Finding Peace in the midst of uncertainty and chaos

contemplation insight meditation mindfulness retreat suffering uncertainty May 08, 2020

Mindfulness in the Time of Pandemic

On Friday May 1st, I started a 10-day virtual Mindfulness retreat. Sounds curious, doesn't it. It is probably one of the first web-based retreats ever, maybe a trend setter?
Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery and Pacific Hermitage are premiering their first web-based virtual meditation retreat, centered on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Since I am at home and I have not totally delegated all my responsibilities, this retreat is inevitably some kind of hybrid version, not anything like being in a monastery. I have to create a sacred time and place for myself to get the benefit.
I want to report how this is going for me, and share with you some of the very basics of the Buddha's teachings and Mindfulness.
Birken Forest Monastery
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." —Viktor Frankl
Mindfulness opens up this space and empowers you to choose a better response.

What is Mindfulness?

Everybody has heard of Mindfulness and the benefits from this practice.
It has become a very popular movement and most people seem to know what it is.
Few, however, really understand what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness as used in the general language has been removed from it’s foundations, it’s roots and structure, and taken out of context.

Very few know how to practice it well, and more importantly, why it is important to practice, and how to apply it in daily life.

The way mindfulness is used in modern life is stripped of many qualities and context.

Mindfulness comes from the teachings of the Buddha.

Right Mindfulness is step number 7 of the Eightfold Noble Path, just one piece of the puzzle on the path to joy, freedom, wisdom, and compassion. Just one signpost on the way to the end of suffering.

The Eightfold Path is a road map to the end of suffering.

It is a practice with a goal, a purpose, and a larger context, guided by the previous six steps and the last step that follows.

To know and observe without the larger context, may actually make things worse.


The Buddha’s Teachings
“And what, bhikkhus, is that Middle Way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna?  It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”  -  from the Buddha's teachings  -

Mindfulness is not your aim.
Your aim is relief from suffering and a sense of sustained well-being and psychological happiness.

The function of mindfulness is not merely watching and observing the body and feelings. It is not magically somehow going to improve the quality of your life.

  • Right Mindfulness involves deep contemplation, inquiry, self reflection, understanding, and clarity.
  • There is a structure to know and understand, contoured by ethical values.
  • There is something you need to do, it requires action. One that is in line with those values and understanding.

There are four foundations of Mindfulness:

  1. the body,
  2. feelings and sensations,
  3. the mind, and
  4. the Dhamma categories (teachings of the Buddha)

Mindfulness = a Sentry

A simile the Buddha uses for mindfulness is a Sentry, guarding the gate of a walled city.
The city is your body. The gate is where information enters through the 5 senses and the mind itself, which is considered the 6th sense.

The sentry is trained to be alert and awake and carry out specific instructions. The sentry is intelligent and not prone to laziness, negligence, bribery, and deception. You can have your sentry watch for certain activities and not just observe them but to report them. Your sentry knows what to watch for and what to do.

For example, when practicing a breath meditation, you are training the sentry to watch the gate and strengthen it’s capacity to pay attention to, and keep an eye on, the breath.
Your instructions will need to be clear: ‘keep an eye on where the breath enters the body’

You can give your sentry instructions to keep an eye on any of the 5 senses and the mind.
What information is trying to enter the body, what to let in and what to keep out.
What you eat and how you eat, how you speak and express yourself, how you sit, stand, lie down, walk, the thoughts and ideas that come up, the news you watch and how you react to it, etc.

The sentry is there to watch and guard, to pay attention to what it is that is entering. The sentry inquires and stays informed.

It is important to give your sentry clear instructions.

How you guide and direct your sentry depends on your practice and which foundation you are working on. The body, feelings, the mind, or a part of the teachings.

Currently, mindfulness practice could offer tremendous benefits to navigate the chaos and find balance, harmony, and peace of mind. It is worthwhile to look for guidance from the wise.

It is helpful for me. It is making me cognizant that I have NOT been taking enough time to work on strengthening my abilities to cultivate peace and harmony from within. It is easy to get carried away and buy into the chaos and react to it.

It takes effort, discipline, and commitment to take the time to practice.

I need to commit with more effort. It could be so much better, I could do so much better. I don’t get better from working harder, or getting more projects done. I get better when I practice.

Life is far too busy and time is precious. I can’t afford NOT to take the time for formal meditation practice and advance my well-being.

The past 7 days have been very helpful to me and I find relief, rest, and wisdom in what this retreat has offered so far. But it has also been difficult for me. I am faced with a crucial, fundamental decision to make about how to proceed with my existence.

Nothing is permanent, except change. This constant change causes pain and struggle, especially when big changes happen abruptly, like a pandemic.

But even this pandemic shall pass. Longing for a normal, or even a New normal, is futile, because this 'normal' will change again. Why not practice being alright with what is, whatever that may look like? That would take practice, feeling okay from within, not depending on the outside world. That is empowerment.

Relief from suffering is possible, there is a way. (The Buddha describes the way in the Eight-fold Path)


What can you do now?

You can start by taking time to sit quietly, 30 minutes a day, and instruct your sentry to pay attention to, and keep an eye on, your breath. Count the breaths one in one out, two in two out, up to 5 or 8 in and out, and then start again from 1.
Set a timer.

Anything else that comes up, simply have the sentry stop it from entering, and get back to counting the breaths. When something gets past the sentry, have it investigate and inquire, 'what is it that is entering?', name it and simply return to the breath.

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you're running and you think, 'Man, this hurts, I can't take it anymore. The 'hurt' part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself." ― Haruki Murakami,

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