Learn a little more about Buddhism.
I read “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler in my teen years, and the ideas seemed sensible. Who doesn’t want to be happier, more compassionate and more calm?
Many years later, meditation and mindfulness keep coming up in the business podcasts and blog posts that I follow, so I thought maybe it might be interesting to find out a bit more.
This is another case of me completing the goal but not writing the post (like my last post about editing Wikipedia), though I’m still learning more and integrating the useful practices into my life.
To be clear, I’m not converting to Buddhism and I’m not interested in any of the spiritual/supernatural beliefs. I am very interested in the practices, to improve myself and to make life better for myself and loved ones.
Another way to explain the difference is someone doesn’t have to believe in Jesus (for example) to take on a lot of the teachings about compassion, kindness and humility.
I’m interested in a few other religions for the same reasons (how people think, non-spiritual ways to improve oneself) and have been down a few Wikipedia rabbit holes, but this is the only one I’ll write a post about.
How I learned
All of my researching starts with the relevant Wikipedia article, and I follow down the Wikipedia rabbit hole from there. The article for Buddhism is quite long, and I read all of it, but only the sections on the principles were relevant to my interest. I wanted to know about the main beliefs of Buddhism to differentiate it from other religions and to temporarily sate my curiousity about how other people think.
I also came across an old ‘textbook’ about Buddhism (“Concise History of Buddhism” by Andrew Skilton), which was like the Wikipedia article but much deeper. I found it interesting following how all the different schools branched off, and what happened when Buddhism was taken to a new country.
There were a few other blog posts and podcast episodes, but most just confirmed what I learned above.
I’ve read a few books by the Dalai Lama, and I would recommend reading any of those that catch your eye in the bookstore. They’re not really focused on the beliefs, or even much on the practices. The books often focus on the really basic principles, e.g. that all humans desire happiness and relief from suffering.
Another good book which I’m reading right now is called “Buddhism for the Unbelievably Busy” by Meshel Laurie. It’s about a recovering-workaholic single mum, the simple practices she introduced and how it affected her life. She also covers some of the beliefs in bite-sized pieces when they’re relevant to the practices and the specific life challenges of each chapter.
What I learned
One of the big things that stood out was the logic. It was very surreal to be reading about a religion and find out that a lot of the practices had this sense of being constructed with logic and debate, and tested against experience. At least that was the way it was presented in the things I read; I definitely have an incomplete knowledge of Buddhism.
There were plenty of practices that I wasn’t interested in, like vegetarianism, celibacy, living at a temple and meditating/chanting/etc all day.
The main practices that I was interested in relate to kindness, compassion, detachment from emotional turmoil, calm, focus, and contentedness/happiness/joy. The first one I associated with Buddhism was meditation, so I started there.
Meditation is one of the main (and most famous) practices.
I haven’t so far meditated daily for more than a week in the ‘seated, legs crossed, eyes closed’ position, which was something I wanted to test as part of this bucket list item. I would forget to assign the time, or I couldn’t sit cross-legged comfortably without wriggling, or I would keep getting distracted. I thought I was doing it badly or failing at meditation, or I’m the wrong sort of person for meditation. It turns out that I was thinking about all of those things the wrong way.
Meditation can be done anytime, anywhere, for as short a time as you want. No need to sit in a complicated lotus position or even close the eyes. Sit on a comfy lounge or do it while standing in line, it doesn’t matter. Wriggling and distraction is fine.
I heard this on a podcast, and it’s so important that I want to write it down to remember it: meditation isn’t about avoiding getting distracted, it’s about practising returning the focus gently.
It’s impossible for the brain to stay focused, that’s just how we’re wired. Meditation is a way to practise returning the attention, which will make us feel more focused. And a key word is ‘gently’, meaning that you shouldn’t beat yourself up for losing focus, and shouldn’t force yourself to focus. This isn’t a “no pain, no gain” scenario.
There are many forms of meditation, but one that works well for me and is quite popular is called ‘mindfulness meditation.’ It basically consists of noticing things that are happening right now, around and inside you. This helps keep your mind focused on the present, which reduces the past- or future-based negative emotions like guilt, anxiety and worry. I do it while standing in lines, or waiting while in the car, for as little as 15 seconds.
I also like other meditations that are use names like ‘compassion’, ‘kindness’ or ‘loving-kindness’ meditation. Instead of focusing on the present moment, these forms of meditation usually involve thinking nice things about people. One form starts with wishing good things to happen to your close family, then your friends, then acquaintances or work colleagues, then strangers and all humans. The progression is useful because it’s easy to wish good things for family, but it can take practise (useful word, that) to do it for strangers.
The shortest, simplest practice
The most startlingly-effective practice I tried was a simple, super-short exercise by Chade-Meng Tan in his book “Joy on Demand”: Pick two random people that you can see and to each of them think ‘I wish you happiness.’
Try it now. If you can’t see anyone, remember two random strangers you saw recently.
Don’t worry if you don’t feel the wish strongly, it gets easier with practise. Just try it and see how you feel during and afterwards. If you want to make the effect on yourself really obvious, try setting a reminder every hour while at work or study to do this 15 second exercise. Or spend a little longer thinking your wish for their happiness.
OK, you’ve learned enough about the exercise to give it a try right now, if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.
After doing this exercise twice the first day, I noticed that I had more patience, understanding and compassion for others. And the effect kept going for days after I stopped doing the exercise. I usually remember to do it every couple of weeks, and I love that it still works.
There were a lot of other short practices in the same book, so check it out if you are interested.
Where to from here?
I’ll continue experimenting with the practices, but I won’t be signing up at my local Buddhist temple.
I want to try meditating regularly and observe the effect it has on my focus, calm and life in general. Wish me luck with that!