Mindfulness practice is a very gradual courtship with ourselves. Eventually, we hope to fully embrace the depth of our human heart and mind, which is very deep. The practice is to gently pull away the tinted glasses of cynicism and doubt that we have been looking through, and see exactly what is there. And if suffering is what’s there, that’s what we actually have to work with.
Many of us may feel locked up within ourselves and very lonely sometimes. We try to find companionship in all kinds of ways, but fundamentally, nothing really works for very long. We also may sense that we could be doing much more meaningful work if the energy that we expend on our obsessions and struggles became freed-up and available. If we could just relax and open up enough to be observant, we would see the world clearly and know how to care for it without hesitations. Nothing would hold us back. Our creativity and passion to bring benefit would be released.
There is a fundamental diversity within us. It’s likely we have many voices within us: We have the voices of our parents, teachers, uncles and aunts, and the many other adults who have helped to raise us, teach us and train us. There are also the voices of our brothers and sisters, friends, enemies, peers, and children. Perhaps, we keep looking for the voice, the right voice, “my real voice.”
When we practice mindfulness, we can see for ourselves that there is no one right or wrong voice. We each are a composite of many people, many influences, some recognizable and some forgotten or unknown. We can appreciate all of those facets within ourselves, all of the thoughts, all of the memories, all the voices that compete to give us advise, to warn us or comfort us. But who we are, fundamentally, is not any one voice, narrative or narrow perspective. Who we are is more basic, more grounded, more genuine and vast than purely the flickering of our wandering thoughts loosely strung together.
Awareness is a non-conceptual thing. Real awareness, real appreciation is not a story- line, an attempt to convince ourselves of something, struggling to believe with all our might. The moment we try to convince ourselves, we have already turned away from basic goodness, from accessing our inherent wisdom and confidence. It becomes a matter of salesmanship, trying to sell ourselves something. Fundamentally, we have to let go of the struggle and just cheer up, anyway. We relax and let go of thinking and tune into what is actually going on around us.
When in doubt, be gentle. That does not mean being nice, particularly. It means actually feeling what we feel and then relaxing, even if what we are feeling is not comfortable or pleasurable.
Mindfulness as masochism
It is not unusual for people who are learning this practice to use it as another way to beat themselves up. We can, if we wish, use any excuse to find fault with ourselves. A typical internal dialogue for this kind of behaviour might be, “I should have been mindful but I wasn’t. I really blew it. No matter how hard I try, I screw up. I can’t even follow more than two out-breaths before I lose track. It’s hopeless. Who is fooling who here? I’ll never be able to meditate. It’s time I faced facts.” Or, “Other people seem to be able to do this, but I can’t. Maybe I do have basic goodness, but with my luck, I’ll never see it. What’s the point of practicing? It’s so tedious. I might as well enjoy myself. I’m doomed, anyway.”
The longer we beat ourselves up, the more we delay getting back to the present, and the deeper we dig a hole that gets progressively more difficult to climb out of. We need to accept our imperfections, confusions and wanderings and then let go. A tee shirts from one of the Shambhala meditation retreat centres states, “If you lose your mind, just come back.” Just come back. If you think, “Oh, I can’t come back. I’m one of those people who can’t come back,” well, just come back, anyway. Try it.
Mindfulness practice is often compared to riding a horse. The horse has its own life and its own dignity. Although we might ride the horse, we can’t entirely control the horse. We have enough sense of relationship that we can request the horse to go this way or that way, to stop, gallop or trot. However, the horse has its own independence and integrity. It’s not a “command and control” situation. It’s more like a dance. When we’re riding our horse and it goes up the hill, then our posture has to shift. If we stayed in the same posture, we’d likely fall off the horse. It’s the same if we go down the hill. There’s a sense of the terrain is always changing and we have to adjust our seat on our horse. It’s the same concept as “the middle way,” that the point of balance is always shifting. And we’re dancing with that shifting energy. We’re riding our own mind. It’s always changing. It’s important to give up the idea of perfect meditation, perfect mindfulness. When we’re trying too hard to do it right, that’s precisely the time to let go.
We need to apply the technique, to be in the body, to work with the out-breath, to label “thinking” when our mind wanders, and to come back to the present moment. We might label thinking a hundred times or more during a session. The point is that every time we come back, we’ve strengthened that connection to the present moment. Most people who start mindfulness practice say, “This practice really makes me think a lot.” To be honest, it doesn’t. Those are just the thoughts that are normally there. We didn’t realize just how much we think and daydream until we looked at our own mind.
It’s important to realize that, “A thought is just a thought.” That’s the gift of mindfulness practice. What does that mean? Simply, that a thought can be about anything that we can imagine. It’s just a thought. A thought about someone else is just a thought. It’s very powerful to recognize that a thought is just a thought. It’s an effective antidote to being stuck in our opinions or reactions or judgments. It’s also the antidote to beating ourselves up.