It is so easy to lose sight of what originally inspired us to do what we do. We can focus more on how others might think of us, what material goods we might gain, or what grade or prize we might earn. And then we forget the meaning in what we’re doing and lose contact with the truth in ourselves.
When learning a skill or studying a subject, we can forget the joy of learning itself or the joy in doing something skillfully. When we use a cellphone or other device during a meal or movie, we can lose the pleasure in eating or engagement with the movie. Or if we read the news on our phones or write or text as we take a walk, we can forget the joy of walking, forget to notice the birds, trees or people around us or the feel of our steps on the earth.
Even with meditation, we can get caught up in goals that meditation might advance, like increasing focus, improving health, finding intellectual answers, or reducing stress. By centering on these goals, they become impossible to achieve. We lose the meditation itself.
If we meditate, for example, to get an answer to a problem, then as soon as a possible answer pops into our head we might stop meditating in order to write it down. Or if we meditate to reduce stress, what happens if, during a meditation, we realize our heartbeat is speeding up, or notice tension in our body?
Instead of treating the stress as part of the meditation, as an opportunity to learn from it, we might try to hide or end it. And the stress gets worse. Our mind becomes the act of hiding and we think of ourselves as unable to face what we feel.
Sometimes, we do need to distance ourselves from a painful memory or moment or switch our object of focus. And we need to respect that need, especially after 18 months or so of a pandemic and four years of DT anxiety. We can use different strategies to help us let go of tension and fear. When meditating we can focus on our feet on the floor instead of the breath in our chest, or on the sounds outdoors instead of thoughts indoors.
As Peter Doobinin describes it in his book, Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure, we can use thinking to strengthen thinking. Instead of trying to stop all thought, we can use it skillfully to feed awareness instead of distraction and to keep alert. if we get caught in a thought, for example, we can step back, and note what is happening. We can say to ourselves, “in” as we inhale, “out” as we exhale. (If you are not experienced with meditation or mindfulness, please read or listen to the book to get the full practice.)
The breath goes through stages: the beginning, middle, and end of the inhalation, a pause; then the same with the exhalation. We can ask ourselves where we feel comfort inside us, or what is the quality of the breath⎼ rough or smooth, fast or slow, etc. If they don’t go by too quickly, we can observe which stages are more easeful, comfortable. By noticing, we feed awareness and allow the body to regulate itself. We discover the pleasure in the breath. We might notice, for example, an ease and comfort in the pause and in the middle of a longer, softer exhalation. And then the comfort can spread.
Or when we can simply sit with our meditation, observing our response to whatever arises, our mind becomes simply observing, open.
I used to keep a pen and paper next to me when I meditated. If anything important came to mind, an insight or realization, I stopped for a second to write it down. I feared that if I didn’t, I would forget it. This interrupted the body focus. I’d write and then have to re-start the meditation. The deep calm would be lost.
Doobinin points out that mindfulness is largely about reminding ourselves to bring attention back to the body, to the moment. By remembering in this way, we actually strengthen mind and memory.
The popular expression, “take time to stop and smell the roses” is so appropriate. Daydreaming can be great. But when we can eat and simply eat, walk and simply walk, meditate and simply meditate, or talk with a friend and focus purely on what is there in our being together, the moment is more deeply experienced. We feel present, open.
The red of a cardinal is so much deeper than our thoughts about it. The bark of the oak tree has so many more shades of color than we can visualize. Our neighbor’s smile is so much more satisfying than our image of them.
And our memory improves a bit, especially for what is important. I noticed that a few months after I stopped writing down insights during a meditation, I remembered later on insights that arose during that time. The same happened with my walks. When we can focus on and enjoy what we do, we learn more easily. We fight ourselves less frequently. We treat whatever subject we are learning about as another aspect of ourselves.
Of course, it’s really not the recording or writing that’s the problem. It’s not maintaining awareness of what we’re doing while we’re doing it. When the time is right, writing notes or lists can be so helpful. Taking notes in response to a lecture or recording honestly the truth we hear inside us, can be so useful for learning. Instead of distancing ourselves from our lives, we can engage, focus, and increase awareness of what is being said as well as how we are responding. Such writing can be a meditation, a practice in-itself.
Everything we do changes us. We don’t want to become merely a consumer, owning not being, or distancing and isolating ourselves instead of embracing our lives. We then forget that underneath almost all our goals is the longing to be more intimate with the moment. The skill we most want to learn is intimacy.
This post is republished on Medium.