“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different. Enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will). Being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” James Baraz
In our culture, we often focus on changing our external environment to make us happy. We cling to things we like. We push away or ignore things we don’t like. We try to control the uncontrollable. But this strategy doesn’t always work. We can’t keep all the things that make us happy. And we can’t avoid the unpleasant. We are all going to have unpleasant in our life. External events don’t have to control our attitudes. It is how we react to those external events that impact our well-being. To increase our happiness, we need to learn to savor the pleasant and accept the unpleasant.
“Learning how to accept your present-moment experience is really important for reducing stress,” says Emily Lindsay. Her research shows that “people who learn to accept and not just notice their experiences become less prone to mind-wandering, which has been tied to well-being, and less reactive to stress—meaning, they show reductions in systolic blood pressure, the stress hormone cortisol, and feelings of stress in a stressful situation.”
We are learning to be mindful, to see what is in the present moment. At the same time, we have to accept it. Acceptance is important Lindsay suggests because when people accept unpleasant experiences, it allows the experiences to “run its course and dissipate. We all know that what we resist, persists and gets stronger. For example, having an itch on the middle of you back that you can’t reach. As you try to stop the itch it gets stronger. If you change the focus of your attention, the itch will go away without you having to do anything. We need to learn how to accept the unpleasant and let it just dissipate. Lindsay posits that accepting stress helps people to stop focusing only on what’s wrong and to notice other feelings, sensations, and thoughts that are occurring, and that enabling us to see the big picture. Instead of looking at what is at the end of my nose, I look out into the horizon where my view expands.
Be careful of what connotation you use for the word accept. Some people think it connotes acquiescing to your fate and not doing anything about it. Others think it is tolerating people treating you disrespectfully or abusively. With those meanings of acceptance, outcomes worsen. Accept means accepting that what is, actually is. Accepting means that I am getting older and I am going to continue to get older. I may not like it, but that is what is. It is simply noticing what is true and intending not to judge, push away, or control anything you find. I need to accept that yes, my body is going to age. I am going to get aches and pains. It will take longer to heal wounds. I have to accept that. Because when I don’t accept it, I tense up against it. When I tense up, my pain gets worse. If I come back to my anchor and relax my body, the pain will eventually dissipate.
Acceptance is about seeing what is true, whether you like it or not. This allows you to pay attention to your internal experience and thus respond instead of react. If someone triggers me, and I get upset, if I don’t turn around and look at what is going on inside of me, I am likely to blame them and lash out at them. But if I accept that my daughter wants this, and I am not happy about it. Instead of lashing out, I can stop and say, this is what is, I am not happy about it, what is the most skillful way I can respond to her. Instead of reacting in an unskillful way. Acceptance of reality allows us to view it from a different perspective and create a gap. I can see that my daughter wants this because of something else that I had not thought about. That makes sense, now I see where she is coming from. I allowed a gap so that I can see better, I can see a different perspective. When we are shining the light of awareness, we want to accept it so we can have a different perspective, and we can create a gap.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, there are two modes of perceiving information, allocentric and egocentric. Our culture reinforces egocentric where we look at things close up and personal. It’s all about me. What we can learn through mindfulness, is to look the allocentric mode allows us to see we are all connected, part of a greater whole. So, instead of looking at what is at the end of our nose, we look out into the horizon. We see the bigger picture. We can take into account that there are multiple views of the situation. Therefore, we see more possibilities.
According to Jack Kornfield, “When we look at our own mind, we can notice the mental states that predominate, as if we were noticing the weather. Just as a storm can bring rain, wind, and cold, we can observe the clusters of unhealthy states that appear on our bad days. We may find resentment, fear, anger, worry, doubt, envy, or agitation. We can notice how often they arise and how attached we are to their point of view. We can also notice the healthy states in our most free and openhearted periods. We can notice how love, generosity, flexibility, ease, and simplicity are natural to us. These states are important to notice. They give us trust in our original goodness, our own Buddha nature.”
So how do we see from a different perspective when we are caught in the throes of life? Pema Chodron says, “One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.”
We meditate in order to train our brains to create gaps. Every time we become aware of our thoughts and let them go, we create a gap. Letting your mind quiet helps you to see more clearly. Pema says, “The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing — to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.”
Our habits are strong, so it requires discipline to first see that we have a habit we were unconscious of and then change it. We can’t expect it to change overnight. We have honed that habit, strengthened that neural pathway every day for the past so many years. If we get down on ourselves because we have fallen back into our hold habit, we are just strengthening the neural pathway of self-judgement. And that is what we are trying to stop, some of that self-judgement. We want to create new neural pathways. And we can do this by realizing that we begin again today. I screwed up yesterday, I was really judgmental or not mindful. I can start again today. I screwed up this morning, I was not mindful. I can begin again right now. Every moment is a chance to begin again. And we can take that moment to begin again, instead of beating ourselves up. We can’t change the past no matter how many times we run it through our brain. Each time we run through our brain how awful we are, we are strengthening that neural pathway. Simply make a habit of pausing and taking three breaths – when you feel angry or irritated, when you are at a stop light, when you leave your office, when you walk into your house. Create that gap and see what a difference it makes in how you feel and how you act.
Because our habits are so strong, we need discipline and persistence. All of a sudden it rears its ugly head again. We have to do it over and over and over. I have been meditating for more than ten years. I still have to do things over and over. Sometimes I think: I have processed that; I am beyond that. When that happens, I can say I will never be whole, I will never be good enough. Or I can begin again and work with it some more. That is why we need to be persistent. Joining a meditation group supports you in being disciplined and persistent.
We want to learn to take that pause which allows us to step out of our habit energies. Have you ever driven home and can’t remember driving or what you saw? The pause helps us to stop and create that gap. Then we can see the beauty in the world. We can see the snow on the trees or the clouds in the sky. We can see the beauty in the world around us. But we have to create that gap in our busy mind to see it. We have to let our thoughts pop just like a bubble.
When we don’t shine the light of awareness, we tend to fight against things as they are. We try to fight growing older. We become easily upset with life’s changes, our losses, conflicts and disappointments. We let them take hold of us as if some external thing has control over who we are and how we feel. We get on our hamster wheel of reactivity. When we do that, we make it worse. We are looking for false security and permanent pleasures. When we are on our hamster wheel trying to get away from the unpleasant, it gets stronger because we are resisting (maybe unconsciously). We do things that are not the right thing as we are not paying attention.
When you are in a dark room, the shapes may look scary. But when you shine a light, all the scary shapes are not so scary anymore. We have emotions we have never dealt with. We have kept them hidden inside. We are shining the light of aware on them to see that is it not so bad as I thought. I am not such a terrible person. I am just a perfectly imperfect human being, like everyone else. We see life as it really is, not how we are afraid it is or hope it is. And we learn to deal with reality rather than our image of reality.
By shining the light of awareness through mindfulness and compassion practice, we can cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our struggles. When we step back from the struggle, we see anew. We see it is our mind creating the conflict. We see our constant judging of things and people. We see our greed and our prejudices. There are times when I wish I didn’t practice mindfulness because it is hard for me to look at my insecurities, my imperfections and my fears. But then I see how my habitual patterns close down my heart. And when I see that it gives me the strength to shine the light of awareness on myself and let myself heal.