Missing Life?

All that happens is here and now. If we are elsewhere, we are in fact missing out.

Or, as John Lennon put it:

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

We are told this a lot. But how do we come into the here and now? And, perhaps more to the point, how do we stay here and now?!

We have to pay attention. The best and perhaps easiest way to do this is to pay attention to the people around us. There are always people around us, including animals. Cherish them. Buddhists are aiming to love everyone, but we start with those right under our noses, thinking: “This person is important. This person’s happiness matters.”

As we develop this skill, our life develops an extraordinary richness and happiness.

As my Buddhist Teacher Geshe Kelsang says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Whenever we are with other people we should be continuously mindful that their happiness and wishes are at least as important as our own. Of course, we cannot cherish all living beings right away, but by training our mind in this attitude, beginning with our family and friends, we can gradually extend the scope of our love until it embraces all living beings. When in this way we sincerely cherish all living beings, we are no longer an ordinary person but have become a great being, like a Bodhisattva.

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

A recent article in the New York Times reports the findings of scientists at Harvard that people are happier when their minds do not wander from what they are doing.

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

This is the other side of the coin from the article, Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants.

If we are not able to stay in the here and now, we are naturally not able to enjoy it. And so we miss out on a lot. As John Lennon put it:

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Mindfulness is the ability to remember what we are doing without forgetting. If you check, when you forget something, it is because you’ve remembered something else — these are called “distractions”, and the job of mindfulness is to overcome distractions.  Concentration is the ability to focus single-pointedly on what we are doing. These two qualities of mind enable  us to stay in the here and now, and enjoy it, as opposed to missing out on it. Meditation uses both mindfulness and concentration and improves them both very effectively.

Buddha said: “From concentration comes peace of mind.” If we are peaceful, we are happy. People who meditate regularly do so because it makes them happier.

Enjoying, interesting, valuable…

This scientific study shows that we concentrate well on things that we really enjoy. (It also works the other way around, we enjoy the things we concentrate on.) No surprises with sex, it is generally more pleasurable than anything else going on around us at the time, so we are easily able to stay focused on it. Billions of people enjoy TV shows and movies because they draw us in, engage us, please us, such that we resent the distractions (namely the ads). Sport, acting, playing an instrument, art… all these activities have the power to hold our attention if we enjoy doing them more than whatever else is going on.

We also concentrate easily on the things we find interesting or fascinating. A self-described computer geek told me recently that, at work, software problems can keep him absorbed while the hours fly by.

Also, if we perceive something to be valuable or important, we do not find it difficult to keep focused — for example, people in emergency rooms saving others’ lives. Wild horses will not tear them away.

How to meditate well

So to be a good meditator, we need to enjoy our object, find it interesting, and/or find it valuable. In particular, we need to find the object of meditation more enjoyable, interesting and valuable than all the other thoughts that are bound to arise, or those other thoughts will definitely steal our attention.

You know how if you’re engrossed in a conversation, even if you are in a room full of other people talking, although the sound of talking appears to your mind you do not notice it? Whereas if you’re a little bored by your talking companion, you start surreptitiously looking over their shoulder, eventually exclaiming, “Ah, excuse me, there is someone over there I need to talk to.” Its a bit like that.

Before teaching how to do any meditation, Buddha would commonly explain the benefits of doing it. Our breath, for example, may not be sufficiently gripping to hold our attention if we do not know ahead of time how peaceful, relaxed, clear-headed and contented we will become if we simply follow our breath. If we understand the value of what we are doing, we engage in it fully, and concentration comes far more easily.

So because we are more likely to be motivated to stay on our object and not follow distractions if we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, at the beginning of any meditation it helps to spend a minute or two reminding ourselves.

(To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.)