I was describing to a friend yesterday the changes I experienced when I started practising mindfulness regularly about 5 years ago.
I have had many short lived tastes of peace and unity through my life, which I was fortunate to discover early in our large tree filled garden at home as a child. Out there for hours I was absorbed in natural surroundings, the life outside away from humans, the beatles, the mosses, the insects and spiders, up trees with the birds. I was completely at peace there. Moments of freedom from thoughts and feelings and a turbulent family life.
Later on meditation became a regular part of my life during frequent walks in the natural world. There in the woods, by the rivers and streams, all of the human drama ceased to exist. Trees, moss, stones and birds are indifferent to my stories, my beliefs and identity, my problems, my job, my family and my existence. I ceased to exist for these periods and became part of the whole of nature and the wider world. I caught glimpses of peace on these walks, short periods of being able to rest with everything that was happening and a feeling of unity too.
Nature taught me a lot as I observed its processes. I would sit and feel and look and smell and just be for long periods. I would notice how the leaves let go effortlessly when it was time, no clinging on for them. I would notice how the water pauses and gently surmounts a barrier in its path, no rush, no complaining, just carrying on. I learned a lot from nature, metaphors everywhere. At other times I would enjoy just being a part of the creation without any separation.
Of course, as soon as I was back in the house, the chattering mind started up again, the embroilment in drama, the worry, the avoidance, addictions, passions and desires all shook me about like a rag doll. It was only in nature that I felt at peace. So I moved out there to a remote cottage in the woods. This was wonderful, and yet against this backdrop of silence in nature, everything in me that felt separate came screaming into the foreground. Somehow being right in a remote woodland only accentuated my lack of inner peace. Business went through a tough period too, it was in danger of collapsing, I had no money, and family relationships were strained…I felt myself cracking under the strain. I didnt know what to do other than cry, complain, smoke lots of cigarettes and drink more wine.
Then a friend introduced to me to a group who practiced mindfulness, and I leapt at the opportunity fired on by the courage of a sheer desperation to alleviate my pain. I joined up with the group (looking back on it a pretty crazy group but they served a purpose at the time)and we met online almost daily and I went to their courses in Italy. I practised a lot. It was a type of mindfulness used in the Dzogchen buddhist tradition I later discovered. Short moments taken throughout the day. Short moments of noticing the space between thoughts. Short moments of open awareness. Just short moments. No sitting for hours at a time. This suited my restless nature perfectly.
The more I did this, the more I saw that the open alert awareness exists all the time. Whether I am thinking or not, ignoring it or not, it is always there. It became my refuge. If I was within a fit of stress I would return to the ever present awareness for a short moment. I did this over and over and over. In the car, on the loo, in the woods, talking to people, in queues in shops, cooking…
They taught me that my thoughts simply come and go and I do not have to believe them or jump into them and create a story. I could allow them to come and go, and just keep doing this over and over. The same for feelings, whether feelings of fear and anxiety of feelings of lust and admiration, excitement, jealousy, desire, aversion….all feelings could be allowed just as they are, to come and go. And to my surprise they do all go if they are not attached to, if I don’t make a big drama out of them, if I don’t try and suppress them, or try to replace them with ‘better’ thoughts and feelings. Just relax with it all over and over and over.
This was quite a revolution for me. I knew I wanted to be and live in that peaceful space between thoughts more of the time, but I thought the way to do this was to replace the thoughts, or improve the thoughts, or avoid them. I used to feel personally responsible for all thoughts and feelings, and if I had a ‘bad’ thought or feeling, like a jealous or angry one I would judge myself harshly and take it as evidence that I was bad, imperfect, nasty impure, or at least spiritually immature.
I lapped up this new freedom. I now could allow my jealousy to come and go. My fears, my aggressive thoughts towards others, my desires, all of it could simple be allowed in and then let go of. I didnt have to act on any of them and I no longer judged myself harshly for having them. I saw that thoughts are random, continuous and uncontrollable. This made me FAR more honest about what I was experiencing. Denial went out the window as a method of maintaining an idea of myself as a good person. I could admit to everything and still be a good person. After all I was not my fleeting thoughts and emotions, I was the space within which they all come and go.
This was far from a smooth transition though despite having these marvellous new tools. A big part of me went into such a panic as the enormity of this transition sunk in. A new type of crisis started, many of my usual defenses and methods of dealing with life became defunct. The group I was with provided me with vital support during this period. I leaned heavily on them and would go to their online meetings and share my crisis almost daily at times. ‘How can this be safe’ my ego cried and screamed, ‘is it really safe to relax with everything?’. I could hardly believe it. They always said very little, always calm and reflected back to me that my turbulent feelings and panic driven thoughts were like ripples in a still pond, or a line drawn in water or the trail left in the sky by a plane. An initial strong sensation then, always dissipation if not interfered with. I persevered and kept coming back to the always present open awareness. With experience I was gradually reassured that I was indeed safe. In fact I felt safer than ever before in my life. I no longer had to be afraid of my thoughts and feelings.
I saw that I could watch my thoughts feelings and sensations. I was not them if I could watch them. I was that watcher, that awareness within which all the thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences come and go. I saw that these thoughts and feelings are all just the dynamic expression of my awareness, and a part of it. They are not supposed to ‘run the show’ but as part of me, are not to be rejected or denied, but allowed. They come knocking at the door, you say ‘hello and welcome’ and invite them in. You don’t invite them to stay for a big dinner though, you show them the back door and they leave peacefully.
So after a while at my son’s request we moved back to the city. I now had a method of dealing with my internal experience and I felt reinvigorated and ready to get the business back in order. I had moved away from the group, which I felt was increasingly cultish. I needed a support system and company though, and I found the Mindfulness Association and went to a few of their weekend courses which they held at a remote Buddhist monastery in the country. This gave me some much needed interaction with others undergoing this process and strengthened my practice.
Another crucial part of the toolkit was introduced to me – self compassion. This really helped with further removing harsh self judgement, and the judging of others. The feeling of turning towards an experience of a difficult emotion with kindness and tenderness and care, made it much easier to allow it in and let it go. It made it easier to feel compassion towards others, to judge them less harshly and allow a space for empathy and understanding to take place. I was learning to care for myself. My previous uncaring ways became obvious, and I experienced sadness as I reflected on how horrible I had been to myself for so long. I stopped smoking, now that I could see I was engaging in self harm.
I started making money as I saw how I had been depriving myself of my own support in this way. I had felt I did not deserve the safety and wellbeing that having money brought. I saw how I had sabotaged my business and kept it on the edge, just doing well enough to keep going, support the men but not really myself without being in permanent debt and on the verge of bankruptcy and at the mercy of my creditors. I changed that behaviour and became debt free within a couple of years and started saving up for house.
My social life has changed a lot. This has been one of the most difficult parts of the transition. My friends were everything to me, my close companions, mutual support system, entertainment, confidents, regular visitors, walking and lunching buddies, sharing everything openly with most of them. Many of the long term friends I was travelling through life with, shared my old self harming ways. We had shared a well worn ‘life script’ for decades which probably attracted us to each other in the first place.
Being kind, gentle and tender to myself had become part of my new life script. I had new ways of dealing with my internal difficulties that soothed rather than dramatised. I was allowing greater wellbeing and prosperity into my life and becoming wealthier and stronger. It became difficult to be around some old friends who had not changed. I shared my new vocabulary with them as much as I could, but I had experienced an inner turning around, and they had their own process and pace unique to them, that it was not my place to try and change. But incompatibilities emerged more and more and we drifted apart in some cases and had abrupt endings in conflict with others.
I could go into detail about how hard I tried to keep these friendship going and how the incompatibilities made it increasingly clear it wasn’t possible. I wanted to hold onto my friendships, and I tried desperately not to lose them. I didnt have so many dramas to share or problems to discuss, and I didnt react to their in the same way which was disquieting for us both. And now I had some healthy boundaries in place. I was looking after myself. I couldn’t allow another’s anger to hurt me over and over, I couldn’t collude with the endless victim stories of another, I couldn’t be around the self harming practises of another, I couldn’t keep letting another depressed friend dump on me emotionally and use me to pay for everything, I couldn’t listen to another’s ongoing angry political rants about social injustice.
All this was fairly normal and acceptable previously, though I might complain occasionally to others about it. I still love them all dearly and wish them well. I’m still a bit ‘in love’ with one of them actually. But mindfulness has taught me how to allow feelings of attraction to arise, and how to let it go again. It comes and goes and while previously I probably would have acted on it, now my attraction, no matter how intense at times, won’t take me back into situations where experience has shown that my well being will suffer. Healthy boundaries. It is hard to change. I cant force it others, it is not my business. I see that for me it took being backed into a corner of intense distress, and nobody could have talked me into it. I hope that I did plant some seeds of self compassion for them though before we parted ways.
On a more positive note, other relationships have been healed through this mindfulness journey, specifically family relationships. Long held grievances with my mother were uncovered and faced. Tears gave way to forgiveness and gratitude and defences melted. The initial group I was with did a lot of very valuable ‘facing everything’ type exercises. I now have a great relationship with her.
So now I find myself starting this new year with a lot of space in my life. I have been sitting here all day so far, not answering the phone, reading and writing here, meditating, and feeling into the new energy of beginnings. I have less support than ever before in my life. But I have the support of myself now, I am my own ally.
Sometimes I wonder if mindfulness should come with a warning ‘ Entering here will change your life in ways you cant imagine!’. It does change everything, well for me it has. I have needed a LOT of support to go through it, and still need support as it further integrates into every area of my life. Today I sat with one of Tara Brach’s guided meditations on my cushion, and felt so grateful to be chummed along into this wide open spacious awareness, where there is nothing to cling to. We humans like to cling! But there is nothing to cling to, other than the refuge of open awareness. Its as good as refuges get though. It is always present, it is completely free and available all the time, so 100% reliable, and I can meet others there too and make friends there.
I am very grateful that my journey took this big leap. I am grateful for those who have taught me easy and the difficult lessons. I am grateful to those who supported me. I am grateful for the expansion I am experiencing. I am grateful that my journey transitioned from a mostly intellectual to an experiential level. I am grateful to the pain that took me here.