Not far from where I live now is the Cistercian Abbey at Moone, where the monks keep an established routine of prayer and silence starting at 4.15 in the morning until Night Prayer at 20.15. On Monday Fr Ambrose spoke about the human capacity for grumbling and complaining, as he reflected on a passage in the Old Testament where the people of Israel began to complain about their life in the desert, even though they had just been freed from a life of slavery in Egypt. They contrasted their life now, even with freedom, to their life in the past, and their thinking mind – which does not need much stimulus – sprang into action: “Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic!”. As Ambrose said, this reveals a persistent behaviour in our human nature, and one that does not always lead to greater happiness or inner peace.
It would seem that comparing ourselves with others evolved as a necessary survival skill. When there were scarce resources and ever-present dangers, it was necessary to see who was stronger, who were the potential allies and threats, and who could ultimately kill you. This survival necessity became deeply embedded in our consciousness as an alertness, a certain vigilance. However, how that useful skill actually manifests itself is in the mind’s tendency to generate comparing thoughts with others or with other times in our life, just as the people of Israel did. We can find ourselves making comparison judgments about who is smarter, prettier or richer; who has a fitter body or a better car. Or we compare ourselves to a better version of ourselves, one who is more disciplined, who does not procrastinate, who should be doing better, who is getting things done faster. The world of advertising and the media likes to nurture this sense of dissatisfaction, and therefore our minds have been acclimatised to achieving the latest, the better-than, the newest model, ideals that have a sense of compulsion in them For example, here in Ireland the car registration plates for the year 2013 have been split into two, 131 for the first six months and 132 for months starting with July. The desire to show others that you have a newer car, with a 132 registration plate, seems to have worked, as sales are up by 132% on last years July figures.
This grumbling normally starts as some sort of unease, which the mind interprets as something wrong and then gets to work. So the uncomfortable feelings gets interpreted in terms of things should be better. The mind likes to project how my self could be and moves away from working with how things actually are. Immediately, thoughts are generated, a range of possibilities and alternatives. It would seem that we are always seeking new becomings rather than resting in the space where we actually are. Through our thinking minds we create plenty of ways to get away, to become some thing else. This normally means that we become dissatisfied and need either to get something different, or to get away from something else.
This can be quite subtle and arise instinctively. Frequently it is dressed up as a laudable need to improve ourselves or get our lives or careers moving forward. I notice this in myself at this time of change, when not everything goes according to the schedule in the mind and I find it hard to stick with how things actually are, not as I think they should be. So grumbling and doubt sets in. However, all this does is take me away from how this moment or my life is, and thus causes suffering. It does not allow us accept ourselves as we actually are.
It is good to shift from believing the content of these thoughts, to noticing the continual process of generating them. The mind will always compare. The Buddha drew attention to this by stating that life has an ‘unsatisfied’ sense. Ambrose said that it seems to be in our nature. Noticing the comparing mind is therefore a good practice on the way towards reducing stress and being happy in our own skin. If we spot these thoughts for what they are – mere perceptions and judgments of the mind – then they have less capacity to pull us out of the moment. Outside of our mind, the relative concept of “better” has no sense. So next time we notice ourselves grumbling, see if you can inquire into the process and stay with the original sense of unease, without making it into a story about how your life is going.