In Buddhism, we practice mindful awareness, striving in each moment to be fully aware of what is happening. Many of us seek out this practice because we feel stressed and overwhelmed by our daily lives. It might seem that mindfulness is about relaxing and letting go of that which we are stressed about. But have you ever tried to relax and let go, only to find yourself holding on more tightly? This is the illusory bind that our minds put us in. In Buddhism, we are taught about the paradox of mindfulness, the paradox of practice, that to truly let go, we must first be fully aware, to be mindful is to be aware in three ways—by not pushing away, by not holding on to, by not ignoring. Just being awake to what is happening in each moment.
These three instructions are the key to being fully mindful in the moment. These practices of not pushing away, not holding on to, not ignoring enable us to become aware more fully of what is. We start exactly where we are at. It is only from that starting point, that we can then see new possibilities in our lives. The practice of mindfulness is the doorway to these new possibilities, new ways to see our selves and our lives and others. By seeing more possibilities in our lives, we give ourselves the gift of a deeper, richer, fuller experience of living.
As I shared a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been so struck by the simplest of sayings from George Santayana. “Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness. “ So, how do we become aware of what is possible? In Buddhist practice, knowing the full range of possibilities can only occur by being fully present in each moment. We are taking in information in each moment, processing the world around us. But we most often take in information and immediately filter it through our past experiences. Some of this filtering is good—we learn early on that stoves are hot and that we don’t want to put our hands on a hot stove or we will get burned. But other of our filters are not so simple or so serving. We might have had an abusive parent, whose actions caused us to believe that we are not worthy of love, that there is something wrong with us, that we are something less than. It might seem that pushing those experiences away would be the best way to overcome these horrible misperceptions. But, once again the irony of mindfulness is that we must first be fully aware of what we are thinking, what we are feeling, how we are responding, in order to open ourselves up the full range of possibilities.
Albert Einstein has some wonderful quotes about seeing our selves and our lives with fresh eyes. One quote is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The other quote I love is that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” These are very Buddhist perspectives, encouraging us to see everything and everyone in our lives, including ourselves with a fresh perspective, like seeing with new eyes.
The paradox of the practice of mindful awareness is that by not pushing away, not clinging to, not ignoring, we start to see things and people and situations in our lives more clearly, and we begin to create new possibilities. On most days, most of us probably spend our time reacting in conditioned ways. We wake up in the same way, we brush our teeth in the same way, we drink our tea or coffee in the same way, we respond to the stresses in our lives in the same way. So, how do we wake up in the middle of our lives?
There are simple ways to try this theory out. One way to open ourselves up is to change our routine in some way. For example, tonight when you brush your teeth, you could try holding the toothbrush in the opposite hand that you normally use. It seems simple enough. But, research shows that something as simple as using a different hand to brush your teeth causes your brain to grow new neural networks. By not reacting in conditioned ways, we are actually training our brains to see ourselves and the world in new ways. We are creating new neural networks that enable us to create new possibilities in our lives.
Another simple exercise that we can try is in this moment, cross your arms. Something we all often do. Just cross your arms in this moment. Now, try crossing your arms in the opposite way. There are so many ways in our lives to shake up our old way of seeing things. The loving-kindness practice that we do at the end of each hour is another way to be open to new possibilities. We do this visualization and continue to be present with what arises. Sometimes when we are visualizing the person in our life who we find it difficult to be with, we don’t feel very loving and kind towards them. The practice calls on us to stay open to the emotions and thoughts that arise in the moment of trying to send them loving-kindness. We practice staying present with whatever comes up. And this age-old practice has been proven to help open us up to new possibilities, new ways of seeing the people in our lives, new ways of seeing ourselves, new ways of responding. So, this simple practice of mindful awareness can transform our lives in uncountable ways. Not pushing away, not clinging to, not ignoring things in our lives, but rather waking up to, bringing awareness to, seeing with fresh eyes, the habitual reactions in our lives. In that moment of clarity, in fact only in that moment of clarity, can we choose a new way of responding, a new way of being.
This new way of being is said to be the ultimate freedom.
In the teachings of Tilopa, a buddhist teacher around the tenth century, he says:
“If you strive in this endeavor, you will free yourself from the imprisonment of the endless cycle of suffering.
If you meditate in this way, you will burn the veil of karmic impurities.
Therefore you are known as “The Torch of the Truth”.
Each of us can strive to not push away, not cling to, not ignore our conditioned ways of being and see life full of new possibilities. You are “The Torch of the Truth”!