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A Technique of Living

Leonard A. Bullen

The third month


IF you think back, you’ll most likely find that many of the values you now place on things have been established, in part at least, by outside influences; by your parents, for example, and by your teachers, and by the books you were given to read in your earlier years. Added to these are the entertainments you enjoyed then and those you enjoy now, the opinions of your friends, and the vicious and continuous blare of advertisements. Thus very little of your thinking is really your own.

As a result of all this, you are saddled with many false valuations, valuations which are not your own because you haven’t arrived at them by a process of independent thinking. They may be good valuations in some sense or other or they may not, but they have been imposed on you from outside and have not been developed within you by your own thought.

To examine your own valuations and, where desirable, to break free from them – assuming, of course, that there’s a need to do so – you must exert a sustained effort of mindfulness.

The first work of mindfulness in this connection is to make you aware of your false valuations, in order to help you to realise what is of real value and what is useless mental baggage. As the realisation of false valuations takes hold, new valuations of things tend to take their place as a natural process.

You will agree that what you most highly value will largely determine what you most ardently strive for, and conversely, what you most ardently strive for is an indication of what you most highly value.

The infantile mind arrives at its beliefs and opinions by imitating others, or else by the impact of authority (and often of spurious authority), but it is only the most mature mind that evaluates things by the process of independent thinking.

In the same way, while the infantile mind formulates its code of values by superficial and immediate considerations, the mature mind takes a long-range view of all things, and penetrates to the ultimate values of things, as distinct from their present effects.

The process of revaluation is a slow one, for most of the ideals of the world around us run counter to the true values that we seek.

You will usually find that the opinions of those around you, your obligations to your dependents, and your need to conform – outwardly at least – to other people’s standards, all act as obstacles to the inner process of correcting your scale of values. You find that you are forced to spend time in many ways on things that, left to yourself, you would consider insignificant, while you may unwillingly have to give too little time to things of greater ultimate value.

Often you may be led into valueless byways because of economic necessity or social pressure; and this fact you must generally accept, because it’s easier to adapt yourself to the world than to adapt the world to yourself. Often, too, there are some futile activities you may take on in the search for excitement or in an endeavour to escape from boredom; and these too, although futile by ultimate standards, are sometimes useful in providing an immediate purpose. But when such activities and interests grow out of proportion they retard your progress simply because of the time and energy they consume.

From the Buddhist viewpoint many such false valuations arise from craving, from that incessant thirst for personal gratification that springs from ignorance. With craving and ignorance at the root of all personal life, false valuations are inevitable, and to break down these false valuations it is necessary to attack them at the deeper levels of the mind.

Now the basic ignorance, in the Buddhist sense, is the inability to know the true nature of existence, just as blindness is not merely not seeing but the inability to see. This basic ignorance is ultimately found to be the root of all suffering, and the whole of the Buddha-way is a course of self-training directed towards knowing, knowing in its fullest sense.

Stating this in another way, the final aim of the Buddha-way is enlightenment, the breaking down of ignorance.

One of the characteristics of existence as emphasized by the Buddha-doctrine is that of impermanence. It needs no profound thought to show that all things arise, last a longer or shorter time, and finally pass out of existence; and to labour the point may seem unnecessary. But do you really accept this fact of impermanence? Does it affect your valuations of things? Or does it pass over your head? Perhaps you do accept it up to a point, but generally it needs a tremendous emotional jolt to bring it right home.

To the extent that you accept the fact of impermanence you relinquish some of your futile valuations because you realise their futility.

It has been pointed out that the harder you grasp a handful of water the more of it slips through your fingers, for the best way to hold water in the hand is to hold it loosely. And in the same way, the best way to hold anything in the mind is to hold it loosely. Thus, slowly, you learn to grasp things a little less tightly; but for a long time you continue to grasp, and thus continue to lose.

If only you could stop grasping, if only you could relinquish the wish that the transient would become permanent, then you could enjoy the pleasure while it lasts and be ready for the next experience when it comes, whether it be one of happiness or of sorrow. By one approach to life you increase its unsatisfactoriness by seeking to prolong your pleasures, while by the other way you leave yourself free to gain the fullest value from every experience.

Whatever experience life brings to you, whether bitter or sweet, it has some value if you use it skilfully, and you can use it skilfully only if you take it when it comes and accept its imperfections.

The Buddha-doctrine points out that, within personal life, everything is imperfect, everything is ultimately unsatisfactory. Nowhere within the sphere of personal life is permanent happiness to be found, and only by attaining to the "existence beyond existence", only by breaking free from the bondage of selfhood, can permanent freedom from suffering be found.

The more comfortable are your external conditions, the less incentive is there to make an effort towards the final enlightenment. The more comfortably you pad out the walls of the cell of your own personal life, the less you will feel its shocks and jolts. But is this comfortable upholstery of any ultimate value? A padded cell is still a cell, and all the padding can never give you freedom.

Not only so, but the padding eventually wears thin, and the question arises: which requires less effort – to keep on repadding the cell, or to fight your way to freedom? It has been said:

"The wise man obtains liberation by a hundredth part of the suffering that a foolish man endures in the pursuit of riches."

The Buddha-doctrine affirms that there is no permanent freedom from suffering and unsatisfactoriness within the bondage of personal life, and that while you are perpetuating the delusion of selfhood you are perpetuating suffering.

Further, the Buddha-doctrine emphasises that the self is a delusion, and that life is one indivisible whole. Thus everything you gain at the expense of another’s loss is of no ultimate value; the gain is transitory and eventually becomes a burden to carry. If you gain by knowingly depriving another of something, you eventually become the real loser. Every self-centred valuation carries within itself the seeds of sorrow.

It is, of course, often very difficult to detect the self-centred valuation behind your desires and actions. If you’re influenced by a possessive valuation, in which your aim is to possess more and more property or material objects, the element of self is quite obvious in the motive, but the same possessive valuation might apply just as definitely but much less obviously in your attachment to your own children in the guise of love. In this guise it can cause more unhappiness than when it applies to material things.

This same possessive valuation is often at the back of love problems, for many love problems are not so much concerned with love in its higher meaning as with possessiveness, at least in part.

Then there is what we can call the aesthetic valuation. Here, when applying a penetrating self-analysing mindfulness, you might find that your high appreciation of art, music, or one of these finer and less mundane things, is really a means of bolstering up your own self-esteem. No doubt this appreciation of finer things really exists, but its virtues are often vitiated when it is used as a means of asserting your own superiority.

The same may be said of the intellectual valuation, in which scientific knowledge, an intellectual grasp of a subject, or a love of hair-splitting argument provides a means of self-assertion.

It may be just the same with a religious valuation or a highly moral valuation – there may be a good deal of self present in the form of self-righteousness.

Even when there’s a predominance of altruism in the major valuation, it may be possible to find an element of self-interest in the shape of a desire for admiration or thanks, or perhaps a feeling of self-approval.

In the process of revaluation, then, from the Buddhist viewpoint, you must first adopt a philosophy which emphasises fundamentals rather than superficialities and places ultimate effects higher than immediate ones; then you must recognise and assess your own dominant valuation; and finally you must progressively move the point of interest away from self-interest and towards the interests of life as a whole.

In order to work from the inside outwards, you must gradually work on your valuations of things in general. This means that you must become increasingly aware of your false values, and, with this increased awareness, you must progressively discard these false values.

In time, then, you’ll find that many things which previously aroused your anger, resentment, possessiveness, and other adverse emotions will then fail to do so. You will then move your focus of interest away from the things that arouse these retardant emotions, away from the emotions that retard your progress.

This, of course, will in general be a long and continuous process, and one that involves many readjustments of the values you now place on all sorts of things.

Practical Work


We can use various synonyms for mindfulness. We can speak of it as expanded awareness and intensified awareness, as increased attentiveness, and in a certain sense as presence of mind. Lack of mindfulness, similarly, can be referred to as unawareness, inattentiveness, and absence of mind.

In this last-mentioned expression – absence of mind – we can each recognise lack of mindfulness both in ourselves and in others. Putting aside for the present the more profound aspects of mindfulness, let us consider its application to the more mundane and superficial matters of the workaday life.

You are familiar with a situation in which you ate writing a letter when the telephone rings in the next room. On your way to answer the telephone you put your pen down somewhere – but where? When you return to your letter-writing you’re unable to remember where you put your pen, and you have to waste time in searching for it. You may feel that this kind of absentmindedness is unimportant except for the exasperation and inconvenience it causes; but the point is that if you have too little mindfulness to observe where you put your pen you must also have too little to make much progress on the path of self-development.

You may consider that the example just given doesn’t apply to you. However, you would probably find a number of minor situations in your own life in which you could profitably employ greater presence of mind. This increased mindfulness will give you greater efficiency, but this is only its secondary objective; its primary aim is to increase your inner alertness.

For a period of a month or longer, then, set out to develop a greater degree of all-sound mindfulness in the small routine activities of your life. To do this it will be helpful if you slow down these activities whenever you can and do them more deliberately and attentively; this slowing-down will help to establish more mindful patterns of thought and action which – if continued over a long enough period – will extend or infiltrate into other activities, activities which must of necessity be carried out more hurriedly.

It is helpful if you increase your awareness of your actions by verbalisation. For example, as you put your pen down, say to yourself "I put my pen on top of the book-case." Os having bought a bus ticket and put it in your pocket, say, "The ticket is in my left-hand side pocket." This form of verbalisation assists in the general development of all-round mindfulness. It would be pointless to try to apply it to too many things, but it’s especially useful in relation to the few small activities in which you happen to be absentminded.

One way in which you can apply the self-contract method to this discipline is to make a mental note of each time you act absent-mindedly. For each occasion of absent-mindedness mentally note one point; and, when you reach a total of, say, ten points, make the next twenty-four hours a discipline day.

You will need to define just what you yourself mean by a discipline day. It may mean that you’ll smoke only half your usual number of cigarettes, or that you’ll go without sugar in your tea, or that you’ll eat no sweet biscuits during the twenty-four hours.

The exact nature of the pact you make with yourself is unimportant, so long as you use it to increase your general level of awareness.


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last updated: 03-04-2005