When you have access to Dhamma talks, sutta studies, essays, retreat recordings, guided meditations and books from some of the most well practiced people on the planet available to you 24/7 it can be easy to forget that our own ordinary lives are rich in sources of learning.
I’ve always taken a fascination with the mundane, and how much it can reveal to us about who we really are. I’ve always felt like there’s something in our very ordinary behaviours that is more revealing because we don’t set up any filters. Our mind doesn’t have any preconceived ideas about how we react to there being no aubergines left in the supermarket reflects on us as a person, so it doesn’t try to censor our reactions. On the other hand it may well have a script ready for how we will react to something serious happening, like losing someone close to us, or how to behave in a time of global crisis.
Right now, no doubt many of us have been scared and anxious just going about our daily business in the midst of this pandemic, but most of us probably choose to restrain those feelings and not allow them to take over our thinking because we know it is unhelpful. It’s obvious to us that these anxieties are unhelpful because we understand instinctively that we need to not waste our energies when we have something much bigger to deal with. I’m not going to say its easy to be a hero, but sometimes its easier to step up to the plate for a big situation than it is to keep everything in check as you go about doing the very ordinary things that make up a human life. One big effort can be easier than millions of little efforts continuously applied minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day.
Another aspect of working with the everyday Dhamma that we can find in our lives is the way that it can help us to learn to teach ourselves with the things we have already got. In countries where commercialism is well established, whenever we take an interest in something we immediately wonder what we need to buy for it. We can get like this with teachings and practices too, even when we get them for free. Even though we have heard hundreds of Dhamma talks we still go looking for more, even though we have read hundreds of books we still go looking for more, even though we can practice where we are, we still want to go somewhere else to go on retreat. Spending all your time searching mode can reduce the chances that you ever find anything, because your restless mind will move on too quickly to develop what it has in front of it long enough to bear fruit.
So I feel that taking an interesting in the ordinary can serve as a useful antidote to this tendency to look for the answers outside of ourselves, and to compartmentalise our growth opportunities to only those that come from a great Ajahn or while we are on retreat.
Our unguarded reactions are not just revealing, but we have to come to terms with the reality that sometimes they are embarrassing. I have noticed recently that when I think about something that irked me the previous day I can see that it was just feelings and I could have let them go quicker. On one hand that’s something of an improvement because it would previously take me many days to see into the heart of something that was bothering me and now I can do it in less than 24 hours. But because I am processing it faster it now creates a little niggle that perhaps I should have seen it sooner, and with it the slight embarrassment of being taken in by my feelings, albeit for a short space of time. Continuing to investigate these little niggly feelings requires honesty on my part and the willingness to tolerate some discomfort; the easy thing to do is to try to brush these little things off and forget about them, but instead I can learn from them if I don’t hide from them.
As an example of the little moments of everyday Dhamma that give us opportunities to learn let me tell you about the run in I had with my printer. I recently bought a new laptop which works like a dream. The only thing that hasn’t worked so far is the connection with my printer, every time I tried to print it told me the printer was in an error state. After running the trouble shooter it said ‘driver is unavailable’, which would at least explain why it wasn’t printing.
So I spent several hours going round in circles downloading this piece of software which activates that app, which appears to be doing something for 10 minutes and then says that it couldn’t install the drivers. Then I start again with another download which claims it has the drivers I need, which starts to install, then activates the app which pretends to do something for 10 minutes only to tell me it still couldn’t install the drivers. I repeated this process a few times. Then I tried following instructions to delete all the drivers and software, which didn’t work because the computer tells me that the driver is currently in use and can’t be deleted right now. This has taken up several hours of my time when I had just wanted to print something quickly, and my frustration is growing.
I finally get something to print by using a cable to connect to the printer, but no sooner than it starts printing the second document it gets a paper jam. So I open the two hatches it tells me to look in, clear any paper and hit the ‘ok’ button, but the printer insists there is still a jam there. So I do it again, hit ‘ok’, and it tells me there is still a jam. So I do it again, hit ‘ok’ and it says there is still a jam there, so frustration getting the better of me I hit the off button and think to myself I will deal with this later. But of course the printer fails to turn itself off, so I pull the plug out and go somewhere else to do anything that doesn’t require a printer.
Once I was away from the printer I could feel the sensations of frustration, so thought to myself that I needed to let those feelings go. I settled my mind and saw that a better reaction to the situation would be to let go of the frustration and go back to the printer and sort out the paper jam issue before anyone needs to use the printer again. So I went back, this time doing a more thorough job by opening up all the hatches where paper might be jammed and checking them. When I turned the printer back on this time it said that the issue was resolved. With my calm head on I then remembered that I had wanted to print a few things before the paper jam happened, so I plugged the cable into the laptop and finished off my task.
There’s nothing spiritually profound about a person calming themselves down and finishing off their printing, but there are lessons in there if I want to use them. There was a lot of stuff going on and it was easy for me to miss what was happening because I was so absorbed in my tussle with the printer. There was a sense of self, perhaps several of them; one that wanted to print something, one that was annoyed it wasn’t happening, one that was losing faith in it ever happening, one that hates printers because they are useless, one that hates software when it sends your round and round the same loop and you keep ending up at the beginning again. There was also the feeling of frustration and annoyance building, being fed by and feeding the self views. Fortunately it was my home printer, otherwise there might also have been a hapless IT person that I was venting my frustrations at. There were the negative thoughts, and ill will towards printers, people who make printers, and to whoever invented them.
But in one of the Buddha’s most challenging teachings he said:
“Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions.”https://suttacentral.net/mn21/en/sujato trans. by Ajahn Sujato
I don’t mean to sound facetious when I use this example, but the Buddha makes it very clear that we shouldn’t allow anything to rankle us, even if a printer refuses to install correctly if we have a malevolent thought on that account then we are not following his instructions. It’s not about beating ourselves up when we don’t respond to things the way we wanted to though, that is taking it too personally and bringing too much self into it; and bringing more self to a problem will never fix it.
But with a better application of my practice I could have gotten through this same process without the frustration. If the printer had been another person it might have been more obvious to me that being frustrated at it wasn’t the right response, so there was something about the fact that it wasn’t that caused me to pay a little bit less attention to my responses which is the likely cause for the frustration being allowed to materialise.
Even though I did recognise and correct my frustration at the time, I can still ask myself what could I have done differently that would have had a more skilful response earlier in the proceedings? What comes to mind is one of Ajahn Sumedho’s most famous teachings, the simple statement of “it’s like this”. This simple response to any situation acts as a reminder to use mindfulness, to recognise the reality of what is happening in the moment, and an implicit instruction to accept whatever is here just as it is.
If I had used this approach, at the moment that the printer failed to install I could have said “it’s like this,” and just allowed the reality of the failed installation process and my lack of printing to be as they were, and just kept saying ‘it’s like this’ every time the process continued to fail. I could even have noticed the feeling of frustration and also said “it’s like this,” in an acceptance of the fact that feelings of frustration arise, and robbing the feeling of some of its fuel.
These little pauses in the process created by reflecting that right now “it’s like this,” are often enough to stop the feeling or thought from growing into something bigger and harder to control, and this is one of the reasons that we utilise mindfulness so often. But I was being mindful to a certain extent – I was fully aware of the fact that I was becoming frustrated, and I knew that at the point I pulled the plug out and walked away that my actions were being fuelled by that frustration. If I wasn’t using mindfulness at all then I wouldn’t have known any of these internal factors. I had all the information I needed, I just didn’t use it skilfully.
In The Contemplatives Craft, Ajahn Viradhamo devotes many pages to exploring how we can work gently with ourselves, but gives a useful example for this situation:
“If we know that a particular situation is going to be taxing for us, we can set an intention beforehand to act more skilfully when confronted with it. For example, I was talking to someone who has an extremely difficult relationship- with their brother to the point that simply having to see him makes the sense of self arise very strongly in them. In a situation like this, you can make a determination along the lines of “OK, when I see him, I’m really going to try to notice the arising of tightness in my stomach, and so on.” In essence, you’re pre-programming the mind to respond with a skilful approach to the situation, rather than succumbing to the unskilful reaction: “Oh God, I have to see him again. I’m not going to be able to handle it!””Ajahn Viradhamo, The Contemplatives Craft p105
I already know that I have had many many frustrating experiences with printers over the years, so taking Ajahn Viradhamo’s advice, it would have been useful for me to recognise that I get frustrated by the failure of printers, and that I have a preconceived idea that they will thwart my plans.
In some ways this is why I find the mundane moments of our lives so useful to investigate because those situations like the one Ajahn Viradhamo is talking about are really easy to recognise, it’s all the little bits in between the ‘big stuff’ that flies under the radar but it is just as important.
Given that practice is about gradually learning to change our habitual responses to things, it means that all those little moments can be just as important as the big ones. These little moments, where we’re not paying as much attention to what we’re feeling or thinking, are entirely driven by habit – which is exactly what we’re supposed to be working on.
Now that I have had a chance to reflect on it I can now recognise that using printers often creates feelings of frustration in me, so the next time it happens I am pre-primed to look for any inklings of frustration and intercept them. I should treat working with printers as a taxing situation, and be ready to expect the feeling of frustration to come up. To deal with the feelings of frustration Ajahn Viradhamo recommends:
“If you can learn to simply stay with the disappointments that life inevitably brings, and know that in the disappointment there is just disappointment, then, in being the witness rather than the participant in the situation you’re practicing the roots of renunciation.”Ajahn Viradhamo The contemplatives Craft p102
In the frustration there is just frustration, it’s just a feeling, there’s nothing real about it nor justified. If I leave it alone it goes away. If I pick it up it gets bigger and bigger, and I end up suffering. I already know this, but now I also know that it’s important for me to remember when I have to deal with a printer. And I can also recognise that with the ability to quickly reflect on a situation and see that there was nothing more than just reactions and feelings in it, that this sometimes brings with it a very subtle feeling of disappointment or embarrassment that I was taken in by it at the time. This too is just a feeling, so I can be ready to remind myself of that when it comes up again.
The constant application of unwavering mindfulness would be the answer to all of this, but the path is a gradual one and using little moments like this we can grow more mindful more often in a steady way. A journey of 1000 miles not only begins with one step, but it is made up of one step after another too, so if we keep developing our mindfulness one step at a time then in time we will accumulate a lot of growth. And if you ever find yourself thinking that you’ll never make progress without going to Thailand for a 3 month retreat then remember that there is practice available to us in every single moment if we turn our attention to it.