When I paid my first visit to a Buddhist monastery, I imagined any insights would come through sitting blissed-out on a meditation cushion, rather than digging a trench between two dormitories.
During a 10-day stay at Amaravati monastery in London, part of the day included a work period where lay guests and residents would help out with whatever needed to be done throughout the monastery. For the first few days, I was tasked with breaking up a pathway between the dormitories, and digging a trench to enable pipes to be laid.
As someone who has spent over ten years working in media, hammers, pick axes and shovels haven’t exactly been my tools of trade. Nevertheless, with a sense of foreboding, I set to work in the searing summer heat and, to my surprise, my mind took less time to complain about the conditions than I had anticipated.
After a few minutes of breaking up and lifting slabs, thoughts began to flood my mind about how hot the weather was, how I hadn’t signed up for this, and how great it would be to be back home working in a comfortable office, where I could eat biscuits and drink coffee until my heart was content. Oh, and my back was starting to hurt, and there was so much still to be done, and this was really nothing at all like my holiday in Greece last year; I wish I was back there – such a wonderful place; I really don’t function so well before having at least two cups of coffee…
And on and on the thinking went. At one point during my Moaning Myrtle act, a monk wandered passed and, seeing that I was in a less-than-ideal state, stopped to ask me: “Where is your suffering? What is it that you’re attached to?” Before I could get the chance to answer, he wandered off with all the Zen-like calm that suggested he’d definitely had his morning coffee.
As I got over the initial thoughts that arose (“My suffering is here, and I’m partial to coffee and biscuits!”), I started to think about this word he used: where is my suffering? Where did all the thoughts and the poor-me stuff come from? And where is it now? How did the mind throw up all these objections quicker than I could consciously choose to invite them in? What was the trigger? Where is my suffering?
I imagined that, had someone told me there was $10,000 dollars buried underneath the soil, I’d have happily dug away in the sun to an Olympic standard. I realised my suffering didn’t come from the conditions that I was facing (upon paying attention, my back wasn’t hurting that much) but rather, my suffering came from the fact that I was resisting life in the moment as it was: in my mind, this wasn’t how it should be and so this expectation conflicted with the nature of reality that presented itself.
In a nutshell, I wasn’t being mindful. Quite the opposite, I was being mindless. I was allowing my mind to wander off, escaping the present by flitting between the past and the future in an effort to not have to deal with what I perceived to be a difficult situation but that was, in reality, just a normal experience, unfolding in the only way that it could.
Why develop mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn – professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medial School and creator of the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme – is credited with being a key figure in bringing the concept of mindfulness and its benefits to the West. He defines mindfulness as, “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In paying attention to the present moment, non-judgementally, we do not become unfeeling automatons who cease thinking about our circumstances or avoid the ups and downs of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Rather, mindfulness helps us to attune to ourselves and to what’s going on around us. It leads us to see that we don’t merely live in the world, but we live in the world as we view it, construct it, or interpret it. In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn suggests developing mindfulness helps us in that, “by investigating inwardly our own nature as beings and, particularly, the nature of our own minds through careful and systematic self-observation, we may be able to live lives of greater satisfaction, harmony, and wisdom.”
The reason this helps us to develop a sense of satisfaction and harmony is because mindfulness helps us to calm the storm of our minds, which tend to host whirlwinds of thought that pull us in all kinds of different directions and, in the process, lead us to make all kinds of assumptions, anticipations, commentaries and judgements that cause feelings of agitation, frustration, and discontent. As the Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard has suggested, mindfulness “includes a correct understanding of the nature of our perceptions, free from the distortions that cause us to be attracted to or repelled by them. In addition, mindfulness contains an ethical component: it enables us to exercise discernment between states of mind that are beneficial and those that are harmful or pointless.”
Being able to place some psychological distance between experiencing and being patiently observant of our experiences is central to mindfulness. It’s through mindfulness practice that we are able to accomplish this, by allowing ourselves to detach from subjective evaluations that often give rise to the very emotional states that we try to avoid in the first place.
It was my experience at Amaravati monastery provided me with my first real insight into mindfulness and why its cultivation is important if we really want to live a life as free from suffering as possible. It’s not that we stop facing difficulties or challenging situations if only we commit to meditating for half-an-hour every day. Instead, mindfulness practice enables us to see our reality for what it is, rather than engage in what we often do in distorting, amplifying and misinterpreting both positive and negative experiences.
In our ceaseless pursuit of satisfaction and contentment, it can perhaps be argued that developing mindfulness practice is what can lead us to find the very qualities we spend so long chasing through external pursuits. Anyone who has said, “When I get the new job, then I’ll be happy,” or, “If I could just find the right person, I’ll be satisfied,” will know that, when we receive whatever we believe will bring us satisfaction, the sense of contentment never lasts. The reason for this is because we continue to look outside and beyond ourselves for those qualities that may only be cultivated from within.
In letting go of expectations of how things should be, it doesn’t mean to say that we need accept everything as it is and never bother to change what can be changed for the better. What mindfulness does encourage us to do is to start from a point of non-judgemental acceptance and, instead of losing ourselves in how things ought to be, it allows us to take a calm and objective look at how we might make our situation better or more productive than it is at present. Mindfulness brings us into the present, fostering awareness that it is this moment that we have – not the past or the future – that determines our happiness and contentment, based on our ability to discern the best way to interact with our current reality in the here and now.
Try this: When you next deal with a difficult or challenging situation and feel emotions such as anger of frustration begin to arise, take five slow deep breaths and focus your attention on your abdomen as your lungs rise and fall with each breath. In this time, you should feel the emotions begin to dissipate, and you can also ask yourself, “Is this really as bad as I’m making it out to be?” or, if really is a tough moment, remind yourself a few times, “This will soon blow over…feelings change; this isn’t going to last.”
By focusing on and slowing down the breath, the mind becomes calm and centred. Consciously asking yourself questions or reminding yourself that feelings pass helps to cultivate mindfulness, creating a helpful emotional buffer over time between what’s happening in the moment and your reaction. It’s this buffer that gives you the time to choose to respond in a way that benefits yourself and others around you.
 Brown, K. W; Ryan, R. M; and Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211-237
 Ricard, M (2010). Why Meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions. Hay House