Using Awareness to Create a Meaningful Life
An Excerpt From Reflections on a Mountain Lake
“What we need to realize is that this sense of meaninglessness does not come from our lives but from the quality of awareness with which we live our lives.” Explore how the simple practice of awareness can improve your quality of life.
The great benefit of maintaining a daily [meditation] practice is that it helps stabilize the mind and gives us the space to let go, fall silent, and gradually begin to understand what is going on inside. But there are limits to the amount of time most of us can spend in formal meditation. Fortunately, meditation is only one of a number of tools available to us. In addition, we need to learn to practice awareness during the greater part of the day when we are off the mat, that is, in the course of our everyday lives. . . .
First, we need to become more conscious. Usually we give only half of our attention to the things we do. We often think we are doing things wholeheartedly when in fact we are probably thinking about a hundred different things at the same time. We are not usually conscious of this. We are a bit like the person who thinks they are walking their dog but ends up following the dog wherever it leads them. They are so busy trying to keep up that they do not notice whether or not the dog is going in a straight line. One of the first things to realize is that our minds are totally untamed. The Buddha compared an ordinary mind with a wild elephant in rut. Not one of those nice tame elephants we see in the zoo or in the circus but a wild elephant. Sometimes he went so far as to say a drunken wild elephant! . . .
When people cannot control their behavior, it is because they cannot control their minds. We all have this problem to some extent. How often do we do things impulsively, without giving a thought to the consequences? We want to do it, so we just jump right in. We don’t know how to control ourselves, either. Our minds are obscured by anger, desire, jealousy, and confusion. We can’t see the wider implications, and consequently we often feel no sense of responsibility for what we do.
How can we begin to take responsibility for our actions? A good way to start is by learning to understand our mental states. One of the easiest ways to train in this is to take some simple everyday action such as combing our hair, brushing our teeth, shaving, or drinking our morning coffee, and bring our attention fully to what we are doing. Just be with the action. Know that we are doing it. That’s all. We will see how long the mind can remain in a state of wordless knowing before we rush in with all our commentaries, justifications, and interpretations. “Oh goodness, this is really stupid. What am I doing cleaning my teeth and having to think about it?” Or, “Wow, now my life is going to be really good, it’s easy to be mindful about cleaning your teeth.”
When we rush in with this mental chatter, we are no longer being mindful. We are just thinking about being mindful. Mindfulness is not thinking about, it is being present and actually knowing in the moment without any mental commentary. If commentary begins to happen, we simply ignore it and return to being present in the moment. Think about this. There are so many things happening in our lives that we never really experience. We experience only ideas, interpretations, and comparisons. We dwell on things that happened in the past or anticipate future events. But we almost never experience the moment itself. It is for this reason that we often find our lives boring and meaningless. What we need to realize is that this sense of meaninglessness does not come from our lives but from the quality of awareness with which we live our lives.
The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the benefits of washing dishes to wash dishes. This is a very important point because normally we wash dishes in order to have clean dishes. Whenever we do anything, we do it to get a result. We write a letter in order to produce a letter which we can then send; we are washing dishes not to wash dishes but so we can have clean dishes and go on to the next task. As we wash the dishes, we are thinking about what we will do next, how we will have a cup of coffee, what somebody said to us this morning, what TV program we watched last night, what our kid is doing, or what our spouse said to us before they went to work. The last thing on our mind is the dishes. Then when we come to drink the coffee, we are thinking that after that we have to go shopping, and what are we going to buy, and things like this. We are drinking the coffee now, but we are not really drinking it because our mind has gone forward onto something else again. Our entire lives pass in this way. Even when we are doing something nice, like eating a delicious meal, we are thinking about dessert. We never even enjoy the good things. We experience the taste for a few seconds, and then we are off again.
Thich Nhat Hanh asks, “Why not wash dishes just to wash dishes?” We get clean dishes anyway! But it means that while we are washing the dishes, we are completely with it. There is no action in the world more important at that moment than washing the dishes because that is what we are doing. Everything else is just our thoughts. But the thing happening in the moment is the actual reality and, therefore, the most important thing. If we miss it now, we miss it forever because we can never get that “now” time back once it has passed. So let’s try to wash the dishes and just know we are washing dishes. It’s not a big deal. We are conscious that we are standing at the sink. Now the hand is picking up a dish. We can feel the water. We can feel the soap suds. We are conscious of what we are washing. We are completely attentive to what is happening in that moment. In this way we become centered in the moment. And that moment is all we ever really have. Our whole life is made up of moment after moment after moment. If we miss these moments through thinking about something else, they are gone forever. If we bring our consciousness to the task at hand, whatever it is, the mind itself is washed clean. There is no stress attached to doing this. The mind actually finds it quite a pleasant experience.
The Zen tradition places a lot of emphasis on being present in the moment. They teach that every action performed with awareness is a profound activity, but even the most seemingly exalted activity is meaningless if we do it mindlessly. We might be an abbot sitting up on the teaching throne, but if we are teaching without being conscious, it is a meaningless activity. Or we could be outside the temple, sweeping the leaves, scrubbing the floor, or chopping vegetables. Provided we do it with consciousness and presence, even the most mundane activity becomes a profound meditation.
From Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo © 2002 by Tenzin Palmo. This edition published 2023. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com