Tools of Practice by Theodore Tsaousidis

Toronto Mindfulness Community(TMC) is a secular group with an eclectic population. We come together to practice mindfulness meditation with others – in community.  In Buddhism, such a community is called a “Sangha”. Although the term “Sangha” originally pertained to monastic communities, in the West it is used to describe people practicing meditation and/or Buddhism together. Across most cultural and faith traditions there is a recognized benefit in coming together to practice and to work  with others of  similar motivations, goals and aspirations.

Some of us come to TMC seeking to reduce the overall stress in our lives; others have specific issues they are dealing with.  There can be pain — physical and psychological pain which might include that of loss.  Loss can come to us in many different forms; the loss of a person, perhaps the loss of our own view of who we are.  Changes in circumstance can trigger a sense of loss for what had been familiar.    Even something pleasant and wonderful such as getting married holds loss within that promise — the letting go of the way we had been living.

Some of us might be coming to TMC because life seems to have taken a contrary direction, veering away from what we thought we wanted and so we are thinking, “Hold on!  This is not what I want my life to be.”   Others may have been dealing with situations or experiences (perhaps traumatic experiences) that have brought confusion.  However, sometimes even apparently simple things can be difficult to process and we ask “Why?  What is going on here?  Why do these things happen?”   There are an infinite number of reasons that may have brought us here to TMC.

The question “why” is very relevant but it is also important to realize that the resolution to this “why” may not come about in a straightforward linear way.  In seeking answers to our questions, in trying to move through impasses, and in trying to understand our pains and suffering, we may discover many doors leading to unexplored territories. Some of these “doors and territories” discovered may seem unimportant or irrelevant to the matter at hand or the issues we have been thinking about. Some of these doors we may even avoid.  We are not ready to open them because what we imagine behind them can seem terrifying.  In any case, it is important to understand that thinking or cognition is only one of the six senses or doors which might bring us to some understanding of the “why”.  How is this so?

We see a movement, hear a sound, feel the object we have caught, smell its odour and taste its juices.   With the five senses of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste we experience the apple tossed to us by our friend at the market.  Childhood memories of apple picking, studies affirming health benefits, Grandma’s apple pie — such thoughts complete the experience.

With all change, such as mentioned above, there is the consideration of “How do we work with this — and each new situation we encounter?

Meditation is one tool that helps bring understanding to experience. 

Meditation encounters that “why” in a tactile way; massaging the “why” by all the six senses.  The sixth sense from a Buddhist perspective being, of course, thinking. We sit and observe the experience we are in, noticing what arises through sight, sound, touch, smell, taste … and our thoughts

In the West here, we may tend to over-emphasize meditation itself as a goal-oriented path to the answer of “why”.  That’s not what meditation is.  Meditation is learning to sit with our experience. Meditation is putting space around our experience even though our mind is racing to label it and judge it – peg it as good or bad, neutral or indifferent.

As mentioned, we each come to this Community with our own unique histories and intentions. We come to sit for a little while; 20 minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour. We take this bit of time to just sit with whatever it is that we are feeling.  However unique our feelings may be, we all come to practice, to just sit with our experience.  That is the experience of our internal world.  We observe what is going on inside of our bodies, our minds; noticing the external world as the subtle sounds around us, the temperature, the physical sensation of our seat come into awareness.   Our bodies will experience different sensations as perhaps a foot or a leg begins to tingle, a back might become tender.   We enter the meditation hall with our unique circumstances, the individuality of the bodies we were born with, to observe the experiences that may arise within and without, without judgment, in stillness until the meditation is over. We experience what is happening moment by moment – right now.

External and internal experiences are as noise; vying for our attention.  In working with meditation – mindfulness – we take this time between the first bell and the last to just sit with all of that and just notice it.  That’s all.  We just notice it, breath-by-breath, moment-by-moment.

There will be times we find ourselves overwhelmed.   In such times, no matter whether we find ourselves struggling with physical, psychological or other issues, there are tools available to help us through.  There are techniques and exercises which can soften the difficulties of the experiences (mental or physical) that arise.

Some of the exercises I share from time to time from different traditions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, Buddhism, or even walks in nature may seem foreign or may hold little interest for you but you can still draw on them as ways to help yourself.   To draw useful elements from various mind/body techniques into our individual practice does not mean that you will change your ideology or become a practitioner – unless you choose to of course.  These are only possible techniques to try out to see if they are beneficial for you.  You are who you are.  You’re not going to change all of a sudden, become a yogi or a Buddhist and so on just because we are going to try these things.  We do them because there might be a way within these exercises to help us move to deeper understanding, to a deeper clarity about ourselves. They may assist us with what each of us brings to this practice — or what brought you personally to this practice.

Another tool I would like for you to consider is Study, including learning some of the ways we describe what we do here in the mindfulness meditation class. Understanding words, being familiar with the definition and the root of the words used can be helpful.  For example, what is the definition of the word “meditation”?  How did “mindfulness” enter our lexicon?   What’s the difference between “relax” and “calm”?   “Peace”?  What is conveyed in the word “softening”?  Studying and learning to apply thought processes, approaches and the various perspectives of different cultures can also be helpful.

In the West, we do not have a broad or deep tradition of meditation.  To learn more about the language, words, and their meanings is to bring about more insight. Words provide pieces to the puzzle so that one day, you look at that puzzle and it makes sense.   This is not about reaching a goal or about a destination arrived at signaling the end of a journey.  The puzzle is ever changing but parts of it become clearer as we practice.

This work we are doing in mindfulness is a territory that cannot be mapped.   Even as we walk this territory, we cannot really say that we know it. This ground we walk on is naturally ever-changing and so it is unknown.  This can be uncomfortable.   It is scary.

However, as we add pieces into the puzzle, we build understanding.  Insights emerge which may foreshadow emotional pain arising as we engage in this new understanding.  Engaging in our mindfulness meditation practice, we may sense the call to change things in areas which could be deeply entrenched within us.   While these things may not serve us in the long term – or even in this present term – they make up what we have known.  These things have helped create the experience of ourselves and so it can be difficult to believe we can live as ourselves without them.   They may not be helpful, may even be destructive, but they do seem to help us deal or cope, with our lives – even if in some distorted way.  They are what we know.  They are familiar.  They seem to be our reality.  Have any of us thought “that is just who I am”?  We have known or held this way of being for so long, it seems to be a natural part of who we are. With new understanding and insight, we can see this and choose to accept, let go, and move on.

As well, it is most likely that everyone here has had the experience (or experiences) of loss. At the point of those losses, it may have seemed unimaginable that we could continue to be, to do, or to have what was needed to function and to be happy. Whether it was losing a job or losing a loved one, missing a plane or even a bus; whether it was a broken body or mind – at the point of these experiences – in the height of overwhelm or confusion, the future seems impossible to imagine.  Let me tell you that no matter what experience, whether it is physical pain, psychological distress, a physical barrier or an emotional impasse, with each in-breath and out-breath, somehow with one moment building to another moment, space appears and we see different ways to move through. This is what practicing the tool of meditation can help us accomplish.

As this territory is unknowable, to travel this way requires a certain amount of trust.  We must have faith in this unknowing.  This faith is another important tool for us.

First we spoke about meditation; the act, the presence, of just sitting mindfully, experiencing what arises.   Then we thought about how study can add to insight.    The study and understanding of new vocabulary can help us name this territory.  Words can give shape and form to new experiences as we encounter them in our expanding understanding.  Words allow us to use our cognition more effectively. Studying other approaches and perspectives builds a foundation for deeper comprehension and perception.

The third tool for you to consider is Faith; faith in the sense of a developing confidence and trust in the process.

Let me tell you there will be times when not much makes sense — when confusion, frustration or impatience may abound. At these times we need faith.  Within this faith, we can remember what the teacher said, what we may have read, the actions we have witnessed in others who practice  –  and so at these times we go on faith.  We trust the process, and continue working.

For some of us this may seem to be beyond our intent for being here – and perhaps beyond our abilities.     This is understandable.  This practice is relatively young in our Western culture.  It is not familiar.   We also tend to be goal-directed as a society and so to undertake such an undefined journey can be daunting.  Perhaps this is an opportunity to work with the tool of trust.

Faith and trust are learned. When a life has developed in situations filled with risk and challenge, developing trust or confidence may not be easy.   The patterns of who we are can be quite entrenched, especially if we should come from a background stiff with well defined boundaries, either religious or secular.   We may hold views that are negative and nihilistic.   We may lack self-confidence and self-esteem.

Since we all bring an incredible amount of history with us, it is really quite extraordinary and wondrous that some of us function as well as we do.  This speaks to the amazing spirit of human beings (and all sentient beings) of what unimaginable history may be overcome.   In fact each one of us can serve as inspiration to the rest of us that we can do anything – right here, right now.

These three facets of practice — meditation, study, faith or trust— work together.  You can think of it like a bike.  The wheels could be meditation.  The seat you are sitting on could be like study and the handle bars like faith.   You need all three to journey.

While all three are needed, there may be times one or another is to take a stronger role.  Meditation may take precedence but at times the need for study becomes apparent.

We enter this practice with our individual intentions.  While this practice we share is not about ending up in a particular destination, each of us has goals we would like to meet along the way.  The tools of meditation, study and faith provide different angles and viewpoints to work from.

There is power in using and knowing that these three tools can help us beyond those times we sit on the cushion or the chair.   We can use all three to build a sustaining practice.   These tools will help your journey or your job become much easier and so I encourage practicing with all of them.

I would also like to add here that I realize that those new to mindfulness meditation can feel overwhelmed (and rightfully so) with all the information that is found out there  –  not only in books and the internet but also with the countless experts and gurus vying for your attention, promising ways to enlightenment, happiness, peace and prosperity.  For a new practitioner, sorting through this volume can be a daunting task for which one naturally needs to be wary and careful.   At TMC website we have listed authors to study and a reading list we feel are qualified and reputable.   Also on the website you will find a list of words with which you might begin your study towards clarity of meaning and understanding into the nature and possibilities of practice.

May all beings be at ease.


Theodore Tsaousidis

Copyright 2015

Adapted from a talk offered to TMC Summer 2014