Beginning Your Journey into Mindfulness: A DIY Buddhist’s Personal Experience / by Sam Abelow

"Solitude No. 1" an original work of art. Acrylic paint, torn rice paper, cotton and other scraps, on 24x36 canvas. See more of my abstract painting here: http://www.roskogreen.com/paintings/

Matt has a bachelor's in Architecture and works or a design and build firm for interiors. He is an introvert, whose quiet tendencies have led him to look inward. He really enjoys time with his own thoughts and ideas. This interview explores what he’s learned and how Buddhism has influenced his life.

We began our correspondence a couple of years after your meditation practice began. At the time you recalled to me how your interest was sparked by a documentary on Chinese Hermits, living in the mountains. Those aesthetics spoke about truth,
Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. How do you understand that fascination now?

Yes, the tile is Amongst White Clouds. It begins with a quote by a hermit saying something along the lines of, "Both suffering and joy are the same." You can really sense the sincerity in how he spoke these words; I knew he had an understanding and perspective on reality that I just didn't understand. Curiosity pretty much took me on a rollercoaster ride to try and figure out what this perspective entailed, because at first glance these two things seemed polar opposite.

The fascination went from curiosity at an intellectual level to an experiential understanding which was brought about by practicing both in daily life and in seated meditation. Once the experiences start to unfold you begin to see the many layers and scales to these truths. It's something so simple but we come from such complex and built up conditions that breaking these down can be extremely difficult.

I'd also like to note that in a very simple way the practice can be summarized by discipline, concentration and wisdom. It's something that closely relates to psychoanalysis, but with a dash of Taoism and quantum physics thrown in there. I'd also like to mention the wisdom comes from paying close attention to ourselves when we slow down. This involves a mediation practice where we engage with ourselves and aim to develop a more aware perspective.
 

How did your subsequent interest in Buddhism affect your life directly?

It has influenced almost every facet of my life. I know it's common for people to only see Buddhism in the realm of religion, but there are specific Buddhist practices that I've personally come to value. I wouldn't really consider myself a highly religious person; I'm very much a “see it before you believe it” sort of person. My personal aim isn't to really be anything beyond myself or necessarily become anything in particular, it's just to have a much more aware frame of view towards my mind and actions.

I would say the biggest effect it has had is the ability to see who I am in a whole new light. Buddhist meditation is not easy and it's definitely something that goes against the grain of how we all normally behave and think about the world and ourselves.

I know this may be extreme sounding, but for me personally the shift was really noticeable. I went from a kid who could hardly read a paragraph without having the mind wander to seeing how the human organism functions on the mental and psychological scale. The new perspective allowed me to see what was occurring on a moment to moment basis and as a result, I could control my mind's attention. I went from pretty much always being lost in thoughts to having dominion over my mind, although this is definitely still a work in progress.
 

Did delving into Buddhism so seriously create any dissonance in your life? Were there challenges with integrating the Eastern precepts into a Western life?

Definitely, I've experienced a lot of ups and downs. I'm more or less self-taught and I've made plenty of mistakes trying to find balance. I'm really into Theravada Buddhism and in particular the Thai Forest Tradition. If there has been one good thing it's that this is a very dry form of Buddhism so there isn't too much extra fluff to get lost in.

Western life inherently has a lot of momentum and busyness behind it, so having the discipline to be present in normal activities as well as to set aside time to dive into sitting or walking meditation can be difficult. The biggest dissonance comes in the beginning when we are discovering our own individual capacities for change and growth.

Slowing down the momentum of the mind is not easy and it takes time to learn to figure out what does and does not work. Once you become present and aware it pretty much becomes a battle with your own "pile of shit." But the good thing about shit is that it's the best fertilizer. You just have to be willing to plant the seed and tend to your garden a few times a day.

In the beginning, I'm sure there was also a lot of dissonance with my friends and family. I saw positive results early on but was still trying to figure everything out. It was a weird thing looking out and I'm sure it was just as weird for my family that was looking back in.

How has meditation and mindfulness helped you deal with the ADD you were diagnosed with since a young age?

 

This was a huge thing for me; I talk about it with my family a lot. I have a vivid memory of quite literally having a pill shoved down my throat when I was in First grade -- which is really young to put someone on an amphetamine. In a way, I'm thankful for this happening because it became the catalyst for me to change later on in life.

From my experiences I've come to the conclusion that most mental disorders, whether it’s basic anxiety or a severe attention disorder stems from a lack of awareness, discipline, healthy diet, concentration and the ability to see ourselves clearly. Meditation can really aid in the development of all of these.

For me personally, I had conditioning that led me to turn away from difficulties and anything I wasn't naturally inclined to do. Simple awareness and meditation allowed me to become more aware of the monkey mind that overwhelmed me at times. I saw the "ego" as a phantom of my own creation. The internal battle I was having with myself would only cease if I stopped playing the game. For the longest time i was in an attempt to kill my ego with my ego and that just led to more conflict. I really had to take that step back to see how both internally and externally I was birthing my own negative experiences.

If you could give one piece of advice, or recommend a book to someone just beginning their journey into meditation, what would that be?

Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung by Ajahn Brahm is a great place to start. After that I would try and find a book or video on mindfulness and meditation. After wrapping your head around the fundamentals, you should immediately start practicing; Intellectual understanding can only take you so far. The less you know and the more you practice the better.

You can start with bringing awareness into everything you do throughout the day, this will help build mindfulness. From there, start a sitting meditation practice. Find what sort of schedule works for you. For me I did 15 mins of walking meditation and 45 minutes of sitting twice a day in the morning and evening. Pick a meditation object, such as the breath or a mantra, and train your concentration. After that dive into yourself and see how you relate to your thinking, feeling, memory, body, consciousness and all that fun stuff. You should be as consistent as possible.

Have you been to any extensive retreats? What was your experience?

I've been to a few one week retreats but they were more learning intensive than meditation based. I had a few good experiences and would recommend such a thing for someone just starting out.

I'm pretty DIY, so when it comes to extended periods of practice I usually just email monasteries to come and stay for anywhere between a few days, to a few weeks. Unfortunately between being in school and now work, I haven't been able to find a large expanse of time to practice.

I will say though that I make things work around my own schedule and have had months where I personally dedicate myself to practice as much as possible. Some of the best experiences I've had are when I'm practicing for long periods on my own with constant effort throughout the day, for a few months. Then I usually cap it off with a monastery stay for a week or two.


I've had good results with this and it seems to work well even if I have a busy schedule. I won't go into much detail about what I've personally experienced but can recommend practices to those who wish to find out what it all entails. You can reach me at heyymatt2@gmail