Mindfulness and Self-Improvement
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Dear Still Water Friends,
In the Chinese and Japanese Zen traditions it was common for monastics and lay people to come together each year at retreat centers for periods of intensive practice. This week, a group of Still Water practitioners are trying our own variation of this tradition. We call it an “at-home retreat.” We met together on Sunday afternoon, June 22, shared with each other our intentions or aspirations for the week, and then chose formal practices, informal practices, and ways of supporting each other that would nourish our intentions. In our everyday life this week, we are experimenting with our new or revitalized practices. And next Sunday we will again come together to share our experiences and insights.
As I struggle to incorporate a daily yoga practice this week, as well make other modifications in my daily routines and patterns, I am reminded that my practice grows when I am able to balance acceptance of who I am and commitment to an aspiration or intention. If there is just acceptance, I get lazy and float with the current, doing as others do, with little sense of my own autonomy and purpose. If there is just commitment, it is easy for me to get caught in my plans and self-image. Even if I exert great effort, I easily become frustrated, self-critical, and discouraged.
This is an ageless issue, and was addressed by the Buddha when a zealous but frustrated monk named Sona was thinking of giving up his vows:
The Buddha, who understood his problem, said to him, “Sona, before you became a monk, you were a musician.” Sona replied, “That is true.” Then the Buddha said, “Being a musician, you should know which string of a lute produces a pleasant and harmonious sound: the string that is overly tight?” “No,” replied Sona, “the overly tight string produces an unpleasant sound and is likely to break at any moment.” “Then,” said the Buddha, “is it the string that is slack?” “No,” replied Sona, “the slack string does not produce a pleasant and harmonious sound. The string that produces a pleasant and harmonious sound is the string that is not too tight and not too loose.” In this case, a life of indulgence and luxury may be said to be too loose, without discipline or application, whereas a life of self-mortification is too tight, too hard and tense, and likely to cause a breakdown of the mind and body, just as the overly tight string is likely to break at any time.
(From The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism by Peter Della Santina).
For Thich Nhat Hanh, the indicator of whether we have found the middle way, is whether our practice brings us joy. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching he notes:
The practice of mindful living should be joyful and pleasant. If you breathe in and out and feel joy and peace, that is Right Diligence. If you suppress yourself, if you suffer during your practice, it probably is not Right Diligence. Examine your practice. See what brings you joy and happiness of a sustained kind.
You are invited to join with other practitioners this Thursday to share about your practice of mindfulness. When do your lute strings sound pleasant and harmonious? Are your lute strings sometimes too loose or too tight?
Below is a related story in which Mahatma Gandhi instructs a student about finding a joyful middle way.
by Richard B. Gregg, from The Value Of Voluntary Simplicity
If simplicity of living is a valid principle, there is one important precaution and condition of its application. I can explain it best by something which Mahatma Gandhi said to me. We were talking about simple living and I said that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, “Then don’t give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.”