As I practice mindfulness, compassion and insight meditation more and more I recognise more and more how I create my own reality. If I wake up with the expectation that the day should be one way and it turns out a different way, I can easily create a reality that is unpleasant for me and also for anyone around me. If there is no expectation about the day, then my reality is different, and more likely to be a pleasant one. Although, there is something to be said for low expectations, as they are likely to be exceeded! Then I realise that it is all in the mind.
If I have to do something difficult, I can change my reality with a perspective shift. Initially, I might be thinking how awful it is going to be to do the difficult thing. This is quite an unpleasant reality. If I become curious and welcome the difficult situation as an opportunity for learning, then my reality changes into something more positive.
As mindfulness practitioners we recognise that our expectations, assumptions and goals set us up to suffer. Once we see our expectation that we are going to have a glorious day, or our assumption that this difficulty is going to be awful, there is sometimes a choice. We are a slave to unnoticed expectations, assumptions and goals. However, we might be able to relate differently to them if we do notice them. Often, this relating differently happens automatically upon recognising the assumption, expectation or goal.
Rob Nairn talks about this a lot, quoting Krisnamurti saying ‘The Seeing is the Doing’. I am delighted that Rob will be joining us for our membership weekend and retreat in May to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Mindfulness Association. Why not join us to soak up some of his wisdom at the weekend.
This last weekend I have been delivering the last (fourth) weekend of the Mindfulness Level 1 Course: Being Present at Samye Ling. I was delighted to see how clearly the course participants were able to identify their own expectations and assumptions over the course of the weekend. Their progress has been incredible over the four weekends leading to big changes in the realities they are living in their lives – less pain, anxiety, self-criticism – more self-confidence, joy and contentment. I was able to see the changes in their faces, as the weight of the world, including many assumptions and expectations of how they and of how their environment should be, have lifted. As we shared in the final go round, the changes they described in their day to day reality were profound.
Over the weekend we revisited the Undercurrent and Observer model of mind – another wise teaching from Rob Nairn. We practiced observing the undercurrent, noticing the thoughts, feelings, images, memories, etc. that arise of their own accord, beneath the usual surface level of thinking. Once the mind settles in mindfulness practice, we become more familiar with the undercurrent. However, as we discovered over the course of the weekend, if we don’t engage the thoughts, but just observe them with kindness and acceptance, they just display and dissolve. They display of their own accord, all that is to be known about them and then they are gone.
This is quite different from the reality that unfolds when we engage a thought and become caught up in thinking. Every time we do this it strengthens the habit of thinking, it increases the likelihood of that thought arising again and it increases the likelihood that we will engage with it again next time. And what thoughts do we usually engage? The ones with strong emotional energies attached to them such as anger, anxiety or sadness. Thinking these thoughts gets us caught up in a reality made up of endless feedback loops of misery.
Mindfulness practice can gradually undo this habit of endlessly engaging thoughts and endlessly thinking. If we continue to gradually train to refrain from engaging the arising thoughts, our reality changes for the better. The is the wonder of mindfulness.
So we create our own reality due to underlying unseen expectations and assumptions, and by engaging thoughts and getting caught up in thinking. However, neuroscience and Buddhism, points to the fact that we create our reality at a whole other level as well. The level of perception.
I had an experience of this today, after my practice, while on my treadmill listening to music. I recognised how the reality of the music that I experience is created within my own head, from vibrations in the ear drum. I was amazed and felt incredibly joyful at the wonder of this. I could hear percussion, bass, harmony, lyrics – a complex and enjoyable experience all created in my head. Then I switched to other senses – my sense of sight watching the snow fall outside the window. I know intellectually from neuroscience (Rob, Choden and I wrote about it in our book, From Mindfulness to Insight), that what I see is created inside my head and projected out onto what is actually there. I experienced a sense that the field of view was created in my head – the brain’s best guess within a dark skull – projected out as a reality.
I like it when this happens, as what comes with it is an inner lightness and ease. The feeling that my reality isn’t as solid and real as the one I typically buy into moment by moment – that I don’t have to take this reality or myself quite so seriously. What a relief.
Listen to some music you love, reflect on this and see what happens.