Nature & Spirituality

What Happens When Mindfulness Gets Twisted

Woops, there goes your heart . . . maybe you wanna follow it?|What Happens When Mindfulness Gets Twisted|dianaklein.comSomewhere along the way, I’ve gotten it a bit wrong.

I started practicing mindfulness about five years ago. I have found it so helpful—in falling asleep, in coping with difficult emotions, in enjoying small things in a big way. On my path to healthfulness, mindfulness has been my greatest guide.

However, during my studies in this vein, when I was learning about how desires so often cause suffering, and about how we take false refuges in food and drugs and busy-ness, and all of this was making a ton of sense to me, I started to tell myself that I shouldn’t want anything. Because wanting was, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, lethal. I began to read all wanting as dangerous—including any inner spurring toward the pursuit of joy or a well-lived life. This too, I decided, would cause the same kind of suffering as always wanting just one more cookie.

Somehow, I forgot that it’s not so much about desire, but attachment to how things turn out. I also forgot that it’s not just the body or the mind that wants things; it’s also the soul. And all the soul really wants is to express itself, in the words of a movie from 1990 title: Truly, Madly,(and) Deeply.

Our souls whisper different things to us. They give us dreams of being star athletes, successful bakers, or great parents. They tell us these things so that we may experience life to the fullest, so that we may share our light with others. And, yeah, we can distort our souls’ desires. We can become so attached to them that we begin to believe we are less than nothing if we don’t achieve them. We can become so consumed by their pursuit that we have little mind for any of life’s other beauties. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

I have spent quite a lot of my life—even before I started studying mindfulness—trying to make myself smaller, trying to quiet my soul’s messages, telling myself: these are things I should not want. After all, happiness isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you have. Right?

On the other hand, as I start admitting my dreams to myself, as I begin to know that believing in them is not only okay, but right and proper, I find that I do want what I have. I want these dreams. I want the work they ask of me. I want the fulfillment they bring. Even if it doesn’t all have a storybook ending, I find that they are not bringers of suffering, they are deliverers of life.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with a friend, or even, subscribing. Thanks and have a great day!

Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health

How to Do Nothing

Tao Te Ching Chapter 3 Stephen Mitchell

I first learned the term wu wei studying philosophy and religion in college. Taoism—from whence the term comes—held immediate fascination for me.  The idea of not forcing anything in life held such an elegant sense, I could feel it down to my tiniest cells.  But that didn’t make it any easier to practice.

A few years later, I explained to my therapist my understanding of the principle of wu wei.  That it meant “do nothing”, but not really “do nothing”, just “do nothing” in the sense of, you know, not trying to make things happen in a certain way and stuff like that.  She demurred quite forcefully.  “No, wu wei, means, literally, do nothing!”  I didn’t really buy what she was selling.  Clearly, one can’t sit around “doing nothing” all the time and call it a responsible way of life.  One needs to grasp the bull by the horns, pull oneself up by the bootstraps, win one for the Gipper, and follow any number of other effort-filled adages that lead to a successful, fulfilled life.

The only problem?  I’ve tried that.  Many, many times.  And, yeah, if at first you don’t succeed, and all that, but there’s also the one about the definition of insanity being trying the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.

There is also this quote from the book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork . . . The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

The problem with the wisdom of mystics like Merton and Lao Tzu (the purported author of the Taoist text Tao te Ching) is that it is almost diametrically opposed to conventional wisdom.  If you have a problem or, for some reason, don’t like your life, conventional wisdom states that you should figure out how to solve the problem, discover how to make yourself happy.  You do this by making lists, by talking it over with other people.  You make plans and plot charts, set goals and establish rewards.  It’s all quite simple, you just have to make a decision and move forward.

A mystic, on the other hand, will tell you to stop.  Right now.  No, really.  Just put your hands down, take a deep breath, and be exactly where you are.  Don’t think about where you want to go.  Don’t think about how you’re going to get there.  Let that information rise to the surface in its own time.  And the really annoying thing about this is that it feels like it’s TOTALLY the wrong thing to do.  Your mind is reeling in free fall.  “What do you mean I shouldn’t think about where I’m going?  How will I get there if I don’t?  ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t want to stay here!”  But that’s exactly where you need to stay: right here.  Wu wei.  Do nothing.

Darn mystics.

Note: The picture at the top of this post is a scan from my pocket copy of Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of Tao Te Ching.  I highly recommend it.

🙂

Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health, Writing & Reading

Making Lotuses

No mud, no lotus - Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been one of those weeks.  The kind where I made a hamster running to nowhere on his little wheel look good.  It’s at times like these that I have to remind myself to embrace the mud.  As the wonderful Vietnamese, Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud, no lotus.”  So I will slather myself with the muddiness and muddled-ness of my actions and thoughts, and believe—know—that a lotus will grow from this mess—sooner or later.

As I was writing the last (first) paragraph, my mother came in and brought me a flawless white viola—the only plant to grow from a seed packet I bought her a year ago.  It’s not a lotus, but it’s pretty darn special—and well worth the wait.

2015-04-17 Viola

For more on exciting things coming out of decidedly grosser ones, check this post from a few years ago: An Ode to Compost.

Also, April being national poetry month and all, I encourage you to seek out some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful verse.

Thank you for reading.:)

Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health

Real Work

Being Here

“This is the real work.”—my words to my mother as we sat the dining room table a few nights ago.  I felt like I was about to spin out.  I’ve been more tired this week and my tasks have become overwhelming.  I was getting scared—and when I get scared, my body freezes in place, and my mind tries to run away.  But this time, I didn’t want to do either if those things.  I’ve been down those roads.  I know where they lead.

Some years ago I had a dream in which I was walking in the woods near the house where I grew up.  Traveling uphill on an autumn day, I enjoyed the colorful leaves decorating the trees.  After a while a car drove slowly past, and it occurred to me to become nervous.  Some yards ahead of me, the car stopped, and a man got out and hid behind a tree as if waiting for me.  My inner alarm blaring, I turned on my heels intending to flee down the hill.  But as I did, I saw a second man step out from behind the first, pointing a gun at him.  Already in flight and frightened by what might be done to me, I didn’t stop to examine the scene any further.  I fled down the hill and formulated a plan of where I might go to hide.  Suddenly, I found myself swamped in cold water and snow.  It came up to my waste or higher as I struggled to make my way through and escape the torture that seemed to pursue me.

When I related the dream to my mother at the time, she replied, “Well, you won’t like what I have to say about it.”  “What’s that?” I asked, steeling myself for her answer.  “What came to me is that you were supposed to witness, and instead, you ran away.”  It’s taken me 10 years to figure out how she was right.  Of course in a physical showdown, the most preservative thing to do is fight or flee, but this was my subconscious—no physical danger, just the warring of inner demons and gremlins.  When you run from those guys, there is no escape.  And going hand-to-hand with them is less effective than one might think.

Psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Daniel Siegel tells a story in his lectures about what happens when a person is bitten by a dog.  Say the dog has its teeth clasped around your hand, your innate response is to pull away from the pain and danger.  And the dog’s response is to strengthen its hold on you, clenching its teeth and digging them deeper into your flesh, thereby causing more pain, more danger.  But, if you were to relax, and allow your hand to move further into the dog’s mouth—in effect giving your hand to the animal, its gag reflex will kick in and expel your hand from its mouth.

I don’t know if this is true in practice, but the idea, on an emotional level, is sound.  That is why, as I stated here last week, I want to embrace my illness—as well as whatever part of me is healthy—and let it all just be as it is.  Not that I don’t try to feel good, but that I don’t consume the moments of my life with conspiring or running away.  I want to come home to my body, come what may, and know that I am safe here—even if it is painful and scary.

One of the many health practitioners I’ve consulted over the years once told me, “Be in your body.  You want your body to be there for you, so you need to be there for it.”  It has taken me at least 10 years to understand what that meant (Apparently my learning curve is a nice and gentle decade-long slope!).  Now, even when I don’t feel all that good about myself, I remember that the organism that is my body is still beautiful and amazing—like a tree or a flower or so many of the other living things that I respect and cherish just because they are alive.  I have spent so long running away from pain, but now I am leaning into it, paying attention, allowing whenever I can, for as long as I can.

And this is the real work I was talking about a few nights ago—being there at the dining room table and saying to myself, “I feel like I’m about to spin out,” and letting that be, without judgment and without trying to change it.  These moments of sitting with difficult emotions or thoughts and not acting on them is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.  It feels so much easier to start howling, or throwing dishes, or binging on donuts or TV.  But I know that if I do any of those things, the second I’m done, those thoughts and feelings will still be there—all the moldier and nastier for my having tried to ignore them.  But if I stay with them, or as the Buddhists would have it, offer them a cup of tea, it gets better—maybe not right away and maybe not exactly in the way I think I want it to—but it does get better.