For the past few months, I have gone back to focusing on counting the breath during my meditation, which is a form of meditation I probably first learnt more than thirty years ago. For this practice, the focus is on the breath out, and to help with concentration, I count a slow, silent ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’ and so on during each outbreath, up to ten, and then start back at one again. It sounds pretty straight-forward, but can actually be surprisingly difficult to do, as my mind would much rather be busy planning or strategising or fantasising than simply being present with the breath.
It can be very grounding and reassuring to go back to basics, whether in meditation or in other parts of our lives. There is a sense of ensuring a strong foundation, on which we can then place the many often complex components of our lives, like the wooden beams and bricks of a well-built house. Ensuring a strong foundation is not nearly as exciting as choosing curtains or buying new furniture, but a house with unstable foundations can soon start to show the cracks. Sometimes, we can be tempted to look for complex or high-tech solutions, while neglecting the fundamentals such as nourishing food, exercise, sleep, and rest.
I often find myself unwittingly doing this – trying to devise intricate systems for managing my life when much of the time, what I need to be doing next is actually quite simple and straight-forward. Our lives are filled with countless tasks we dismiss as ‘chores’, but these chores are like our foundation. When they’re taken care of, there is hopefully still room for excitement, creativity, for the new and the stimulating. It’s about finding a balance which works for us – some people are quite content at home, whereas others love travel and excitement. It is terrible to be caught in a life of endless drudgery, but it can also be destabilising to be constantly in search of new excitement. When I was backpacking around India in my twenties, I sometimes met travellers who had been on the road for years. They often seemed a bit lost, as if they’d spent too long in the company of strangers, without the familiarity of a community and routine.
We’re often encouraged to search for external solutions – buy this, subscribe to that, go to this workshop to turn your life around. All these external resources can be helpful, but they can also become excessive, superfluous, an end in themselves. I recently heard the meditation teacher Ayya Santacitta talk about how we can ‘leak’ our energy through our thoughts and behaviours if they’re too uncontained. Going back to basics could be about reducing some of those leaks, developing a stronger container to be filled with essentials rather than living like a sieve which barely notices what passes through.
It is one of the aspects I used to enjoy about going camping – all your essentials could be carried in a backpack, and a single rubber band become a valuable commodity to be stored with care. Going back to basics is not about being simplistic, but it can help to ground us, and to nurture that which is most sustaining in our lives.
Think about an area in your life which is feeling overly complex. Is there an activity you could do to bring this area ‘back to basics’? Set aside some time to do this activity in a slow, mindful way, and notice yourself becoming more grounded and focused as you do this. What did you notice?
When Europeans first came to Australia and started painting the landscape, they used the colours they were familiar with from their training in Europe. We can look at these paintings now in art galleries, and although they are meant to depict Australian scenes, to our modern eye they don’t look Australian at all – the colours and even the shapes of the trees seem to come straight out of Europe.
Humans vary in the number of colours we can distinguish, but estimates range from 1 million to 100 million different colours. Artists are particularly highly trained to differentiate and reproduce a wide range of colours, but as the example above shows, not even an artist can necessarily ‘see’ true colours without the influence of their cultural upbringing.
It is an interesting exercise to look around and notice just how many different colours and shades of colours there are in our environment. Some of the questions we can ask ourselves as we explore colours might be:
How different do colours look in sunshine and in shade? In the morning, or at noon?
What do I notice when looking at man-made colours, or colours in nature?
Do I have different emotional responses to different colours?
How many different gradients of colours does a single flower have?
What colours do I enjoy wearing, and which ones do I feel uncomfortable in?
If I were to do a meditation breathing colour into my body, what colour would I choose today?
People often comment that colours seem brighter after a meditation retreat, and I have noticed this for myself as well. We can explore colours through painting, crafts, fashion or photography. Or we can sit in front of a painting, or in a park or at the beach, and allow ourselves to become absorbed in the different colours and notice the effect they have on us. There are psychological theories about the impact of various colours on our moods and our health which are interesting to learn about. However, we can also explore these as a mindfulness practice for ourselves – becoming more aware of the great richness of colours around us, and of their impact on us.
As the painter Wassily Kandinsky said once,
‘Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.’
‘The most precious thing we can give to another is our presence, which contributes to the collective energy of mindfulness and peace. We can sit for those who can’t sit, walk for those who can’t walk, and create peace and stillness within us for people who have no stillness or peace.’
Thich Nhat Hanh
If you enter a room full of meditators, it might seem as if each person is caught up in their own little bubble, watching their breath and their thoughts with little awareness of their surroundings. And while it is possible to meditate in this way, my experience of meditation retreats has been the opposite – that over the days, as you drop into stillness and become more attuned to what is happening for you, you are also becoming more attuned to the people you’re sharing the space with. And even though the retreat might be in silence, there can be a strong sense of community, of supporting each other in our practice, and working harmoniously together to make the retreat experience a meaningful one for everybody.
Of course, we don’t need to be at a retreat to cultivate this sense of connection to ourselves and others through meditation. While we are often interested in learning meditation for personal reasons, such as managing stress better or dealing with illness or other challenges, over time a meditation practice will also enable us to be more present to others in our lives. As human beings we’re highly social creatures, and we can immediately sense whether someone is really listening to us, or whether their mind is elsewhere. A particularly mortifying experience is talking to someone at a social gathering who is clearly looking out for a more interesting or important person to come along. As Maya Angelou expressed so eloquently:
‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
We don’t need to be calmly floating around all the time for people to have a sense of our presence. Whether we meditate or not, we will all have our good days, our distracted days, and our downright unpleasant days. Yet it is heartening to remember, as we make the commitment to meditate more regularly, that meditation can help to cultivate connections, to add to the collective energy of stillness in the midst of busy lives. It is a simple practice, but the ripple effect does extend out to our families and to others we interact with. We might be sitting in meditation on our own, but we’re doing it both for ourselves and for others.
Next time you meditate, think of the practice as an offering to others. In some traditions, meditators formally dedicate their meditations to benefit all other beings. Experiment with a few words of your own, and notice how this feels.
As this joke so cleverly illustrates, we have, by and large, become a rather impatient culture. Many of us do yearn for a sense of stillness among all the rushing around, some time for quiet reflection and rest, but we often want it now, quickly and easily, available to us whenever we need it, like flicking a switch on and off. Busy. Stillness. Busy. Stillness.
Yet the times which call on our patience, at a deep, psychological and even spiritual level, tend to come when we least expect them, and mostly not by invitation. Often these times occur at those crossroads in our lives where we move from one life stage to another. The teenager taking her place in the world of adults, the young carefree man who grows into the responsibilities of fatherhood, the woman whose children have left home and who is now maturing into a new sense of self. Other times might be an extended period of study, where we are developing towards a new career but are still unformed in our knowledge and competency. Pregnancy is a long wait towards the birth, and recovery from a serious illness or trauma can take months or years.
These are slow, deep processes of development, much of it happening below the level of our everyday consciousness, but all too often we want to transition straight from being a caterpillar into the butterfly, without the waiting time of the cocoon. Like the characters in ‘Waiting for Godot’, we’re waiting around with no guarantee that Godot will ever come. Shouldn’t we be going somewhere, doing something, ticking a few boxes on our endless lists of things to do and, while we’re at it, get the bucket list happening as well?
Waiting can seem disempowering, as if we’re a damsel in distress waiting for the prince to rescue us, rather than taking responsibility for our lives. It is certainly true that we can spend too much time in waiting, getting stuck at a point in our lives while opportunities pass us by. Yet there are certain processes which can’t be rushed. We sow some seeds in a pot and then wait weeks for the seedlings to emerge. We want to make some changes in our lives but need to be patient with the deeper processes of transformation.
While the act of growing seedlings can’t be rushed, we can provide optimal conditions for the plants to emerge and thrive. Similarly, in our own lives, we can endeavour to create opportunities for the waiting times to develop in their own natural rhythm, so they can bear fruit when the time is right. In the modern world we don’t always have a narrative which honours times of waiting, of being in the cocoon for a period of time.
For a while now I’ve been trying to teach myself to be more patient with the need to wait. One small example is when I’m in a hurry and find myself stuck behind someone slower (a slow car, an elderly person, a family with little children). Instead of getting impatient, I pause to silently thank them for slowing me down. It’s a small gesture, but it turns around for me that constant imperative to rush. As Milton said in his famous poem ‘When I consider how my light is spent’:
‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’
What are some of the waiting times in your life? Can you slow down a little, for example through meditation, and find a way of consciously valuing these times?
‘Everywhere I looked, hope existed – but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (…) Hope, I began to realise, was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life.’ Sr Joan Chittister
Hope as a quality is ephemeral, and at the same time it can profoundly impact how we experience our lives. To have lost all hope means to be in the pit of despair. On the other hand, what does it mean to have hope? We can have all the hope in the world that everything will turn out okay, yet we know this is not how life works. Things go wrong all the time, and none of us are immune from accidents, illness or other calamities.
Zen teacher and writer Joan Halifax talks about ‘wise hope’, by which she means finding value in our efforts to make the world a better place, even as we understand there is no guarantee what we’re working towards will succeed. She was writing in the context of her work with the dying, in prisons, and for social justice causes. All of these require her to remain engaged and give a lot of herself, yet may show little in the way of ‘outcomes’. The opposite of ‘wise hope’ may not be despair but apathy, a pervasive sense of ‘why bother?’ The problems are so numerous and overwhelming, what difference can one person really make?
Whenever doctors need to give a prognosis, they are navigating this difficult terrain between hope and disempowerment. It would be unethical for a doctor to tell a patient ‘don’t worry, you will be just fine’ when the patient probably has only a few months to live. On the other hand, a doctor’s words can be very powerful, and they need to somehow convey the reality of the situation without inadvertently taking away the patient’s will to live. A prognosis is only a statistical average, not a foolproof prediction, but can potentially be internalised by the patient as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether we have hope or feel resigned will profoundly influence our life, but we cannot have hope at the expense of denying reality either. If, as Sr Joan Chittister said, hope is a ‘gift of life’, then what are the conditions which can allow the ‘green shoot’ of hope to flourish in the midst of our sometimes difficult reality?
When life is very tough, we can become vulnerable to the pedlars of false hope who promise us miracle cures or ever-lasting salvation or immunity from suffering. We long for a way to control life rather than being swept up in its vagaries. Yet this doesn’t mean we should just be resigned either, or never look outside conventional understandings for innovative solutions.
Some of the core attributes of mindfulness, such as acceptance, beginner’s mind, non-judgement and trust, can be helpful qualities to explore in relation to hope. Hope can be complex, nuanced, and difficult to describe. It’s not something we can obtain and then possess, we may not even be able to describe what hope feels like, but we do feel its absence keenly. One of my favourite quotes about hope comes from Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident, written during the Russian occupation of his country:
‘I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty, that all ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.’
Set aside some time, such as ten or twenty minutes, and either through journaling or during meditation, keep asking yourself the question – ‘for me, hope means…’ What emerges for you as you keep sitting with this question? Does anything unexpected arise for you?
‘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.