I would like to say something about eating. How eating can be a meditation. So here as you know one important aspect of eating is again, trying to be present while eating. It’s a very important aspect of our life but most of the time in everyday life we eat in such a mechanical way, we even don’t know sometimes what we are eating.
Before we start to eat, I would like to suggest to spend a few minutes just feeling grateful for those who have prepared the meal. This is very much emphasised in traditional Buddhist countries. So you develop the important quality of feeling grateful.
And then what normally happens when we start to eat is that we have thoughts. So here if you have awareness it’s like when you are doing sitting meditating, you catch the thoughts that are arising and then let go of them and come back to eating.
It’s interesting for me that over the years I have been discovering the cultural factors relating to too much and too little effort. Usually when I meet Westerners I realise that they try too hard, so I tell them to relax and take it easy. And with Sri Lankans it is the opposite, they’re too relaxed. So with the Sri Lankans I have to push them, some of them.
So when you live in a culture where generally speaking you have to try hard, the danger is that you try to do things perfectly and this can create tension. I think it is O.K. to try to do things perfectly, thoroughly, it’s a good quality, but when that quality generates tension and self-hatred it is not very wholesome. And those who are not practising hard enough must realise that and exercise right effort.
Now what happens when you try too hard? Naturally there is tension. You might even get a headache, you might feel tired and you might feel restlessness and disappointment because you are trying too hard, and with a strong expectation. Practising in this way you can never achieve what you want, so then you feel bad, you give yourself a minus, you start hating yourself and so on.
And if you do not try at all, what happens? Then you might feel sleepy, drowsy, you might get into a dream-like state. So here again it is by learning, by experimenting, by finding out for yourself that you know whether you are trying too hard or not trying at all. And sometimes we need to exercise more effort, sometimes we need to relax effort. So one thing which will help us is that if we can have a meditative mind, then when we are not meditating awareness becomes natural, it becomes effortless.
I would like to say something about effort. Here there are two extremes that we need to avoid. One is trying too hard. The other is not trying at all. There are some very beautiful similes used in this connection in the texts. During the Buddha’s time there was a monk who was trying very hard in walking meditation so that even the bottom of his feet were bleeding. When the Buddha spoke to him, the Buddha realised that he was a musician. He used to play a lute, which is a stringed instrument. So the Buddha asked him: Now when playing a musical instrument if the strings are too loose or too tight, the music will not be right. So the Buddha said that effort also should not be too loose and it should not be too tight. This is what is called right effort.
Another simile the Buddha gave is that when you want to catch a small bird, if you grasp the bird too tightly you might kill the bird in the process, and if you grasp it in too loose a way the bird might escape. So in this way right effort can also be called effortless effort.
A very important aspect of awareness is that we learn to develop self-confidence because we learn that with awareness and with our own effort we can do a great deal about ourselves. We develop self-confidence and self-reliance. Then we take responsibility for our own actions. We take responsibility for what is happening to us without blaming others and without blaming the surroundings. You take full responsibility for your own actions, for your own thoughts, for your own ways. This is an aspect that the Buddha emphasised very much.
I studied in a Buddhist school in Kandy and in the school we had a motto which was written in Pali. It means: “Self-help is the best help”. So in this regard awareness is the key to the practice. This is why the Buddha called it the only way.
Another important aspect of awareness is that it naturally brings about an ethical and moral way of living which is very important for the practice. So if you have awareness, in what ways will there be a change in your behaviour? Small things, little things, like opening the door, shutting the door, you learn to do them slowly, with awareness, so as not to disturb others around you. You see how your awareness naturally brings about a change in your actions.
So when we are preparing the meal or trying to set the table, here again we will try to do it without disturbing others. This is very important in meditation: learning to develop a sense of care and sensitivity for the people around you. Human beings are becoming more and more insensitive in this regard. They want to do their own thing, disregarding the consequences it can have on other people.
We can use awareness to explore, to investigate, to learn, to find out what we are experiencing. So if you are experiencing physical pain, you can use awareness to start exploring the nature of pain. In ordinary life when we experience pain we merely try to get rid of it because it is unpleasant, but by reacting to pain in this way we never learn about pain, a very important part of the human condition. So with awareness, with this investigating faculty, we can make discoveries by ourselves about so many aspects of our mind and body.
When there is not awareness just know: Now I’m not in the present but I’m thinking about what has happened or what is going to happen. Normally these things happen unconsciously without our knowledge, and then in this process we don’t realise how they can create suffering for us, how they can create certain emotions in our minds. So with this type of practice we can develop mastery over our mind. Usually thoughts control us, but with this type of practice we will be able to develop mastery over our minds.