Protestant minister—and Buddhist meditation teacher—Victor M. Parachin identifies the habits that can lead to wisdom.
Perhaps the most famous of all the stories about the Buddha is a conversation that took place shortly after his enlightenment. As the Buddha was walking along a path, he encountered a man with whom he exchanged simple greetings. The man noticed immediately that the stranger on the path exuded extraordinary calm, confidence, serenity, and stability. This led him to stop the Buddha and ask:
“My friend, are you a god?”
“No,” said the Buddha.
The man continued: “Then are you a scholar of holy books?”
Again, the Buddha answered no.
“Perhaps you are a priest, then, who is advanced in matters of ritual and chanting?”
Yet again the Buddha smiled and said no.
“Then who are you, my friend?” the man finally asked.
The Buddha replied directly and concisely: “I am awake!”
The meaning of the Buddha’s answer is accurately explained by Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who says that the Buddha “awakened to the fact that there is an undying happiness, and that it can be attained through human effort.”
That means whether one is wealthy or poor, healthy or ill, younger or older, married or single or divorced, the truth is that happiness and all qualities of it—joy, gladness, delight, contentment, tranquility, and bliss—are always available and accessible to us via our own thought and actions. It also means that our lives do not have to be an endless cycle of disappointment, discouragement, depression, and despair.
Here are the seven highly effective habits of people who awaken.
1. They inquire. People who evolve feel deeply that there is more to life that merely existing. Therefore they engage in inquiry, asking them- selves: Who am I? What do I want out of life? How can I be of benefit to others? What can I do to experience myself more authentically? Where does my happiness come from? Am I listening to my soul? Who and what inspire me?
These kinds of questions can lead to specific answers, but largely serve as ways of guiding life in the direction of greater meaning and fulfillment. Buddhist monk Ajahn Summano explains: “Sincere inquiry always sparks our movement toward truth and compassion. Deep questions that arise naturally in the process of life’s unfolding signal the manifestation of the very energy through which we grow further. We would be arrogant to believe that we can proceed far without pondering the important questions life asks of us.”
2. They express gratitude. “The Buddha encouraged us to think of the good things done for us by our parents, by our teachers, friends, whomever; and to do this intentionally, to cultivate it, rather than just letting it happen accidentally,” notes Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho. Not only did the Buddha promote gratitude, but it was something he personally practiced consistently.
According to tradition, after the Buddha was enlightened he spent the next seven days just looking at the tree that gave him shelter and under which his awakening emerged.
Take a moment to understand what he did. Rather than rush off to start teaching and share his life-changing insights with others, the Buddha took an entire week to sit in gratitude before a tree which meant so much to him. From the Buddha we get a glimpse of how important it is to pause and feel gratitude. Pause to examine your own mind by asking these questions of yourself:
• Do I feel gratitude for simply being alive?
• Do I feel gratitude that I have discovered meditation?
• Do I feel gratitude that I have people I can meditate with?
• Do I feel gratitude for spiritual friends who journey through life with me?
• Do I feel gratitude that I have enough money for my needs?
• Do I feel gratitude that I have spiritual teachers to instruct and inspire me?
Periodically engaging in this exercise ensures that we don’t take for granted the many positives that are constantly present in our lives. Gratitude is a vital component of an enlightened life.
3. They seek to benefit others. The Jewish tradition offers a powerful insight into this quality in an awakened person. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of A Jewish Code of Ethics, writes: “Recognize when the needs of others are greater than your own.” He cites this teaching from a Hasidic text: “A man walking on a narrow road comes across another man carrying a heavy load, walking in the opposite direction. Even if he has arrived first, the man without the load should step onto the shoulder of the road, even it is muddy, so that the other man can pass by.”
Applied to modern living this could mean engaging in these types of actions:
• Stopping your car to allow a pedestrian to cross an intersection.
• Allowing merging traffic to enter your car lane.
• Holding a door open for someone carrying heavy packages.
• Being polite, courteous, and civil to all you encounter daily.
• Speaking positively, in encouraging ways to others. In seeking to benefit others, we make life easier, more pleasant for others.
4. They are mindful. Someone who is truly awakened practices mindfulness not only while in meditation, paying attention to the breath, but when engaged in daily routine activities. Guo Jun, a Buddhist monk from Singapore, observes:
“If you practice mindfulness of breath, and yet your kitchen is a mess and your bed is unmade, that is a little bit weird.
Pay attention to detail: Fold your towel; smooth the cover on your bed; scrub the kitchen counter; clean the cups away; hang up your clothes; don’t drop things on the floor; sweep up your crumbs.”
5. They discover meditation. Joseph Goldstein is one of the early Western meditation teachers and authors whose books now guide others. His awakening began when he discovered meditation decades ago. “I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand, and I started going to a temple in Bangkok where Western Buddhis monks were leading discussion groups. Finally one of the monks said, ‘Why don’t you try meditating?’ I didn’t know anything about it, so he just gave me some very simple instructions, like to watch the breath. I tried it, and it was just amazing—not that I was such a good meditator, but the idea that there was a way to look inside in a systematic way was tremendously exciting to me. It was something I’d been looking for without knowing it.”
The benefits of meditation are briefly but powerfully described by Dr. Deepak Chopra: “Meditation brings out the deepest desires, to know who you really are, to achieve fulfillment, to turn chaos into orderliness, to create a life whose satisfactions can never be undermined or taken away from you.”
6. They are habitual optimists. In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a debilitating stroke. Shortly after, he was interviewed and asked about the stroke and its effect on him spiritually. His answer reflects a highly positive attitude:
“I see the stroke as a new chapter in the life of this body. It’s very interesting to me because it is so uniquely different than the last chapter. In that chapter I spoke, and in this chapter I’m mostly silent. I have this new identity to explore, which is that of a wheelchair-bound person— someone physically challenged, or whatever we are called these days. I’m really exploring what it means not to have power. Remember, I can’t get out of bed or go to the toilet without somebody helping me. I used to drive a car, and I loved driving, but in my new identity, I’m always a passenger. Of course, there are certain advantages: As a chauffeured person, I can look around at the scenery because I don’t have to keep my mind on the road. ... The stroke allowed me to settle into silence. It turned out to be a gift in many ways.”
7. They embrace silence. The awakened ones who live and work alongside of us are drawn to silence. They know, intuitively, how to shrink the noises and sounds that surround. Examples of those who incorporate silence into their busy lives include:
An attorney who begins his day by silently sitting in his yard sipping tea rather than waking up and turning on the television to see early morning news.
A professor who makes time several days a week to hike in nature without listening to music or a podcast.
A graduate student who eats lunch alone on the grass beneath a tree on her campus.
Yogi scholar and author Georg Feuerstein notes the immediate benefits of embracing silence: “In spiritual life we cultivate sacred silence to regenerate our inner being so that we can return to our daily activities and to speech from a new perspective.”