Peace on Earth

The Australian, December 5, 2004

Karma, zen, enlightenment... they're for other people, right? Actually, says Sarah Marinos, all you have to do is think like a Buddhist. No guru necessary.
Sydney, Australia
-- His agent talked about Hollywood, movie scripts and turning him into one of the world's biggest thriller writers. In late 2001, David Michie's career was about to go into orbit.

But six months later, the deals and dreams were in tatters - Michie's new thriller was rejected by his agent. "The plug had been pulled," says Michie, who lives in Perth. "My instant reaction was to feel bitter and betrayed."

But the bitterness and bad feeling didn't last long. For the past 10 years Michie has been a Buddhist. He says this gave him the strength to accept the loss of the millionaire mansion and cocktail lifestyle.

"When I've had major knock-backs - like the book deal falling apart - I no longer take things to heart," says Michie. "I have an inner reservoir of calm. I still get angry sometimes, but not to the same degree. I used to feel road rage. Now I can't understand it."

Michie discovered Buddhism when he was working in London as a public relations consultant and writer. He was exhausted and developed an allergic rash. His GP prescribed antihistamine tablets, and a friend suggested Buddhism. The former suggestion helped solve his immediate problem, but it's the latter that helped him deal with big problems.

To help others discover their "inner reservoir of calm", Michie wrote Buddhism For Busy People.

"These days people are more self-focused," he says. "We've got this belief that happiness is achieved by money and status. We run around rearranging the external things - but it's a delusion."

Michie says the breakneck speed of modern living means we're always focused on the next buck or chore. "We don't enjoy the here and now because in our mind we are already somewhere else."

The mad monkey mind You're driving home and your mobile is ringing. You have to pick up dinner and your dry cleaning and you've got an assignment to finish by tomorrow. Welcome to the mad monkey mind.

"Our pace of life has increased so much," says Michie, "that even kids are bombarded with stimuli like computer games, television and mobile phones. You need to give yourself five minutes off each day to calm down."

It's easy to do. Find a bench in your lunch hour - or you can sit at your desk - and blank out. Count your breaths and focus on the sensation of breath entering and leaving your body. Focus on the tip of your nose and think about the flow of air.

"It's like meditation and you can do it anywhere and at any time," says Michie. "Usually when we pay attention to our breathing it naturally slows, triggering a chain of physiological events which result in us becoming more relaxed."

Learn to let go
We go through life confident we are in control. This is all wrong, says Michie. "We live in a bubble and think the way things are is the way they will always be. Even if we get things the way we want them to be, inevitably something will come along to upset our plans. We have to learn to live with change and be happy."

One of the most meaningful symbols of Buddhism is the lotus, a flower that grows in swamps. While its roots are in muck, the flower is extraordinarily beautiful. This, says Michie, is a sign we can all cope with difficulty and blossom. "The lotus transcends filth and it's the same for people. Only through experiencing unhappiness do we develop the strength to find happiness again."

Turn on, tune out
Being fully conscious of the thoughts inside your head can help you filter out negative messages. If you feel overwhelmed and stressed, stop and analyse what you are thinking about, and whether it's necessary.

"Ambush yourself and say, 'What am I thinking?'" suggests Michie. "We spend so much of our day swamped with mental chatter. We have to spend some time planning ahead but often our mind jumps around what has already happened, what we wan to happen and what didn't happen. Often these thoughts serve no purpose and undermine our happiness."

So throughout the day remind yourself to stop and think about what is running through your mind. By being mindful you'll spend less time fretting over trivial things and you'll have more time to enjoy what is happening in your life right now.

Create your own happiness
According to Buddhism, karma is not some invisible finger in the sky that suddenly decides you'll have a car accident - or you'll meet Mr or Ms Right. Our karma constantly changes and we can control it. How we behave, how we feel, how we treat people our motivation for what we do in life creates our karma.

"We have the choice to create our future happiness or unhappiness, moment by moment. Things happen to us because we have created the causes for them to happen," says Michie.

Here's how to begin creating some good karma to ensure future happiness. See that car waiting to pull into the traffic in front of you? Let it in. Give up your seat on the bus for that pregnant woman. And do it all with the intention of making someone else's life easier.

Buddhists call it bodhichitta, or compassion.
"If you want to be happy it's more effective to focus on making other people happy," says Michie.

Time is ticking
It may sound morbid, but only by remembering our death do we appreciate the preciousness of today. "We wish our lives away," says Michie. "On Tuesday we wish it was Friday and we live on autopilot for the weekend. We all go around thinking we are going to live forever and we deprive ourselves of the joy of everyday life because we automatically think we're going to live another 40 or 50 years. Why should we assume that? Instead we should think 'If today is the last day of my life, how would I spend it?'"
So begin each morning imagining this is the last day of your life - make the most of the moment, don't end conversations badly or leave important things unsaid.

Practise patience
Patience is a sanity saver, and according to Buddhists, the antidote to anger. So try practising some, improve your communication skills and you'll probably have fewer arguments and far less stress.

"Most of the unhappiness that exists between people is because we see them as different to ourselves," says Michie. "We pigeonhole them. So try thinking about the other person, think about what you are doing and saying and the implications that has for other people."

You've had your mental habits for years - don't expect to change them overnight. You wouldn't go to the gym for the first time in your life and expect to immediately have a body like Robbie Williams or Halle Berry. It takes practice.

"Gradually integrate techniques into your everyday life and slowly you'll see improvements and changes," says Michie. "As you develop that inner reservoir of calm you'll never go back to that mad monkey mind."


Buddhism For Busy People by David Michie, Allen & Unwin, $24.95.
The Sunday Telegraph