Buddhism is variously described as a spiritual tradition, a religion and a philosophy.
Now I can’t possibly do justice to the ancient wisdom of Buddhism in a short post like this. And I in no way want to distort or dilute these ideas. But as a psychologist I have been astounded at the psychological insight that is to be found in Buddhist teachings.
Though I don’t doubt that you would benefit more from them if you were, I believe that you do not have to be a practicing Buddhist to benefit from Buddhist ideas. Many of these teachings are relevant to any human being, especially in this materialistic and often troubled world that we find ourselves in.
1. The importance of gratitude
As human beings we are designed to be constantly moving forwards in our lives, goal-directed and grasping for more….. and more….. and yet more. This plays well to the business model of our western capitalist society because it means we can be sold more…and more……and yet more. There is no end to this wanting.
But Buddhism emphasizes the need to pay attention to what we already have. It’s easy to take for granted many things in our lives – the health of our children, that we will have a meal today, that we have a roof over our heads. When we look at our lives relative to many others in the world, there are often many things we notice that we might be grateful for.
Another thing that Buddhism reminds us to be grateful for is that we are alive at all. Think about all the events that had to take place since the beginning of time in order for you to be born. For instance every single one of your ancestors, going right back to the very first inklings of life in the primordial soup, had to meet and procreate at the exact moment that they did. And that’s mindboggling enough without thinking about the statistics involved once you factor in eggs and sperm and the biology of it all!
2. The real meaning of karma
Any time a driver cuts in front of our car to change lane, only to find themselves stuck in a slower lane of traffic, my husband will giggle gleefully. “Well that’s karma for you!” he’ll say. But is it? Like my husband, many people think that karma is the universe’s way of teaching you a lesson. Of getting you back.
But there is nothing supernatural or mysterious about karma. A Buddhist understanding of karma is simply the idea that our thoughts and our actions have consequences. So good thoughts and kind actions contribute to good karma and future happiness. However, bad intent and unkind actions lead to bad karma and future suffering.
Another way of understanding how karma works is similar to the concept of conditioning. It is well known by psychologists that if you behave in a certain way, through the psychological phenomenon of conditioning you increase the chances that you will behave in that way again.
So if I shout at my children today, I am more likely to shout at them again tomorrow. If I can resist the urge to shout and can find another way to deal with a situation in which I might have shouted, I will be less likely to shout tomorrow.
3. What does this moment require?
There are frequently moments in life when we feel overwhelmed, and it can sometimes feel like we are being pulled in a million different directions.
In these sorts of situations our minds may be filled with unhelpful thoughts. But rather than asking of ourselves, “What is bothering me?” we should ask of ourselves “What does this moment require of me?” Once we have established the answer, we should do it.
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed (and consequently frustrated, resentful or irritated) stop ruminating about things that have happened in the past or that you are worried may happen in the future and focus on the exact moment and what needs to be done.Go on – try it!
Very often we are so caught up in the endless stream of thoughts going through our minds that we don’t notice much of what is going on around us.
And yet at every single moment of our lives there is a virtually infinite amount of stimuli that we could choose to pay attention to instead of these thoughts. So you could choose to pay attention to what you can hear. However faint, even if it is just the sound of your own breathing, there will always be some sound you can hear. Or you could choose to pay attention to the way your feet feel inside your shoes or the way your back feels where it touches the chair.
When we can do this, even for just a few moments, we notice a calm feeling which is a reflection that our mind has stop flitting about from one thought to another and is momentarily focused on something other than our thoughts. This is what we mean by mindfulness. Very simply, it is about non-judgmental awareness of what is happening at any single moment.
5. The Middle Way
The Buddhist path is often called the “Middle Way” and can be thought of as one that runs between extremes. The Buddha believed that the wisest path in life was one of moderation. So whether it is striking a balance between being isolated and alone or being excessively dependent on others for company; over-exercising or not exercising at all; living a life of obscene over-indulgence or punitive austerity – life is about balance and Buddhism recognizes this.
Buddhism can provide answers to those who are seeking to answer questions about meaninglessness and purpose in life. It teaches a way of life that Buddhists argue is the only way to attain true happiness.
Though I am keenly aware that this post hardly scratches the surface of Buddhist teachings, should you find any of these ideas helpful, perhaps these seeds will inspire you to find out more.