A retreat I recently attended offered a great reminder that we are ultimately responsible for curating our own state of mind. Most of us are fortunate to posses the ability to select, organize, and look after the contents of mind we wish to attend to for the benefit of ourselves and others – however this takes much practice.
The word for mindfulness in the language of its original tradition means “to remember”. We all need reminders from time to time, as we can drift away from the fundamentals of our practice. Reality can be harsh and looking honestly in the mirror can be really tough. It makes sense that our human minds try to justify turning away from these harsh truths. But, if we minimize the more challenging aspects of practice, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. The skillful path tends to be the more difficult choice in the short term – though the long term rewards are great. Here I offer the distillation of what I learned from this retreat for your consideration.
Our state of mind is our personal responsibility and practice is key.
We humans have a tendency to disproportionately blame external factors for our dissatisfaction and frustration. Think about all the small daily losses we experience – the little disappointments and discouragements – even if its just the loss of the way we want things to be or our own unmet expectations. Think also of the little daily victories – when we receive praise or acknowledgement or when we get something we want. Do we lose our practice during these times? Does our mindfulness and equanimity fly out the window? If so, we probably need to intensify our practice, either through engaging in more practice or reaching out for some guidance to modify the practices (maybe in some cases, we also need to add some professional help into the mix to address some very entrenched underlying stuckness). Mindfulness is about being with whatever arises with balance and clarity. If we are only able to practice when circumstances are ideal, we will find ourselves knocked off balance each time life’s difficulties inevitably arise.
Our innate self-grasping is one of our greatest obstacles.
Human beings have a survival instinct and an attentional bias toward the different and the potentially dangerous. We gradually construct a separate sense of self that we instinctively place above all others. Bring to mind for a moment all the little ways in which we mindlessly put our own ego needs first – cherishing “I, me and mine” above all else. Even our own self-punishment and guilt is really only a distraction – a way of avoiding the hard internal work that is required for healing. Guilt and shame keep us stuck while giving us a false sense that we are responding appropriately to a situation in which we may have some culpability.
Selflessness does not have to be self-harming or self-downing. We can learn to recognize the common humanity in our mistakes – that we are not unique or all alone. When we redirect our thoughts and energies to others in a way that isn’t martyring, we tend to find greater happiness. We discover that over-focusing on ourselves creates a skewed lens that contributes to unhappiness. We also recognize that allowing unnecessary harm to come to us doesn’t serve others and may actually contribute to others suffering.
When we find ourselves stuck in selfishness or self-loathing, we can apply an antidote – for example, we can practice lovingkindness meditation. This helps us remember that we are not alone – that there are countless others who are also experiencing the same challenges we are facing. It also helps to keep in mind that there are many others suffering in the same way who do not practice mindfulness and are unaware of their struggles – send them wishes for happiness and wellbeing.
Another obstacle is our tendency to dwell in our strong emotions.
Strong emotions tend to make us lose our mindfulness. This isn’t to say that emotions are right or wrong or that they are without value. Rather, its better for us not to dwell or get stuck in them or to react out of them. Afflictive emotions (such as hatred, fear, jealousy, greed, pride, etc.) and compassion cannot co-exist for the object of attention. If you are experiencing extremes in emotions, you are likely out of balance.
When we act out of anger, we have lost our mindfulness. Anger leaves a residue that perpetuates the cycle of suffering. Many of us have the mistaken belief that we need anger in order to be strong, firm and set boundaries. But, fierceness can come from a place of love and compassion. Just because someone isn’t angry, it doesn’t mean they don’t care or that they are colluding with abusers – it doesn’t make them a doormat. Insisting or pressuring others to join us in our seemingly justified anger, blaming them for their lack of anger, is pure ego and not in the other’s best interest. How can you know what is in another’s heart? We can unite together in our experience of having been wronged and find empowerment in this unity without anger.
Another major obstacle is over-sensitivity.
Practicing mindfulness helps reduce our own hyper-reactivity to unpleasant stimuli. An ancient wisdom saying is, if the world is covered in thorns, our only real chance at eliminating our own suffering is to put on some thick soled shoes rather than futilely trying to avoid or eliminate all the thorns in our path. Our practice becomes our thick soles shoes. We are encouraged to question our sensitivities and strong preferences – what expectations are they coming from? Can we look in the mirror and see what might be a personal projection? This teaching is not meant to include abusive behavior from others or allowing ourselves to be harmed or oppressed. It is meant to address a constant state of underlying dissatisfaction and irritation that many of us tend to struggle with.
There is also some risk to impulsively and habitually indulging our desires and wishes, because strong personal preferences ultimately stand in the way of wisdom and compassion. In fact, a recent study by the Max Planck Institute demonstrated how our desires and preferences unconsciously influence our judgment. The reward system in our brains can cause us to ignore unpleasant information and disproportionately attend to favored information, clouding our conclusions. The researchers summarized it this way, “…when making important decisions, we should be aware of our tendency to distort judgement and apply strategies to increase objectivity.” Mindfulness can be one such strategy.
Who turns this into that?
Sound into noise?
Aroma into odor?
Taste into pleasure or disgust?
Who turns yes into no?
Grace into disgrace?
Who turns the present into the past?
Who turns the now into the not-now?
As-it-is into as-it-should-be?
Silence into restlessness?
Stillness into boredom?
The ordinary into the menial?
Who turns pain into suffering?
Change into loss?
Grief into woe?
Woe into the story of your life?
Who turns stuff into sentiment?
Desire into craving?
Acceptance into aversion?
Peace into war?
Us into them?
Who turns life into labor?
Time into toil?
Enough into not-enough?
Who turns why into why not?
Who turns delusion into enlightenment?
All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different direction.
-Karen Maezen Miller
Kuzmanovic, B, Rigoux, L., & Tittgemeyer, M. (2018). Influence of vmPFC on dmPFC Predicts Valence-Guided Belief Formation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 38 (37): 7996.