“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
In the previous posts of the last two months, we’ve reflected on some of the basic challenges and qualities of our human existence. During this time the blog has found a circle of readers from around the world. I’m very happy about that!
For more than 20 years I’ve been a dedicated Buddhist meditator who has also been open to the insights and practices of other traditions. A common thread is the development or training of the mind. In addition, the developing neurosciences of the last few decades provide us with fresh understandings about contemplative practices in general. In the upcoming posts I’d like to present some old and new contemplative exercises and teachings and see how these can support us.
In one sense, we Westerners train our minds extensively in the course of our long education. We become skilled in our Western life and profession and know many facts. However, the sense of “mind training” I would like to talk about is focused on a deeper understanding of the functioning of our mind and heart—an understanding, if put into practice, that will lead to greater compassion and wisdom. That such a “training” is even possible was something of a revelation to me when I encountered it, and perhaps my joy in it will come through here.
We all experience the fast pace of our modern world, with its complex social networks, ever-present streams of media, and array of digital devices. At the same time there is a counter-movement towards more mindfulness and depth, and a longing for stillness and peace. Which makes sense!
The information and entertainment industries, which we look to for orientation and relief from our often stressful lives, give us enormous access to information and amazing capacities for communication. For example, this blog would have been a science fiction fantasy some decades ago.
The experience these industries give us also has unexpected side effects. We have come to enjoy following fast-paced flows of pictures and topics, without making a lot of conscious choices. We are comfortable being led along a continuous stream of topics. Without our even being aware of it, this has shaped our interests and attention span.
On the one hand, our habit to just follow what’s offered out there has weakened our ability to focus on one thing. Easily we feel distracted, stressed-out, and overwhelmed by the never-ending flood of news and possibilities. On the other hand, we have access to a kind of vastness and wealth of possibilities through different kinds of digital devices and products such as Skype and email. However, I don’t think this is the immensity that Saint-Exupery is talking about.
Meeting Our Own Mind
The contemplative traditions point to an inner vastness. The daily flood tends to overload our mental capacities and veils the openness to the inside. So how can we keep recognizing and honoring the deeper qualities of our mind in the face of these outer distractions? Or as Saint-Exupery suggests in the quote above, how can we discover the immensity of the sea without getting caught up in the challenges collecting wood and the techniques of constructing a ship?
Focus, discernment, and conscious choice are necessary to connect with our inner qualities. What can help us to train these? This might be a very individual process, because our tendencies and challenges can be unique. But we can notice which habits of mind support us, and which don’t (and how can we manage triggers related to these). During the next weeks I’ll present experiments and methods especially to develop focus and clarity in these areas.
For now some nice information and videos:
– Attention span test: http://testyourself.psychtests.com/testid/3186
– Some exercises to increase attention span:
– A beautiful little film about stress reduction:
– Sogyal Rinpoche talks about “What meditation really is”:
– Mathieu Richard’s TED talk ‘the habits of happiness’:
I wish for you that your week might reveal your own skillful means a bit more. Maybe you might also discover some areas where you’d like to add new ones.
Enjoy your time,