According to the Buddhist way of looking at things, each moment of consciousness is a precious gift. Awareness itself is the primary currency of the human condition, and as such it deserves to be spent carefully. Sitting quietly in a serene environment, letting go of the various petty disturbances that roil and diminish consciousness, and experiencing as fully as possible the poignancy of this fleeting moment—this is an enterprise of deep intrinsic value, an aesthetic experience beyond words. The more unified, stable, luminous, and attentive the mind is at this moment, the more profound the experience.
Our contemporary view of consciousness is so different from this, so much less. It is as if the accomplishment of mere tasks is of primary value, while the quality of awareness with which these tasks are undertaken is irrelevant. One can hurtle through the day doing this, that, and the other thing—often simultaneously—with great busyness and pressure, only to relax in the evening by trying to keep up with images that flash across the television screen multiple times per second. For many of us, the deep states of tranquil alertness of which the mind is capable are entirely unknown.
Yes, the chattering, cavorting, cacophonous monkey mind is capable of clever deeds and great mischief, and these things are not entirely without value. But the mind is also capable of settling down, gathering its power, and turning its gaze upon itself, and in such instances it can come to know itself deeply. Buddhists call this gaining wisdom, and this too is a valuable thing to do.
More importantly, perhaps, it is a healthy thing to do. It is now well known that a restful body is healthier than a body in constant states of stress. It is becoming better known that a restful mind is healthier than a mind beset with anxiety, compulsion, addiction, and other agitating states. It may even turn out to be the case that a restful society is healthier than one beset with tension, prejudice, exploitation, and war. I hope we have a chance to find out someday.
Meanwhile, peace is accessible. This, too, is an empirically demonstrable fact: try turning off the radio, the phone, the computer, and the TV; sit comfortably in a quiet place, relaxing the body and mind; mindfully breathe in, mindfully breathe out, and abandon—just for now—any thought or response that tends to disperse and divide your awareness. As you do this successfully for several moments in a row, you will find the mind gradually becoming more tranquil, more focused, more clear, and more powerful. The Buddha might have said: “I know of no single thing healthier than doing one thing at a time."
— Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., is the executive director and senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies