One of the benefits of regularly visiting a church is that you get to hear ancient wisdoms. Truths that are familiar to some degree, but that require practice to keep their beauty alive. Generosity, neighbourliness and humility are examples of “Christian” values that can get left by the wayside in the bustle of our everyday lives. That’s why it’s so important that they get mentioned every now and again.
One of the most transformative aspects of meditation is that you can’t help but get to know yourself better and better. Self-mastery is based on a foundation of self-awareness and self-confidence.
This journey of exploration is supported by a range of personality traits that are developed in tandem by meditating regularly. By themselves, these traits are not shocking or even rare. Combine them, develop them, work at keeping them top of mind, and their support consolidates and accelerates your meditation practice in a virtuous cycle. To help bring this cycle about, it helps to mention these traits explicitly and bring them to the foreground, more or less in the way that church sermons do.
Thursday, September 3, 2009. I had been meditating a lot for the past few weeks and was spending an hour in the afternoon watching youtube clips about entrepreneurship. And then it suddenly hit me. It’s not about what others do or what has made them successful. Eureka! It is about knowing clearly what it is that makes you, you. This is the only way to be successful on a personal level. Personal success leads to greater authenticity which may in time lead to greater outward success. But I realized that that was not at all what I was after. The most important thing, I realized, was this personal success: the idea that you’re doing what you want to be doing.
I’m not someone who makes resolutions. And I’m not one for making radical decisions. I generally like to keep my options open and to take life as it comes. Nevertheless, at that moment, I remember standing up, touching my hand to my heart, and closing my eyes, solemnly vowing that I would be as honest as possible with myself.
In a world abundant with options, it is imperative to tune your inner compass lest you lose yourself in the dreams of others.
Meditation, too, becomes more effective by being radically honest with yourself. Without this commitment, there will always be emotional and mental cul-de-sacs to hide out from whatever storm is raging. Hiding does not provide much learning.
Apart from my resolution to keep a daily meditation practice, it’s the solemn promise to be radically honest about my experience that is responsible for the biggest developments in my personal life. That is why radical honesty tops this list.
You don’t have be a rocket scientist to realize that patience is a helpful quality in meditation. Patience is not an in-born trait. Babies cry when they want something. Children ask, whine and manipulate. Adults have learned to apply a socially acceptable sauce to these tendencies. Certainly, #patience is seldom seen as a virtue.
Yet, as a meditator, you don’t have much choice. Your experience is exactly the way it is. Neither more beautiful, better or more positive. Being impatient with it is just one more thing to be patient with. Meditation happens when you stop resisting your experience and simply experience what is here right now.
Moreover, impatience breeds disquiet. There is more than enough disquiet around, without you adding to it. That does not mean that you should be impatient with your impatience. Now, you’re just accumulating restlessness. Just be present with your unrest. Apply the label: unrest, impatience.
Your current experience is just as it should be, because it is. Just right. You might even say that in the current moment verbs like “should” and “ought” really have no place. Such constructions are created by the forward motion of your critical mind. To quote Eckhart Tolle: “What’s the problem, noooow?”
Accepting your experience
Probably, you expected to see this one. It is straight out of the meditation instructions manual. An integral part of mindfulness meditation, acceptance persuades you to abandon judgement.
Much of our daily experience is created by subtle and not-so-subtle forms of resistance to experience as it presents itself. If you have a headache, you can wish for your headache to vanish but that does not mean it will. More likely, wishing it to be gone will intensify it. If your intention is to eat/drink/smoke/think less, and you realize that you’ve broken that intention, the first reaction often is to blame yourself, thereby making it harder for you to keep your intention and at the same time easier to quit. We call this process the “suffering escalator”. Objectively, there is no reason for this approach. Acceptance is the start of a healthier way of relating to yourself.
Acceptance is the first step in (temporarily) stopping the process of “tindering” (See also: Meet your tindering mind), or of continuously being swept from pleasure to pain and back again.
Let’s make one thing crystal clear; acceptance is not tolerating the rotten processes in your life. It is not meant to make you passive or to make you quit changing your life for the better. On the contrary. To really change anything, you must first understand how a (rotten) habit works. You have to see it in action. Watching it impassively, noting all the details. Acceptance is a prerequisite to being honest with yourself about your experience in this moment. It helps you pause long enough to really get a handle on what your habit does, how it is triggered, how it plays out when it is not being followed up upon. This knowledge better informs the decision to do things differently in the future.
Meditation is getting to know yourself. Knowing yourself fosters a greater sense of trust in your own truths, be they intuitive or otherwise. This trust is crucial in dealing with a world in which possibilities are endless and the volume of other’s opinions can be deafening.
A basic sense of trust can also give you the courage to research the deeper layers of your momentary experience. Do you sometimes think or act out of fear, anger, sadness or love? What are the convictions that underlie your thoughts, emotions and intentions? How does your overall health coincide with your mental and emotional state?
Openness to whatever is here, now
Another platitude? Honesty, acceptance, trust, and now openness? Aren’t these all the same things? Well, yes, and also, not completely.
Our minds construe verbal structures in which to catch the world. Through the specific description of the elements of your reality, you can posit predictions about the future. If these predictions are accurate, your trust in the versatility of your verbal construction grows. This makes humans prone to the “error” of confusing the construct for the reality it was meant to describe. In turn, this can lead us to believe that we KNOW what is going on; not just in ourselves, but in the world. We’ve just about seen it all, we know how the world works.
This very process of mental construction – lest we forget – trades total reliance on our direct experience for a measure of security. Meditation plumbs the foundations of that security. And paves the way for deconstruction.
Meditation dares you to Experience – without the mediating influence of your constructions – what it is like to be alive in this moment. Without reaching for your crutch, without trying to catch your experience in a construction. Meditation bypasses the verbal dimension and the processes of construction, to arrive at the experience of your Rebellious Reality unmediated by thought structures.
This requires that you are open to suspending with the security of “knowing”. That you are willing to entertain the possibility that your thoughts may not be absolutely true or have any universal validity. That you approach this moment from the attitude of beginner’s mind, without expectations and without frame of reference.
Beginner’s mind is the foundational attitude for practices such as hatha yoga and formal meditation, but it can also help you in daily life. Try it out. Try seeing your partner, parents, children, pets, co-workers without the veil of prejudice, expectations and thought constructs that usually accompanies direct experience.
It is from this direct and unmediated experience that love, intuition and equanimity readily bloom.
When your expectations momentarily fade away – about how your life should be, what you should have accomplished, how your health should be, what your family life should be like, where you should live, what friends you should have, etcetera etcetera etcetera – first off, it gets quiet. When you then reflect on your experience just in this moment, and on the unimaginable abundance of your life, most people are plunged head first into a deep sense of gratitude.
Gratitude is what remains when expectations fall silent. It is the substrate of happiness.
It works the other way, too. If you want to let go of your expectations, practice gratitude. Want to be happier… gratitude. Recent studies have shown that frequent gratitude practice leads to a better functioning immune system, more positive emotions, optimism and happiness, and less loneliness.
Know when there is no (emotional) pain
We tend to know it when pain is present. Pain tends to be an unpleasant experience. Especially when it is strong, its disappearance takes precedence over most any other thing. Yet, when our wishes are granted, we usually don’t relish the absence of pain.
There is a similarity here to gratitude. Our minds tend to favour situations that are not ideal – that can be “solved”. Is pain present? All hands on deck to solve this darn pain. And when the problem is solved, our minds can go back to the status quo: looking for problems that can be fixed.
We don’t enjoy the painless or “problem-less” periods. As with the practices of gratitude, we might practice being more present to the absence of unpleasant sensations.
This leads to more happiness, but its benefits go beyond. The more you become aware of pain’s absence, the more you can realize that what we consider to be static processes, really aren’t static at all. They are dynamic, constantly changing, oscillating in intensity and location. They are not always there nor omnipresent. These realizations can lead to a new way of relating to your pain.
Don’t feel bad about feeling bad
As mentioned when we talked about acceptance; don’t add suffering to pain. A well-known buddhist saying goes: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
Overindulgence can be fun, but it can also result in hangovers. If you respond to this hangover by beating yourself up, mentally or emotionally, you’re only making more trouble for yourself. A growing number of recovery specialists subscribe to the idea that addiction potential in humans can be accurately predicted by measuring the force of the habit of “regret”.
The message is clear: be fully aware of your tendencies to add optional (unnecessary) suffering to inevitable pain.
Stop feeding the wild animals
You might view your bad habits as primordial creatures that won’t listen to reason. They are so powerful that you can’t stop them from visiting and you are powerless in chasing them away. Because they don’t listen to reason.
Nevertheless, there is one thing you can do. These creatures need you to survive. Keep feeding them, and they will keep coming back. You feed them by giving them attention, both positive attention and negative attention. If you resist because you want them just to leave, you feed them. If you buy into their narrative because you feel that on some level they are right, you feed them. Aversion and desire in flagrante delicto.
So, stop feeding them. The way to do that is to Stop, Breathe, Note, Relax, Reflect and React. Mindfulness, in other words. The stronger your mindfulness, the faster you are able to stop feeding your wild animals.
Act out of kindness
For the Dalai Lama – spiritual leader of the Tibetan people – kindness is equivalent to religion. Assume that everything you experience, from without or within, is rooted in kindness. Whether it is true or not, an open and vulnerable attitude is often more powerful than a defensive one. More to the point, kindness vaccinates against strong negativity, both with yourself as with others.
If you think about it; most of the impulses, judgements and intentions that come up inside you are rooted in a deep desire for your own well-being. They may not always be the best instrument for the job, but your happiness is nevertheless your mind’s vigilent intention.
Perhaps, this reflection makes it easier to be kind and forgiving with that rotten impulse that frequently seems to complicate your life, and that you’d just as soon get rid of. And perhaps you can be kind and forgiving with the resistance against this impulse, too. The desire to “fall back” into “unhelpful” old behaviour, the resistance against this desire and the kind presence you bring to both processes, all originate in the same basic desire for your happiness.
So, even though you can see better ways, perhaps it is more kind and gentle to be kind and gentle with these impulses than to oscillate between strong desire and fierce resistance. Both processes want the exact same thing for you, anyway.
So what if you slip up and follow where your desire leads? As long as you remain present with a kind and gentle attitude of the thoughts, feelings and intentions that accompany your “slip up”. Know at all times what is happening and how it is affecting your well-being. In due time, you will notice that the frequency and intensity of these kinds of mental events abates of its own accord.
You could opt to view your failures as slapstick movies. Seeing yourself go through the same situation over and over, why not try making it a little caricature with stick-figure movements, in black and white. Play it at three times the normal speed. Again and again, faster and faster. I’m willing to bet money that you will soon be smiling at your own silliness.
Negativity of others can also be a wonderful opportunity to practice with this attitude. Realize that this other person, too, just wants to be happy. That he or she acts in this way because there is the belief that such will contribute to their personal happiness. Because you approach this person from a place of kindness, really, both of you want the same thing. Perhaps this person will be softened by your attitude, perhaps not. Sometimes, it is preferable to avoid or leave certain situations. There is no need to let people walk all over you! But there is also no need to adopt the negativity of someone else. That is a lose-lose proposition.
In this article, we’ve described a number of attitudes that work together closely and that – when you remember to adopt them regularly – can help deepen your self-awareness and boost your self-mastery.