For a while now, whenever I am invited for a meal at my parents’ place, I would play a little game with my niece and nephews. I would give them a cookie or bread or something, but before I give them, I would hover infront of their mouth and count to them “One, … Two, … Three … ” before they get their treat.
My point to my sisters (mothers of my experiments) is that kids these days are too conditioned towards instant gratification. My count down approach is what I think would train them to learn to wait. Interestingly, my niece J would wait patiently, even when I sometimes delay the count down with 2.5, 2.75 etc … she (four years old now) would giggle and know that I am playing with her. My nephew R started off being rather haughty, refusing to open his mouth when I start the countdown. Granted, he is 1+ years younger than J, so perhaps he is slowly developing patience. Furthermore, the mental development of boys and girls are known to start at different ages.
Today, I read an interesting article about just that.
In the article, there is mention of a marshmallow experiment conducted to study how kids delay gratification. An interesting concept highlighted is “metacognition” in which one is knows one’s knowing or thinking. The ability to be aware of one’s thinking or way of thinking, its implications and to think of ways to deal with it.
“Their desire (for marshmallow) wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
The above example is what in Buddhism is commonly known as “轉依所緣境”, or “to change one’s mental focus”. In meditation, we do that all the time. When the mind wanders away, or it becomes distracted, we direct it away from the distraction and back to the object of meditation. In the Mahasi tradition, one do not redirect, but instead channels one’s mindfulness onto the process of distraction, and not the distraction itself. So, instead of thinking of something, we become mindful of the thinking; instead of pondering about a sound or cough, as to who is the one coughing, why is he coughing, we direct mindfulness to hearing itself. So this is in a way, still a change in focus, from the subject to the process, from the content to the mechanism.
In 念佛法門, Buddha-nama recitation school, when one’s mind wanders away, we basically redirect the mind back to the Buddha-nama recitation. Again, it is a redirection. In the Contemplation of Fouliness, the mind is directed away from sensual visible datum towards the foul aspects of the body, as a direct counter for sense desire. This is not just redirection, but redirection towards the opposite of the original object. Such redirection makes use of another characteristic of the mind: that the mind cannot be in opposite states simultaneously. If the mind is filled with love, it cannot hate; if filled with foul contemplation, lust cannot arise; filled with generosity, one cannot stinge; filled with wholesome, unwholesome thoughts naturally cease. Hence, the various Buddhist practice of metta-bhavana, foul contemplation, practice of dana and wholesome aspirations.
Mental Transformation & Direct Seeing
Another technique mentioned in the article that resounds with standard practices in Buddhism is to modify the perception or conditioning the kids have of the marshmallow or candy.
But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
In the Diamond Sutra, chapter 32, the Buddha said “一切有為法，如夢幻泡影，如露亦如電，應作如是觀” “All conditioned phenomena, is like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, an image (or shadow); like a dew and like a flash of lightning, thus should one reflect and observe”. The Buddhist technique is broader in ways of application and differs at the later stage. At the earlier stage, one may not have seen how that is possible, but may adopt the teachings as a new way (Mental Transformation) to look at things, thereby reducing attachment, whereas at the later more developed stage, one truly see (Direct Seeing) that all conditioned phenomena is indeed like a dream, an illusion etc, at which point attachment and craving naturally falls away.
Awareness of Mental Drift
The above list out various techniques that one can develop and use should one’s mind stray away. Prior to that, it is also important to develop mindfulness so that when the mind should stray or drift, we can know that it has, and not simply be swept along for the ride.
The names may differ, but the act of labelling or mental noting found in the Mahasi tradition, anapanasati (meditation) tradition, Zen meditation tradition or 念佛 Buddha-namanusati method all trains the mind to be aware of the present state. The object of focus and precise technique may differ, but they all lead to mindfulness of the present state of the mind. Through these techniques, when the mind wanders away, one is then able to more effectively ‘detect’ the wandering and then apply the appropriate mental counter-measures. Initially, one’s mind simply get sweep away by the torrents of mental proliferation, but slowly, the mental noting or awareness of this wandering becomes stronger and one’s attention and awareness builds up. It takes time and practice, but it does get better as one proceed.
Application to daily affairs
We often think about our family at work and about work when we are with our family. We know that it is not helpful in both cases, but we cannot help it.
Well, we can. Using the two techniques mentioned above, 1. Awareness of Mental Drift 2. Mental Redirection, we should train ourselves to be mindful of whatever we are doing at the present moment, the conversation we are having, the person we are talking to etc. When there is Mental Drift, we should be aware of it. We may note it quickly and redirect our mind towards our present activity. Do this often enough, and it becomes a mental habit to refocus, to redirect. Over time, we can become more attentive and “in the moment”, instead of “worrying about the future, or clinging onto the past.”
With this mindfulness, one can in time, observe and see directly, the common characteristics, anicca (Impermanence), dukkha (Suffering), anatta (No-self).
Learning to Wait
Instead of succumbing to our thoughts and emotions, we can live a more wholesome and meaningful life through the practice of Buddhism. We can slowly learn to master and manage our emotions instead of letting it run and ruin our life.
“We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ ”
Next time we desire something like the kid for the marshmallow, maybe we should say that to ourselves:
“You see this INSERT_YOUR_CRAVING? You don’t have to have it immediately. You can wait. Here’s how.”
Tried it before? Tell us how it work or not work for you.