Last week, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I stumbled upon this quotation from the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, which I feel really emphasizes the benefits of mindfulness:
It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making.
If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself… [y]ou can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more importantly, it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.
Upon reading this, I felt moved. I felt reflective. I felt inspired.
How many times had I been caught up in getting it right or scrambling to tick all the boxes so that I could meet every expectation of every program? Visions of each forced run when I felt unwell, each excuse made for agendas I didn’t believe in but felt I needed to follow in order to stick with the plan, each delicious slice of freshly picked blueberry pie denied because it wasn’t on my list of foods for my blood type, and the memories of avoidance, shame and ultimately the sense that I wasn’t good enough when my will wasn’t strong enough all came flooding in.
I have perished in a famine of my own making. I have suffered and I continue to suffer whenever my will blinds me with a dogmatic, intolerant, this is the only route, no holds barred way of thinking. Rigidity at its finest.
However, as O’Donohue suggests, my mindfulness practice has completely offered me something different. Not only have I been able to work more creatively; however, I have been able to see more clearly when maybe I can have that piece of pie and thus enjoy the beauty and bounty of summer sunshine and rain and indeed the love of my mother who baked it for me. Mindfulness has taught me to tread more softly, listen more fully and be more wise in regards to my own needs- which can often times fall through the cracks of a program (spiritual or not) that is designed for the masses, not for individuality. Mindfulness has taught me to trust this indirect, oblique side of [my]self with an open- hearted attending to.
This doesn’t mean that my will has no place. I still need conviction in my life: conviction to get me to my meditation cushion, to get out of bed on mornings I feel too tired to, to choose fresh produce over canned, to live ethically, to cook a meal for my family. However, my mindfulness practice and training in compassion has enabled me to let go of ideas of ‘perfect’ and truly accept myself in times when that meal just happens to be beans on toast, or when I’ve missed that meditation sit. Moreover, my practice has helped give me the wisdom and highlight to me whether that missed practice was an act of kindness in a ‘taking care’ sort of way or an act of laziness in a detrimental sort of way. Either way, I don’t need to beat myself up about it. In fact, Rob Nairn calls this embracing the compassionate mess of life. This has made all of the difference in the choices that I make and the motivation and stories that I tell myself around these choices. It helps me ‘do it anyway’ or ‘let it go’ depending on what is best for me. It helps me make wise decisions, not dogmatic ones.
Funny, this wisdom came into action this past weekend. A few months ago, I wrote about stumbling upon a Quaker village in my blog post “A Measure of Light“. Well, I had been playing with the idea of checking out what it might be like to attend a Quaker meeting; however, my lazy hadn’t given in, until it did, and the feeling of ‘I’m not a Quaker’ was loud and clear. I don’t belong there, it’s not part of the plan. Still, the Quaker idea that we all have ‘a measure of light’ within spoke to me.
I had no idea what to expect or what to bring so I brought my curiosity and a friend. We are both mindfulness practitioners so we were looking forward to a bit of practice as we heard that meetings were quite meditative. What we discovered is exactly what John O’ Donohue writes of- there was actually no program or goals except a simple invitation to sit in silence. We did not have to sit in any type of way, we could read a bit if we wanted, we could speak if we felt inspired to, but we certainly did not have to. All we had to do was be ourselves, be mindful and sit.
Oh sure my will wanted to do some hammering. It wanted to feel inspired, it wanted to get it? right, it wanted to sit in perfect stillness, it also wanted to remind me that I am not a Quaker and this was not part of my program!
Instead, I saw my will at work, as the book on the table kept calling out to me- just one page. I opened the book and read a story. It was a story of letting go. I smiled, peered cheekily to my friend beside me to see if I could detect any happenings in them and then I closed my eyes and let go. In this letting go, I came easily and naturally home to myself. This kindness of rhythm felt reassuringly familiar and immediately put me at ease. I didn’t have to do anything but simply be present with what is. I didn’t have to be a Quaker to be here, I didn’t have to sit perfectly, I didn’t have to feel inspired.
Afterwards, we all sat down to a cup of tea together. There was an eclectic mix of a musician, poet, playwright, Buddhist, Christian and us- two curious mindfulness practitioners. No need to hammer- we all took joy in a quiet acceptance of our diversity but also of our commonality. And a joy in the sacredness of the presence we each brought to the table.
However, the most poignant moment was when one of the others shared that they had buried their mother that week. I too have buried a parent this summer. What ensued was a heartfelt conversation on the process of death and grief. The whole group had something to add- a memory of their own parent passing, a comment on how we culturally look after each other, a tear- and before I knew it, a feeling of being held came over me. Held by strangers. This is what I needed. Not a famine, but a bounty of my own making.
If it wasn’t for compassion based mindfulness, and a quiet self- acceptance that has grown as a result, I would have missed this experience. I’d still be hammering. Attending a Quaker meeting was not part of any program that fit my bill. Instead, it skewed the trajectory of being a secular mindfulness practitioner. This reflection makes me smile. I remembered O Donohue’s words and thought, this is what it is all about. This is working creatively.
If we are patient and if we look and notice, we will find that the opportunity for mindfulness is all around us- under stones, in our gardens, down the street, in our heart.
So this week’s challenge is to notice when we are trying to hammer our life into shape. Can we notice when our mind is holding on to rigidity? Can we notice when our will has taken over in a way that ignores what it is that we actually need? Can we just be with whatever is happening within and all around us, just as it is? Can we choose mindfulness? And then, with curiosity, can we see where our mindfulness and this kind rhythm has taken us?
Would you like to know more about mindfulness, and develop or enhance your practice? Maybe even create a bounty of your own?
We have courses starting this Autumn in Samye Ling, Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Find a Mindfulness: Being Present course near you here.