Devoting our life to understanding and improving our mind is immensely beneficial and rewarding. Ultimately this will lead us to a state of complete mental freedom. However to achieve this I think it can be very helpful to understand what it is exactly that we need to abandon in order to reach this state
A few months after beginning buddhist meditation I was inspired to make some changes in my life. I already had the strong wish to change and follow a path of self improvement before finding meditation, and was encouraged by the practical solutions presented in the classes
One such tip was to listen to music a little less… for me it was like a social experiment. The teacher was positing that, for example, only listening to your ipod on your way to work and not back home afterwards would make you feel more peaceful. So I was like ‘what the heck, let’s give it a try!’
And you know what, it worked. Alongside this I made many other incremental changes in my life, both internally and externally. Eventually I ended up experimenting with entirely new ways of living….moving into and living in different buddhist centres and temples, and attempting to find peace from within
An attempt to find mental freedom
A couple of years after getting into meditation I must admit that I did become a bit extreme. One example of this was deleting my entire 60GB music library. After all music was the enemy right? I mean listening to it less had made my mind more peaceful, so the ultimate solution must be to cut it (and all other distractions) out of my life completely….. or so I thought
It’s interesting the conclusions we can come to, even when they may appear to accord with our own experience. Although limiting our consumption of music, TV and movies, eating out, expensive holidays and so forth may lead to us developing more peace of mind, we need to ask ourself how such changes are functioning to have said effects. One has to seriously question how cutting these types of activities out of our life, or even radically reducing them, is some sort of solution to finding mental peace
Although removing what could be considered extraneous activities from our life may lead to us feeling more peaceful, we won’t find the ultimate peace we’re searching for simply by living a more simple way of life. Sure it can feel good, and these types of changes are often enough to satisfy most people’s wish for a more peaceful life. But if we’re following a spiritual path (a path of finding mental freedom), then we shouldn’t be principally satisfied with the effects external change may bring
Uncovering the confusion in my mind
So what actually did make me feel more peaceful when I stopped listening to music and, possibly more to the point, why would it make you feel more peaceful anyway? I mean, isn’t listening to music a naturally enjoyable experience?
We all know it can be, however although sometimes it made me feel good, at other times it would give rise to discontent. We can experience so many pleasant feelings from listening to music, but we have to check for ourself whether these feelings are actual happiness
Now we don’t want to fall into an extreme here of thinking music is bad all of a sudden. In fact such perspectives can characterise people’s spiritual lives. In the beginning we might think music is a true source of happiness, and then when we realise listening to less makes us feel good, we can very easily fall into the other extreme of concluding that now it’s a true cause of suffering
Thankfully neither of these views are correct. Whether something influences us in a positive or negative way depends entirely on our mind. So music was never the solution or the problem, but rather the mind of attachment had been causing me to relate to it as either good or bad depending on my interpretation in each moment
So what is this mind…. the mind of attachment? Well that’s a fairly big topic within itself, and something I’ll touch on more in future posts, but for now we can understand it as the mind that sees something as a source of our happiness and wishes for it. Conversely it can also interpret people and things as causes of suffering when they don’t fulfil our wishes, and as a result of disliking them very easily lead to the development of anger
When I was walking down the street and experiencing pleasant feelings from listening to the music, attachment was telling me it was a true source of happiness. However when I woke up in the night and one song were repeating in my head over and over and over, attachment would cause me to relate to it as a source of pain because it wasn’t fulfilling its function
So although music can be wonderfully enriching and enjoyable, it certainly doesn’t have some kind of magic power to bring happiness into our life irrespective of what’s happening in our mind. Nor does it have the power to cause us mental pain simply from being exposed to it
So how do we begin to find mental freedom?
Going back to the period when I thought music was the source of the problem, we could say that for me music became an object to abandon, or even renounce. So that’s what I did, labelling music as somehow ‘bad’ and believing that I was superior in a sense, because I had realised this apparent truth
It’s this very type of behaviour that puts so many people off following spiritual paths. I mean doesn’t it sound a bit dry and limiting? Do we all need to move into monasteries and temples, wear simple clothing, refrain from consuming music and online entertainment and only work enough to live… devoting the rest of our time to meditation and other spiritually related activities?
Not that there’s anything wrong with following this type of lifestyle by any means, but if we think this is the ideal external lifestyle to support following a spiritual path then we could be getting ourself into a bit of a bind. We are all individuals with unique life experiences (some might even say not only those from this life), so why should we think there’s any one ‘correct’ external lifestyle that best supports following a spiritual path
A while back I remember watching part of a documentary on youtube which focused on practitioners from the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), one aspect of which was explaining what it meant to be ordained and it contained interviews of monks and nuns at Manjushri Meditation Centre. I have to confess that after watching it for about 20 minutes I was quite put off by the type of spiritual path it was portraying
It was showing videos of people at fun parks, enjoying themselves, and then switching back to the monastic lifestyle at the temple…. clearly inferring that having ‘fun’ or apparently enjoying oneself was the antithesis of the spiritual path, and rather living as a monk or nun in a monastery was the true way to follow it
Admittedly it looked like this video was about 20 years old, and as it was put together by a broadcaster rather than anyone from the NKT, t’s likely they positioned it in this way without getting any input from the tradition. And come to think of it, it’s not that surprising the journalists were confused considering so many people who actually try to follow spiritual paths often get very confused themselves
Such beliefs indicate a misunderstanding of what is to be abandoned and what is to be followed. The show seemed to be indicating that in order to follow a spiritual path, what needed to be renounced was all of the fun and relaxing activities people regularly like to engage in. And don’t get me wrong, I did all of this in an attempt to find inner peace….
I stopped listening to music, didn’t watch TV and would very rarely watch movies, I stopped going out to bars and clubs, drinking and taking drugs, I didn’t eat out much, didn’t go on holidays that didn’t have a clear spiritual context, and basically filled my life with ‘spiritual’ activities like meditation, attending and teaching meditation classes, doing chanted meditations, handing out meditation leaflets and the like (all great things to be doing I might add, if done with the right motivation)
Although some of these changes are clearly very positive and still influence my life today, the problem was that I didn’t actually understand what needed to be renounced in order to follow a spiritual path
What do we need to renounce?
Renunciation actually has a really bad rap, and it’s documentaries (or at least what I could bear to watch of it), like the one outlined above that continue to add fuel to the fire. Follow what might appear to be a dry and boring life and find ultimate peace, but go out and enjoy yourself and you’ll be forever consumed by discontent and held within the grips of samsara (a sanskrit word used to describe a life characterised by pain and suffering)
Many people, spiritual or otherwise, may find themselves drawing such conclusions; the former following a path that offers some benefit, but is ultimately very limited. The latter not even remotely interested in following the path, as it means giving up everything they enjoy
As I’ve come to realise over the past 18 months or so, we don’t need to give up the things we enjoy to follow a path of internal development and peace… we simply need to correctly identify what it is that we need to renounce. And what is it? It’s our delusions, or negative states of mind….. we only need to abandon the pain in our mind, nothing else…..Awesome!
The confusion arises because most people who engage in activities that are commonly considered to be fun or hedonistic, do so with the mind of attachment. Essentially, the mind that believes these activities are some sort of ultimate or true source of happiness
And I’m not saying they can’t give us any happiness at all…. of course they can, well at the very least they can make us feel really good. But when something goes terribly wrong in our life, we need to check how activities such as having a beer, owning a sports car or going on a nice holiday will function to improve the situation, when it’s clear that being able to keep a peaceful mind would
So having engaged in such activities motivated by attachment, when we then stop engaging in them, either completely or just to some degree, then naturally we feel better because there’s less delusion in our mind. Leading many people to the incorrect object of renunciation…. the activities rather than the painful minds themselves…. those minds that were fooling us into thinking the activities were true causes of happiness in the first place
Now I’m not saying that from an external perspective my life now looks pretty much the same as it did before I started following a spiritual path, because it certainly doesn’t. However I have started re-introducing certain activities back into it, such as music (yay for spotify!), understanding that it was never these things that were the problem, but rather the minds that had previously been arising whilst engaging in them
If we can learn to engage in our daily activities without disturbing minds such as attachment, then we are following a spiritual path. So maybe we do go to fun parks, watch movies, eat out regularly, go on nice holidays and do all of the things normal people do (that is, in the first world)…. if we can engage in these, and other activities in our life without attachment, then we’ll be making rapid progress on the path to mental freedom
Of course if we’ve built our life around the belief that these things are somehow ‘wrong’ and that following a life devoid of them is ‘right’, articles expressing views like this might even be interpreted as threatening. However if this is us, we don’t need to worry ourselves
It’s not like we need to change anything about our external lifestyle in this case either, or that there’s even anything necessarily wrong with it. As is the case for all of us following spiritual paths, we simply need to correctly recognise the internal conditions or minds needed to achieve mental freedom and then cultivate them, and abandon those that are leading us away from it