From time to time we get glimpses of what really matters in this life. Maybe when we spend some time in silence, or in being with others, or by the beauty of nature such as seeing the swans in a walk along the Lake today as echoed in this poem. If we allow those experiences inside us they let us see what makes life worth living, what brings us joy. We connect deeply and are filled with a sense of gratitude which stays with us forever. And even when they fly away and are out of sight, the wonder which they awoke stays in the heart.
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river? Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air – An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Mary Oliver, The Swan
When meditating I use an App on my phone as a timer. When the timer elapses it rings a bell and a phrase appears on the screen. So for the last two years I have been greeted at the end of my practice by the words Anyone who understands impermanence ceases to be contentious. By this time I know the words of this ancient phrase very well. However, I realize there is a big difference between knowing the words and knowing this in reality. Sure, I know that things change, the seasons come and go, and mental states change frequently. But I still have a strong investment in things staying as they are. And so I struggle. And whenever we struggle with how life actually is we suffer to some extent. So it seems to me that we really need to experience change in a very real and personal way in order to learn what it means to accept it as a fundamental principle of life. And sometimes this is forced upon us when we lose something or someone dear to us, when we have to deal with illness or when we are with someone who is close to death.
Sooner or later we all have to work with things in our life that we wish were different. And distinguishing when to fight for something and when to let go is not always easy. However, ther are times when we have to accept the message from others or from life that there is nothing we can do. When this is the case we allow ourselves feel the sadness which these situations provoke because that is only natural and the pain is often substantial. And then we try to do what the wisdom traditions teach : the best response to things that are beyond our control is to work at not struggling with them. It is not an easy lesson to learn, and I find that this learning it is always ongoing. But it is the big challenge in this life, to become a knower of change and to let it teach us.
Learning to be present for the moment is the beginning. By sitting still and training the mind to be with the breath, we begin to relax our discursiveness. We see how the mind creates our solid sense of self and begin to discover the mind’s natural state of being. With this experience we can being to cultivate our garden. The flowers of love compassion and wisdom gradually take over, and the weeds of anger, jealousy and self-involvement have less and less room to grow. In peaceful abiding we become familiar with the ground of basic goodness. This is how we turn the mind into an ally.
Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally
At some level we will always be afraid. And the world we live in is very competitive one, which means that we do not always feel secure enough to reveal our true selves. So there is a lot of loneliness in the world, despite modern advances in communication and networking. A great value is placed on achievement and appearance, and strength and competency are appreciated. We can get the same message in a different way in our families as we are growing up. Maybe a parent does not have the emotional space at that time in their life to provide a consistent response to our moments of neediness. So we can come to believe that our acceptance by others is based on us being competent or strong in some way, or by us doing something for them. Then as we grow we can get many experiences that confirm and reinforce this; we are disappointed and we pull back. We armour the heart.
And yet, deep within us, we long for someplace where we can feel completely accepted. We want to be in front of someone, not to have to do something to be welcomed. We want to let out the parts that we have hidden away. We look for someone who is attuned to us and who can see us in our brokenness without turning away. We especially wish for that person to be able to contain us when we come up against moments which we take as more proof that there is something wrong with us. And we approach situations or relationships with the deep-down hope that this time our needs will be held and met, rather than finding the same disappointment as before. At moments like that the other person becomes the place where our history and our unconscious needs are played out. We look for someone who will not disappoint us now.
What I am slowly learning in mindfulness practice, is that the way to work with my fears is not to try to fix them but to open a space around them first and allow them to be. As Pema Chodron says: This is the primary method for working with painful situations….. We can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy. It helps to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything—not about winning or losing—but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. That is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads into the rest of our lives. It’s like inviting what scares us to introduce itself and hang around for a while.
And what I have noticed is that people often find hardest at the start of mindfulness practice the idea of a non-judgmental attitude towards themselves, to stop beating themselves up when they find it hard to meditate. And frequently people say to me that the most difficult element in the loving-kindness practice is extending kindness towards themselves.
And it seems to me that is what is needed in relationships also. What we are seeking is someone who can accept us, hold us in our weakness and fears, allow us to be as we are. Most people, myself included, have tried the alternate strategy, returning again and again to the wounds and fears deep inside them, trying to “fix” them. But what I find is that some wounds are slow to change and we have to accept that we will always have some trace of our deepest fears, of old patterns that can be triggered in new guises. We will always be wounded in some way. What we seek in relationships is not someone who appreciates us in our strengths and achievements , but someone who can hold the fears which we feel, without panicking or taking it personally. It is not necessary to heal the wounds, but simply to be able to look at them without turning away.
When we know how to listen deeply and how to breathe deeply in mindfulness
everything becomes clear and deep
Thich Nhat Hahn
We tend to overlook the ordinary. We are usually only aware of our breath when it’s abnormal, like if we have asthma or when we’ve been running hard. But [with mindfulness] we take our ordinary breath as the meditation object. We don’t try to make the breath long or short, or control it in any way, but to simply stay with the normal inhalation and exhalation. The breath is not something that we create or imagine; it is a natural process of our bodies that continues as long as life lasts, whether we concentrate on it or not. So it is an object that is always present; we can turn to it at any time. We don’t have to have any qualifications to watch our breath. We do not even need to be particularly intelligent — all we have to do is to be content with, and aware of, one inhalation and exhalation. Wisdom does not come from studying great theories and philosophies, but from observing the ordinary.