Friends, being lost in thoughts is one of the things that truly prevents us from making real contact with life. If you are ruled by worry, frustration, anxiety, anger, or jealousy, you will lose the chance to make real contact with all the wonders of life.

Friends, the lotus in my hand is only real to those of you who are mindfully dwelling in the present moment. If you do not return to the present moment, the flower does not truly exist. There are people who could pass through a forest of sandalwood trees without ever actually seeing one tree. Life is filled with suffering, and it also contains many wonders. Be aware in order to see both the suffering and the wonders in life.

Being in touch with suffering does not mean to become lost in it. Being in touch with the wonders in life does not mean to lose ourselves in them either. Being in touch is to truly encounter life, to see it deeply. If we directly encounter life, we will understand its Interdependent and Impermanent nature. Thanks to that, we will no longer lose ourselves in desire, anger, and craving. We will dwell in freedom and liberation.

-The Buddha

This dharma talk (teaching) by the Buddha is about two of the most basic elements of Buddhism; breathing and dwelling in the present moment. It’s odd how easy it is to forget to breathe in our everyday lives. Oxygen is one of the main elements we humans need to survive, and yet breathing is something we all forget to do multiple times daily. I understand from this dharma talk that we should not dwell in the past because it has already happened, and therefore we should not dwell in the future because it has yet to occur. We must dwell in the present moment. In doing so, anxieties and negative emotions will not overcome us, rather we will overcome those emotions through breathing and dealing with life as it happens.

In the first paragraph of the quote, the Buddha points out how life will pass us by if we are always thinking about what will happen and what has already happened. Say for instance I go to a Broadway audition on Monday. I feel prepared and ready to show the production team that I am the actor they are looking for. Unfortunately for me, I forget a line in my monologue and consequently blow the audition. The casting director tells me that I will hear from him by Friday about whether or not I made the cut, and I smile as I leave the audition room. Inside though, I am angry for messing up such a great opportunity. Four days go by and come Friday I do not hear from the casting director. As a result, I am still angry at myself for failing on Monday. Thus, I have allowed the emotion of anger to dominate my present by holding onto the past for an entire week! That Friday night I even went to a Buffalo Sabres game with my Father. Despite a Buffalo victory and my Dad being happily into the game, I couldn’t appreciate the moment because I was still ticked about blowing the audition on Monday. Something that had already occurred was preventing me from appreciating things that were in the process of occurring. I lost true contact with life for nearly a week by not being able to dwell in the present moment. Another situation of being lost in thought and missing out on the present moment would be if in the same audition I delivered the best performance of my life. Once again, the casting director tells me that they will contact me about the part by Friday. This time when I leave the room with a smile I feel really good inside, not angry. So, for the next four days I anxiously await that phone call. I never turn my phone off no matter where I am. As time slowly passes, I begin to anticipate that call so intensely that I cannot focus on anything else for the rest of the week. The anxiety of waiting for that phone call prevents me from focusing at work, at school, and during conversations with my friends and family. As a result, this feeling of anxiousness has affected my relationships with others. I even prevented myself from appreciating natural wonders, such as a warm and sunny day in an otherwise rainy and cold Spring season. Time passes and when Friday finally comes, I eventually get the call from the casting director informing me that I got the job. I feel excited and relieved, but in my anticipation of the call, I have not lived my life in the present moment. Due to my thoughts about the past and future I could not truly enjoy quality time with my Father, I was unable to practice true listening with my friends and family (even when they had something important to say), and I could not appreciate the gifts of nature. Whether the call from the casting director came or not, I have allowed these moments along with many others to pass me by in forgetfulness. Because I was not dwelling in the present moment, I was unable to make contact with the real wonders of life.

In the dharma talk the Buddha then provides an example of his own; In one hand he holds a lotus flower and tells his bhikkhus (monks/disciples) that they can only truly appreciate the lotus if they are dwelling in the present moment. Otherwise, the flower does not truly exist. What I believe the Buddha means by this is that if we are breathing mindfully and dwelling in the now, with our mind clear of past and future thoughts, we will experience the true beauty and essence of the flower. However, if our mind is focused on thoughts that are elsewhere, we will not truly see the flower and therefore will not actually notice that it exists. He then makes the same point with a forest of sandalwood trees as the example. The Buddha then goes on to point out how life is filled with both wonders and suffering, and that we need to be aware in order to see both. By being aware we can see the reality of life. If we are not aware, we will be ignorant of the reality of life. We would be unaware of the horrible atrocities that are being committed in our world, such as religious wars and the destruction of our environment for the sake of industrialization. If we live our life being unaware, through our ignorance we will not be able to help rectify horrible situations in any way. Even if we could do something about them, we will be unable to because we are ignorant of the problems even existing. If we are not aware, we will also miss out on the wonders in life. Wonders such as a beautiful day, promotion, friendship, or even something as simple as watching a leaf drift down to the earth. In order for us to be aware of both the sufferings and wonders of the world, we must practice mindful breathing.

While the Buddha makes it clear that we need to dwell in the present moment in order to truly acknowledge the world, he also makes it equally clear that we are not to get caught up in wonder and suffering either. If I were to land the role in the previously mentioned Broadway audition, I would experience a feeling of great joy. At the same time, if I were not offered a job by the casting director, my worry about future employment would increase my suffering. Either way, the Buddha warns us to not get lost in these emotions. He advises us to be aware of these emotions and acknowledge them, but we must not be controlled by these feelings. As the Buddha states; “Clinging and aversion are both ropes that bind.” Meaning that holding onto and running away from/ignoring our emotions does nothing to help us attain liberation. It actually keeps us from attaining liberation. Our armor against this is looking deeply at life by being mindful in the present moment. In the dharma talk the Buddha states that when we do this we will realize that everything is Impermanent and Interdependent. ‘Impermanent’ refers to how everything is subject to change. Everything. Think about it; If we were permanent, we would still be an infant in our mothers womb. Thankfully, we aren’t and we are able to grow up and mature. If we were permanent, we would still act with the same immaturity as when we were teenagers. We would also still believe the same things we did when we were teenagers. Thankfully, we are impermanent and subject to change. Everything is impermanent; emotions, relationships, life. Nothing has the potential to stay the same forever. ‘Interdependence’ refers to how everything is connected. Everything exists due to something else also existing, and everything happens because something else also happens. This happens, because that happens. That is, because this is. Because the farmer plants the seed, the seed turns into a plant. The seed turns into a plant because of rain. Rain exists due to evaporation, and so on. Without the farmer, the seed will not be planted. Without the plant, there will be no seed. Without the rain there will be no plant. Without evaporation there can be no rain, and again the cycle continues. Everything is connected. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh on Interdependence;

Contemplate the nature of [Interdependence] at every moment. When you look at a leaf or raindrop, meditate on all the conditions, near or distant, that have contributed to the existence of that leaf or raindrop. Know that the world is woven of interconnected threads. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This is born, because that is born. This dies, because that dies. A wave cannot exist without the ocean, and the ocean cannot exist without the wave. They are one.

Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke of Interdependence;

All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.

Once we realize that everything is Interdependent and everything (including ourselves) is Impermanent, we will become more aware of the world, ourselves and others. When this happens, we will live in mindfulness, thus achieving freedom and liberation. Emotions and flurries of thoughts will not overpower our mind and daily activities. Through breathing, dwelling in mindfulness, and meditating on Interdependence and Impermanence we are able to take control of our emotions and appreciate life for the present. Keep in mind that to breathe mindfully is to be aware that air is entering and exiting our body during the in breath and the out breath, respectively. It’s that simple. To practice mindful breathing is to observe the natural rhythm of our breath. Don’t force anything during the breath. With attention and time, your breathing will become longer, deeper, and slower on its own. If your mind wanders off, acknowledge the distraction and bring your attention carefully back to your breathing. The following is a meditation of mindful breathing:

Breathing in, I am aware of my in breath.

Breathing out, I am aware of my out breath.

In, out.

Breathing in, I am aware that my breath grows deep.

Breathing out, I am aware that my breath grows deep.

Deep, deep.

Breathing in, I am aware that my breath goes slowly.

Breathing out, I am aware that my breath goes slowly.

Slow, slow.

You don’t need to sit motionless in the lotus position with your hands resting on your knees in order to practice this meditation. Try it while you are walking to the train station or to class. Try it while driving or while you are waiting for your computer to load. Try it in the shower, when a commercial comes on, or during work. There is no wrong place or way to practice meditation. As long as you are committed to it and try it actively for a few minutes it will help. Try this meditation in order to become more mindful of the present moment. I promise you, a positive change in yourself will be noticeable to you and others.

Breathe and dwell mindfully in the present moment to truly experience life to the fullest.

The quotes of the dharma talk, clinging and aversion, and interdependence are taken from the book Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He has helped to spread (Tibetan) Buddhism in Western culture by writing over 75 books on the subject. If you are interested in Buddhism, I highly recommend using one of Thich’s books as a jumping off point. In addition, the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, and the meditation of mindful breathing is from Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World, also by Thich Nhat Hanh. Photo taken by Andy Liegl.

This was my first spirituality blog and I hope I was able to convey my thoughts in an interesting and understandable way.