By Tim Burnett
Sometimes when we hear about mindfulness and meditation is sounds passive. It sounds like we'll be better off just accepting everything. Just sit with it. Relax. What is, is. And so on.
And that's not wrong. It does help us immensely to get it through our heads that we can't be active all the time. It does us and the world no good if our speed control is set to "always on." It exhausts us and everyone around us if life is nothing but doing, improving, fixing, and figuring things out. Goodness knows, almost all of us could use some remedial lessons in relaxation.
But it's not quite right to think about mindfulness training as just being about relaxation and acceptance. That's missing its transformational potential – by a mile. Mindfulness helps us pay more attention and that can reveal a lot that we're missing and be the seed of curiosity about what it is we don't know or understand yet.
There are some apparent opposites here. On the one hand it's absolutely essential to accept things that are, here it is; but on the other hand there may be something we don't know, yet, that can change our lives and the lives of others for the better if only we noticed and chose to do something about it.
A tale of two cats
Recently we got a new cat. Our beloved cat Lucca had died a few years ago and after a couple years of an emptier house without animals my wife found a sprightly young cat to bring home.
In the interim though she learned more about cats. She learned about their psychology and she learned about cat training. And she committed herself to working with our new cat Gizmo to increase some behaviors and decrease others. And happily our interests and our cat's interests seem to be largely in alignment!
Lucca and her cat sister Capraia used to drive us nuts in the early morning. At about 4:30am or so one or the other would hop up on the bed and start wining to be fed. After a while of course we locked them downstairs which allowed us to sleep a little longer but probably didn't help them feel any less anxious about food.
And we accepted this: a little annoying but just how it is with cats. Looking back now I wonder: did we accept it wisely or just learn to put with it? Did we just not know any better?
With our new cat Gizmo, Janet realized that if he never associated us with receiving food he wouldn't have any reason to bug us early in the morning to feed him. And so she found a simple mechanical feeder that you can set to rotate a its lid revealing the food as any given time. She set this up to feed Gizmo at 5am - in the downstairs bathroom away from our room.
Result? Gizmo doesn't wake us up early in the morning, we dont need to lock him downstairs, and he can even sleep with us. It's delight to feel his warm body in between us (on top of the covers happily). It makes us both happy and seems to make him happy. If he gets hungry he can hop up any time to see if the feeder (the "magic box") has revealed another batch of food for him.
A common sense anchor
I don't know if i'm writing about mindfulness or common sense here. But maybe that's an accurate way of thinking about the benefits of mindfulness. It helps us access our common sense. And that kind of common sense maybe increasingly uncommon!
And of course all of this might not have worked with Gizmo. His personality and history are a part of this too. His previous owners must have been kind and supportive as he quickly seemed to feel relaxed and happy as a new member of the household. There are no guarantees.
Some of the studies of mindfulness suggest that the practice supports our ability to make a creative effort with less attachment to the outcome. It seems contradictory to increase both our curiosity about why things are, and how they might be, and our acceptance of things as they are. And yet somehow these two qualities are nurtured through the practice. In a mindful state there's more room to wonder what we're not seeing. And in a mindless state we're heads-down. Tolerating things begrudgingly and running on habit: no room in the mind for new ideas.
And a path to skillfulness
A term to describe this that I hear in Buddhist circles a lot is skillfulness.
Mindfulness practice seems to give us more room to be skillful. Sometimes there is something we simply don't know (the basics of cat training for instance) that could really change lives for the better. It's skillful to learn more. To change something. To see what happens.
Other times despite our best efforts, based on what we know at this point, things just aren't going the way we want. And then it's skillful to turn towards our resistance and annoyance and pain and practice mindful acceptance and a little kindness. We'll never get all of what we want and we'll always live in a world with pain and suffering in it. We can't fix it but maybe we can become more skillful in the middle of it. And the great thing is that tends to lead to a lot more ease and joy overall.
Life is tricky. It can be painful. And it can be a delight. It's up to us, and it's beyond us. Both sides are always here. And we really can become more skillful in how we navigate.
Wishing us all an increase in skillfulness as we touch into our deep native intelligence and common sense,
Tim Burnett, Executive Director