It’s all there in the Satipatthana (“Foundations of Mindfulness”) Sutta: The direct path to awakening calls for maintaining awareness of body, feeling, mind, and thoughts—and not just when we’re sitting in meditation. Whether eating, drinking, chewing, urinating, defecating, walking, standing, falling asleep, waking up, talking, or remaining silent, we must remain fully alert, the Buddha said.
There’s a high cost to not paying attention, as one of the Buddha’s parables on mindfulness suggests. Imagine a large group of people gathered around a famous beauty queen, watching her sing and dance. A man comes along, and he’s handed a bowl filled to the brim with oil and told he must carry the bowl on his head between the crowd and the beauty queen without spilling a drop, or a guy following along behind with a sword will cut off his head. “What do you think, monks?” the Buddha asked. “Will that man allow himself to be distracted from the bowl of oil?” Naturally, the monks said no.
Life is just one situation after another in which we have to choose between staying mindful or losing our heads. I often think of daily life as Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness bell, endlessly reverberating with people and circumstances that chime Wake up!
When it comes to mindfulness on the hoof, even the movies can be a form of training. A good movie is like a Zen teisho, or teaching talk: it can open you up to a deeper awareness. Something like that happened to me watching Letters from Iwo Jima. For the first hour or so of the movie we eavesdrop on a handful of Japanese soldiers and their general as they wait for the invading American forces to strike. Excerpts from their letters to loved ones and flashbacks of their lives back home give us a sense of these men, but it’s their conversations—intimate, banal—that are almost unbearably poignant: they know, as we do, they’re about to die. The attack is a given, yet when the screen suddenly explodes in a hail of bombs and mortar fire, blood and screams, I recoiled as if I, too, were under siege. I ducked and squeezed my eyes shut. As the battle raged, it was mirrored in my inner turmoil—thoughts and feelings shooting off like rockets, about human brutality, the evils of war, the warmongers in power. Caught between sorrow and rage, I burst into tears. Sneaking a look at the people around me, I wondered: How could they sit there so calmly? Why wasn’t everyone upset? Or was I overreacting?
Desperate to stop the war in my head, I focused on the breath rising and falling in my chest. Soon, a space of calm opened up inside me—the sort of peace the novelist Orhan Pamuk described as “the silence of snow.” On screen, the mortar fire continued, but I experienced it at a distance, no longer overwhelmed. For the first time, I could hear the noise for what it was—a movie soundtrack. The thought of the carnage was still horrifying. But when I separated the sound from the story, the ka-booms and rat-tat-tats were only a series of vibrations emanating from a bank of speakers and ricocheting off the theater walls.
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