Tag: buddhism Page 1 of 2

The Suffering of Everyday Life

During the time that I was married, I subjected my wife to a litany of jokes involving obscure references to my various interests. I am fairly (but not entirely) certain that this was not what caused our marriage to deteriorate. Over the last year or so of our marriage, one of my go-to comments was to utter the phrase, “this is dukkha” in annoying or unpleasant situations, which would invariably elicit a roll of the eyes. Although I employed it as humor, it was always in a situation where I actually recognized the workings of dukkha in a mundane situation.

four noble truths

The first of the Noble Truths is often translated as, “Life is suffering.” The Pali word “dukkha” is somewhat problematically translated as “suffering” in many places. There isn’t really a perfect translation in English for the word dukkha, but I have seen it translated as “stress”, “unsatisfactoriness”, and “anxiety”, as well as the common, “suffering.” All of these definitions seem to have an element of truth to them, but the full sense of the word is complex, and plays out in our daily lives in several different ways. It is also closely tied to another Pali concept, “tanha,” which is often translated as “craving”, “desire”, or “thirst.”

Everybody Hurts

Some things just hurt. Pain and discomfort of all kinds are just part of the package deal that we get with the gift of human existence. We stub our toe and it causes physical pain. Someone treats us unkindly and it makes us feel bad emotionally. We lose someone we care about or watch an important relationship deteriorate, and we feel sorrow. These kinds of experiences are inevitable, and in the moment we will feel a kind of pain or suffering when we are confronted with them. There is no avoiding this kind of pain.

Where we really begin to feel suffering is through our desire that things be other than they are. We crave pleasant experiences, and we feel aversion toward unpleasant ones. When my wife told me that she was unhappy in our marriage, I naturally felt sorrow and pain. This pain was unavoidable. It was when I wallowed in my desire for things to be different than they were or when I chose to try to avoid the reality of my situation through heavy drinking that I really experienced dukkha. When I reached the point of being able to be mindful of my grief, and accept it, that was when I began to see my suffering diminish somewhat.

The Things That Happen (and the Stories We Tell About Those Things)

Another form that dukkha takes – probably my personal poison of choice – is through the stories that we build on top of our lived experiences. The unpleasant experience that we have had just isn’t bad enough, so we pile onto it with self-recriminations, self-pity, and various other forms of self-torture.

Personally, I have long specialized in a form of this that involves feelings of guilt and shame. I do or say something that I regret, and then proceed to replay the incident in my head over and over, telling myself what a fuck up I am, or that I’m a bad person. I have generally liked to mix in obsessions about what other people are thinking about me, despite the fact that nobody is spending as much time thinking about me as I am.

There are a number of different ways that these mental formations can manifest themselves. Thoughts of anxiety, inadequacy, and judgment all add suffering to our daily lives. We relive uncomfortable events that are sometimes years in the past, or build out anxiety laden scenarios set in the future.

As we practice mindfulness, we can learn to recognize these mental formations for what they are, mere illusions created by our minds. Through that recognition, we can learn to observe the arising of the thoughts, let them play out and pass away, rather than giving them energy to run on a constant loop.

reaching out
Photo freely given by David Monje on Unsplash

You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On

Sometimes our suffering isn’t produced by negative experiences, but by our relationship to pleasant ones.

Everything in and around us is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. This can become a cause of dissatisfaction when we experience something that we like, and try to cling to that experience. I’ve written about this a little bit previously.

On some level, we know the experience won’t last, but we try to keep it going anyway, and we suffer when it goes away. Not only that, we generally don’t actually enjoy the experience as much while we are in it, because we are so stressed out about the prospect of it disappearing.

This expression of dukkha can show in both insignificant and more meaningful situations. Sometimes it might be something as mundane as enjoying the warmth of the sun on a fall day, then becoming frustrated when clouds move in. Other situations might be more impactful, such as being in the middle of the euphoria of a romantic relationship, only to suffer as you watch that relationship come to an end.

If we can learn to be present in these situations, we can enjoy them while they last, without clinging to them as they pass away. I can say from personal experience that this isn’t easy, but my meditation practice has definitely helped me be more present moment-to-moment, and to cling less. It also helps me to be aware of the suffering that I experience when I do cling, and to pull out of the nose dive more quickly when I do indulge that clinging.

This is Dukkha

Although I am still very much a baby meditator and mindfulness practitioner, I have seen that there is a path out of the suffering that we experience every day. The most important step for me has been learning to identify dukkha as early as possible. Although I have joked about it, that moment of saying, “this is dukkha” is the important one. Recognizing that we have moved beyond the normal pain of an experience, and have entered into clinging, aversion, or harmful story telling; that is the moment when we have the ability to respond skillfully, rather than simply reacting mindlessly.

Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more aware of our internal temperature. We can see when we are starting to feel things going sideways with our disposition and can examine what is going on. Are we desiring something we don’t have or experiencing something we don’t want? Are we clinging to something that is going away? Are we creating movies in our head that are exacerbating an unpleasant situation? Once we’ve recognized the situation, we can accept things for what they really are and let go of the mental baggage that we are bringing into our experience.

This is all part of a growth process. I am more often able to recognize when I am causing myself unnecessary suffering than I was when I started on this journey, but I still find myself often succumbing to it. The more time I spend practicing the Dharma, the more skillful I become. The important thing is to keep practicing, and when I experience periods that feel like failure, accept those as a part of the path and begin again.

Changing My Relationship With My Mind

I am not my thoughts. It might sound dramatic, but this simple combination of words might have saved my life.

There is a voice that speaks to each of us from within our own minds. This voice speaks with authority and certainty, often building superficial edifices atop the foundations of our lived experience. These stories that the voice crafts can take on a variety of tenors, but for many of us, they tend toward rumination on our inadequacies and mistakes. This is the voice of our inner critic, and for most of my life I have believed that this voice was me.

Early in my life I was taught to neatly divide the world into dualistic categories. Things were either right or wrong; righteous or sinful. I first noticed my inner critic as the voice that would let me know what a worthless sinner I was. “Man, you are a horrible person,” the voice would tell me. “I can’t believe you are thinking about that.” My inner critic extended beyond my moral failings, however. The voice would churn over whether something I had said had caused someone to dislike me. It would criticize me for my appearance, and for not being “cool” enough. It even paralyzed me from taking certain positive actions, because I would craft some long chain of events that my action could set into motion.

There have been a couple of times in my life when my relationship with this voice has taken me into a dark place. Once, in my early 20s, I was struggling with loneliness and some really difficult circumstances, including a brief period of homelessness. Into the void in which I felt trapped came the voice, telling me that I was a fuck up who had ruined his life, and that I would never escape from this hole. It told me that all of my friends had left me because they couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I believed every word that the voice spoke to me. Thankfully, things did get better, and I came out of the experience without harming myself too much.

A couple of years ago, when I first started having real problems in my marriage, the voice took me to a dark place again. I had built so much of my identity on this relationship, that I began to lose myself when things began to crumble. The voice began to tell me that I was going to live the rest of my life alone. It told me that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love. I heard the phrase, “I hate myself,” repeated on a nearly constant loop. This time, I began to think that everyone’s life would be better without me in it. Again, I believed every word that this voice spoke to me.

This was my state of mind when I first discovered meditation. I want to be clear from the beginning, I don’t believe that meditation is a panacea that will solve all your problems. The truth is that I should have pursued help during this period of my life. I wallowed in this state for nearly a year, when I probably could have eased some of my suffering by going into therapy, or at very least opening up to some of the people around me. That being said, one of the first things that I learned as I began to meditate did completely change my life. In fact, given the trajectory that I was on, it might very well have saved my life. 

When I first heard the phrase “you are not your thoughts,” I felt like I had come into shelter from standing in the middle of a tornado. I broke down in tears. The realization that this voice that had plagued me my entire life was just a thought, and that I could just acknowledge its presence and watch the words fade away without accepting them as truth, was liberating in a way that I had never experienced. I didn’t create these thoughts, they just sort of happened to me. Why did I take ownership of them? Why did I believe these thoughts?

I began to practice noticing when the voice started to speak to me. I worked on not trying to fight the voice, but just to notice it, watching it live out its half-life and slowly fade away. By not pushing it away or latching onto it, I noticed that the voice seemed to lose a lot of its power over time. The thoughts didn’t completely go away, but I didn’t feel owned by them as often. 

Whenever people ask me about how meditation has benefitted me, it can be hard to know what changes to attribute to my practice. My life has changed in a lot of positive ways over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I can specifically pinpoint what things have caused my growth in different areas. I have read a number of really great books from a variety of perspectives that have informed my thoughts recently. I’m also just a little older and have benefited from lessons that experience has taught me. The one thing that I can definitely attribute to meditation, however, is the relationship that I have with my inner critic. The ability to less frequently attach to this voice has helped me be more compassionate with myself. I don’t really catch myself descending the downward spiral like I used to. When I do start to listen to that voice berating me, I tend to catch myself before I get too far along the path of self-judgement and recrimination.

The Practice

I am not an expert on meditation, so this is just me sharing what my personal experience has been. This is the basic practice that helped me initially. I’m happy to discuss this further with anyone, so please feel free to comment below, email or tweet me if you have questions or comments.

I have found that having a regular meditation practice is a key component to strengthening the ability to notice the thoughts as they arise. The basic concentration practice that I used was simply to focus on the feeling of the breath going in an out. I start of with a soft mental note of “in” on the in breath, and “out” on the out breath. Eventually (sometimes within a single breath, sometimes longer), you will become distracted by a thought popping into your head. This might take the form of thinking about a situation at work, fantasizing about that person you have been thinking about asking out, or thinking about how uncomfortable you are on your cushion; it can be any of the countless thoughts that come into our minds throughout the day. When you notice that the thought has arisen, note it softly as, “thinking.” Then return your focus to the feeling of your breath. Repeat as often as necessary. No need to judge yourself or get frustrated. This is how meditation works for all of us, so no reason to beat yourself up, no matter how often you get distracted.

After establishing this practice, I started to apply the same technique off of the cushion. Throughout the day I might notice that my inner critic has made an appearance. When I noticed that old voice chiming in again, I just noted that I was “thinking,” took a beat to watch the thoughts play out and disappear, and then moved on with my life.

My hope is that my experience can help someone else who might be experiencing the same thing I did. May you have peace and live with ease!

31 Day Precept Project Wrap-up

This month didn’t exactly go according to script (whatever that means,) so I didn’t end up posting very often about my month-long project of focusing more intensely on the Five Precepts. To be honest, I wasn’t as active in examining some of the precepts as I had intended to be either. My practice turned out to be a little more focused on some stuff that I had going on in my personal life, so some of the energy that I had originally planned to spend on this project got somewhat diverted. That being said, I did want to do a wrap-up on the project, and what I will be taking away from the experience.

First Precept

The First Precept is focused on abstaining from killing, and I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle as a part of my work with this precept. There were some accidental lapses in this effort early in the month, but I managed to be more consistent after the first week or so. I found that taking this step felt really good. I experienced a lot of joy in knowing that I was eating in a way that caused less suffering and did less damage to our planet than I have at various points in my life. In regard to my practice, I can say that adhering to this commitment generated more mindfulness about the choices that I made in regard to my diet. I intend to continue to eat in a similar way, but have decided to ditch the label of vegan. I haven’t felt that it was useful to build this layer of identity on my food and other purchasing choices. I will eat a plant based diet and prioritize purchasing goods that involve as little suffering as possible, but I don’t think I need the vegan label.

Second Precept

This was one of the Precepts that didn’t get as much focus as I had planned on. I did spend some time working with it, especially in regard to thinking of less obvious ways that we take what isn’t freely given in our everyday life. I found that I could include diet in this Precept as well, as it seems pretty clear that animals are not freely giving us milk, cheese, honey, etc. I also considered the fact that there are several ways that sexuality can be tied into this Precept. The #metoo movement demonstrated the long history in our culture of women having their agency, dignity, and emotional and physical safety taken by men.

Although I spent a little time working with this one, I feel like I would like to continue to dig deeper.

Third Precept

The Precept involving sexual misconduct was another one that didn’t get as much attention as I had planned. Other than thinking about how this also tied into the Second Precept, I didn’t really make it much further than I had in my original post about it. This is definitely one that I feel needs to be explored by all of us, given what has been going on in the world. I plan to spend more time working with this Precept as well.

Fourth Precept

The tough one – abstaining from false and malicious speech. This one was a bit of a mixed bag. I did actually spend some time working with this Precept throughout the month. It’s a difficult one to undertake, but is also one of the most accessible, due to the fact that we all speak quite a bit everyday.

Over the last month, I’ve observed how much I talk about other people. I haven’t ever really considered myself to be a gossip or someone who talks about other people behind their back, but in watching my speech more closely, I noticed that I do actually talk about others quite a bit. Sometimes it’s joining in a conversation about someone, and sometimes I initiate it. This is especially problematic in cases where it involves people I work with. I manage a team of people, and I realized that even off-handed comments about my staff can be damaging. I am beginning to more often take a moment before speaking to examine whether what I am about to say is appropriate, but I know this will be a longterm project.

Fifth Precept

I probably spent more time working with the Fifth Precept than any other. This Precept involves abstaining from intoxicants. From a surface perspective, I did not drink or use marijuana during the last month. This was actually a powerful experience, especially as I was dealing with some difficult emotions. I found that removing the option to numb myself with substances greatly impacted how present I was with my emotions. Additionally, I slept better and felt more clear headed, which made my morning meditation a much more focused experience.

I also explored the idea of using my meditation practice as an intoxicant, and practiced mindfulness in this area. I also recognized early on that I can often use technology as an intoxicant by spending hours watching Netflix or playing video games, as well as by allowing myself to get sucked into mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. I actually found staying away from alcohol to be far easier than remaining mindful with my social media use.

I have decided that I intend to keep my use of alcohol and marijuana to a minimum moving forward, although I am not completely eliminating them at this point. I plan to only drink when I am with other people, and to limit myself to one or two drinks in those situations. I want to keep a close eye on this, however, to see how this fits on me. If even small amounts of drinking are going to inhibit my practice, I don’t find that a worthwhile trade.


I don’t consider the end of this project to really be an end at all. I plan to continue to explore and practice with all five of the Precepts, but in a more organic way. I feel like this project was a good way for me to launch a more serious practice in this area, and I can honestly say that I experienced a great deal of insight over the last month. I look forward to continuing to follow this path and seeing where it leads.

On Tyler Durden and Identification With Things

Warning – I wanted to give a heads up that this post includes a couple of f-bombs, in case anyone is offended by such things.

fight club soap

You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Identities are a tricky things. The way that we identify ourselves can come from a variety of sources, from genetics and biology, to upbringing and cultural factors, to our jobs, to the identities other people foist upon us. There are countless points of origin for the various pieces that create this person that we view as ourself. I want to look at one specific aspect of this today, and that is the identity that we cultivate based on our things.

For better or for worse, one of the formative works of fiction in my early twenties was Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I had already begun developing an interest in philosophy when I first read Fight Club, so I was immediately taken by the obvious nods toward Nietzschean nihilism. There’s a lot that I could say here about the fact that me discussing the philosophy of Fight Club in my twenties was also a vehicle for identity creation/reinforcement, but that’s a story for another day.

There are a lot of quotable lines in Fight Club, but the phrase that probably most often runs through my head to this day is, “you are not your fucking khakis.” This line is the punctuation of the longer quote above, and it’s a pretty simple distillation of one of the repeating themes of the book, that the things we own will end up owning us.

If you have read my recent posts, you know that I have been purging a lot of my possessions recently, in pursuit of a more minimalist lifestyle. There are a lot of reasons why I have chosen to do this, but one of the motivations stems from a process that began a little over a year ago, when I began studying Buddhism and started to ask myself questions about this person that I viewed myself to be.

hop tattoo

Early on in this exploration, I began to think about the identity that I was cultivating in my job and with the clothes that I wore. I manage a craft beer and wine bar, and I have always taken a lot of pride in having a carefully curated selection that included a lot of product that I actually drive across the state to procure. I would say that a lot of us take on identities based on our jobs, as they are such a large part of the way we spend our lives. I had definitely begun to build an identity based on the work that I was doing, and would always revel in the moments where people would recognize how hard I worked to bring them beer that they couldn’t get anywhere else. To further state my craft beer bone fides, I had a collection of t-shirts from all of the most hyped breweries in the northwest, and I would eat it up when someone would recognize the brewery and say something that would allow me to explain that I just tapped a keg from them that I drove 8 hours round trip to purchase. I even got a tattoo with hops flowing from a beer tap, lest there still be any doubt about what a beer guy I was.

The more time went on, the more I began to explore my attachment to this identity. Was this really who I was? Was it even really the thing that I wanted to define me? I thought about how hard I was working to maintain this identity. I reflected on how upset I got when one of my competitors got a beer in that I didn’t have, because it challenged my identity as “the guy who brings in beers nobody else has.” I was also spending a lot of time and money on the protection of this identity, which I could have been spending on things that were really more important. I realized that there was suffering and a kind of bondage in the maintenance of this identity.

This was really the contemplation that lead to my original round of minimizing. Several months ago, I went through my closet and got rid of most of my brewery shirts. It wasn’t that I thought that there was a problem with owning them, it was just that I had made the decision to stop basing my identity on this aspect of my life, and I felt like these shirts were not really serving me in this. I kept a couple of my favorite shirts, but got rid of all the rest. Not only did I find freedom in letting go of this attachment to my identity, I also found a sense of relief in the simple act of trimming my wardrobe down.

my book shelf
The tip of my book iceberg

The last couple of weeks, as I have been going through all of my things to decide what I will be taking with me in my upcoming move, I have done a major purge on my book collection. This has been the biggest project thus far in my minimalist journey. We had, literally, 100s of books. I love to read, so over the years I have accumulated a lot of them. My book purchases have covered a number of different phases, from my existentialist philosophy phase, to a brief flirtation with the idea of starting a small scale sustainable farm. As I went through the process of deciding on the handful of books that I would keep, I realized that my book collection had also served to establish an identity. I have always thought of myself as well-read, and having several bookshelves full of books confirmed that to myself, and to anyone who came into my home. Deciding to get rid of most of these books felt like a profound act of letting go. Letting go of maintaining an idea of my self, and accepting a more spacious and meaningful existence.

There is nothing wrong with owning, and even enjoying things. I still find a lot of joy in reading, and even in owning, a nice book. I just believe that we expose ourselves to a lot of unnecessary anxiety and suffering when we create an identity based on our possessions. I have found that paying attention to the relationship that we have with our things is a really important part of living a happy and meaningful life. Are we viewing our things in ways that promote satisfaction and wellbeing, or are we dependent on them to give us meaning? Our things are impermanent, and the satisfaction that they bring is even more ephemeral. Our meaning can never be truly based on such a precarious foundation. We are not our things. We are not our fucking khakis.

Speak the Dharma At All Times

I am guy who immerses himself in his passions. This can be a double edged sword. It has served me well in develop a lot of skills and interests, but it can also make me a little obtuse sometimes when I’m talking to other people. If I’m not mindful, I can rattle on endlessly about whatever I’m into, only to look up at some point and find the person I’m talking to completely checked out or doing the polite nod and smile thing. My contemplation on the Precepts this month has me thinking about this habit from a new perspective.

After my Attachment to Broken Things post earlier this week, I had a person respond to a retweet, defending their attachment to a car they had, and stating their intention to keep an old car that held some memories for them. I had a hard time deciding how to respond to this. First, it was pretty clear to me that they hadn’t actually read the post, as I never advocated getting rid of things just because they had emotional significance. My primary thought, however, was to try to talk to them about the dangers of attachment and clinging. I have personally experienced how much suffering our attachment to all of these impermanent things can cause, and I sincerely want to help other people escape suffering. I typed out and erased several responses, before finally deciding that this person was not really in the market for a Dharma lesson. In the end I just responded with the following –

After this internal wrestling match, I posted one of those tweets that is basically me workshopping my thoughts in front of the Twitterverse, and my friend Duane Toops offered a really great paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi –

I think this is as beautiful when applied to the Dharma as it was when St. Francis applied it to the Gospel. I think that I was right in deciding that the situation I was working through was not an appropriate time for trying to hammer home a point about the Dharma. In being mindful that my words would not have been useful or timely, I believe that I was acting in keeping with the Dharma. Maybe there was a way for me to illustrate my thoughts on attachment in a skillful way, but nothing came to me that didn’t feel preachy or condescending, so refraining in that moment still seemed like the right move.

One of the ways that I have been working with the Fourth Precept, is to try to listen more and speak less. In my enthusiasm to talk about something that excites me, I have often been guilty of hearing people without listening to them. Engaging in conversation without truly listening to others makes our words self-serving and ineffectual. When we actively listen to the person across the table or screen from us, we become more aware of what words are actually useful. I have also observed an increase in feelings of compassion and empathy toward other people through more purposeful listening. We live in a time where many of us are starved for meaningful connection, which can only be found through being truly present for others.

As I mentioned in my initial Precept Project post on the Forth Precept, speech might be the most challenging Precept to practice. As with all of the precepts, the key is in being more mindful in our day to day life. Speaking the Dharma is largely done by living mindfully, and through that mindfulness we can recognize when it is also necessary to use words.

Holding Onto Broken Things

It’s Monday night, and I’m sitting on the floor of my living room taking pictures of a 1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary guitar so I can post it to sell online. I looked up the guitar and found that the color is listed as Alpine White, although I had always thought of it as more of a Vanilla Pudding Yellow. I’ve had this beautiful instrument for over 20 years, and about 15 of those years it has been little more than a heavy symbol of bitterness toward an old friend.

1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom Guitar
1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary Paperweight

It was probably about 15 years ago that I let a friend of mine borrow the guitar for a gig that he was playing at his church. This was after my time playing in punk rock bands in Denver, and during one of my many phases of contrite repentance. Both my friend and I were playing in church worship bands. I had sold my amplifier to pay for my move back home to Texas, so I was primarily playing acoustic guitar at the time. Despite the fact that it mostly just sat in its case at home, the guitar was my most prized possession. Truth be told, it was one of my only possessions of any significant value.

I still remember the phone call from my friend, telling me that he had dropped my guitar and cracked the neck. At first I thought that he was playing a prank on me, since he had actually joked about how he would make sure to use the strap locks so that this very thing wouldn’t happen. It wasn’t a joke. When I came by to look at it later, it was actually a lot worse than he had made it sound.

broken guitar neck

I immediately began to feel angry, both at myself for letting someone borrow something so precious to me, and at him for not being more careful with my guitar. He had not put on the strap locks as he was getting the guitar plugged in, and the strap had slipped from the peg, dropping with the full weight of the heavy guitar on its headstock. I didn’t lash out at him, as that wouldn’t have been the Christian thing to do, but inside I was seething.

My friend was a church worship leader, which naturally meant that he didn’t have any money. To be honest, he only gave me a passing overture of wishing he could pay me back. We had someone take a look at the guitar to see if it could be repaired, but they said that there really wasn’t much that could be done. The guitar had a solid body, so even putting on a new neck wasn’t an option. This guitar that I had loved so much was now just a twelve pound symbol of my bitterness sitting in my garage.

Over the years, I have carried this item across the country with me. I have never really known why. I have always assumed that it could never be fixed, and there really isn’t even a chance that I will get seriously into playing music again anyway. Every time I have looked at it taking up space in my garage, I have felt a tension build in my chest, and thoughts return to my mind of my old friend’s disregard for something that had been so important to me.

As I sit on the floor, listing this broken instrument for sale at a minuscule fraction of what a functional version of this guitar would bring, it strikes me that the guitar wasn’t the only broken thing that I have been holding onto. I have been holding onto the anger and bitterness that the guitar represents. In the grand scheme of life, the guitar is just a thing. It was a thing that I was attached to when I was younger, and maintaining that attachment has lead to a lot of suffering over the years. I know that it seems silly to have felt so strongly about something so small, but this is what attachment does to us. Why have I allowed this broken thing to reside in my heart?

This morning I sold the guitar, and as I did, I felt a measure of freedom come over me. I feel like I am finally disentangling myself from a burden that I have held onto for a long time. As the purchaser drives away in his silver Subaru, I wish him well, and I hope that he can figure out how to put the guitar to use in some way. May it be useful to him, and as silly as it sounds, I hope that the guitar finds a new purpose as well. Above all, may I continue to free myself from the tyranny of broken things.

I’m Making a Minimal(izing) Effort!

There is a lot going on in my life right now. Those of you who have read previous posts on this blog may already know that my marriage of almost 13 years recently ended, so I am currently in the process of preparing to move into a new place of my own. The last couple of years of watching this relationship fall apart have, naturally, lead to a lot of examination of my life. It has been a painful experience, but it has also been a period of some of the most profound growth that I have undergone during my life. Now I am onto a new phase of life, and have decided that some big changes are in order.

I have had an interest in something resembling Minimalism for quite a while, long before I knew to apply that term to it. From time to time during my marriage I would feel the need to “downsize” our life. Get rid of some of the things that we had accumulated over time. We made a few purges over the years we were together, but never really a substantial shift in the amount of things we possessed or the way that we were living.

minimalist clothing rack
Photo freely given by tu tu on Unsplash

Last year I came across a book that started to shift my thinking on the topic. I read a book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki, and his descriptions of the relationship he was cultivating with things really resonated with me. As often happens, reading this book led me to seek out more minimalist authors, which lead me to discover The Minimalists, which in turn lead me to a number of other bloggers and podcasters. There were so many overlapping and complimentary themes between my Buddhist studies and what I was reading about Minimalism, that it’s a little difficult to say which influenced my thoughts on specific lifestyle changes. Regardless of where I drew inspiration from, I began to think more seriously about adopting a more minimalist lifestyle.

Given the less than stable state of my home life, I didn’t really push to make any major changes in our household, but I did start to scale back a little on my own personal accumulation of stuff and get rid of a few things. It wasn’t until the decision was made that we were going to be separating that I decided to make any major changes. I have recently located a small studio apartment, and as we pack things up for our mutual moves, I have chosen to dive into a full-scale minimalist project by committing to only taking a minimal amount of things with me in the move. This is made easier by the fact that I first selected a place that only had minimal space to put things in, but it still hasn’t been easy.

Why Minimalism?

There were a number of things that guided me toward adopting a minimalist lifestyle. Some were influenced by philosophical factors, some by ethical, and some by practical considerations. Here are just a few –

Avoiding Attachment and Identification with Things

One area in which I found alignment between Buddhism and Minimalism in is the area of attachment. In Buddhism the goal is to avoid attachments in general. Minimalism is based on the idea that we don’t need things to make us happy, and that attachment to the accumulation of things leads to a lot of discontent and unhappiness. Things break. Things disappoint us. Things require upkeep. Things cause clutter. Things can be useful and can bring us joy in some cases, but attachment to our things sets us up for suffering.

Our things can also end up becoming our identity. We create an image to others, and to ourselves, of who we are, based entirely on the things we own. We begin to define ourselves and find our value in our things. We suffer when our things don’t live up to our aspirations, thinking we aren’t complete as a person if we don’t possess the right things.

minimalist bench
Photo freely given by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Our Things Have an Impact on Our Planet

From an environmental standpoint, purchasing new things means more things have to be produced. Some items have less impact than others, but none of these things are completely neutral. They require that resources be gathered to produce them, and in many cases they require production methods that might not be beneficial to the environment. There is generally some amount of transport involved, which means they have a carbon footprint. All of this, and then when we get rid of an item, it usually ends up occupying space in a landfill. By being more intentional with the stuff we buy and maintain we are able to decrease the impact that we have on our homes, individually, as well as our global home.

More Time and Energy For the Important Things

One of the things that I have realized in the early stages of this process, is that the things that I have cause me to spend a lot of time and/or money on their upkeep. Having so many things means I have to clean more things, replace batteries, spend money on electricity, etc.

Many of the things I own also cause a distraction from things that are more important. I have seen this played out during my 31 Day Precept Project. I have observed the role that social media, television, and video games play as an intoxicant in my daily life. Even though I might have a plan to work on some design work or a blog post, I decide that I’m just going to watch one show first. Then I decide that I actually feel too tired to work on my projects, so I just keep watching until I’m ready to go to bed.

More Financial Freedom for Experiences and Charity

By committing to owning less things, I will spend less money. This will allow me to eliminate debt, save more, and have more resources for charitable projects and donations. I have always told myself that certain causes were a priority for me, but when it came down to taking action, I showed that my priorities were actually not in line with my values, and that I mostly prioritized the support of the lifestyle I was living.

I have also never really had the money to participate in experience that I have wanted to have. It has always been a dream to travel more, even just camping trips around my local area, but I have never really saved to a point where that was realistic. By minimizing, I can cut my expenses and begin to actually save money for these experiences.

Living a More Meaningful Life Through Minimalism

This effort to minimize can be summed up simply by saying that I want to live a more meaningful life that is based on my relationships and worthwhile experiences, in place of one that is typified by the things that I own. This process is just beginning, but I am excited to see where it leads.

Precept Project Day 12 Update

I am currently on day 12 of my 31 Day Precept Project. I have posted a few things that have been related to what I’ve been exploring thus far this month, but I figured I would take a minute to throw out some quick-hits style observations regarding the precepts –

  1. Eating vegan is not an easy transition. I have been doing pretty well on this overall, but I have had a few lapses, mostly involving not paying close enough attention to what ingredients are in whatever food I’m eating. I have actually ordered a butterscotch oat milk latte, not thinking until I was halfway through it that ‘butter’ is in the name. I also heedlessly order a vegetable fried rice, ate half of it, then realized I had been eating egg the whole time. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I am going to refocus on really being mindful of what I’m eating.
  2. I tell a lot of “little” lies. I have caught myself starting to tell a story several times, in which I begin to change a minor detail to make the story less awkward or reveal more than I would like to. This has been an interesting contemplation point, and I have generally caught it early enough to avoid the lie. There have been a couple of times that I didn’t really think about what I had said until later, however.
  3. Also related to speech, I have definitely decreased the amount that I am speaking by catching myself intending to talk about another person in a way that could be considered gossip. I have also realized that I have said something about someone that was not really useful or kind.
  4. I also have also noticed a tendency to interrupt. Often I make the initial interruption and then yield to the other person, but it’s still an interruption.
  5. Speech has been as challenging as I anticipated. Conversations can build a momentum, and sometimes I realize that I haven’t really been mindful of what I am saying, and when and how I am saying it.
  6. I have found a tremendous amount of benefit in avoiding intoxicants in the area of drinking. This is especially true as I am navigating a difficult time in my personal life. I has been nice to deal with a difficult situation from a place of presence and clear-headedness. I am also sleeping better overall (aside from that night that I drank 3 glasses of iced tea.) As far as my seated practice, I haven’t been experiencing the grogginess that I often have in the past, although I would say that it has been replaced by a bit of an overactive mind.
  7. I have definitely observed that I do use various forms of electronic media as an intoxicant. I have found myself compulsively checking Twitter at times. I have also found that I have an issue with moderation when it comes to video games and video streaming. I have grown somewhat better at noticing that I am getting sucked into a multi-hour mind numb fest, but have still managed to check out for hours at a time on a couple of occasions.
  8. I have been working with a mindfulness trick where I notice the urge to check social media and pick up my phone, holding it and trying to be aware of the feel of the weight of the phone and the texture of its surface. Usually the urge passes and I put my phone back in my pocket, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this practice.

That’s just a few observations from the last 11 days. I’m planning on focussing some attention of the second precept this week (taking what isn’t freely given,) as I didn’t really have too many observations on that one.

Mindfulness Moment: Sullivan Lake

sullivan lake still waters
The tranquil waters of Sullivan Lake

This spring I spent a weekend camping at Sullivan Lake, a beautiful and peaceful spot about two hours drive from Spokane, WA. I set out on the trip with the intention to practice mindfulness throughout the trip. This effort was aided by the fact that I would be spending 3+ days without any cell phone coverage.

I had been spending my time on the cushion practicing the Anapanasati Sutta around that time, and had been specifically focusing on impermanence. Every morning during my ad hoc self retreat, I would go down to the lake and sit on the beach and meditate before the other campers were stirring. The wind had been blowing pretty hard most of the first couple of days, but I was delighted to discover that all was calm when I went to sit on the third day. I generally meditate with my eyes closed, but I had decided to practice that day with my eyes open, incorporating vision into my field of awareness. After a while, I felt a slight breeze blowing across the hair on my arms and legs. Shortly thereafter I saw slight ripples disturbing the surface, traveling from one side of the lake to the other, and then the water gradually subsiding back into it’s previous serenity.

Still morning waters
Hills reflect on the surface
Ripple with movement

My Sullivan Lake Haiku

As I sat taking in this scene, I realized that my mind was similar to this lake. I have within me a stillness that I hadn’t recognized until about a year ago, when I was constantly being helplessly blown about by various thoughts, desires, and aversions. In my practice, I have found moments of stillness, but I still experience the winds blowing across my surface. These winds arise and they pass, and as they do I am more often able to observe them mindfully. I am by no means free of their push and pull, but I have seen the stillness and know that it is there.

The Precepts Project: Fourth Precept – False Speech

Oh boy. Here comes the really tricky one. Today I am looking at the Forth Precept, which deals with the topic of speech.

From what I understand (I am not a Pali scholar), a faithful translation of the word used in this precept, musāvāda, is “false speech,” but you will often see this expanded to include all forms of false and harmful speech. If there is a single part of our outward-facing daily life that is most difficult to remain mindful in, it might be speech. When I was a young person growing up in the church, I would read the Bible, and I can remember coming across numerous verses about the power of the tongue for both good and evil. The apostle James probably had more to say on the topic than anyone, including this one –

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

The Bible – James 3:7-9

When I first heard my teacher, JoAnna Hardy, talk about this Precept, she used the guidelines, “Is it true? Is it usefull? Is it timely? Is it kind? Is it gossip or slander?” These guidelines seem like a good starting point for examining my speech.

Is it True?

There are numerous ways that our speech can not be true. Of course, some speech is just an outright lie. I’m resisting the urge to make a political comment here. Okay, so even that last sentence is not entirely true, as my words about resisting the urge were clearly made to imply a specific political statement. See how easy it is to be false in our speech?

In addition to lies, there are various other ways to be deceptive in our speech. Sometimes we can only tell part of the story to mislead someone to believe something that is false. We can also knowingly allow someone to continue to think something false because the misunderstanding benefits us in some way. I have worked in the wine industry for several years now, and I can remember being introduced as a sommelier on several locations, and never bothered to correct anyone because I knew people have certain status assumptions about somms. I also have had a tendency at times to add little embellishments to stories to make them more interesting, which is another way of speaking falsely.

talking
Photo freely given by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Is it Useful?

I don’t remember the specifics of what I said, but I have a memory of a time when I was a child when I spouted off something in a family gathering, and my grandfather looked at me and said, “You don’t have to say everything you know.” I know I was embarrassed at the time, but this phrase has stuck with me, and seems to apply here. There are some times when you can say something that is true, but might not be helpful for some reason. Maybe it’s not an appropriate situation. Maybe it’s self-serving. The most common expression of this for me is when I have just grown uncomfortable with silence and I say something just to fill the void in a conversation. Another one that I have noticed in my own speech is a tendency to be in a conversation and feel the need to tell a “one-up” story. If we ask ourselves if what we are about to say is useful, we will doubtless find ourselves saying less, and perhaps listening more.

Is it Timely?

Sometimes what we are saying just isn’t being said in the right time. As I have begun to practice with this precept, I have found myself in conversations with people who are hurting to one reason or another. I find thoughts popping up in my mind about some piece of advice or statement of fact about their situation. When I ask myself the question about whether this is a timely moment to say this, I often realize that what I was about to say won’t really do the person I am talking to any good in that moment. It’s not that what I think about saying is false, it’s just that it isn’t the right moment to say it. I’ve found that taking the time to ask this question has generally lead me to a more compassionate response that lets the person know that I hear them, and that I care, which is often of far more use than whatever I was going to say originally.

Is it Kind?

kindness
Photo freely given by Robert Baker on Unsplash

I recently had an interesting experience with this question. There is a local figure running for office in my home of Spokane. I had made the horrible mistake of reading through a Facebook comment thread about the candidates, and one commenter was brutal in their words, calling the candidate a “fucking nutjob,” and another stated that “the blood of innocent people was on his hands” for his service in the military in Iraq. Although I don’t support this candidate based on his policy positions, I actually started to feel a really heavy heart for the candidate, as I’m sure he either saw these posts, or others like them. I thought about the fact that this person is a human being, regardless of what I think of his policies. A few weeks later, I was in a public place and overheard a conversation between two men, one of whom was tearfully apologizing for past wrongs that he had done to the other. I was moved by the man’s vulnerability and sincerity. Eventually the apology portion of the interaction had concluded and I overheard the same voice that had been crying expressing that he was having a hard time dealing with the comments that people had been making about him in his candidacy, and I came to realize that this was the very candidate that I had seen excoriated online.

In the example above, I wouldn’t say that the comments were really true either, but there are cases where we can speak the truth, but in a way that is intended to hurt someone else. To view this another way, however, sometimes not speaking can be unkind. A clear example of this that everyone will recognize is the Catholic church’s scandal involving child molestation. In addition to the harm caused by the actual abusers, there were countless others who are complicit in the suffering of the abused, due to knowing what was happening, and not saying anything. To ask whether our speech kind or not, we sometimes have to examine multiple perspectives.

Is it Gossip or Slander?

This is an aspect of this Precept that is tricky for many of us. I don’t think of myself as being an especially gossipy person, but when I make the effort to really examine my daily speech, I do catch myself talking about other people. Often we can even convince ourselves that we are showing how much we care about the person we are gossiping about. This kind of talk is typified in my original home state of Texas by the bless her/his heart story. We mask our wrong speech with a cloak of false-compassion.

In the same category of speech, we can find slanderous speech. Do we spread rumors designed to impugn or damage other people? Do we knowing share articles or memes on Twitter or Facebook that are so one-sided as to make a character of people who we dislike? Slander cannot really be true, as the best case is that the speech is only partially true.

So, What Does This Mean to Me?

This Precept is probably the most difficult one to work with. In the end, I have decided that the way I will work with it is to try to breathe more and talk less. I heard this phrase on an audience comment in the previously mentioned JoAnna Hardy talk on this precept. This practice is a mindfulness practice. I see it as being more present in my conversations; making sure I am listening mindfully when I’m engaged in speech with other people. I will try to take a breath and consider my words before I speak. If I’m doing this right, it will probably mean that I will talk a lot less, and hopefully will listen more.

In the modern world, this practice also includes an awareness of our online speech as being a part of right speech. Although it can feel anonymous, we are speaking with real people online, and should treat each other with kindness in digital spaces, as much as we would in person.

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