Think of Buddhism as a toolbox, filled with tools, with which you can get through each day more skillfully, more happily, and more peacefully. Let’s start with the ring of the alarm bell.
Here’s where I struggle. My alarm goes off, and I can clearly see a little angel sitting on one of my shoulders and the devil on the other. The devil is telling me to turn the alarm off and stay in bed. It’s so nice and warm. It’s so cold out there. Out there is also my list of things to do which is inhumanely long. This list won’t find me here in bed. Ah… so tempting. Then the angel pipes in and reminds me that getting out of bed early will make for a more productive day which will reduce my stress level and will be very gratifying. The angel reminds me that if I get out of bed early, I can exercise, which is becoming increasingly important to my health as the years go on. The angel reminds me that I’ve been good about getting out of bed this week, so keep the momentum going. Then the devil chimes in… And so on, and so forth… The guilt of hesitating and the feelings of what I “should” do and why am I not doing it starts making me doubt my strength of character. I become convinced I am a weak person.
Using the word, “should” triggers memories of my teacher smacking up to my head* whenever I use the word “should.” (*Figuratively, of course.) That reminds me to dig out some tools from my toolbox. First, let’s get rid of this “should” stuff and the associated guilt and feelings of self doubt. I reach for two tools, karma and non-duality. With these tools I’m reminded that instead of thinking in terms of right or wrong, I can just view all actions as neither right nor wrong. They just are. And my karmic tool reminds me that Action A yields Karma A, and Action B yields Karma B. Not good or bad karma. But the karma (or consequence) of any action is what I own upon taking that action. It’s not a right or wrong thing; it’s just a cause and effect thing. This removes the judgement from the equation. If I stay in bed, it’s okay. I just won’t get as much done that day. If I get out of bed early, it’s okay. I’ll be able to exercise and have a more productive day. Either choice is okay.
Brushing my Teeth and my Morning Routine
At the age of sixty, standing in front of a mirror reminds me that the years are ticking away inexorably. I used to be in my 30’s. I’m still that same person in my mind. Truth be told, I haven’t matured much since my teens. My daughter will vouch for that. But when I look in the mirror, I see a sixty-year-old guy. Depressing. So I reach for my toolbox… what tools work for this? I reflect on impermanence. I will get old; there is no avoiding getting old. I will get sick; there is no avoiding getting old. I will die; there is no avoiding dying. Impermanence is just the way it is. Impermanence is what allows us to life. Impermanence is what allowed my daughter to grow up to become a wonderfully accomplished and emotionally mature young woman. The past doesn’t exist. The future doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is right here; right now. I can be in the moment and enjoy life, or I can be in the past or the future and wallow or worry. The choice is mine. Either choice is okay. But I must accept the consequences of my actions. So do I wallow in the past or worry about the future and feel miserable? Or do I embrace that I have this moment in time, right here; right now, and feel great gratitude. It’s my choice. Either choice is okay. I’ll think I’ll enjoy the moment.
That Common Sinking Feeling Throughout the Day
All day long, whenever let my guard down, thoughts try to take over. Thoughts of resentment, thoughts of regret, thoughts of worry, thoughts of craving… they all try to take over my mind at ever turn. What tool do I grab for this? I remember mindfulness. First I observe that my thoughts are trying to drag me down, and then I watch them and see them for what they are. Just thoughts. They are not real. They are not me. They are just thoughts. And in seeing them for what they are, they lose their power. That sinking feeling starts to lighten, which feels good, which makes the sinking feeling lighten that much more. It’s a virtuous cycle. Ah…
Life throws curveballs at you. That’s just the way it works. When that happens, I need a few tools. First I grab mindfulness from my toolbox. The mindfulness tool comes in different sizes. I may just take a deep breath. Or I may count breaths for a while until I feel calm. I used to grab another tool, the tool I called, “doing the right thing.” I’ve traded that in for the antidote to the three poisons–compassion, non-attachment, and wisdom. I try to base whatever decision I make on these three wholesome mental factors. There isn’t a right or wrong. There’s the path borne of compassion, non-attachment, and/or wisdom. I try to follow that path. If things work out well, that’s great. If things don’t work out well, that’s okay too.
I try to meditate daily for 30 minutes. And during these 30 minutes, I practice mindfulness. Am I looking towards some miraculous enlightenment while sitting? Not in the least. I’m practicing mindfulness so that my mindfulness will kick in more throughout the rest of the day. I am perhaps truly mindful for a handful of minutes throughout the course of the day. I flatter myself to think otherwise. But I know that when thoughts start dragging me down, mindfulness can kick in and save me. This takes practice; hence quite time for practicing meditation.
Having abandoned thinking in terms of doing the right thing, having abandoned thinking in terms of should and shouldn’t, and having abandoned dwelling in the past or worrying about the future, I will sleep well tonight.