The title of your book is ‘Life with Full Attention: A practical course in mindfulness’. Why would you encourage people to take this course? Why do you think it is so important that we live our lives with full attention?
When Sangharakshita was asked ‘What happens when you die?’ he replied, ‘You’ll soon find out!’ And he’s perfectly right – we don’t know what’s going to happen to us when we die, we don’t know very much about the big metaphysical questions, but do know that we’re alive now. So by paying attention to life as it actually happens, by becoming more mindful, we can really relish the present moment, we can experience it fully and vividly and deeply.
The Buddha said that ‘Those who are mindful live eternally; those who are unmindful are already like the dead’. So mindfulness, really, is the same as being alive, it’s just being alive consciously.
In the book, you mention that mindfulness is best experienced instead of described. For those who haven’t read the book, could you offer a few practical suggestions on how we can begin to experience mindfulness in our daily lives?
‘Life with Full Attention’ is divided into eight chapters, and each chapter outlines one aspect of mindfulness before suggesting how we can put it into practice in our everyday lives. The first chapter is on what I call ‘day-to-day mindfulness’, giving our full attention to our ordinary everyday activities so we don’t forget our car keys or leave our rooms in a mess, for example. And once we have done this, we will have the space to cultivate mindfulness of the body and its movements, which has the effect of really grounding us in direct experience. This is the second chapter, which leads on to the third which is mindfulness of vedana – the ‘felt sense’ of whether our experience feels pleasant or unpleasant or neutral. Then we start to notice how these basic, rudimentary feelings (vedana) are the ground out of which we develop our emotions; so chapter four is about being mindful of our thoughts and emotions. Through this, we can begin to be aware of what is in our best interests and cultivate helpful, positive thoughts and emotions by being mindful of the teachings (chapter five). Then we move to mindfulness of nature and art (chapter six), and mindfulness of other people (chapter seven) and then finally mindfulness of reality (chapter eight). So the course is intended to be a systematic introduction to mindfulness in all its aspects.
In your book, you talk about the importance of the imagination in Buddhist practice. Some people may see a conflict between mindfulness and imagination, which could be understood as the projection of some kind of fantasy onto reality. Can you explain how we can both be imaginative and live our lives with full attention?
Mindfulness and the imagination are difficult concepts to talk about. Definitions are limiting – we only really understand what mindfulness is when we practise it. But mindfulness isn’t a cold analytical looking at things, it is a deep appreciation of things. This is why I talk about mindfulness of works of art in the book, because I really feel that novels, poems, paintings and so on can be important ways of deepening our awareness. In this sense, then, mindfulness and imagination can be seen as two different words for the same deep, human experience.
We listen deeply to a piece of music, for example, and we become lost in it – in a sense we become it (as T. S. Elliot has said, ‘You are the music while the music lasts’). And that’s really what mindfulness is. In everyday life we’re trying to pay attention to our experience in the same way that we pay attention to a piece of music. We’re trying to stay with life emotionally, not just notice it from the outside but be aware of it so deeply that we become it.
So you could say that imagination is a word for what happens when your capacity to become aware is deepened to such a degree that the sense of your self as being separate from what you’re aware of disappears. The poet Coleridge contrasts Imagination with ‘Fancy’. Fancy is just the same old things of ordinary experience – the same aspects of your everyday life – gathered together in unusual or arbitrary combinations to make them appear striking or novel. So a poem might be about a zebra, underarm deodorant, a sunbeam and an orange, for example, and this is all very entertaining, but nothing really changes, nothing genuinely new comes into being. Genuine imagination takes you beyond yourself (even if only a little). It takes you away from who you think you are into a whole new world.
You also talk about the importance of faith, but you explain that when you teach, you find that it is the quality that most people lack. How would you introduce it those who are sceptical?
Yes, most people in the West lack faith – Westerners can be very intelligent, very resourceful, but quite often we’re also sceptical, closed, perhaps even cynical. Many of us have lost any sense of there being something other than ourselves, something more than mere egocentricity. We lack imaginative depth and richness. So, in a way, faith strikes me is the most important thing to teach, but also the most difficult, because it is something that we each have to discover for ourselves.
However, I do feel that imagination is the primary faculty through which we discover faith, because it allows us to open ourselves up to dimensions of experience quite other than our usual everyday awareness and ascend to new levels of being and consciousness. I think that this symbolic, mystical side of life is inherent to reality itself, so to be closed to it is to be closed to life in many ways.
Although it’s meant to be the season to be jolly, a lot of people find themselves feeling stressed or depressed over Christmas and New Year. How would you suggest we tackle our winter blues?
I’d say that the first thing is to take responsibility for how you’re feeling – to really feel what you’re feeling, because there’s no point in lying to yourself and pretending to experience things that you’re not. This doesn’t mean dwelling on your thoughts and emotions or necessarily acting on them, it just means kindly and carefully watching where your mind is going until you have the space to remind yourself that you can choose how to respond to every situation. It’s not always easy, but we can choose, each moment, either to be irritable and angry, or to be patient and generous. Perhaps the best response to difficulty is to be generous, in fact, because we can always change a situation if we can give to it.
In the book, you talk about the importance of setting up healthy habits. What are your thoughts on New Year’s resolutions? I find it difficult to bring to mind a New Year’s resolution that I have really kept – do you have any advice on how we can set ourselves up for success instead of failure?
If I’m honest, I do feel a bit dubious about New Year’s resolutions because it seems that we often just set ourselves up to fail. Especially if we are attempting to change deeply entrenched habits, the resolution in itself will be not enough, and I think that if we’re just going to keep setting ourselves up for failure it would probably be best not to make a New Year’s resolution at all.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t try and change, or even make resolutions to change, but they need to be very practical and realistic changes, backed up by smaller changes in our life patterns which support our new resolution. If you want to go swimming every week, for example, don’t try to do it by sheer willpower – buy a pair of goggles and a new swimsuit to commit you to your intention, and get a friend to come with you every week. A resolution shouldn’t really be a private matter – if you have the support of others, you will be much more likely to succeed.
Lastly, I have heard that you are in the process of writing another book. Could you give us a quick preview of what we can expect?
Yes, my next project is another eight-week coursebook exploring the five stages of spiritual life as discussed by Sangharakshita. It will begin with two weeks on developing Integration – especially through body awareness and mindfulness – two weeks on Positive Emotion, or Helpful Action, then weeks on Spiritual Death, Spiritual Rebirth and Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. So the coursebook will introduce people to a whole vision of spiritual life, starting from where you are – becoming a healthier happier person – all the way to complete Enlightenment (at least in theory!). I’m hoping that by reading the book, people will have a real sense of what Buddhism is in practice and a direct sense of whether or not they want to commit themselves to it.