I’ve been on retreat in a Buddhist monastery this week and as usual in such circumstances there has been ample time for contemplation. It occurred to me that many of us know what to do. We know how to take care of ourselves, we know what our heart needs to feel nourished, we know what our soul needs to sing, and yet most of us struggle to do this.
A Buddhist friend of mine, who was also a meditation teacher, used to say, “We like to be miserable. I tell my students, ‘Just practice 10 minutes of loving kindness a day, that’s all.’ And even this they have resistance to! I think to myself, this is absurd, students would actually rather spend time in self-hate. So I joke with them, listen just ten excruciating minutes of loving thoughts and then you can enjoy the rest of the day by engaging in judgment and self-loathing! It’s amazing. We are not just habituated to negative thinking, we actually find it too demanding to consciously to take the time to build a feeling of love.”
Let’s take another example from my own life. I am keenly aware that sugar is bad for me. I know I have a high incidence of diabetes in my family, and I am all too familiar with the mental and physical consequences of sugar. Yet I eat sugary foods as though they were an essential food group. It’s bad enough when I do this in the outside world, but even more perplexing when I fill my monastic bowl full of chocolate cake at the afternoon meal.
In mindful awareness, clear about what I am doing, spooning food into my mouth slowly, I eat cake, and I am keenly conscious that I am damaging myself. Another example is the decision to use one’s phone. Everyone that comes on retreat knows that talking on a mobile during retreat is counter-productive to practice, but I often walk through the monastic grounds and find lay guests huddling on their phones.
These people know they are diluting their meditation, but still resistance is too difficult. Sometimes I have talked to others about this and they often say, “You know, I really wish I could let go of my phone on retreat. It’s so silly. I spend the whole year wanting to get away from technology and I come here for peace, and what do I do? I pick up the phone!”
The same thing happens in the outside world. We know we should go to the gym instead of watching television. We know when we are in bad relationships and should end them, but just don’t want to let go. We know ourselves much more clearly than we are willing to admit, still we shun good habits and strengthen those that we know are not useful. This we do for many reasons: stress, fear, exhaustion, peer pressure, craving, boredom. Whatever the reason, we often do it with awareness of how we are negatively impacting our own life.
So, what do we do about this very natural, extremely common human condition? For starters, I think it is important to remind ourselves that life is made up of little choices and that every time we chose something that we know is not helping us, or shying away from something that can heal us, we are inevitably choosing suffering. The point is not to judge ourselves, but to look at the big picture more clearly. We need to measure what we want from our lives against our actions.
My second word of advice is something I have learned from reading Gandhi. In his autobiography, Gandhi expresses how he took tiny steps towards self-cultivation and stuck to each step. Little by little, these tiny steps added up to huge changes and also gave rise the mental fortitude to move mountains. Gandhi went from being an average person to a leader of men sticking to little changes that eventually gave rise to the ability to balance his mind, commit to his principles, and influence the world.
We don’t all need to be Gandhi, but emulating his ideology is useful. As he said, “Be the Change you wish to see in the world.”
So I will try to stop eating so much cake and I truly hope you try to maintain habits that feed your being, trusting that, little by little, this will slowly add to a feast of greater happiness in your life.