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Vipassana and Mindfulness Blog

Mindfulness is simply practicing awareness with what's here. That's meditation, whether you're on a mountaintop, at work, or on a roller coaster.

Insight. Not incite.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a grammar lesson. 😄

I recently spotted someone accidentally use the word “incite” when they meant “insight.” That same day, I saw someone else mention that he wrote in his journal to deal with experiencing anxiety — and called it “fighting back” against his demons.

Funny how we default to that “me vs. you” mindset — even when the “me” and the “you” are both us. (continued below)

It becomes less surprising when we consider the messages we’ve been receiving in this culture since childhood (and which have their roots going back much farther). Rugged individualism; competition and comparison; who’s winning and who’s losing. 

There was a time when this wasn’t the worst thing. When our ancestors were trying to survive on the African savannah, sometimes the best strategy was to shoot first and ask questions later. That’s the part of our human heritage, baked deep in our DNA, that’s being activated every time human interaction is being framed as some kind of cage match.

Most of us don’t face the danger of an attacking saber-tooth tiger anymore, but ironically, these messages have only become stronger and more pervasive in recent decades. Debates are now “showdowns,” political elections have become “battles,” and we have “wars” on drugs and disease. When some form of problem or disagreement arises, a violent motif often follows. It’s an easy way to generate emotional turmoil (and profit).

So when discomfort inevitably arises WITHIN us, our conditioning kicks in, and we draw battle lines — against ourselves.

 

The very first insight I ever had when I started my practice was “if you fight yourself, you’ve already lost.” Inner civil wars are neither sustainable nor winnable. Beating an unwanted inner voice into submission today only drains the energy needed to do it all over again tomorrow.

To the person who “fought back” against his anxiety with his journal, I offered a reframing of “listening” to what it had to share. It resonated; he said that it was much more accurate to say that he had paid attention to what was there, processed it as needed, and moved on.

That’s insight. Not incite.

 

Serenity Now?

I was sitting quietly waiting for a yoga class to start during a stressful time a few years ago when a teacher walked across the room to tell me:

“I have to say, you’re the chillest person in this room, sitting here like the Buddha.”

I gave him a wry grin and said he should see the mayhem happening on the inside. He responded that the inside and outside are connected, and I couldn’t possibly sit in such a manner if it was all that bad. I thanked him and good-naturedly said something about begging to disagree.

I recalled that experience some time later when I saw a Buddhist sutta which is commonly translated as follows:

They do not lament over the past,
they yearn not for what is to come,
they maintain themselves in the present,
thus their complexion is serene.

I had seen those words many times, but suddenly they carried new meaning.

It’s incredibly easy to mistake “that person looks serene” for “that person IS serene.”

It’s just as easy to attempt to force a serene outer appearance in the hopes that the inner experience will follow. Neither of these are skillful. A problem-free life is not a requirement for a serene complexion. (If it was, the first serene human face would still have yet to be made.)

Our outer appearance is simply a reflection of our inner capacity to relate to our problems in a skillful way.

I wasn’t trying to control how I looked as I waited for that yoga class to start, but in a room full of people who seemed far more relaxed than I felt, the teacher came to me. It was an “a-ha” moment for my practice; an unsolicited confirmation that I had developed the ability to give my internal turmoil enough space and compassion that it didn’t spill out into my face … or actions.

And that’s one of the funny paradoxes of holding it together: it rarely FEELS like holding it together.

Everything doesn’t have to be ok for us to relax; it’s enough to simply be ok with the thought that they aren’t.

Serenity now.

 

Karma: More Now Than Zen

“That’s bad karma.”

Karma is often summarized as “what goes around, comes around” or “someday, they’ll get theirs.” These interpretations are based on justice and vengeance, which add baggage and mystique that are irrelevant to such a basic process. More importantly, they imply that we can’t watch karma unfold directly, let alone produce and experience karmic changes now.

Neither assumption is true.

To illustrate: one way we self-sabotage is through a pair of cycles that appear to actually reward our own dread.

In the inner cycle, we anticipate a stressful event and picture how we’ll feel when it happens. “Can I handle this? Will I be ok?” Our irrational fears paint worst-case scenarios in a misguided attempt to “be prepared.” Our subconscious mind and body do not distinguish imagination from reality; they react as if this nightmare is really happening. These physical and emotional signals form a feedback loop and mistakenly “confirm” for each other that we are facing an actual, immediate threat. What happens next?

Instead of finding a comforting answer to “will I be ok,” we trigger our fight-or-flight response. Sound familiar?

To relieve that turmoil, we do the worst possible thing: we REPEAT the process, hoping we’ll get a more reassuring answer “this time.” Unfortunately, the anxiety caused by each trip through this cycle snowballs into the next, and we dig ourselves in deeper. Lather, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t even matter how the event actually unfolds (or the fact that it rarely matches our relentless dread-filled rehearsals); our thoughts, actions, and relationships have been infused with our self-induced suffering all this time.

After experiencing this cycle enough times, we see it’s ridiculous and we stop needlessly worrying about things. Right?

Yeah, not so much.

Rather than dropping this thought pattern, our fear develops another cycle (lovely, no?). This outer cycle is based on faulty logic: “I always worry about events, and then they turn out fine, so if I just keep worrying, I should be ok.” (This is a classic “correlation does not imply causation” scenario.) As noted above, the inner cycle’s physical and emotional signals “confirm” an immediate threat; similarly, because actual events don’t live up to our worst-case scenarios, the outer cycle always sees “positive” results from perpetuating the inner cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Wait, are we still talking about karma? How does all this relate?

We plant the seeds of our own suffering and nurture their growth. Such seeds can only bear bitter fruit, whose own seeds start the cycle anew. In our attempt to “be ok,” we ironically cultivate a garden of misery.

That is karma. It’s not off in the future; it’s the way we experience our lives RIGHT NOW as a result of our own intentions and actions (including how we use thought). It’s not cosmic justice; it’s basic cause and effect. It’s less “what goes around comes around” and more “if we do what we’ve always done, we get what we’ve always gotten.”

There are at least two great things about this. First, each person’s karma is their own business. We only have to deal with our own; by definition, we can’t affect anyone else’s. Second, making small changes at any given moment can improve our karma here and now. Mindfulness and insight meditation allow us to observe our unskillful patterns — and their immediate results — in real-time. This paves the way for developing skillful intentions and actions based on clear seeing. Oh, we still prepare for upcoming events; but we do so without causing stress and suffering for ourselves and others.

The process of observation and insight builds upon itself and becomes our new cycle. A sustainable cycle.

Now that’s good karma.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Recommended further reading: We Are Not One by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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