The practice of mindfulness is not about changing life’s ups and downs. It’s about transforming our relationship to those ups and downs in a way that brings about peace, joy, and solidity. This practice is not about diverting the flow of the river of life to avoid obstacles and hardships – it is about learning how to navigate the waters in order to embrace and smoothen out the challenges that arise.
Life consists of suffering. To ignore this, to pretend otherwise, is to bask in the artificial solace of illusion and ignorance. And we must also equally keep in mind that life consists of joy, beauty, love, and goodwill. To ignore this, to pretend otherwise, is also to bask in the artificial solace of illusion and ignorance. Just as the day and night cannot exist without the other suffering and joy are woven together, inseparable.
In order to cultivate balance and stay grounded we need to have a deep understanding of how life is made up of both kinds of elements: suffering elements and joyful elements. If we only turn towards suffering (which is most often the case with many of us), dwelling in negativity and commonly finding fault in ourselves, others, and our surroundings we may find that we are consumed with stress, anger, fear, worry, or sadness, and become overwhelmed easily. If we only turn towards joy we may find ourselves denying or bottling up our real emotions and masquerading around as though we were acting a part in a movie.
We need equal amounts of both suffering and joy in order to cultivate a harmonious balance in our lives. And it’s important to understand that our balance will look differently from someone else’s balance. What causes us to suffer and what brings us joy will not necessarily be the same things for someone else. We are, each of us, the same and yet not the same.
How do we know when we aren’t in balance? Tuning into our bodies will give us a direct line of communication to how we’re fairing on the inside. Our minds and bodies are very much connected. When our minds are ill at ease so too will our bodies speak up with discontent. So we first start with the simple practice of body awareness. Throughout the day we tune into our bodies and take notice. What is my posture like? How many times have I smiled today? Am I rushing around? Is there tension in my body? How well am I sleeping? How well am I eating? These types of questions, if asked, will tell us a lot about our state of being. Our bodies have much to say and we need to train ourselves in the art of listening to them. If we are emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually out of balance chances are our eating and sleeping habits are being effected negatively and most definitely our bodies are holding tension somewhere. Throughout the day practice pausing for a moment or two and then investigate how your body is feeling. Our body is a great communicator and can let us know whether we are feeling grounded, at ease, and joyful or full of stress, worry, and upset. If our mind is not joyful our body will not be joyful.
In the fall of 2002 I founded the Be Here Now Sangha (spiritual community) and over the last 10 years that I have facilitated the group I have heard many common threads in our sharing circles each week. And one of them has to do with the notion of suffering and happiness. Only, the element of happiness is sorely diminished and greatly lacking. People, it seems, in general are afraid more of what will happen if they become fake and un-authentic in their dealings with their emotions and experiences by pretending to be happy when they aren’t as opposed to being afraid of what will happen if they continue down the dark road called: Misery Loves Company. I once heard a great dharma teacher say, “We all know full well how to suffer, we have that one down. What we don’t know how to do is cultivate joy.” And it’s true!
Many of us are more content to suffer then we are to turn towards joy. We have practiced for many many years this habit energy of suffering, the seed is very strong in us. And we have not been practicing to be joyful enough of the time, so this seed is quite small or may be even non-existent within us. We then become out of balance. What gets watered is what grows. What we practice gets stronger. Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) is fond of saying, “We are always practicing something,” and it’s true!
For most of us we have a great and important need to strengthen the seed of joy within us. And that internal voice that tells us there is danger in pretending to be happy when indeed we aren’t happy is, in a way, a deceptive one. While we must be careful not to fall into an act of disingenuous interactions with life we must be more careful not to follow voices that lead us down unproductive, unhealthy, and unwholesome paths that prolong or exaggerate our suffering. We have a great tendency to prolong our suffering. To weave wild stories of misperception which turns a little frog that scurried across our way into an enormous fire breathing deadly dragon with venomous talons and three heads. Things are as we make them to be and we are usually wrong in our perceptions.