In April of this year Doug McGill interviewed the Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya concerning how a meditator can practice mindfulness in the pandemic.
His response was to practice as usual.
His dry answers to the questions posed by the Western interviewer stewed in the back of my mind for a few days.
Don’t practice to make something happen or for something to go away
“There’s almost a mantra in the way I teach,” Sayadaw says.
We’re not practicing to make things happen in the mind, such as equanimity, or to make things go away, such as fear or uncertainty. Rather, we practice observing things as they are happening, and to understand how things are from this close observation.
OK, but do you experience anxiety or fear? He is asked.
His response drives the point home for me.
It’s not that I don’t have anxiety or fear … I see it as this is just what happens in the mind. I cannot prevent the mind from having fear or anxiety. They will arise. But my view is that is is natural for the mind in this situation.
The worst thing that you could do, he says, is to think:
How can I get rid of this?” Because the desire to not have anything bad happen at all is exactly what causes the worst fears to arise. The mind that doesn’t want any sorrow or suffering creates the most anxiety.
Ok, but how do we practice mindfulness in the pandemic?
His approach to mindfulness in the pandemic is simply being with nature. The virus outside is nature. The virus inside is nature. That fear or anxiety arising in the mind is also part of nature.
“If the mind accepts that this as just nature at work, it settles the mind so much,” he says.
It just seems so … impersonal
But many of us rebel as seeing our inner life as just part of nature. It seems so impersonal. Our sense of being a special, clever, well-read human with a fascinating life story feels somehow downgraded, being simply a part of nature.
Yet Sayadaw insists:
“A great release and relief comes from seeing and understanding one’s experience in this way.”
He is going for the jugular now:
If a strong sense of self becomes entwined in noticing the mind and body.. fear, anxiety, worry, reactivity, and all the other unwholesome mind states will become predominant.
Really experiencing this in our bones, rather than understanding this intellectually, takes time.
Meanwhile, he advises us to take strength “from tiny moments.”
I recall the line from Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”
My old teacher Shinzen Young used to say these tiny moments can be:
“Micro hits of mindfulness.”
The touch of your hands on the steering wheel, or holding a cup of coffee; the sensation on your shoes as you walk to your car in the parking lot at work. This is just mindfulness in the pandemic.
Is that all there is?
But, hey, just pay attention to the sensation of my shoes on the pavement. Is that all you got? My mind protests.
Sayadaw hits back:
“Yes, even noticing which arm goes through your T-shirt first!”
Noticing these mundane details continuously and seamlessly throughout your day — this noticing “is the territory of wisdom,” he explains. Yeah, this is just mindfulness in the pandemic.
Only when the mind trains to see things in detail, can it see causes and effects, such as what thoughts and actions give rise to wholesome mind states. The point is seeing the habitual patterns of the mind and body and to not following patterns unconsciously, but choosing wisely.
Choice is also a “territory of wisdom”, he adds.
“When we are not seeing the details of our life as they unfold moment to moment, everything is on automatic pilot and delusion is the boss.”
It’s all about making wise choices
I am finally getting it now.
When we train our mind to track the fine details of our life, he says, “we are giving the mind consciousness, and consciousness has a choice.”
“When there’s a choice, the mind is no longer deluded.”
Coming back to our first question, how to practice mindfulness in the pandemic, I see behind the question is feeling these times differ from other times.
Well, they do; but in the tiny moments of mindfulness, they are not so different. In those tiny moments we deal with what’s happening on a case-by-case basis.
Sayadaw has the last word this week:
It’s never a question of how to practice “if this happens or that happens.”
It’s always, “How do I practice now?”
That’s how you always practice.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, I didn’t practice any differently than before. Whatever comes, I’m practicing.
Things are fine, I’m practicing. Things are not fine, I’m practicing, always in the same way. The practice never changes.
OK, now I am feeling the touch sensations of my fingertips on the keyboard.
And in these tiny moments, I am feeling rather happy.