Dharma Topic: Mindfulness and Lizard Brains

Dharma Topic: Mindfulness and Lizard Brains

Discussion date: Thu, Feb 10, 2005 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, February 10th, after ourmeditation period, our program will focus on the five mindfulness trainings.We will explore their origin, formally recite them, and then share ourreflections.

I began my exploration of the origins of the mindfulnesstrainings with the questions: What is the problem for which the fivemindfulness trainings are the answer?

According to the legend of the Buddha, the impetus for hissearch for enlightenment was his observation that almost all the people aroundhim, wealthy or poor, were struggling to find joy and contentment in this life,and tragically failing. The situation is not so different in the United Statestoday–as a people we are still tragically failing in our efforts to find joyand contentment. One of the indicators of this failure is that perhaps amajority of the country suffers from obesity, depression, anxiety, orphysiological addiction.

Why? The Buddha observed that most people lackedunderstanding and restraint. The basic issue is that while we are able to createmagnificent conceptual structures, at the level of emotions and motivations, fartoo often we operate at the level of lizards. We go for what tastes good (orfeels safe) right now, and forget about everything else. No long term planning.No consideration of other people or factors. Just getting what we feel weurgently need.

Our self-centeredness expresses itself not just in theovertly cruel and insensitive actions (many of which cause us to cringe as weremember them), but also in the accumulation of small and seeminglyinsignificant actions and moments. In my life this takes the form of taking theextra cookie, procrastinating writing the note of sympathy, giving in to mydistractions when there is important work to be done, or not speaking up forwhat is right because of the fear of someone’s disapproval.

How does change occur? The Buddha recommended we developthrough meditation and mindfulness practice an exquisite awareness of theintentions in our minds, understanding that intentions are precursors toactions, and then to learn to connect that intentional awareness to theconsequence of our actions. Over time we learn to withdraw energy from mindstates that lead to suffering for ourselves and others and encourage mind statesthat lead to peace and joy, for ourselves and others. We also develop anappreciation for the quiet pleasures that arise from being in touch with our ownvitality and the wonders of life.

We learn to take refuge in mindfulness — the capacity toknow what is going on in our minds and in our lives.

My projection is that it was in response to lay people whowanted to practice mindfulness, who wanted to overcome their suffering, that theBuddha offered the five mindfulness trainings. The Buddha focused on five areasof life where there is a strong tendency for us to do what feels good (or feelssafe) for us, right now, and ignore everything else. At their core, the fivemindfulness trainings are simply concrete reminders to rise above our lizardbrains.

(A complementary reflection on the mindfulness trainings isprovided below through excerpts from Living Buddha, Living Christ byThich Nhat Hanh.)

Please join us this Thursday for our meditation and program.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner 
Senior Teacher


"Taking Refuge" from Living Buddha, Living Christby Thich Nhat Hanh

In Buddhism, we take refuge in Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma,and Sangha. These refuges are a very deep practice. They are the Buddhisttrinity:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life.
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community that lives in harmony and awareness.

. . .

We all need something good, beautiful, and true to believein. To take refuge in mindfulness, our capacity of being aware of what is goingon in the present moment, is safe and not at all abstract. When we drink a glassof water and know we are drinking a glass of water, that is mindfulness. When wesit, walk, stand, or breathe and know that we are sitting, walking, standing, orbreathing, we touch the seed of mindfulness in us, and, after a few days, ourmindfulness will grow stronger. Mindfulness is the light that shows us the way.It is the living Buddha inside of us. Mindfulness gives rise to insight,awakening, and love. We all have the seed of mindfulness within us and, throughthe practice of conscious breathing, we can learn to touch it. When we takerefuge in the Buddhist trinity — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — it means to takerefuge in our mindfulness, our mindful breathing, and the five elements thatcomprise our self.

Breathing in, breathing out,
Buddha is my mindfulness, shining near, shining far.
Dharma is my conscious breathing, calming my body and mind.
I am free.
Breathing in, breathing out,
Sangha is my five skandhas, working in harmony.
Taking refuge in myself,
Going back to myself.
I am free.

When we practice this exercise, it takes us directly to aplace of peace and stability, to the most calm and stable place we can go. TheBuddha taught, "Be an island unto yourself. Take refuge in yourself and notin anything else." This island is right mindfulness, the awakened nature,the foundation of stability and calm that resides in each of us. This islandshines light on our path and helps us see what to do and what not to do. Whenour five skandhas — form, feelings, perceptions, mental states, andconsciousness — are in harmony, there will naturally be right action and peace.Conscious breathing brings about calmness and harmony. Aware that practicingthis way is the best thing we can do, we will feel solid within and we will be atrue vehicle for helping others.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Feb 10, 2005


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