Enlightenment: A Call To Action

I read an interesting Facebook post from screenwriter and author, David Gerrold today. He wrote about the Buddha and enlightenment. The article starts like this (quote): “The story of Buddha, the short version, is that he was a prince or a noble of some sort. When he saw the great poverty of the people, he abandoned his riches and became a stoic. After a while, he realized that was a mistake as well and then he sat under a Bodhi tree for a while and became enlightened.”

A very short version indeed. The Buddha discovered that life is full of suffering. With enlightenment came the ability to deal with the suffering in your mind and finally the ability to eliminate suffering from your life through changing the way you think about it. This, according to Buddhism, is enlightenment. He spent the rest of his life teaching these things to others. That’s all fine, writes Gerrold but:

“If he truly was a prince or a noble. If he truly was rich, then he was in a position to actually help the people living in great poverty. There were things he could have created — hospitals, schools, shelters for the homeless. He could have been more than some eccentric old guy sitting under a tree saying stuff that’s supposed to make people feel good about what’s going on inside their heads.”

It’s an interesting thought. In other words, it’s good to know about the troubles of individuals, and of the world, but knowing is not enough. Once you know, and if you are in a position to, you should be doing something about it. As an example, he say’s this: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

The author also left this comment: “I will add a note to that. I wash the dishes every morning. It’s a relaxing ritual while the coffee perks. This is how enlightenment turns a chore into a service — I am being in service to my son and daughter-in-law. I am making a difference by providing a cleaner space for all of us. I am still chopping wood and carrying water, but now I understand why I am chopping wood and carrying water. I do it as a service.”

These are some good things to think about. We know about the troubles of the world. We see it and read about it in the news everyday. But knowing is not enough. I’ve read books about Buddhism, about monks spending their lives in meditation. But I often wondered, what good does this do beyond the good of the monk doing the meditation. Enlightenment is awareness, Gerrold writes: “But awareness itself is useless — unless you roll up your f**king sleeves and do something. If you are not going to work and making a difference, your enlightenment is merely narcissism in drag.”

Do something. Anything. Even something as simple as writing about what’s happening to people, to bring awareness. And then people turn that awareness into action. Even, Gerrold says, doing the dishes in order to create a cleaner space. Being in service to others, even if it is something as simple as smiling and greeting the cashier at your grocery store. Even that is a service. It can help brighten someones day, and who knows what they might do with that. They might go home after work and be nicer to their neighbors. And do it without expecting anything in return. If we do things because they should be done, and not for some kind of reward, (like a “thank you”) we’re providing a service to others, and that in turn is enlightenment. Knowing you’re doing things that should and need to be done to make a better world without expecting or desiring a reward.

So let’s go out and do stuff. There is a lot of injustice in our country and right here in our towns. Let’s make things better. Be encouraging, smile, or open a door for someone. Or go out and build houses for Habitat for Humanity. A lot of us are busy people. Many don’t have time to build houses. But we have time to smile. We have time to help someone load their groceries into their car. This is enlightenment.

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Clarity


We lead busy, hectic lives. People work hard at their jobs, some raise families, some volunteer. We’re busy and the stress of all this is not easy to deal with. When I have mentioned to people that they try meditation I have been told that they don’t have time, or they’ve tried it but it doesn’t work for them. I get that. Formal, sit on a cushion meditation takes time, effort and planning. I’ve done some of that myself and it works well for me but for the most part I do what’s called, mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has become very popular in the U.S. these days and you can find lots of books about it and seminars, and teachers. Many people are confused about what mindfulness really is and what it can do for them. It takes time to figure it out and time and effort to practice.

But it doesn’t have to be that hard. This is my definition of mindfulness. Some may agree, some may not. Mindfulness is simply paying attention. Paying attention to whatever it is you are doing at the moment. Becoming fully absorbed in the task at hand, whatever it is and not letting your mind wander. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is, but not at first. It takes practice. Unfortunately, we have a bad habit of letting our minds wander. Especially when we’re doing mundane tasks like washing dishes, or cleaning, or driving (especially bad). Mindfulness means paying attention to what we are doing and not thinking about other things. It helps clarify the mind, prevents worry, and helps you stay awake and aware. It also helps you sleep better at night. Meditation can also be done by thinking about a specific thing while you are doing something else.

As you may know, I’m a tea drinker. I make a cup of tea almost every morning. This takes a little time and if you steep your tea, you really can’t do anything else while you’re steeping. It’s a good time to practice meditation. Here’s how I do it: First I practice mindfulness meditation while I’m gathering the things I need to make my tea. I use an electric kettle which boils water in about 2 minutes. First I fill the kettle with water and start it. While the water heats I gather a cup, the tea, my tea strainer, and the honey I use to sweeten it. I put 2 teaspoons of tea in the strainer (I use a 12 ounce cup), and while I’m doing all this I’m concentrating on what I’m doing. Keeping my mind on the tasks and when my mind starts to wander, which it will, I recognize this and simply bring my mind back to the task. The more you practice, the less your mind will wander. When the water boils I shut off the heat and wait one minute before pouring the water in the cup. You don’t want to steep your tea at boiling temperature because it can give it a bitter strong flavor. After one minute I put the strainer in and start steeping.

While I’m steeping I’m thinking about something specific. I start by thinking about tea fields and all the hundreds or even thousands of workers in foreign countries that pluck tea for a living. Next I imagine the tea factories where the leaves and processed. I think about tea leaves being tossed in giant heated woks, and other processes it takes to make good tea. Then I think about the buyers and sellers of tea and next about the people who ship tea and the dock workers and and workers on ships and planes that carry the tea to foreign ports all over the world. And then I’m on to the stores that sell tea and the people who’s job it is to get the tea into my hands. And the workers who make tea cups and strainers and then the bees and flowers and hives and beekeepers it takes to make honey. And then I’m done steeping and I drink my tea. And the whole time I’m doing this I’m not worrying about anything, I’m not thinking about my day and what I’m going to do. I’m only feeling gratitude for the thousands of people involved in making sure I can enjoy a nice cup of tea.

In doing this it will open your mind to a wider world. To feel gratitude for all of the people involved in various aspects of your life can help make you a more compassionate person. While you are concentrating you are not worrying. You can’t worry if you’re not thinking about what worries you. You feel more clarity as you start your day. And then throughout your day, you can use the mindfulness meditation to keep your mind on the tasks you need to do. If you have trouble sleeping at night you can concentrate on your breath. Many people’s mind wander like crazy when they lay down for sleep. If you meditate on your breath, concentrating on breathing in, feeling the air fill your lungs and feeling the air release through you nostrils you can even say to yourself, “I breathe in, I breathe out.” The breath is something to think about that’s benign and doesn’t cause any worry. And if you’re thinking about your breath, you’re not thinking about the thousand things that keep you awake at night.

But it takes practice. One of the things I have noticed is that the mind starts to wander when your eyes go unfocused. Say you’re hand washing your dishes. When you start thinking about something other than washing your dishes, you’ll find that your eyes are not focused on what you’re doing. So practice that as well. Keep your eyes actively looking at what you’re doing. You won’t be good at it right away and that shouldn’t discourage you. There are very few things in life that we are. Just like any other skill however, you need to practice it. When you first start, don’t chastise yourself when you fail. If you find your mind wandering from the task, simply recognize that it is, and bring yourself back. Start concentrating again. It will happen again, and then just bring your mind back to the task you’re doing. You will find that as you do this it will get easier and eventually you’ll do it without thinking about it. You’ll also notice that you worry less. You can’t worry if you’re not thinking about what worries you. Give it a try!

Four Minute Meditation

Having a busy life is something all of us seem to share. For those of us who practice meditation, it can be hard to set aside time to do it. I did a four minute meditation a couple weeks ago (I steep my tea for four minutes) and it was really nice. I posted this on Facebook and got a few good responses. If you’re a tea drinker, give this a try some time. I turned it into a poem.
tea cup
While steeping my tea this morning,
I remembered the tea field workers who
pick the green leaves on mountain sides,
two leaves and a bud
in China and India and Africa.
I thought about the people who work the
magic turning the green leaves
into my favorite tea.
And the buyers and sellers and
truck drivers and ship captains and
their crews, store owners and cashiers that are all
involved with my being able to enjoy a cup of tea.
And I thought about the bees that pollinate
the tea plant flowers and the workers who
harvest the honey that I use to
sweeten my favorite tea.
No worries about money or politics
or anything else. And I enjoyed my tea
more than usual for having thought about
the hundreds of people it took for me to have it.
We are all one. Black, White, male, female, gay,
straight, religious, non religious. All the same.
It’s a beautiful world. Let’s work to keep it that way.

My Religion History

In earlier posts I have written about Buddhism, the basic ideas, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. As I discover more things about Buddhism myself I’m going to write about what I find. But I’ll give you a little personal history first. I was raised attending non denominational Christian church. A church that follows the basic Christian belief but was not affiliated with Baptist, Lutheran or any other Christian denomination. When I moved from my parents home and got out on my own at 17, I left church behind. You could say I believed in a God but really didn’t give it much thought. In my early thirties I came to a point in my life where I thought I needed God. I started reading the Bible and tried to clean up my life. Up to that point I smoked and drank and pretty much lived how I pleased. Things happened to me of a crisis nature that made me believe that I needed saving. I went back to church, prayed a lot and really tried to live a good life. Whatever the reasons, I never felt the presence of a God. No matter how I tried it just never happened for me. Even when things turned around, and my life got quite a bit better I could never say that I felt it was “Gods presence” that made it happen. So I left religion and belief behind.
christian cross

A few years ago my wife and I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship that some of our friends belonged to. The UU, as it’s commonly known is a religion that pretty much leaves your religious beliefs up to you. Founded on the Christian religion, UUism has come to be a haven for people of any and all religious beliefs or no belief at all. Everyone is welcome and no one is told that their belief or non belief is wrong. It is a great place for people like me who want the community and fellowship of a church but just can’t bring yourself to believe the dogma of mainstream religion. Over the years I have read about and studied Buddhism. Buddhism is considered a religion by many but I see it as a way of life. A way of life and living that helps you find spirituality and continually helps to improve your life and the world around you.
uu chalic
UU Symbol

I read an article about 30 years ago in a magazine about Catholic monks in a monastery in Massachusetts who practiced Buddhist meditation. I found it very intriguing that it was okay to combine Buddhism with other faiths. That’s when I really started looking into it. Since then I’ve read a ton of books by The Dali Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many other Buddhist practitioners. I have learned to meditate, and practice what’s called “Mindfulness.” There is a Buddhist meditation center in my home town that I have visited a few times and I have a friend who is a Zen Buddhist Priest. I am by no means an expert in any of this but I have learned some over the years and I believe that it all has helped me to be a more spiritual person and one who acts and thinks with a clearer mind. Buddhism teaches about the impermanence of everything including material objects and life itself and knowing this has helped me to worry less, make less assumptions, stop judging, and just be a decent person because I can and want to, and not because I think there will be some kind of judgement of my life after I die. It is very freeing to believe this way.
dali lama The Dali Lama thich nhat hanh Thich Nhat Hanh

So that’s my religion history, such as it is. If you have read my earlier posts you will recall that I wrote about “The Four Noble Truths.” The Buddha, (who was a man, not a god) taught about these truths or beliefs and what they mean about life. Very briefly, this is what they are. #1 There is suffering in life. #2 There is a reason for the suffering. #3 There is a way to end the suffering. #4 Following the Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering. Sounds intriguing right? Well it does to me and it did when I first started learning about it. So I’m going to write some posts about what I’ve learned as I have applied these truths to my life. And as with anything, I’m still learning and will always be learning. That’s one of the great things about this. You can never know it all so there is always something else to know and keep you going.
person meditating

One of the things I read about Buddhism that really helped me to discover what it is about was written by the Dali Lama. He said, give Buddhism a try, if it works for you that’s great. If not, leave it behind. It really helped me to see that Buddhism is not some dogmatic belief system that you have to ascribe to in order to “belong.” It’s probably the most important thing I have read about Buddhism. It really opened my eyes. With my next post I’ll write about the first Noble Truth and what I think it means. See you then!