The view which the mind takes

My partner and I are thinking about moving. Nothing definite yet, just the exploration stage. We’ve been here before. This would be our third move in the last 10 years. Here’s what I’m discovering about myself as this situation unfolds in a context of self-acceptance, mindfulness, and non-judging awareness: “It is the view which the mind takes of a thing which creates the sorrow that arises from it.”

Who would guess that Victorian era author Anthony Trollope was a Buddhist? I shouldn’t be surprised at his insight since his work overflows not just with minute observations about the daily activities of his characters’ lives but also the social constructs shaping them, and the sense they make of their station in life. He conveys the challenge we all face when our essential self comes up against what the world appears to expect from us. Like Trollope, I understand, more than I have before, that the view my mind takes of thing creates the sorrow that arises from it.

When I think about moving there is sorrow when I fixate on the future—where will we go, what will it be like, will I make friends? And on alternate days when I dwell in the past recalling all the things about previous moves that overwhelmed me. But practicing mindfulness has helped me distinguish between constructive planning and obsessive stewing.

Differentiating between my concerns and my partner’s can a tangled source of sorrow. We are truly in this together but in our eagerness to do right by the other person we try to do the other person’s thinking and feeling for her. For instance, I push aside my hesitation or downright dislike of a location by telling myself that if a job is a good fit for her then I can’t stand in her way, and that I can adjust to any location, and that this attitude is the very definition of being a good partner. Recently, my partner told me that if she was single she would, most likely, have already moved by now. I said, “See, I am an obstacle.” “No,” she said, “That’s not what I meant. I meant that I try to think about which locations would best suit your needs.” When she said that I felt, of course, she is the most wonderful woman in the world. But I also felt irritated because I don’t want her to decide, on my behalf, where I’ll be happy. And, yes, I do see that we are mirroring each other’s behavior. When we try to think and feel for the other person, we have frustrating, circular conversations each trying her best not to be the cause of the other person’s possible unhappiness.

Non-judging awareness and self-acceptance are critical because they allow me to observe my thoughts and feelings, not be overwhelmed by them, and not push them aside because I assume they are an obstacle to my partner’s happiness. Together, we remind each other that we will take the journey as it comes and view the journey as one filled with compassion for and trust in the other person.

Confessions of a Saboteur

The Universe is a relentlessly uncooperative negotiation partner. For years I tried to make a deal—I would lead a small life if the Universe would eliminate fear from my experience. But over and over it places amazing people and ideas and opportunities in my path. Naturally, when something wonderful comes my way I get excited, tell my friends, read books, take classes. I talk with people who are doing what I aspire to do, make plans and decisions, and feel thoroughly alive. Obstacles are inevitable and I tackle them with skill and determination. I allow myself to imagine enormous success.

Eventually the voice of the saboteur emerges to thwart the wily Universe. The voice asks if what I’m doing really matters. You know, in the big picture why bother? It tells me that no one in my family has ever succeeded at anything important and it’s unlikely that I’ll be the first. It suggests that my friends’ question, “How’s your work going?” is code for, “Hey, why aren’t you making more progress?” Suddenly even small problems overwhelm me and I wake in the middle of the night feeling a lead weight on my chest. I look at my life and I all I can see are the places where I’ve let myself down.

Experience tells me that giving up now will cause less pain than failing later so I stop following up on plans and commitments, I ignore encouragement and offers of help, and I hide my best ideas in a notebook no one else will ever see.

Why doesn’t the Universe grow bored with my continuous efforts at sabotage and just agreed to my terms? In despair and frustration, I look up antonyms for sabotage to see if they reveal the Universe’s motivation. I find the words faithfulness, devotion, and loyalty. This stops me in my tracks as none of these words describe my relationship to myself. I am not faithful to my own desires. I do not devote myself to my own happiness. I offer no loyalty to my dreams. Too many reasons, too many stories but this sudden awareness of my own lack commitment to myself allows me to face the most uncomfortable question:

Can I forgive myself for fixating on failures so that they dominate me, terrify me, and paralyze me?

With trepidation I offer to change the terms of our negotiation. I’m going to look fear in the face, acknowledge it as it passes through me, and continue on the path of faith, devotion, and loyalty the Universe has set before me.

The mooks in the back of the room

Some semesters it seemed as if the registration gods conspired against her and five or six young men would fill the back row of my friend Karen’s intro to philosophy course. Slouched in their seats, baseball caps pulled low, wearing letter jackets—just the sight of these students propelled Karen back to her student days—these were the jocks who had her treated her love of learning with disdain.

When Karen told me how she felt about these students she called mooks, she was ashamed. Many professors were outstanding students and can be a bit indifferent to all but the best students in their classes. Not Karen. She sees past superficial differences to reach the learner within. But when a group of hulking athletes took over the back row it reduced her to her smallest self and she believed there was no way for her to connect with them.

She wasn’t proud of how she reacted and she knew she couldn’t just stuff her feelings down and move on. She’d tried that and it hadn’t worked.

Karen began an inquiry process when she admitted to herself that she was reacting to these students from her younger self. In accepting this she could finally notice the tension she felt throughout her body, especially in her face when she looked at them. She realized that her arms were often folded across her chest in a gesture of self-protection that also shut off her off from them. She saw that her contempt was written all over her body and even if she doubted their love of learning she knew they were smart enough to feel her dislike. As she made a conscious effort to relax her body, her mind began to follow.

Over time, she came to see them as she saw other students—with openness and compassion for them as individuals. She was no longer surprised or suspicious when they participated in class discussion or performed well on assignments. When they struggled, her compassion for them overcame any lingering doubts about her ability to help them.

Who are your mooks? Who are the people who reduce you to your smallest self? When you see them ask Tara Brach’s perfect question, “What in me is disturbed by this?” When you find the answer, I urge you to act with compassion toward yourself, as that is the first step toward behaving with compassion toward them.