Making the Most of Each Day
by Ayya Khema
Now the time has come to go home from this retreat. In order to take as much benefit as possible with us, we need to be aware how to organise our daily lives. If we go back and do exactly as we’ve always done, within a week everything will be forgotten. Coming to another meditation course in the future, we would have to start all over again.
Who knows whether there is much time in this life. This is the only life the we can take responsibility for. Here we have some control over how we spend our day. The future is non-existent. “I’m going to meditate ‘tomorrow'” is foolish. There is no tomorrow, there is only now. When the next life comes, it’s this life; actually this is our next life. Finding lots of reasons not to practice today is always possible: the children, the weather, the husband, the wife, the business, the economy, the food, anything will do. What kind of priorities we have is strictly of our own making.
If the future does not exist and the past is completely gone, what do we have left? A very fleeting moment indeed, namely this one. It passes quicker than we can say it. But by using each moment skillfully, we can eventually have moment-to-moment awareness, which results in deep insight.
When getting up in the morning, the first thing would be a determination to be mindful. Becoming aware of opening our eyes, is the beginning of the day, and the beginning of mindfulness. If we have opened our eyes before becoming aware of that, we can close them and start all over again. And from that small incident we will gain an understanding of mindfulness and what it means, then we can let the mind be flooded with gratitude that we have another whole day at our disposal, for one purpose only. Not to cook a better meal, not to buy new things, but to draw nearer to Nibbana. One needs enough wisdom to know how this can be accomplished. The Buddha told us again and again but we are hard of hearing and not totally open to all the instructions. So we need to hear it many times.
Being grateful brings the mind to a state of receptivity and joyful expectation of “what am I going to do with this day?” The first thing would be to sit down to meditate, maybe having to get up a little earlier. Most people die in bed, it’s a perfect place for dying, and not such a perfect place for spending an unnecessarily long time. If one has passed the first flush of youth, one doesn’t need so much sleep any more.
In most homes, starting at 6 o’clock, there is noise. If that is so, we need to get up early enough to avoid that. That alone gives a feeling of satisfaction, of doing something special to get nearer to Nibbana. If we have a whole hour available for meditation, that’s fine; at least let us not practice under half an hour, because the mind needs time to become calm and collected. The morning hour is often the best for many people, because during the night the mind is not bombarded with as many conscious impressions as it is during the day, and is therefore comparatively calm. If we start meditating for half an hour and slowly increase it until we reach a whole hour, that’s a good program. Each week we could add ten minutes to the daily practice.
After the meditation we can contemplate the five daily recollections. Now the mind is calm and collected and has more ability to reach an inner depth.
I am of the nature to decay
I have not gone beyond decay
I am of the nature to be diseased
I have not gone beyond disease
I am of the nature to die
I have not gone beyond death
All that is mine, dear, and delightful, will change and vanish
I am the owner of my kamma
I am born of my kamma
I am related to my kamma
I live supported by my kamma
Any kamma I will do, good or evil, that I will inherit.
The exact words do not matter that much. Words are concepts, only the meaning counts; the impermanence of our bodies, of what we think we own, such as people and belongings, and being responsible for our own kamma. Another recollection is about having a loving and kind attitude towards oneself and others and to protect one’s own happiness, and wishing to same for all beings:
May I be free from enmity
May I be free from hurtfulness
May I be free from troubles of mind and body
May I be able to protect my own happiness.
Whatever beings there are,
May they be free from enmity
Whatever beings there are,
May they be free from hurtfulness
Whatever beings there are,
May they be free from troubles of mind and body
Whatever beings there are,
May they be able to protect their own happiness.
Having reflected on these two aspects in a meaningful way, we can keep three things in mind. First comes mindfulness, bare attention to the prevailing mode of being. That can be a physical activity without the mind going astray, or it may be a feeling or a thought which has arisen. Paying full attention, not trying to bury it under discursive debris, but knowing exactly what is happening in one’s life.
When physical activity does not demand our attention, we can again direct thoughts to the fleeting aspects of our own lives and everyone else’s, and reflect what to do in the short time available. When we consider this correctly, kindness, lovingness, and helpfulness arise as priorities. We need not help a lot of people all at once. Even helping one person, maybe someone who lives in the same house, is beneficial. It is the attitude and motivation that count, not the results.
Many people want to do some good, but expect gratitude. That’s spiritual materialism, because they are aiming for a form of repayment for their goodness, at least a very nice future life. That too, is equivalent to getting pain, not in the coin of the realm, but through results. Both attitudes could be dropped and the realisation re-established that “this is the only day I have, let me use it to best advantage.” “What is most important, if I only have such a short time in this life?” Then we can act out of the understanding that in order to drew nearer to Nibbana, we have to let go of self-concern, egocentricity, self-affirmation, personal likes and dislikes, because otherwise the ego will grow instead of diminish. As we affirm and confirm it more and more throughout this life, it gets bigger and fatter, instead of reducing itself. The more we think about our own importance, our own cares and concerns, the further away we get from Nibbana, and the less chance for peace and happiness arises in our lives.
If someone has a very fat body, and tries to go through a narrow gate, he might knock his/her body against either side and get hurt. If someone has an extremely fat ego, s/he might knock against other people constantly and feel hurt, other people’s egos being the gate posts against which one knocks. If we have this kind of experience repeatedly, we get to realise that it has nothing to do with other people, but only concerns ourselves.
If we start each day with these considerations and contemplations, we will tend towards not being overly concerned with ourselves, but trying to think of others. Naturally, there is always the possibility of accidents. Accidents of non-mindfulness, of not being attentive to what we are doing, accidents of impetuous, instinctive replies, or in feeling sorry for ourselves. These occasions have to be seen for what they are, namely accidents, a lack of awareness. There’s no blame to be attached to other people or to oneself. We can just see that at that particular moment we were not mindful, and try to remedy it in the next moment. There’s only the Arahant, who is fully enlightened, who does not have accidents of that sort.
The Buddha did not teach expression or suppression. But instead he taught that the only emotions which are worthwhile are the four supreme emotions (brahma viharas) and that everything else needs to be noticed and allowed to subside again. If anger arises, it doesn’t help to suppress or to express it. We have to know that the anger has arisen, otherwise we’ll never be able to change our reactions. We can watch it arising and ceasing. However this is difficult for most people; anger doesn’t subside fast enough. Instead we can immediately remember that to express anger means that particular day, which really constitutes our whole life, contains a very unfortunate occurrence, and therefore we can try to substitute. It is much easier to substitute one emotion for another than to drop one altogether. Dropping means a deliberate action of letting go. As we have learned in meditation, we can substitute discursive thinking with attention on the breath; in daily living we substitute the unwholesome with the wholesome.
Usually our anger arises towards other people. It’s not so important to us what animals do, nor what people do whom we don’t know. Usually we are concerned with those whom we know and who are near to us. But since that is so we must also be familiar with some very good qualities of these people. Instead of dwelling upon any negative action of that person, we can put our attention on something pleasant about them. Even though they may have just used words which we didn’t like, at other times they have said things which were fine. They have done good deeds, and have shown love and compassion. It is a matter of changing one’s focus of attention, just as we learn to do in meditation. Until this becomes very habitual in meditation, it will be difficult in daily life, but diligent practice makes it happen. We practice in spite of any difficulty. If we remove our attention from one thing and put it somewhere else, that’s all we need to work with. We will be protecting ourselves from making bad kamma and spoiling our whole day. We may not have another day.
The immediate resultants of all our thoughts, speech and action are quite apparent. If we keep our attention focused, we will know that wholesome emotions and thoughts bring peace and happiness, whereas unwholesome ones bring the opposite. Only a fool makes him/herself deliberately unhappy. Since we’re not fools, we’ll try to eliminate all unwholesomeness in our thinking and emotions and try to substitute with the wholesome. All of us are looking for just one thing, and that is happiness. Unhappiness can arise only through our own ideas and reactions.
We are the makers of our own happiness and unhappiness and we can learn to have control over that. The better the meditation becomes, the easier it will be, because the mind needs muscle power to do this. A distracted mind has no strength, no power. We cannot expect perfect results overnight, but we can keep practising. If we look back after having practised for some time we will see a change. If we look back after only one or two days, we may not find anything new within. It is like growing vegetables. If we put seeds in the ground and dig them up the next day, all we will find is a seed. But if we tend the seeds and wait some time we will find a sprout or a plant. It’s no use checking from moment to moment, but it is helpful to check the past and see the changes taking place.
At the end of each day it can be a good practice to make a balance-sheet, possibly even in writing. Any good shop-keeper will check out his merchandise at the end of the day and see which one was well accepted by the customers and which stayed on the shelves. He will not re-order the shelf items but only the merchandise that sold well. We can check our actions and reactions during the day, and can see which ones were conductive to happiness for ourselves and others and which ones were rejected. We do not re-order the latter for the next day, but just let them perish on the shelf. If we do that night after night, we will always find the same actions accepted or rejected. Kindness, warmth, interest in others, helpfulness, concern and care are always accepted. Self-interest, dislike, rejection, arguments, jealousy are always rejected. Just for one single day, we can write down all our actions on the credit or debit side, whether happiness-producing or not. As we do that, we will find the same reactions to the same stimuli over and over again. This balance sheet will give a strong impetus to stop the pre-programmed unwholesome reactions. We have used them for years and lifetimes on end, and they have always produced unhappiness. If we can check them out in writing or see them clearly in our minds, we will surely try to change.
Starting the day with the determination to be mindful, contemplating the daily recollections, realising that this is the only day we have and using it most skillfully, and then checking it out in the evening on the balance sheet, will give us a whole lifetime in one day. If this is done carefully and habitually, the next day, which is our next life, has the advantageous results. If we’ve had a day of arguments, dislikes, worries, fears and anxiety, the next day will be similar. But if we have had a day of loving-kindness, helpfulness and concern for others, we’ll wake up with those same modes of being. Our last thought at night will become the first one in the morning. The kamma we inherit shows up the next day, we don’t need to wait for another lifetime. That’s too nebulous. We do it now, and see results the next day.
Before going to sleep it’s useful to practice loving-kindness meditation. Having done that as the very last thing at night, it will be in one’s mind first thing in the morning. The Buddha’s words about loving-kindness were: “One goes to sleep happily, one dreams no evil dreams, and one wakes happily.” What more can one ask? Applying the same principles day after day, there is no reason why our lives should not be harmonious. That way we’re making the most of each day of our lives. If we don’t do it, nobody else will. No other person is interested in making the most of each day of our lives. Everyone is interested in making the most of their own lives. We cannot rely on anyone else for our own happiness.
As far as our meditation practice is concerned, we must not allow it to slide. Whenever that happens one has to start all over again. If one keeps doing it every day, one can at least keep the standard attained in the retreat, possibly improve on it. Just like an athlete, who stops training has to start all over again, in the same way the mind needs discipline and attention, because it is the master of the inner household.
There is nothing that can give us any direction except our own mind. We need to give it the possibility to relax, to stop thinking for a little while, to have a moment of peace and quiet, so that it can renew itself. Without that renewal of energy, it decays just the same as everything else does. If the mind is taken care of, it will take care of us.
This is a sketch of how to use one’s day to day activity and practice. We must never think that Dhamma is for meditation courses or special days: it is rather a way of life, where we do not forget the impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of the world. We realise these truths within our own heart, just thinking about them is useless. If we practice every day in this way, we will find relief and release from our cares and worries because these are always connected with the world. The Dhamma transcends the world.