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Maintaining Right Concentration in Difficult Times

Today I want to talk about my thoughts and opinions on maintaining Right Concentration in difficult times. To cut to the bottom line, we’re talking about meditation here. Not just the “sit quietly for a few minutes to clear my head” kind of meditation. This is about the long-term goals and affects of meditation. Frankly, that’s a far deeper subject than I can begin to tackle effectively in a short blog post. So I’m going to take a slightly different tack.

We need to learn to detach from the world while still being part of it. This means being able to see objective reality, so that when we do engage it’s to do the right things for the right reasons. This requires letting go of ego, of presupposed notions, and even of ideologies. It’s not a matter of questioning. It’s a matter of setting aside biases and filters and allowing ourselves to see things as they are.

Reality and Balance

In our current world, it means being informed without becoming obsessive. I need to know if there are a lot of new COVID cases in my area, or if it’s under control. That affects the decisions I make about going out, the risks and precautions that I will take. I want to stay aware of protests, of issues I can vote on, and ways that I can support causes I care about. Those things are important.

Yet they can’t be all-consuming. I don’t need to know every foolish thing that comes out of a politician’s mouth. I don’t need to know the precise number of coronavirus-related deaths in a particular city half a world away from me. The details of the latest atrocity committed by American police doesn’t change my belief in and desire for criminal justice reform. It’s wretched excess, and it does not benefit my physical, mental, or emotional well-being.

Right Concentration, then, can be thought of as seeing things as they are, placing them in proper context, and making informed decisions. If we did this, more people would see that not wearing a mask isn’t a political stance. That the actions of American police warrant the outrage they’re gathering. No one would put up with being lied to, blatantly and continually. In other words, we wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with.

May we all be well, happy and peaceful, may no harm come to us, may we all also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

Right Concentration in Difficult Times

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Maintaining Right Mindfulness in Difficult Times

Here we go. “Mindfulness” is such a buzzword at the moment, and that makes me disinclined to write about it. As much as I appreciate that people want to be genuinely present, and show gratitude for the things that so many people take for granted, there’s more to it. So today I want to talk about maintaining true Right Mindfulness in difficult times. Grab a snack, because this is going to be a little longer than usual.

The first thing I feel obliged to point out is that mindfulness is but one step along the Noble Eightfold Path. It is not the destination. The concept of mindfulness is complex and nuanced, and I can’t begin to scratch the surface of all that it encompasses in Buddhism in this short blog post. For practical purposes, then, I’ll narrow this down to dealing with the Five Hindrances.

What are we begin mindful of? The connection between our self and the world. What is the context for that? The things that we get attached to and hung up on that ultimately hold us back.

One

Those start with sensory desire. Seeking happiness through our senses. A lot of people see mindfulness as being aware of the sweet smells, the sound of birds chirps, and all of those things, so they can indulge in them. Those are wonderful, but those are fleeting things. To focus too deeply on them is the first hindrance.

Two

The second hindrance is ill-will. I am mindful of the neighbors banging around in the hall when I’m trying to meditate, and construction noise across the street when I’m trying to write. What I’m actually mindful of is the hostility and resentment I’m harboring because of those things. I need to accept reality as it is, address it and work with it, rather than doing nothing more than allowing anger to consume me.

Three

The practice of mindfulness is also meant to make us aware of our own mental laziness. We pay attention to things to remind ourselves that we too often don’t pay attention to things. A moment of mindfulness is meant to kick us in the behind for our lack of awareness when we’re not actively practicing mindfulness. The third hindrance is our own distraction, lack of inertia, and torpor.

Four

Another kick in the pants is that practicing mindfulness is meant to show up how restless our minds are. Being present means not worrying about that thing you need to do later. It’s not stressing over the state of the world. You’re supposed to let go of the thing the politician said yesterday, and what happened at the protest, and the problems that exist at the moment you’re being mindful. The fourth hindrance is the trouble we have calming our own minds.

Five

I know that in this very superficial overview the third and fourth hindrances sort of blur together, which makes the fifth and final hindrance more difficult to explain. It’s doubt and indecision. The simplest way I can put this is to use mindfulness itself as the example. When we lose sight of the path, and think that it would be wonderful to just dwell in this present, pleasant moment, that’s the fifth hindrance. Wondering whether we should keep going or just stop here because it’s comfortable and convenient, that decision point, that moment, that’s the hindrance.

 What Do We Do With This?

Mindfulness isn’t about seeking comfort. It’s about seeing and accepting our own discomfort, and our own flaws. Then we can do something about it. Too many people use it to (metaphorically) focus on the weather and ignore the climate. “I can feel the cool breeze, so I can focus on that and not worry about climate change.” “I’m not sick, and wearing a mask is uncomfortable, so I’m going to focus on my happiness and ignore the ongoing global pandemic.” “My interactions with police have been positive and I don’t see any overt racism in my spaces, so BLM must be a bunch of whining troublemakers”.

Right Mindfulness means not only seeing the bigger picture, but recognizing your place in it. Your attitudes, you privilege, your accountability. Then taking action based on that recognition.

Right Mindfulness in Difficult Times

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Maintaining Right Effort in Difficult Times

Today I want to talk about my meditations on maintaining Right Effort in difficult times. This one is paradoxically the hardest to explain and the easiest to understand. The original texts talk about wholesome and unwholesome states, so I want to break it down. Let’s wander down the Noble Eighfold Path!

Having Right Effort means, to use verbiage more familiar to Western audiences, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Yes, I’m a Buddhist, but my background is in Christian theology, so you need to forgive my occasional indulgences into quoting scripture. Right Effort means not allowing yourself to succumb to thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are bad for you. Make an effort to do things that are good for your physical and mental well- being.

For me, this year has been a time filled with anger. We should be angry. Inaction and ineptitude is costing lives. Justice has been denied to many for far, far too long. People have suffered in silence while their abuser walk around free from consequences. The key is to not allow that anger to consume you.

Get off of social media. I know that’s my personal dead horse to beat. Spend more time devoted to self-care. Right Effort is not feeding the trolls. It’s not getting sucked into the fear and hopelessness that dominates the zeitgeist right now. It’s making sure that you’re rested, and properly nourished, so that you’re able to do the things that are necessary, and effective, and truly impactful.

May we all be well, happy and peaceful, may no harm come to us, may we all also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

Right Effort in Difficult Times

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Maintaining Right Livelihood in Difficult Times

Recently a comedy news show did a full-episode take down of my former employer. It’s one of those shows that does investigative journalism better than most news agencies. The company they reported on is the one I’m referring to when I talk about my negative experiences in the corporate world. The place that was so wildly unethical it destroyed my physical and mental health. So today I want to talk about my meditations on maintaining Right Livelihood in difficult times.

This morning I was chatting with a friend about the rigors of self-employment. It’s not an easy path to take, but I don’t know if I could go back to working for someone else unless I absolutely had to. When I went to write today’s post and saw the scheduled topic, I laughed. It was as if the universe was reminding me of my privilege.

There are two parts to Right Livelihood. The first is abstaining from wrong livelihood. This is defined as profiting from trade in weapons, human beings, animals for slaughter, alcohol, and poison. Don’t harm living beings by cheating, harming, or killing them for a living.

The second part is about the lifestyle you’re supporting. Don’t possess more than you need. This is the part that resonates with me. I can make a living as a writer because I lead a minimalist lifestyle. In the corporate world I got sucked into having a McMansion and a new car and a lot of unnecessary possessions. To maintain that lifestyle I had to keep the job, and the job required me to do some pretty terrible and unethical (but entirely legal) things. As a self-employed person, no one can compel me to betray my morals, my values, or my conscience.

It was good to be reminded of that today.

Right Livelihood in Difficult Times

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Maintaining Right Action in Difficult Times

Today I want to talk about my meditations on maintaining Right Action in difficult times. This is another set of prohibitions. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. And don’t engage in sexual misconduct.

Some interpret these as total abstentions, which is where the trope about Buddhists being vegetarians comes from, and why monks are celibate. Because the Noble Eightfold Path overall tends to be about moderation, I interpret things situationally. We all know the parable of the man who served 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his family, after all. That wasn’t just, it wasn’t right, and strict adherence to a “no stealing” rule certainly wasn’t compassionate.

If you think that having a looser interpretation is just lazy, or providing loopholes, it’s not. It’s a lot easier to adhere to a narrowly-defined rule. Having to put thought into the ethics of individual circumstances is a lot harder. It requires compassion and critical thinking, rather than blind and regimented obedience.

I could try to analyze whether the actions of others during these difficult times were Right Actions. We all know that the world is in this state right now because they decidedly were not. The question is what my actions should be. How can I help those who have been killed, who have been stolen from, and who are coming forward with their stories of abuse and assault? At what point not helping, when you could, an act of complicity? If I didn’t do it, but I also didn’t do anything to stop is, did I engage in Right Action?

These are the kinds of difficult questions that we all need to be asking ourselves. Not just about the three prohibitions, but about every issue on the table right now. Don’t allow others to be harmed. Don’t allow others to go homeless and hungry so they might resort to stealing. And allow abusers to continue their sexual misconduct.

May we all be well, happy and peaceful, may no harm come to us, may we all also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

Right Action in Difficult Times

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