‘We must look at our life without sentimentality, exaggeration or idealism. Does what we are choosing reflect what we most deeply value?’ Jack Kornfield
It might sound straight-forward – to look at our life simply as it is, without embellishment or idealism. Yet when we take time to pause and reflect, we may notice that what we perceive is very much coloured by our notions of how our life should be. There is a constant dance between ‘life how it is’ and ‘life how we’d like it to be’, and if we rush through our days without much awareness, we can find ourselves caught up in stories and fantasies which are mainly in our minds, and not always connected to the reality around us. As Mark Twain expressed it so eloquently:
‘I’ve experienced some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’
This increased awareness of ‘life as it is’ does not need to be cold and harsh – in mindfulness there is also an emphasis on developing friendliness towards ourselves and our experiences. Yet it does help to be clear about what is actually going on, if we want to make choices which are informed by our values. And this can mean also being clear about the areas in our life where we struggle, which don’t come easily to us.
Sometimes, our apparent weaknesses can actually be a strength in a different context. For example, someone might be very sensitive to noise, and find it difficult to concentrate in a busy environment such as an open plan office. Yet this same sensitivity might mean this person is particularly attuned to others, and can work with people or animals in a way which is very intuitive and kind. Our psychological profile might make us unsuited for some jobs, but excel at others. Sometimes people with a disability can struggle to find work, yet when their strengths are matched with a suitable environment, employers often find they’re some of their best staff.
When we find ourselves confronted by something which challenges us, we can take a few moments to explore it in a way which opens up new possibilities rather than shutting everything down. It requires courage to stay with life as it presents itself in each moment, instead of distracting ourselves or trying to change it into something else by investing it with additional meaning. Yet by deciding to stay present in this way, we are more able to choose a way of life which aligns with our values, and this can offer us a greater sense of peace and stability among the various pressures of life.
Take ten or more minutes to sit in silence somewhere, either in a formal meditation posture or else comfortably in a quiet place, and ground yourself by noticing your breath and the sensations in your body. After a few minutes, ask yourself the question – ‘what is really happening right now?’, and notice what arises. During the day, pause from time to time to ask yourself the same question. You may like to write down any insights which develop from this practice over time.
‘Zazen (sitting meditation) is in and of itself the alternative to our usual state of grasping, clinging, and goal-orientated life in general. By sitting down, we have arrived.’ Barry Magid
When I was a child, I was very keen to learn the piano. So keen, in fact, that I practised on a keyboard which had been painted onto a piece of cardboard, until eventually I inherited the piano of a great aunt who had passed away. There are studies to show that children who learn a musical instrument tend to do better at other subjects such as maths and English. Naturally I didn’t know about those studies when I was a child, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I was learning the piano because I loved playing the piano, not as a means to an end to get better marks at school.
There are now thousands of studies into the positive effects of mindfulness meditation, and the research has been useful in bringing meditation into mainstream settings, allowing many more people to benefit from the practice. Yet at the same time, when seen in this way, meditation can become a utilitarian means to an end, rather than simply a way of being we choose to engage in.
In one way, of course, it’s perfectly natural to wish for an improvement if we dedicate ourselves to a practice which requires commitment and a certain amount of discipline. Why else would we choose to get up early in the morning to set aside some regular time for our meditation?
On the other hand, at a more subtle level, practising meditation in order to achieve a certain outcome is what Zen teacher Barry Magid describes as the ‘are we there yet?’ state of mind, where a part of us is constantly asking, like a whiny two-year old in the back seat of a car, ‘are we there yet?’ And, when noticing that we’re not quite ‘there’ yet, wherever this place called ‘there’ might be, we’re left somewhat dissatisfied with our experience.
It can no doubt be helpful to notice the positive effects which a regular meditation practice may have in our lives. Yet, especially if our practice becomes long-term, it might perhaps be even more helpful to simply enjoy meditation as a time out from our self-improvement projects and striving to achieve our goals. Instead, we can simply be present, moment by moment, here in this emotional and physical body which is living and sensing and breathing, in constant relationship with the surrounding environment.
Set five minutes aside to simply be. Not to relax or do something beneficial for your wellbeing or try to gain some of the benefits of meditation. Just being for a few minutes – and noticing how this feels.
The story told about the Buddha’s life is that he grew up indulged and sheltered as the son of an Indian ruler, living a life of luxury and ease. His father didn’t want him to be exposed to some of the harsher realities of life such as sickness and death, and it wasn’t until Siddhartha left the palace gardens as a young man that he encountered someone who was sick, someone old and near death, a poor person, and a monk. Having never been faced with the realities of life before, these meetings left a deep impression on him, and he decided to leave his old life behind, including his wife and young son, and become a spiritual seeker. He joined a group of ascetics living in the forest, but after a number of years of harsh practices such as extreme fasting which brought him close to death, he felt no nearer to understanding the causes of suffering.
After his insight experience under the Bodhi tree, he spent the rest of his life teaching what he called ‘the middle way’ – a life of balance between the extremes of indulgence and deprivation. He taught that our bodies are precious vehicles which we should appreciate and take good care of. On the other hand, in Buddhist psychology, the root of our suffering is our tendency towards greed, aversion, and ignorance, and we need to be aware of our impulses which are always wanting more of what we like, and avoiding that which is unpleasant to us.
The middle way is like a perfectly tuned violin string – not so taut that it produces a shrill sound, but also not too lose so it can’t be played on. We can easily hear whether a violin is in tune or not. It’s more difficult to be attuned to our lives, and where we stand in regards to the middle way. There is always someone more indulgent or more disciplined than us, so it’s difficult compare ourselves to others. There are no rules as such – the lifestyle of a monastic living in the forest will be very different to that of a working parent with five young children. And while the middle way would avoid extreme lifestyles, it is also a state of mind. Someone might be living a moderate life which comes across as harmonious and balanced on the outside, but actually be quite harsh in their thinking, constantly striving to get it ‘right’, and never at ease. Whereas the life of another person, say the busy working parent, might appear chaotic and hyper-stimulated, but somehow at the end of the day everyone’s needs in the family are met, and there is a sense of contentment underneath all the turmoil.
I find the middle way a very helpful concept when I try to balance my life between becoming complacent, and constantly striving to achieve. I like to think of it as a reasonably wide road, which gives me some leeway to move in either direction without immediately falling into a ditch. If we’re too anxious about ‘getting it right’ all the time, the middle way can feel like a narrow mountain track in the mist where the smallest misstep will have us sliding down the slope. On the other hand, the middle way does have some limits – it’s not a carte blanche to do exactly as we like.
We usually have a sense of when we’ve strayed too far from the middle – and meditation or prayer or a quiet time of reflection can help us to tune into that sense of unease, and become clearer about what feels right to us. It’s like driving a car, where we are constantly making small adjustments, but know immediately when we’ve strayed onto the verge. Once this happens, we have a choice to carefully pull back onto the road, or blithely set off cross-country in the car and hope for the best. The middle way is knowing what the road looks like in our life, and making the small adjustments needed to stay on the path and not wander too far off track into the metaphorical swamp.
Mindful practice idea:
Think of one area in your life where you might have a tendency to over-indulge, or else deprive yourself unduly. What would the ‘middle way’ look like here? Set the intention to bring the idea of the middle way into this part of your life, and take note of how it feels.
When I think of people who seem to embody mindfulness, something they share in common is the quality of graciousness. There is a sense of fluidity and grace to how they engage with the world – they’re not barging through the day lost in self-centred pre-occupations. They allow space for people around them and don’t use up all the oxygen in the room. At the same time, they interact with a sense of presence, not hiding behind false modesty.
Graciousness could be described as ‘good manners with a heart’ – there is a sense of courtesy, but also warmth and care. One of the many meanings of mindfulness, of course, is to be ‘mindful’ of someone else’s needs, to treat them with respect and consideration. What comes through is an attitude of caring both for others and also oneself.
We get a sense of someone’s character when they are gracious under pressure, such as a sportsperson who is gracious in defeat, or someone who has been on hold for forty minutes and still manages to be reasonably polite to the person on the other end of the phone. Many a first date has probably been ruined when something went wrong with the meal and the dinner companion was rude to the waiter. It is challenging to be gracious when we’re exhausted, hungry or very stressed. Yet some people seem to manage it, and we can all be grateful for them when life gets chaotic.
To graciously acknowledge a mistake and make amends; to concede someone else is right and you were wrong; to look out for another passenger after the plane has been sitting on the tarmac for seven hours without moving – all these small moments have a ripple effect into wider society. None of us gets it perfect all the time, and even the Dalai Lama admits to being grumpy occasionally. To me, it feels more like an underlying mindset than a particular formula for how to behave in given situations.
At a deeper level, graciousness can be about how we approach life – whether with a sense of grace and flow, or else with the mentality that life is a battle we have to power our way through. There may be times for standing one’s ground and not yielding – but most of the time, an attitude of openness and goodwill is likely to be more productive, and allows a greater sense of possibility for ourselves and for those we interact with.
Mindfulness practice idea:
It is difficult to feel gracious when we’re rushing around. Take a moment to slow down and notice someone who is being gracious – perhaps giving up their seat on the train, offering a friendly smile in the shops, or showing a willingness to gracefully compromise for the greater good. Notice the sense of expansiveness in that interaction, and how it feels in your body.
‘The first thing that arises when we open up to each other is a great sigh of relief. We realise that we’re not the only one who feels bewildered.’
Australia is currently heading towards an election campaign, and the media is full of politicians who are trying to sound convinced that they are the only ones who have all the answers to the complex problems affecting this country. Of course, no one person can be an expert on everything or have the solution to all our challenges, but to express uncertainty on any issue would be considered political suicide. We may cringe when we hear politicians sound like a ‘know-it-all’ as a result, but in our own lives, how comfortable do we feel with uncertainty? It’s not usually a pleasant space to spend much time in. Yet as the social psychologist Erich Fromm has written:
‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.’
Uncertainty can open us to curiosity and wonderment. It is always refreshing when a teacher or presenter is asked a question they don’t know the answer to, and instead of becoming defensive, their face opens up in delight as they exclaim,
‘Now, that is a really interesting question!’
When we approach uncertainty as an opportunity for further exploration, it becomes a place of creative possibility. A songwriter doesn’t know what the song will sound like before she starts writing, just as the artist is faced with a blank canvas. Creativity can be just as much stilted by great success as by miserable failure, when the desire to reproduce the success means the artist is no longer willing to delve into the unknown.
Some uncertainties are very difficult to bear – when we’re waiting for the results of an important medical test, or are no longer sure if our partner wants to be with us, or have lost contact with a family member. Uncertainty like this can cause a lot of suffering, and we can’t just offer glib assurances to someone in these situations.
Yet even our more ordinary everyday life is filled with uncertainty – we never know what the next moment will bring. We can respond by becoming paralysed with anxiety, or else being rigid and exuding an air of being overly confident. As Yeats wrote in his famous poem ‘The Second Coming’:
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
Somewhere in the middle between those two extremes there is an opportunity of acting with agency and confidence, while at the same time being open to having our viewpoint and solutions challenged by new learnings. In mindfulness meditation, we often develop a greater sense of trust in ourselves, in acting from our values and inner knowing. Yet most meditation, by its nature, tends to also take us to places of uncertainty for what can seem like a very long time. This can be frustrating, but also liberating.
The voice of uncertainty is more quiet than the booming sound of pompous conviction. What it lacks in charisma, however, it more than makes up for in authenticity.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes with the intention of deliberately sitting in uncertainty. Perhaps there is a topical issue you can’t make up your mind on, or there is an area of uncertainty looming in your current life. For the set period of time, try not to come up with any solution. Notice how it feels in your body, as well as emotionally and mentally, to simply sit with this uncertainty.
‘Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
We all know how galling it is when we’re going through a difficult time, and someone exclaims to us in a bright voice, ‘come on, smile, it’s not that bad!’ It’s not likely to cheer us up – if anything, it can make us feel even grumpier!
On the other hand, we can sometimes hold on to a mood for longer than we need to, through our body posture, the expression on our face, our ruminative thoughts, and behaviours which aren’t going to help us feel any better.
For example, we might have had an upsetting phone call, and for the next few hours we walk around with an annoyed frown on our face, with our shoulders tense, our breathing fast and shallow, and our thoughts caught up in replaying the conversation and what we should have said and will say next time and so on. These are all natural responses, and it makes sense to try and process what has just occurred, and to plan our next steps.
However, it’s easy to become stuck in this way of being. We might feel exhausted after a day of this and so we spend five hours in the evening watching some shows on TV we’re not even enjoying, and eating too much and becoming annoyed with ourselves and the TV shows and life in general. We sleep badly and wake up with a stiff neck and feel even more badly done by. In the meantime, all kinds of potentially pleasant interactions and experiences might be around us, but we’re not available to them. Our disgruntled mood becomes a habit rather than a short-term response, closing us off from the possibility of moving beyond the annoying phone call and embracing what life has to offer us right now.
In her wonderful book ‘Smile or die – how positive thinking fooled America and the world’, Barbara Ehrenreich describes the dark side of a relentless focus on being positive. She gives the example of a worker who has been laid off, and when he doesn’t find a new job immediately, he is blamed for not being positive enough – as if a positive attitude alone were enough to conjure up a job in a depressed employment market which no longer values his skills and training. The smile Thich Nhat Hanh talks about is very different to this – it’s not a smile which ignores the reality of our current situation and our struggles, or pretends that through the power of our mind we have complete control over our lives and can be happy all the time.
Rather, Thich Nhat Hanh’s smile gives us choices about how we engage with each moment. Sometimes, the simple act of lifting up our head, relaxing the shoulders back and smiling can help us to feel better, to be more hopeful. It also opens us up to positive interactions with other people. Like the children’s song says so beautifully,
‘When someone smiles at me, I feel like smiling too.’
Mindfulness practice idea:
For the next week, try to deliberately smile at least once a day – taking the opportunity to pause for a moment, take a breath, and gently smile. What do you notice in your body, and in your mind?