Until you learn how to turn your meditation and dharma practice into progress, you will never experience Buddhist awakening, streamentry, or the benefits of your practice.
How to practice Buddhism explained by a Buddhist teacher - Enlightenment is a real thing
In this reply to a student question, I cover the basics of making real progress with your dharma and meditation practice; how to cultivate it; and, why doing so is so important to attaining Awakening and Enlightenment. Because this is an email to a student, it assumes a certain understanding of Buddhism on the part of the reader.
Thank you for your question; it can be easy to learn about Buddhism without actually knowing anything about how to actually turn all this Buddhism stuff into actual practice. And without practice, it follows that we can't actually get good at it, and if we can't get good at it, then peace of mind, happiness, and enlightenment will forever be out of reach. In order to get good at Buddhism, you must learn how to turn every moment into actual practice of the Buddha's teachings. It's shocking how many teachers don't even mention this critical part.
"Practising in every moment" is probably the most important thing I do as a Buddhist. Everything, absolutely everything, must be regarded through the lens of the dhamma; and, every moment must be regarded and leveraged as another opportunity to practice peace, harmony, and compassion. :)
Without understanding how to do this, progress along the Buddhist path is simply not possible, which explains why it is that so many people can be "Buddhists" and yet how so many don't seem to think, speak, or act anything like how Buddhists are expected to behave. It also explains why so many people, despite so much time and effort on- and off-the-cushion, can't seem to calm their minds beyond the confines of those cushions nor develop the virtuous qualities that they spend so much time reading about, and so, they still struggle to apply the teachings and truly practice (to get better) when faced with even trivial challenges in life.
This is a field of practice that I call 'Practical Buddhism.' And practice means pulling Buddhism out of the pages and off of the cushion and thrusting it front-and-center into the real world, such as at work, at home, and in life.
So, how does one practice in "every moment" of life?
Great question, let's dig in!
Please forgive me as I gloss over some of the initial, but important, steps--and skip a few entirely, so I can dive right in; we can unpack these gaps, concepts, and instructions if you wish during our next session.
It all begins with the initial application of faith in the Buddha-dhamma. Then we leverage our understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the truths of dukkha to motivate us to meditate so that we can start the process of cultivating the initial seeds of awareness, mindfulness, and concentration. We cannot make significant progress along the path without these core mental strengths. Once we have developed those skills to a moderate amount, we can start the process of really benefiting from our developing skills in awareness, mindfulness, and concentration as we navigate through inevitable challenges, problems, and failures that we will experience in the real-world.
Once we've at least moderately developed the basic set of Buddhist meditative skills in awareness, mindfulness, and concentration our skill and ability to observe the state of our mind begins to dramatically increase--providing, of course, that as part of our practice we are developing the skills required to observe the state of our mind! As a result of the strength developed by attaining a sufficient skill level in awareness, mindfulness, and concentration, being mindfully aware of the state of our mind becomes much easier. Much easier. So much so that it starts to become second-nature and autonomic. That which we used to try so hard to pay attention to doing, starts to be the default mode of our idle operation. It's quite remarkable and the change to your perceptions will be profound. When we've developed our ability to be mindfully aware of the state of our mind while we interact with the real world, our real-time awareness of how we react and respond to outside stimuli starts to improve, both in accuracy and speed--catching negative thoughts, biting our tongue instead of lashing it about, and thinking twice before acting without considered thought to the consequences.
The critical importance of pointing our practice toward the observation of the real-time state of our mind cannot be overstated. The state of our mind drives absolutely everything. Everything we experience gets filtered through it and how we respond to life is a direct result of how well, or not-so-well, we've developed our ability to lean the states of our mind toward an ever-more-increasing series of skilful, wholesome, and correct states.
The less often we ruminate on the past (and the potentially associated feelings of remorse, regret, and depression), and the less we can think about the future (and the potentially associated feelings of unease, insecurity, and desire), the more we can be present with the bountiful sources of our potential gratitude and for the good fortune of the conditions that we presently have to study, contemplate, and practice the techniques and practices that lead to unshakeable inner-happiness and peace of mind in times and conditions of challenge or stress.
We all have the potential to cultivate presence through meditation and dhamma practice. So, work with it. :) This is one of the most important and productive ways to actually begin to apply the teachings of the Buddha that we learned and spent time thinking about, and to apply the mindfulness that we've developed on the cushion; applying both in tandem to actually practice the dhamma and its lessons within each wakeful moment. And with each wakeful moment, mindfully attended to skilfully, another imperceptible step toward Buddhist enlightenment is made. This is karma. This is dependent origination. This is the three higher trainings. And this is the path to the elimination of the fetters and the attainment of full enlightenment.
Each time you find yourself referencing or recalling the past (or fantasising about the future), catch yourself, and stop immediately. Take a breath and re-anchor yourself to this present moment. Never ever allow yourself to engage in non-present or unskilful thoughts for any longer than it takes you to recognise that you've drifted away from where you are and what you are doing. The more you pay attention and do that, the more your mind will begin to slant and slope toward real-time, active presence, all the time... beyond all of the benefits that are associated with clear mindfulness, the one that keeps Buddhism alive after more than 2,500 years is that doing this, and getting good at it, leads to the cessation of craving, to what is called full enlightenment. :)
Acting in accordance with the dhamma isn't difficult or effortful once we've put the effort into developing our core skills in awareness, mindfulness, and concentration while on the cushion; and, generosity, patience, virtue, effort, compassion, and wisdom while we study, contemplate, and apply the dhamma in real life situations. When we do these things, plus others, over and over, we become real-time practicing Buddhists and attainments can then be realised and doubt can then be shed. This is what the Buddha taught; this is how we cultivate the skills and views to attain Enlightenment; peace, happiness, and equanimity; by transforming everything we do and experience into the path.
As the Buddha said, "Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon will become the inclination of his mind."
How can everything we do be transformed into the path?
By using our developing skills in awareness, mindfulness, and concentration, coupled with our developing skills in generosity, patience, virtue, effort, compassion, and wisdom to recognise and benefit from all the challenges that arise throughout our day, remembering that it's never about what others do, or don't do; it's about what we do or did that matters only. Other people haven’t been taught that self-grasping and self-clinging are the source of all of our dukkha; and that to receive love deeply and transmit it wholeheartedly can be learned, and that to do so is the key to our deepest sense of lasting happiness and well-being. So if we can always remember that no person is inherently and thoroughly evil, and that the clouds of their confusion, anger, and desire obscure their basic goodness, then it becomes much easier recognise the profound opportunity offered to us by others to practice to always be mindful of the dhamma so that we may reinforce our ability to observe and experience people and situations without the negative seeds of judgment and to see all problems and people as precious opportunities to practice.
And if we can recognise that every moment is an opportunity to practice peace and harmony; the more moments we will use as practice, and consequently, the more peaceful and more skilful we will become. This is a practical feedback/behaviour loop and the more often we do something, the more often our minds will slant and slope in those directions. And so, developing the awareness to be grateful for the people and situations that make us uncomfortable helps us to make substantial progress along the path. This is an important point: other people show us where our practice needs work, and also provide us with the precious opportunity to actually do so. Getting angry? I bet you would benefit from some real practice in patience and compassion. Feeling the tightness of greed or stinginess? Spending a week, or a month, on generosity and abundance would take you far. So, cherish everyone as your teachers in this precious human life, without them, we will never attain Enlightenment.
So being mindful of when we are pushed by our "teachers," (e.g., the people and situations that push our buttons) we should resolve to steady ourselves and focus on our innate safety (the three characteristics and sunyata), and then stop and ask ourselves what lesson, practice, or opportunity is this person or situation trying to offer to us, and be silent and still until we can take a deep breath, regain our presence, and express calmly and reasonably to ourselves what's next based on the practice or lesson on-offer; recognising, reducing and replacing our afflictions and negative habit-energy.
Again, these challenging people and moments are truly precious! They provide us with our only real opportunities to practice the dhamma (e.g., tolerance, patience, understanding, lovingkindness, compassion, wisdom, etc). So if we feel the tension of resistance within ourselves, we should remember to breathe into it, to recall the three characteristics, and to find acceptance and be grateful. For that, and this is where I tie it all back together, we must practice observing our breath and watching our mind through meditation if we are ever to become truly mindful of all the reasons to feel gratitude and appreciation for the pain and the dukkha offered to us in this life, and by the actions of others, so that we may benefit and grow by using that dukkha to continue to motivate ourselves into transform our adversity into progress down the Path; remembering that our happiness is not conditional on how the world treats us or the situations in which we find ourselves (but our growth is conditional on how we respond to these situations). And we are only able to do that if we are able to actually develop mindful concentration and insight during our time on the cushion and develop real-time clarity into the ever-changing state of our mind and the resulting motivations and intentions that it creates.
Along the Buddhist path, and real change and progress come from being in-touch of the more subtle natures of our minds and destroying the habits that create our dukkha.
Just remember: there comes a time when every single person will eventually have to make a choice between their dreams, and the bad habits that make those dreams impossible to achieve. Presence and practice can help us choose wisely :)
And this is what I understand practicing in every moment to be.
May this have been of some benefit to you.
Buddhist Ācariya (Ajahn) and Anagārika
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The Sagacious Buddhist Blog
Michael Turner is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
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