“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Lately my life has felt relatively void of beauty. Considering this is a blog about the quest for beauty in my life, I’m not overjoyed about this fact.
It would be easy for me to blame it on the recent changes in my life situation. When I started this blog I was living in San Sebastian, a beautiful beach city in Spain. I spent my days reading and writing in cafes, traveling around the country, and meeting new people. Then there was the architecture…How can there be so much beautiful architecture in one country?
Now I’m back home, and I spend most of my time in a routine, going to work in a small city and then coming back home. I may occasionally slip in some yoga on the beach or a game of basketball but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have a bad living situation; but it’s a far cry from my life in Spain.
Yet in my heart I know my external situation is not to blame for the perceived lack of beauty in my life. I firmly believe that beauty can be found in any situation, as long as I’m willing to look for it.
So why have I been struggling so much then? Am I just not looking hard enough? Is this an issue of work ethic?
I don’t think so. But it’s possible I’m using the wrong strategy to find beauty in my life.
My normal approach to seeking beauty has been to wait for the inspiration to strike and ride the wave as long as I can. This was easy to do in Spain. The sense of adventure that came from moving across the world made everything seem magical. Not only was I surrounded by new and exciting things, I felt a sense of freedom being on my own out there.
Unfortunately, inspiration is a fickle thing, and since I’ve been back home it has rarely shown itself.
There have been recent glimmers of hope though. Since renewing my focus on mindfulness meditation and being present to the moment, glimpses of beauty have started to reemerge in my life.
It’s nothing like how it was when I was abroad; my rose-colored glasses rarely stay on for more than a few moments. But I’m starting to notice a trend: those glimpses of beauty last about as long as I’m able to stay present to the moment. Once my mind shifts back into thinking mode the beauty is gone.
I think part of my problem is that I’ve been looking at beauty the wrong way. This whole time I’ve thought of it as something that has to be sought out. But what if instead of going out of my way to search for it, I just need to change the lenses through which I’m seeing the world? And by that I simply mean becoming present to the moment.
One of the reasons I’m so enamored with being present to the moment is that I’ve experienced the power it has to instantly transform my life.
I can still recall those first few times I made an effort to observe my thoughts. It felt as if there was a dimmer switch in my head that I never knew about. For years I had been living in a dark haze of thoughts and emotions, believing that reality couldn’t get any brighter. But as soon as I took that mental step back and watched what was going on in my head….it was like I turned the brightness all the way up in my life. Everything around me – people, nature, even inanimate objects – became more vibrant.
In the brief moments I was present I started to notice new details in my surroundings. Music began to sound a little better. I could connect with people on a deeper level. When taking action I could get in a flow state much easier.
That’s the power of being present. And it’s only natural that in a state like that, seeing the beauty in the world becomes automatic.
So from here on out I’m shifting my focus.
Instead of worrying so much about looking for beauty, I’m going to first start cultivating a state of mind that can perceive it. This means focusing on being present in each moment. Because how could I possibly expect to find beauty in the moment if my full attention isn’t even on it?
“Happiness can only exist in acceptance.”
– George Orwell
I get angry a lot. Well…I wouldn’t call it anger exactly. It’s more like a consistent, low-level irritation. I feel it while driving, while doing customer service at work, while waiting in line for pretty much anything. Sometimes this irritation grows into real anger. Other times it just kind of stays there, humming beneath the surface, waiting for something to tip it over the edge.
I recently wrote a post on mindfulness meditation and how the only thing it requires is that you become aware of the present moment. I’ve started to put this awareness into practice, especially during times when I’m feeling irritated. Part of what that entails is looking closely at what’s causing my irritation in the first place. Initially, the answer seems obvious. It’s the slow driver in front of me or the rude customer I’m dealing with. But when I look deeper at these situations, I can start to see that it isn’t the driver or the customer that’s causing my irritation, it’s my resistance to the present moment.
Resistance: The Root of Our Suffering
Life can be full of unpleasantness. This is an undeniable fact. Every day we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, dealing with events and emotions that we would rather not experience. Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to make those already unpleasant circumstances even worse by adding resistance into the mix.
Resistance is simply the refusal to accept what is happening in the present moment. Some have argued that it is the root of all our suffering. I first heard that assertion when I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The book is about becoming present to the moment, and it goes into detail about the different ways that we resist the present. Feelings like anger, boredom, anxiety; these are all symptoms of our resistance to what IS.
This means that resistance is so entrenched in our daily lives that we usually don’t even realize we’re resisting.
Let’s take a very common example: waking up in the morning. If you’re anything like me, getting up (especially on weekdays) is rarely a pleasant experience. As soon as the alarm goes off you’re faced with uncomfortable feelings like disorientation and sleepiness. They can make actually getting out of bed a terrible challenge.
But what is it about those feelings that makes them intrinsically bad? Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What this really means is that it’s purely our judgment of something that determines its effect on us, and resistance pretty much always takes the form of a negative judgement. You feel tired and you tell yourself, “This is bad.” You’re stuck in traffic and you think, “Why do there have to be so many damn cars on the road?” From there, emotional and physical forms of resistance start to set in. You clench your jaw and fists. Your breathing becomes more constricted. Before you know it, you’re lost in a tailspin of negativity.
Eckhart Tolle wasn’t the first person to realize how much of our pain is actually caused by resistance. This lesson can be seen in religions and philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity. It’s based on the wisdom that life is constantly changing and mostly outside of our control.
Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who created the Tao Te Ching, wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” If we can really understand that life will change with or without our consent, this “letting things flow” becomes a lot easier.
The Buddha said, “The root of suffering is attachment.” While he used attachment instead of resistance, his message was the same. Resistance is really a form of attachment: an attachment to how we want things to be. We cling to a fictional image of how we think the world should be, and when reality conflicts with that image we suffer.
The irony of resistance is that it’s, at best, ineffective at creating positive changes. Let’s go back to the example of waking up feeling tired and disoriented. In that situation, no amount of internal resisting – and this includes complaining as well – will make those feelings go away. All resistance will do is add some serious grumpiness on top of them.
This applies to any situation that you might judge as negative, like doing an overnight shift at work or being stuck in traffic. While the natural tendency is to get frustrated, no amount of complaining to coworkers or cursing at other drivers will change your situation. But it might very well lead to high blood pressure or a car accident.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “what you resists, persists.” I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to uncomfortable emotions. When dealing with feelings like anger, what usually causes me the most suffering isn’t the anger itself, but my resistance to the fact that I’m angry. In my head I judge being angry as “negative,” and I want it to stop. But this just feeds the anger, making it last much longer than it probably would have had I not resisted it.
In this sense resistance is like adding fuel to a fire. It takes whatever you’re feeling and amplifies it.
The opposite of resistance is acceptance. That seems like a simple concept, but practicing it is truly a challenge. There are a couple of reasons so many of us might struggle with acceptance.
Firstly, our egos don’t want us to accept things the way they are. Ego is a term with a lot of different interpretations, but for the sake of this post I’m going to define it as the thinking mind. It’s the voice in our heads that judges each moment. It’s always stuck in the past or the future, never in the present moment. Any resistance we feel is because of our identification with our egos (minds).
Eckhart Tolle explains it best:
“The pain that you create now is always some form of non acceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind.”
The second reason is a little less esoteric. It seems as though the idea of acceptance may have negative connotations, especially in American society. We live in a culture that encourages blasting through obstacles in order to get the results we want. We are a society of problem solvers. So when a situation or feeling that isn’t agreeable comes our way, the natural instinct is to fight back. Unfortunately, this usually creates more problems than solutions.
What it really comes down to is a misinterpretation of what acceptance means.
Accepting the present moment means understanding that you can’t control what’s already in front of you. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or just simply in a bad mood, those are your current circumstances and mentally resisting them won’t change that.
However, accepting doesn’t mean you can’t respond to what’s in front of you or take action to improve things. But taking action is not synonymous with resistance. In fact, the only way to take truly effective action is to fully accept your circumstances. Any kind of resistance you have, such as anger or complaining mentally, will only hinder your attempts at taking action. It’s like the Serenity Prayer says, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
So let’s say you’re faced with a rude customer at work. No matter how much you resist the situation internally (by getting angry or impatient), it won’t change the fact that that customer is in front of you. Instead, that resistance might lead you to start arguing with the customer, making the situation even worse. At the very least it puts you in a worse mood than before. But if you simply accept the present moment, you can then put all your focus on changing the situation in a positive way.
This is all easy to talk about, but much harder to put into action. So here are a couple reminders that help me whenever I notice myself resisting the present moment.
1) Awareness is Key
“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” – Nathaniel Branden
Before we can begin to solve any kind of problem in our lives, we must become aware the problem even exists. This is especially true when it comes to learning how to accept the present moment. It’s so easy to fall into negative moods and thought patterns without even realizing it. And for many of us, that negativity is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that it feels normal.
Getting out of this negative cycle requires us to start paying attention to our thoughts and emotions. Practices like mindfulness meditation (check out my last post) are extremely helpful for this. But I’ve found that, just by setting the intention each day to observe my mind, my awareness increases tenfold.
Of course, being aware of something doesn’t mean it will automatically change. But that awareness creates the internal space that will allow us to eventually make changes.
Whenever you find yourself in a bad mood, take a mental step back and look at what exactly you’re feeling and why. There’s no need to judge or try to change anything. If you can manage to just be aware of what’s going on inside you, it will make a world of difference in your life.
2) “What You Resist, Persists”
I’ve found that keeping this old adage in mind keeps me from getting consumed by resistance. I see it almost as leveraging resistance against itself. I know that the best way to get something to change is to first accept it. It comes down to choosing the long term over the short term. By accepting an unpleasant situation in the short term, it is more likely to change in the long term.
One situation where I’ve applied this quite a bit is when I’m having trouble falling asleep. My instinctual reaction is to get increasingly frustrated as the night goes on. This usually only results in me not being able to fall asleep for even longer. But when I remind myself that what I resist will only persist, I can make the conscious decision to just relax into the moment.
Instead of mentally bemoaning my inability to fall asleep, I embrace it fully. I say to myself, “Okay, I guess I’m not falling asleep tonight.” Then maybe I close my eyes and focus on my breath for a while. Or I use that time to review my day or mull over a problem I’ve been dealing with. More often than not, I’ll end up falling asleep shortly after.
Of course, sometimes I don’t. In that case the same advice still applies. I constantly remind myself that resisting will only add emotional turmoil on top of whatever physical pain I might feel from lack of sleep.
Whenever you become aware of your inner resistance to something, just remind yourself that resisting it will only make things worse.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Eckhart Tolle. I think it perfectly sums up the futility of resistance and the benefits that come from acceptance.
“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
I recently finished my second reading of “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I should note that, had I brought this book with me when I was abroad this past year, this probably would have been my third or fourth reading. As its title says, this book is about the difficult yet rewarding practice of mindfulness meditation. Simply put, mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. You can do this in many ways, though my favorite – and the way most talked about in this book – is by simply focusing on your breath.
As anyone who has tried mindfulness meditation (or any other form of meditation, for that matter) knows, this is much easier said than done. The author does a great job of not just breaking down mindfulness in an easy to understand way, but also giving a context for why you would even want to practice it. What I like most though, is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the subject. He explains that mindfulness meditation isn’t some instant fix for all of life’s problems. It’s an intensive, lifelong quest for more clarity and truth in your life; and the truth can often be deeply uncomfortable to face.
Instead of writing a traditional book review, I’m just going to offer three of my biggest takeaways from this book.
1) There is no “End Goal” in Mindfulness Meditation
When I first started meditating I viewed it just like any other skill you might try to develop. Having experimented with it, and experiencing a little of what some would call “presence,” I assumed that the goal of meditation was to reach a relaxed and focused state. But this goal-oriented mindset actually made meditation a somewhat grueling practice because I was often disappointed when I couldn’t reach that desired state. I started to view any meditation session that didn’t have a “good” result as a failure.
From what I’ve heard, this is one of the most common struggles “Westerners” face when it comes to meditation, and it’s completely understandable. I can’t think of anything I’ve done in my life that wasn’t meant to achieve some kind of result. In fact, the idea of doing something with no goal in mind almost seems insane, or at the very least a waste of time.
Yet, as this book repeatedly emphasizes, the whole purpose of meditation is to just BE in the moment. There is no ideal state to reach, no feeling that is supposed to be felt. Meditation, Kabat-Zinn writes, “is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at the bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” He then goes on to say that meditation may be better described as “being” rather than “doing.”
So why meditate then? Well I can personally attest that meditation, while not meant to achieve anything, can provide plenty of benefits, such as a clearer state of mind, increased self-awareness, better moods, and improved concentration. But more important than any of that, meditation allows you to experience life in the most authentic way possible: in the present moment. Grounding yourself in the present moment may not be easy or pleasant all of the time, but I would argue that it’s the only way to truly live.
2) Staying with Uncomfortable or Even Painful Feelings/Moments
When most people think of meditation, they probably associate it with feelings of peace and happiness. These feelings can definitely be experienced with continued practice, but they are only superficial benefits. Using the analogy of our minds being like oceans and our thoughts waves, the author says, “People who don’t understand meditation think that it is some kind of special inner manipulation which will magically shut off these waves so that the mind’s surface will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil. But just as you can’t put a glass plate on the water to calm the waves, so you can’t artificially suppress the waves of your mind…”
He further emphasizes that meditation is not some quick fix for your problems in life. It’s a practice that requires you to fully face each moment, the good ones and the bad ones. This means not running away from painful emotions like sadness or anger. Meditation requires that you stay with those emotions, not reacting to them, but observing them instead.
One of the amazing benefits of this practice is that those “negative” feelings will often dissipate after a while. It’s like a paradox: by not trying to get rid of the feelings, they tend to get rid of themselves. Of course, this isn’t always true, and that’s part of what makes meditation such a challenge.
3) Non-Harming (Ahimsa)
I thought this part of the book was a nice break from all the talk about meditation and its challenges/benefits. It explains that ahimsa is a Sanskrit term which essentially means “not to injure.” We all know that it’s important to be kind to others. We also know that this is usually easier said than done. What I love about this idea of “non-harming” is that it frames kindness in a way that requires less effort from us. Instead of forcing yourself to be kind to someone, it’s a lot easier to ask yourself, “Am I doing someone harm right now?” If the answer is yes, then just stop what you’re doing. Of course, proactive kindness is always preferable. But I’ve found that trying to force yourself into action can create a lot of internal resistance.
Not doing harm to others or yourself may seem like an obvious idea – though often difficult to put into action – but this chapter also emphasizes that ahimsa applies just as much to how we treat ourselves. Starting from the awareness involved in mindfulness meditation, we can start to see that the thoughts in our heads often do even more harm to ourselves than to others. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is something I’ve always struggled with. Keeping ahimsa in mind has already helped me curb this tendency quite a bit.
If you resonated with any of these lessons, or are simply curious about mindfulness meditation in general, I definitely recommend you check out this book. There are plenty of other great lessons to be found in it as well.