In modern society, many of us simply do not have the time to take a moment to turn inwards and check up on how we really feel. Pressures of work, family life, and other aspects of society can turn life into a “to do” list, where we are constantly focusing on the next task rather than how we feel.
In Buddhist teachings, one of the central concepts is “Dukkha” which is sometimes translated as suffering, but a less gloomy and more accurate way to describe the concept is dissatisfaction or discomfort – a discomfort that is inherit in human life. The message of hope that Buddhism provides is that it is possible to transcend this discomfort and achieve a state of harmony.
But are we really always uncomfortable and dissatisfied? Many people would say that they feel fine and are perfectly comfortable – but if we really examine our minds we may see what the Buddhists are getting at.
As a human being, there is often a sense that there is something missing. On the most primitive level we feel hunger or thirst, which always returns sooner or later after we eat or drink. This is the reality of our existence as embodied beings, but even if our basic animal needs are satisfied we find a tendency to always be wanting something more. Acknowledging this tendency is, in Buddhism, the first step toward freeing yourself from it. This tendency is reflected in the wider culture, being taken advantage of with great success by marketing professionals coming up with ever more sophisticated ways to create new desires in us.
To put it in very simple terms, most of the time we are in a state of desiring something, and this places us in a state of discomfort as we are essentially telling ourselves we are incomplete. When we get the object of our desire, be it a bigger car, a new partner or simply a glass of water, we will often go straight on to thinking about our next object. We all know somebody who is constantly buying new things, or engaging in new relationships and projects yet who strangely seem always somehow dissatisfied.
Desire can lead to negative and destructive emotions such as self-hatred and jealousy, bringing us even further away from a state of harmony.
Buddhism provides the antidote to this state, teaching us to move toward a state of satisfaction and harmony, the present moment where there is no need for anything to be anything other than it is. One of the most powerful tools it uses to this effect is meditation. It is an interesting point that the word “Buddha” is a title not a name: it simply means “one who is awake”. So while others are sleeping, dreaming up all sorts of desires which can never be satisfied, the awakened person lives in a state of contentment and completeness.
Meditation is not the process of stopping thinking – that would be impossible. It is simply a way of giving us control over our thoughts and the power to break unhelpful patterns that bring us away from a state of harmony.
A simple meditation is just to focus on the breath, simply to feel it in the nostrils or another part of the body without trying to control it. A comfortable sitting position is essential, otherwise bodily pain will become too distracting. In fact the postures and movements which are now described as Yoga in the West were originally developed simply to strengthen the body to allow for longer and more comfortable periods of meditation – the true meaning of Yoga is actually best described as “Union”, and in a similar way as the Buddhist path is designed to bring us to a state of harmony through meditation.
The breath is often chosen as the object of meditation as it is the one bodily process that is both automatic and controllable. We breathe all day without thinking about it, but if we choose to we can slow down, speed up, or even hold our breath. It can be thought of as the point where the conscious mind meets the unconscious and is thus a powerful object of meditation.
Once you are in a comfortable sitting position and focusing on your breathing, sooner or later a thought will arise. Here you have a choice: you can engage with the thought, leading to further thoughts and emotions arising… OR you can simply acknowledge the thought and return to your breathing. This choice is absolutely the key to learning to take control of the mind, and in Buddhism it is said that this is what makes us so fortunate to be human.
The mind is not used to being quiet, so it will take practice, but eventually you will be able to access a place where there is no desire – where everything is OK just as it is. This is the present moment you hear talked about in so many spiritual texts, it sounds simple but for many of us, we spend very little time in this state.
Meditation is not simply about performing exercises such as the one described above, it is really a tool to bring this way of thinking into our daily lives, giving us the ability to stop and enter the moment, rather than getting caught up in thought patterns that take us away from a harmonious state. Of course there will be times when we have to think and plan for the future. But through regular meditation practice you will realise how many of these thoughts do not serve you, and just have your mind going in circles with no clear direction. Learning to bring your mind under control will allow you to drop the unhelpful thoughts and stick to those which bring you to an optimal state.
So can we truly be satisfied? The answer is yes, but it may take some work to get there!
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