Contemplation on maintaining a calm mind

Picture the mind as a lake, which in its natural form, is crystal clear and transparent.

So pure and clear that light passes through unimpeded.

In this state of mind, when thoughts and distractions arise they are barely noticed, and dissolve of their own accord, leaving no trace.

The mind remains calm, undisturbed and at peace.

Freedom from anger

Anger suddenly arises when something happens to us that we didn’t want to happen. The root cause, as identified in Buddhist psychology, is attachment – our attachment to people, to outcomes of events, to products, to reputations and so on. A simple example is when a machine we purchase doesn’t work as we expected. We get angry because we spent our good money on something that didn’t work as we expected. More complex examples include – unjustified criticism, the withdrawal of love, or someone taking the credit for our work. As a result of these actions, anger quickly arises, followed by action and we feel justified because ‘these things shouldn’t happen to me’.

Outside our control

However, often the events which trigger anger are outside our control. Consider for the example the anger that suddenly arises when someone jumps in front of us in a queue. We don’t have control over this person’s actions, yet we typically respond with anger. In this situation, if we respond with a sarcastic comment, there is the risk of an argument that can quickly get out of control. Suddenly we find ourselves acting in a way that is not appropriate and we end up looking foolish. If we do nothing, our anger turns back on us. We feel weak and frustrated, and question our own confidence and abilities.

So becoming angry does not make us feel better or lead to a positive outcome. It is, in fact, a sign that we have lost control and are about to act in an irrational and most likely inappropriate way. We have allowed old habits to take control and predictable, unsatisfactory results will follow. Instead, we need to find a way to liberate ourselves from this harmful emotion.

 Breaking the chain

The way to break this chain of events leading to inappropriate behaviour, is to use some of the skills we have learned in our mindfulness training – to bring what we are practicing into the world away from the cushion.

In our practice we learn to recognise the subtle signs of the arising of this emotion. We learn to identify the tightening of the mind and the disturbance to a calm state. We also learn how to return to a relaxed body and calm mind so that emotions and other objects of the mind are allowed to pass by without sticking.

So now, when external circumstances cause a feeling of anger to begin to arise, our first step is to relax our body. Start by identifying and relaxing parts of our body that are holding most of the tension – usually our neck or shoulders. Move attention to these parts of the body, feel the tension and relax the muscles. Notice the tension start to soften and notice how our breathing begins to slow down.

Next, move the focus from the body to the breath. Just pay attention to the sensation of the breath as it touches our skin while passing through the nostrils. The anger now moves to the background and starts to dissolve. Anger is a strong emotion, so allow a few moments for the anger to dissipate fully.

Acting from a calm mind

Now, after establishing a calm mind, it is time to consider appropriate action.

Is it within our control?

First, consider if we have any control over the situation. If we don’t, it’s simple – just accept and let go. Let the urge to act drop away in exactly the same way that in our practice we allow thoughts and other mind objects to move and not become attached. Trying to change situations where we have no control will ultimately only hurts us and achieve nothing positive.

Is it important?

Next, consider whether this action or event is important. Remember your list of things that matter and consider whether the action or result of the action that has caused anger to rise is important. If they’re not, then again it’s simple – accept and let it go.

Is it the right time for action?

If however, we can see that the implications are important and that it is within our control to take action, then appropriate actions must be considered and then acted on, but only from a calm mind. When ready, in your own time, consider the options and take what you consider is the right action. To help you in this, it’s a good idea to recall your guiding principles .

Freedom from anger

So when we become aware of the rising of anger, let’s remember our practice and take action to establish a calm mind. From this calm place, we have the opportunity to choose a response that is appropriate to the situation, that is in keeping with our guiding principles and which advances the achievement of one or more of the things that are important.


Impermanence and the origin of actions

The Impermanent nature of mind

As we sit with a relaxed body, a calm mind and focused attention, we witness the arising of thoughts and memories and feelings and emotions. We see that our mind is in a constant state of flux.

We notice too that if we return to our focus point, these mind objects simply disappear without having to be acted on. In this way, we become aware of their temporary nature. We are seeing the impermanent nature of our mind.

It is worth considering that if we define ourselves by our thoughts, feelings, and emotions at any given time, if we believe that this is who we are, then our understanding of ourselves is not solid. This is because who we are at this moment is not who we are in the next.

The urge to act

As we practice mindfulness meditation and we sit with a relaxed body and a calm mind and focused attention, we can begin to examine this process in more depth. We can see that distractions are caused by a spark that originates from our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We can see that our once quiet mind is being disturbed and is reacting to these sensory inputs by creating feelings – this is good or this is not good.

Next, our mind recognises the object, and we see thoughts and memories arise. This creates an emotional response related to the object. The emotion then prompts a desire to act. We feel a pull, a tightening of mind as the intention grows stronger.

As an example, our mind may be distracted by a smell. We experience a pleasant feeling as we associate the smell with a memory of pizza. This is then followed by a desire to eat. We then begin planning how to satisfy this desire.

Another example could be the sound of young children crying outside our window. We experience an unpleasant feeling and then a memory of an episode from our childhood of fighting with a friend. We wonder where our old friend is these days and this is followed by an urge to contact them. We start trying to remember where we kept their address and start to worry that maybe we’ve lost it.

Then we remember where we are. We remember that we have chosen to practice by placing our attention on the sensation of the breath. We coax our attention back to this focus point and the feelings, thoughts, memories, emotions, and intention to act fade away and then disappear of their own volition.

We return to the process of training our mind.

Taking our practice outside

In our busy daily lives, we are drawn to act without ever being consciously aware of where the intention to act has come from. While meditating, however, we have the opportunity to observe the arising of the motivation for the action  – the sense input, followed by the feeling, followed by the arising of thought and emotions, followed by the desire to act. As our practice strengthens, we are gradually able to take this ability into the world away from our cushion. We have the opportunity to recognise the feeling, observe the thought or emotion, feel the pull of the desire to act and then choose not to act. In this way, we begin to loosen the grip that desires that have become habits have on our day to day behaviour.

We are able to choose a more appropriate response that is not simply based on habits. We are experiencing the freedom that is at the heart of mindfulness meditation.

Where to from here

Many of our actions are habitual and are linked to life stories that formed in our childhoods. Understanding more about the way habits and life stories are formed will help us to respond in more appropriate ways.

Mindfulness meditation step 1 – relax the body

This article is an introduction to mindfulness meditation. It covers the most important first step of how to sit in a comfortable way. It concludes with a short guided meditation on observing and relaxing the body.

What it means to practice mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is a state of mind where we are open, attentive and actively engaged in the present moment.

The traditional way of practicing mindfulness meditation is to sit quietly,  calm the body and then focus attention on a physical sensation. This could be the feeling of breath as it enters and leaves the nose, or the rising and falling of our abdomen.

When one is engaged in practicing this form of meditation, thoughts and emotions will invariably arise. When they do, they are not judged as being good or bad, right or wrong. Instead they are observed without judgment and allowed to leave our mind.

With practice, the ability to identify and let go of inappropriate habitual responses improves, and their hold on us diminishes. We then have the opportunity to explore other, more appropriate responses. In this way, over time, new habits are formed.

Sitting Position

The first part of the practice is to get comfortable. Sit in a chair with your back straight and both feet resting on the ground. Possibly put a cushion behind you lower back for extra support. Relax your shoulders and place your hands in your lap, one on top of the other with your palms facing up. Gently close your eyes.

Alternatively, if your legs are flexible, you could  sit on a firm cushion on the floor with your legs crossed. Adjust the height of the cushion until you can sit comfortably. Straighten your back. It’s a good idea to place a soft mat under your feet to cushion your ankles.

Mindful of the body

The audio below is a 5 minute guided meditation by Dr Richard Chambers on relaxing our body. This is often done at the beginning of each mindfulness meditation. This is because having a calm and relaxed body helps in observing thoughts. We are in a sense bringing our mind and body together in this meditation.