It’s easy to sometimes regard the practice of mindfulness and/or meditation as being some kind of magical elixir (especially by new practitioners), as though we could (and should) use them to cure us of our woes and ailments – that somehow if we are mindful enough and meditate enough, we’ll be able to fix whatever it is we feel needs fixing. But, the truth is, sometimes, things are just hard. Having a mindfulness practice and sitting in meditation can strengthen our ability to stay present, balanced, and well-grounded in our own experience of whatever is unfolding – which can be invaluably beneficial – but, in the end, neither mindfulness or meditation can alleviate the causes and conditions of struggle, pain, sorrow, and so on. Our relationship with life can change, but life itself will always entail a certain degree of suffering, difficulty, challenge, and heartache.
What I’m trying to highlight here, is that it’s important not to use the practices of mindfulness and meditation to form some kind of emotional smoke-screen to hide or otherwise distort the simple and very real truth that sometimes life is just hard. And, in my experience, there is a strange and great relief in coming to this understanding. There is a powerful release in being able to simply state, with clear intent, that things are just hard sometimes – without trying to explain further or apologize or rationalize or sugar-coat something for someone else’s perceived benefit. Sometimes, things are just hard. End of sentence.
I recently watched a TED talk given by Susan Kaiser Greenland on the ABC’s of Attention, Balance, and Compassion. In her talk she stated that mindfulness isn’t about changing or fixing, it’s about understanding and being aware. And on one of her slides, it stated: Wisdom comes not from being perfect but from being present. I think we can get carried away and swept up in the false notion of perfection when it comes to a lot of things. But perfection is a relative construct – and I would go so far as to call it a farce.
Spurred by the feature article in the current May 2017 edition of Lion’s Roar magazine, entitled How to Meditate Like the Buddha, which highlights eleven leading Buddhist teachers answers to common questions, I thought I would try my hand at answering one of the questions that were posed. Here goes:
Q: Will Meditating Change My Life?
A: (in my own words)
Yes. And no. (Classic Zen response, right?)
In the sense that meditation has the capacity to open new mental pathways, expand our perspective, and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, yes, meditation has the very real potential to change our lives in a variety of beneficial ways. To be clear, though, it will only change our lives to the degree in which we actively, diligently, and appropriately practice it.
However, meditation will not change anything in the Being Human department. We will continue to interface with everything related to our human manifestation, regardless of how much cushion time we log: aging, illness, death, sorrow, loss, anger, standing in line FOREVER at the grocery store, tax season, paying bills, challenging co-workers, world politics, and so on.
While the physical happenings around us won’t change, what CAN change is our relationship to them – our inner experience and attitude, the way in which we interact mentally and emotionally with those physical happenings. Developing a meditation practice allows us to create spaciousness, stillness, and quietude in the otherwise extremely full, cluttered, and chaotic atmosphere of our mind’s landscape. And from this creation of space, we have the opportunity to respond with more ease, understanding, and compassion in our everyday lives – which changes everything.
Just recently, my husband, teenage stepson and I traveled to see my mom and stepdad in southern Arizona over spring break. Here’s a Facebook post I crafted the day after we were set to fly out of Missoula:
Have you ever gone to the airport only to discover that your home-printed boarding passes don’t scan at the security check-point and when you go the ticket counter to have them re-printed get told that your plane has been delayed two hours, so you decide to wait rather than have the same friend who just dropped you off come back to get you, only to find that a two hour delay really means 3 1/2, and when your plane finally does come in it turns out that it was making some weird noises on the way there and has to be checked out by a mechanic who will take about an hour to drive in from town to look it over, who determines the craft is unfit for air travel and will require a second specialized mechanic who they’ll have to fly in (hopefully on a more sound jet) so your flight, which was supposed to leave at 8:00pm, gets cancelled after waiting in the airport for 5 hours? Yeah, me neither.
I had written this post as a funny commentary, but instead people clicked the tearful-faced icon under the “like” options, indicating that they were saddened on our behalf. Then, when we finally arrived in Arizona, some of my mom’s friends that we met, who had heard tale of our flight ordeal, also seemed to be mildly upset on our behalf. But the thing of it was: we weren’t negatively phased by it at all! It was other people who were bothered by our flight delay and cancellation, not us. This got me to thinking about the importance of monitoring our physical reactions to external situations that arise. It’s very easy to put our own thoughts and feelings onto other people by way of how we react when hearing certain information or news being shared. And what we don’t often realize is that our reactions can fuel unskillful results.
Katie: Gosh, I’ve had a hard day. I got a flat tire on my way to work and then I was reprimanded for something that wasn’t even my fault – and then when I got home my new puppy had made a mess of the kitchen.
Julie: Oh, that’s awful! You poor thing! What terrible news! I’m sooo sorry to hear that!
Katie: Yeah, it was a pretty bad day. I can’t wait to put it out of its misery!
There’s a common tendency, from Julie’s reaction, to not only have unskillfully validated but exacerbated Katie’s hard day, in a negative fashion. While Katie may have simply wanted to share about her hard day with a close friend, Julie’s heightened, dramatic reaction may lead to Katie feeling even worse after their interaction – as a sort of woe-is-me situation gets fostered.
I’ve been thinking about the subject of priorities lately. About how everything comes down to what we prioritize in our lives – what we choose to invest our time into. But it’s the “choice factor” that trips people up most often. Speaking in a collective fashion, we tend to engage with the world around us as though we were victims. Victims of our harried schedule, our work, our circumstances, our upbringing, our causes and conditions. What we have trouble seeing and understanding is that victim-hood is a state of thinking, not a state of BEING.
The possibility exists for us to live our lives un-dramatized, un-apologetically, and un-fettered. The possibility exists for us to step fully into the life we’ve created for our self and embrace it as the series of choices it really is. The so-called burdens that we face are commonly the manifestations of where we place our thoughts and our motivations regarding the actions that ensue.
OK – this might be a difficult topic to put into words but I’m going to give it a try. Over the last 2-3 years I’ve been diligently working on cultivating seeds of joy and strengthening it in my daily life. In doing so I’ve had the opportunity to look deeply into many habit energies that were keeping me from developing a positive attitude and experiencing joy. One of these habit energies that I delved into was how I responded to things like praise or appreciation. I realized I had a tendency of doing things in order to be seen, recognized, and validated (something that wasn’t pleasant to find out about myself). Self-consciousness and low self-esteem often manifests itself in the need for perpetual outside validation. It can also manifest in the need to continue to tell people of the burden or trials and tribulations that went into a certain action or experience, which is usually done in a passive, indirect way.
For example, let’s say someone puts together a great party. They invite all their friends and everyone has a great time. Afterwards one of the host’s friends comments on what a great party it was and thanks them for the invite. The host then says something like: Well, I’m glad you had a good time, it was fun, but man, it sure was a lot of work. The host then continues on to tell the friend about how the oven quit working right before the party and the dog threw up on the carpet before everyone arrived and a bunch of glasses got broken in the dish washer which caused them to run to the store for plastic cups so that there would be enough containers for everyone to drink out of. On a very subconscious level the host wants that friend to know how much they went through to pull off the party, they want sympathy, and acknowledgment for how much work they did. An alternate response to that friend’s simple, “Thanks for the great party,” would be to say, “My pleasure!”