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A Technique of Living
Leonard A. Bullen
Wheel No. 226/230,
Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka
THERE is one thing that everybody knows by direct experience, and that is that life is a mixture of enjoyment and suffering, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. The intelligent and the stupid, the good and the evil, the rich and the poor, all know some degree of suffering mixed in with their happiness.
There are times, it is true, when we feel free from the heavier burdens of suffering. There are times when our affairs are going well, when we are able to cope adequately with our responsibilities, and when we can meet our obligations without trouble. But there are other times, too, when things do not go so well, when we suffer severe losses and meet with persistent frustrations; and at these times we feel the need for some special mental approach to our problems.
In fact, we need this special approach all of the time, during the good times as well as the bad. We need a special approach to success as well as to failure, to gain as well as to loss, to happiness as well as to sorrow. We need a technique to handle the easy times as well as the difficult periods.
In brief, we need a technique of living. It can be said in general that any technique is better than none at all. Any well considered approach to the problems of life is better than the unthinking drift of life, but perhaps the most efficient technique is one that involves a considerable understanding of life, an increased mindfulness of the mind’s own aims and processes, and a certain degree of self-discipline to keep the mind on its chosen path.
In a technique of this kind, then, the three keywords are understanding, mindfulness, and self-discipline.
Understanding life is a matter of gaining and appreciation – either intellectual or intuitive – of the way living beings act and react. Mindfulness of the mind’s own aims and processes involves a sort of inner alertness, a form of attentiveness directed inwardly. And self-discipline is the sustained effort to act and think along certain chosen lines, an effort which requires the exercise of the will.
Of these three elements – understanding, mindfulness, and self discipline – it is mindfulness which, in the Buddhist system of self-training, becomes the focal point.
If you want to take on any system of mental development, either as an aim in itself or as a means of gaining greater value from life, the cultivation of mindfulness in some direction at least must play a major part in it. In other words, any system of mental culture must involve the development of the powers of attention.
As you know from direct observation, your attention may be directed outwardly towards the external world of objects or inwardly towards the internal world of ideas. While the development of mindfulness may bring about a greater alertness with regard to external happenings, this is not its main aim, at least from the Buddhist viewpoint; its primary purpose is to bring about an increased awareness of what goes on in that ‘current of existence’ that you call your own self. Some forms of mindfulness are intended to make you more aware and to give you an increased understanding of your own mental processes in general; for these mental processes are the factors that determine what your life will yield – or fail to yield – in terms of enduring happiness.
Now the practice of mindfulness is the focal point of a system of mental discipline, a method of mind-training, that forms the core of various forms of Buddhism. It is not intended to deal with Buddhist doctrine and practice as a whole, as we are more interested in a specific aspect of them; but in order to fit this specific aspect of Buddhism into its general framework it may be pertinent to set out, very briefly, the main points of the system of mental discipline known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Here are the various aspects of this Path:
1. RIGHT UNDERSTANDING, a knowledge of the true nature of existence;
2. RIGHT THOUGHT, free from sensuality, ill-will, and cruelty;
3. RIGHT SPEECH, speech which is free from falsity, gossip, harshness, and idle babble;
4. RIGHT ACTION, or the avoidance of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct;
5. RIGHT LIVELIHOOD, abstaining from a livelihood that brings harm to other beings;
6. RIGHT EFFORT, or the training of the will;
7. RIGHT MINDFULNESS, the perfection of the faculty of attention; and
8. RIGHT CONCENTRATION, the cultivation of higher mental states with a view to direct knowledge of the Unconditioned, the ultimate reality beyond the relative universe.
The particular phase of this Noble Eightfold Path in which we are interested, as you can see, is the seventh step, right mindfulness; but the first step – right understanding, especially in the sense of self-understanding – and the sixth, right effort or the training of the will, are also of special interest in this context.
In some lines of mental development the expansion of the field of attention is the aim, while in other forms the field is narrowed and the awareness is thereby intensified.
The expansion of awareness and the intensification of awareness are opposite but complementary modes of mindfulness, and both involve the development of the normal faculty of attention. It is by training the attention, by directing and controlling it, that awareness can be expanded to cover a broader field, or, on the other hand intensified to confine it to a single idea.
Of the two, perhaps, the concentration of the attention on to a single point is of greater importance, for all mental development requires a sharpened awareness.
Compare the fuzzy, dull awareness of the dream state with the sharpened awareness of the normal waking state. In a dream you experience sensations from the outside world but you misinterpret them. Your feet are cold, perhaps, because the rug across the foot of the bed has slipped off; but instead of correctly interpreting the sensation of coldness, you dream that you are walking on a cold street without your shoes. Or a dog barks nearby and you dream you are being pursued by a pack of hungry wolves. These misinterpretations, we are told, are bound up with your various undischarged emotional accumulations and your various complexes, and the external stimuli – the cold feet and the dog’s bark – are used as the means of discharging your emotional accumulations or of giving expression to your complexes, up to a point at least.
In waking life you are not guilty of such gross misinterpretations as you are during sleep. When the rug falls off and your feet become cold, you reach down and pull the rug back into place. When the dog barks, perhaps it brings to mind some childhood story of a boy being pursued by a pack of wolves; but because you are awake and not dreaming you nevertheless realize that the sound you have just heard is nothing more than a dog’s bark.
However, while you do not make the gross misinterpretations when in the waking state that you do during, sleep, you are nevertheless guilty of some degree of misinterpretation, greater or less according to the extent to which your thought processes are dominated by your emotions and your psychological complexes.
While the concentration of mental energy on a single point is necessary in certain circumstances, a diffuse or widespread distribution of attention is of value in other circumstances, and for an all-round mental development it should be possible to bring the mind into either state with equal facility.
As an example of the restricted scope of awareness, you well know the kind of situation in which you are in the process of writing a letter when the telephone rings in another room. On your way to answer the telephone you put down your pen without giving any special attention to this small act, and afterwards, when you go to take up the pen to continue writing, you have great difficulty in finding it because you are unable to remember where you put it. Unless you make a special effort of mindfulness, the simple task of attending both to the act of putting the pen down and to the act of walking towards the telephone is too much for you, because the scope of your normal awareness is too confined to embrace these two very simple things at the same time. This is an obvious example of the need for an expansion of the scope of consciousness.
In the ordinary course of workaday life, there is little or no time for the practice of exercises in mental development unless these practices are woven into the general fabric of everyday life. If, however, you find the time occasionally to slow down whatever you are doing – perhaps for only a few minutes, an hour, or a day, according to circumstances – in order to give to it your fullest possible attention, then this deliberately increased awareness will help to establish a general all-round mindfulness during the busier periods of your life.
Under ideal conditions, you should be able to become fully aware of whatever you are doing all your normal waking life. Of course, this continual alertness is normally beyond you. To become fully aware of everything you do throughout your waking life is much more than you can ordinarily achieve, and the more you try to develop this enlarged awareness the more you realize your inadequacies.
However, if your efforts along the lines of right mindfulness do nothing other than make you more aware of your own unawareness, they are thereby fulfilling a very important purpose. You come to realize the automatic and mechanical nature of much that you do, and you begin to see that you have hitherto been largely caught up in the unthinking drift of life. Only when you begin to become aware of all this can you start your fight to become free from the unthinking drift.
In your ordinary life, no doubt, you meet a succession of problems. Maybe you are short of money, or your domestic responsibilities are too heavy for you, or the people in the flat upstairs are noisy.
A philosophy of some kind would help you to deal with your problems, of course, but only up to a point, for your problems. are mainly practical ones and not philosophical ones. To be of any real use, a philosophy must be developed into a policy and this policy must be organized to become a technique.
Whatever your philosophy and whatever policy and technique you develop from it, it is safe to say that it must embody not only increased mindfulness, but also some form of self-discipline, to be of any real use. Without self-discipline, no form of mental culture can achieve very much.
Self-discipline must be used side by side with the development of mindfulness. You must recognize, of course, that self-discipline alone is of limited value, but coupled with the cultivation of awareness it becomes of much greater value as a part of the technique of living.
Self-discipline is the effort to act and to think along certain pre-determined lines and to avoid acting and thinking along contrary lines.
There is a sharp distinction between discipline which is self-imposed and discipline which is imposed from outside. You will find that a discipline imposed on you from outside sometimes raises a resistance within you, and you will often tend to resent it. This is so when the discipline is harsh and strict, of course, but it may also be so when it is mild and easy-going. The resentment depends not only on the harshness of the actual discipline to which you must submit, but also on your unwillingness to submit to it.
Thus if you are forced to submit to a light discipline with which you disagree, you will feel rebellious and indeed you may actually rebel against it, even though, viewed dispassionately, it is not harsh. On the other hand, if you were willingly and knowingly to undertake a very strict discipline – if, for example, you were to enter a religious order or voluntarily to join the army – you would tend to conform to it without resentment. And you would do so because, taking on the discipline willingly and knowingly, you would up to a point transform it from an external discipline to a self-discipline.
So an external discipline can become either an occasion for resentment and rebellion or else a means of developing your own mental resources, according to your own attitude towards it.
However, discipline of this kind is not really what we are interested in our present consideration, and we mention it only to bring out the difference between an externally-imposed discipline and the type of discipline which is self-imposed.
You might take on a self-imposed discipline for any of a number of reasons. You might start your daily work very early and continue until very late in order to make money. You might undertake a strict and unappetizing diet because you want to become slender and more attractive. Or you might take on a rigid routine of training because you want to win a foot-race. In each of these the self-imposed discipline is not an end in itself – it is only a way of achieving an end.
However, whether it is meant in that way or not, your self-discipline achieves more than it was intended to do; it does more than make you more money, or slim your figure, or win your race, for it builds up in your mental structure qualities which in themselves will increase your capacity for happiness.
If a discipline is imposed on you by others or by circumstances, this externally-imposed discipline is generally concerned with your outer actions rather than with the mental processes which lead up to them. Self-imposed discipline, on the other hand, may be concerned with your outer actions and their effects, or it may be concerned with the desires and emotions which influence your outer actions: but in either case your inner mental processes and motives are of primary importance, at least in the present context.
At the same time it must be recognized that you can help to control your desires and emotions by controlling their outer manifestations. For example, you may tend to gaze longingly at something you desire but cannot have, and this tends to strengthen the desire as well as the feeling of frustration; but if you refuse to gaze at it – if you turn your vision away from it, even though you cannot turn your interest away – you are doing something, however little, towards controlling the desire and reducing the sense of frustration.
Again, you tend to raise your voice when annoyed, and the louder voice is the effect of the feeling of annoyance; but if by an effort of will you keep your voice at its normal level you are doing a certain amount towards the control of the annoyance itself.
The point of this is that the external manifestations of desires and emotions are integral parts of these desires and emotions, and by inhibiting their outer effects you are helping to weaken their inner causes – provided of course you do so mindfully. While it is true that these things work primarily from the inside outwards, it is true also that to some extent they work from the outside inwards.
Now let us consider the manner in which you can best apply self-discipline in your daily life. Perhaps the biggest problem in any form of mental culture is not the problem of mastering its principles but that of applying them. One system may be based. on psychological theories, another on philosophical or religious concepts; one may be clear-cut and another vague and indefinite; but in most cases the greater difficulty is found not in understanding the principles involved, but in using the practices in the routine of everyday life.
If you lead a too-busy life, with responsibilities and duties bearing down on you, you may feel that your endeavours to develop your own mental potentialities are thwarted by all these external pressures. But if you could miraculously be freed from your problems and frustrations you would also be deprived of the very best opportunities for mindfulness, self-discipline, and other forms of mental culture. Your philosophy and policy of life are worth nothing to you if you cannot weave them into the fabric of your daily living. If, however, they are at all exacting and if they demand from you any degree of self-discipline, it is admittedly not easy to do this.
There is, however, a method whereby you can apply self-discipline in the routine of your everyday life and which involves little if any expenditure of valuable time.
At this point, however, I must make it clear that this method of self-discipline which I am about to place before you is not a traditional Buddhist method; it is a system which I have worked out and applied to my own life. In my early acquaintance with Buddhist ideals and the principles of a similar kind, I found that it was quite easy to talk about them when life was flowing smoothly, but quite as difficult to apply them – or even to call them to mind – when problems arose. For this reason I searched for some way to turn my philosophy into a policy and this policy into a technique. As a result I evolved what I call the self-contract method of self-discipline.
In using this method, you take in band some adverse tendency which you wish to correct, some habit you wish to break, or some habit you wish to form, and at the same time you select some small pleasure in which you normally indulge.
You then make a sort of pact or contract with yourself to the effect that, soon after each occasion on which you fail to control the adverse tendency or habit, you will deny yourself the small pleasure you have selected.
To take a concrete example, let us assume that you are absent-minded. This, of course, is simply a lack of all-round mindfulness, for although particular forms of mindfulness have certain specialized functions, a general all-round mindfulness is essential for efficient living.
If you lack this all-round mindfulness, you will find yourself mislaying small things such as your keys, or your reading glasses, or your pencil. You will have to search all your pockets or empty out your handbag to find your railway ticket. You will carefully write someone’s telephone number on a slip of paper and then just as carelessly lose it.
In this you will have a great deal in common with most other people. Most of us lack all-round mindfulness and therefore most of us would benefit by some self-training in this respect.
Let us assume, then, that you wish to correct this adverse tendency – this lack of all-round mindfulness. Let us assume also that you smoke cigarettes.
You therefore make a contract with yourself along these lines: "I resolve that after each time I neglect to be mindful in small matters I will go without a cigarette for at least two hours."
Now you will note that this is not merely a resolution to form a new habit; it is something more. If you make a simple resolution without a self-imposed deprivation it is likely to fail, either because you will forget it, or because you will soon decide that absent-mindedness is not such a bad fault after all, or, more likely, because there are too many other matters demanding your attention.
With a self-imposed deprivation, however, the contract which you make with yourself has a great deal more force than a simple resolution, by virtue of the self-imposed deprivation.
At first sight, the deprivation may seem to be a form of self-punishment. This is not its function, however, for it must never be severe enough to be felt as a punishment, and if it were to be felt as a punishment it would tend to defeat its own purpose.
You must regarded the deprivation, not as a penalty, but purely as an aid to mindfulness, a help in breaking free from the unthinking drift of life, and a device to give force to your resolution. As such, it must never be allowed to become irksome or unduly restrictive; it must always remain flexible and readily modified, for once you make it too difficult you will tend to throw it aside and forget all about it.
All that you require your self-discipline to do is to exert a gentle and fairly continuous pressure in order to give you greater awareness of your habits, desires, and reactions to circumstances.
To make the self-contract system of discipline work you must begin by forming a new habit. This new habit is that of mentally pausing each time you are about to indulge in the small pleasure – whatever it may be – that you have selected as the basis for your self-contract.
If it happens to be cigarette-smoking, as your hand is about to open the packet your mind must learn to pause to consider whether or not your self-contract allows you a cigarette at this time.
If you have agreed with yourself to have your tea or coffee without sugar after an occasion of lack of mindfulness, then you must train yourself to think back each time before reaching for the sugar basin.
If you like to eat chocolates and have made a pact to deprive yourself of them after being absent- minded, then you must form the habit of pausing to think back before eating them.
It is, in fact, possible to set off one habit against another and so develop greater control over both, but in any case the deprivation must be regarded mainly as an aid to mindfulness and must therefore remain flexible. In another system of self-discipline, perhaps, you might be required to make a more exacting imposition on yourself; but since the method we are discussing is primarily a means of handling small and apparently insignificant failings without interfering with the busy workaday routine, a rigid and severe system of self-discipline would be inappropriate.
If you yourself decide to take on this system of mental culture, you would of course have to adapt it to your own requirements and your own mode of life. This would probably apply particularly to the self-imposed deprivations that you would use, and these will depend on your likes and dislikes.
Perhaps you neither smoke cigarettes, nor have sugar in your tea or coffee, nor eat chocolates. But however austere your life may be there must be some small pleasure that you enjoy – or even some small activity that you carry out – with some degree of regularity; and whatever it is you can use it as a basis for the self-contract method of self-discipline.
As opposed to self-deprivation, the idea of self-rewarding is sometimes suggested as a basis for a system of discipline. In general, however, self-appointed rewards do not work as well as self-imposed deprivations.
For example, if you already eat whatever you wane whenever you want it, by rewarding yourself with something you like to eat you will find yourself over-eating. Or if you already smoke whenever you feel like it, by rewarding yourself with an extra cigarette you will find yourself smoking when you do not really want to do so, and so you will be effecting little or nothing. Only if you are already restricting your eating and smoking will a self-rewarding basis in these things be effective.
However, you may sometimes offset a self-imposed deprivation by a self-appointed reward, so that one cancels the other. Everyone’s life and circumstances vary from everyone else’s, and a system that fails in one person’s case may work in another’s.
What has been written above forms a general introduction to mindfulness combined with self-discipline as a basis for mental culture; and with this basis, fortified by an increasing understanding of life – of the ways in which living beings act and react – you can lay the foundation for an efficient technique of living.
In order to help you to build on this foundation, I have compiled a course which is designed to extend over a period of a year. It consists of a series of sections one for each month, on various aspects of mental culture, each with a basic exercise in either mindfulness, self-understanding, or self-discipline. The course is called "A Technique of Living", and this section forms the introduction to it.
In the main but not entirely, the practices are based on Buddhist psychological principles. The practices do not however, include exercises which require an appreciable amount of time, nor are the principles involved of a particularly profound nature.
If you wish to take on what is loosely called meditation and to study Buddhist principles in their deeper forms, a good deal of literature is available on the subject; but such practices and study do not lie within the scope of this course. All of the practices in this course are designed to be woven into the fabric of the workaday routine.
Although one month is given to each section of the course, you will almost certainly find that a month is too short to establish it as a well-founded habit, and you will probably need to repeat the series during the following year. In fact, there is no reason why you should not continue with the practices in sequence indefinitely on a yearly cycle.
While each one of the twelve lessons is assigned to one particular month, you may commence the course at any time of the year.
In taking on any system of self-training, the main problem, as already stated, is not the matter of understanding its principles but that of applying its practices; and even then, once you have trade a start, there is always the possibility that you will discontinue it.
If you are practising it alone, you may tend to lose interest. If, however, you can form a discussion-group with three or four friends with similar interests, the opportunity to compare notes and to discuss progress and mutual problems will provide a good incentive to continue with the practices.
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last updated: 18-04-2005