beat. It is possible to experience the fascination of our bodies work, the experience of pleasure and pain without any cause other than just being present for it. We gain an insight and understanding into what is habit, illusion and reality. We focus on the microcosm that is within us and gain understanding into the greater world around us that feeds us oxygen, steadies us with Earth, warms us with the sun, etc. The present moment becomes vibrant and exciting.
Meditations, such as “being with the breath” (anapatasati), not only builds concentration but broadens experience. It opens our eyes to see, our nose to smell, our fingers to touch with a new sensitivity. Eventually, we can dig deeper and find mindful insight (vipassana) in our meditation: exploring the mechanics and origins of the arising of emotion and experience.