People pull some strange faces when I tell them I have made a playlist on Spotify for my funeral. But I think it is the sensible thing to do.
All this ‘taking it easy’ time I have been fortuitously granted recently has given me the opportunity to think about the next years of my life. Getting ill certainly does make you reflect on your own uninvincibility and I’ve been pondering over four features of this. Firstly, as had already prompted me to start that playlist, I am aware that I will die. It is good to bring this to mind from time to time, not from some sort of morbid wallowing, but to help focus on not wasting the time left. Death may be certain, but the timing of it is out of my control.
Secondly, I am extremely lucky in my present circumstances, so it would be a crying shame if I was to let them slip by or waste them. I already have all the physical comforts and necessities I need right here.
The third and forth features are a pair of ideas about priorities. Knowing what are and what are not the important things to be doing is vital. Prolonged lockdown has made it clearer that it isn’t money or possessions that really matter. There is a Tibetan saying “All that may be wished for will by nature fade to nothing” So eventually what remains is simply the results of what we have done; the impact of our karma.
I read this lovely phrase this week from Joseph Goldstein that seemed to describe for me what I was looking for from all this reflection. He talked about generating “spiritual urgency” and I hope reflecting on these factors will be like giving myself a pep talk to get the mind in order and to focus my efforts and energies in the right direction.
Footnote: to be honest the playlist isn’t really connected with any spiritual endeavours. It is more to do with the fact that I don’t trust anyone else to have as good musical taste as I have. The proof is right here
It is difficult to fully understand and accept the idea that there are no intended outcomes from practising mindfulness. It isn’t going to fit on a performance management sheet. It won’t sit easily as part of a self improvement plan. Instead, the invitation is to let go of the idea of not being good enough, untangle ourselves from our habit of self-judgement and just come back to how things are for us right now.
The frequently mentioned guidance to do this is ‘letting go of wanting things to be a particular way’ – such a simple instruction, but yet so difficult to do. This is because our habit is to judge some mind states as good, and so we move out to grab and clinch them. We see others as harmful or negative and we try to stiff arm them away. The aim of mindfulness is not to purge ourselves of emotions or thoughts, but rather to know they are present. Joseph Goldstein explains the advantage of this when he says “I would rather see them and explore them, than not see them and act them out”
After receiving some wise advice about my practice last year, I began to realise how quickly I try to drop distractions when I notice them. My internal dialogue normally runs “Damn I’m distracted again – back to the breath NOW!” It’s like a child in the middle of taking an extra biscuit out the jar in the kitchen, who hears a parent’s footsteps and immediately drops the swag and scarpers for the door.
Since receiving this guidance, I am slowly beginning to see that a wiser, kinder way to work with emotions and thoughts is firstly to stand back slightly from the disconnection, as though stepping to the calmer waters of the river’s edge. Then from that safer vantage point, to investigate what they are like; bringing a kind and curious attitude to the distraction while doing this. And only after that, to gently place the attention back to where I had intended it to be.
I have found mindfulness often swims against the way I have been trained to think by the society I have been brought up in. Mindfulness is a counter-cultural practice to follow. Going slower, without a target in mind is a central part to that. But it sure can be liberating.
“I had a great mindfulness practice this morning, I felt really calm afterwards…….”
(2 days later….)
“My mindfulness practice was awful today. I had no calm or peace at all and was just away with the fairies. I wish I had a quieter room to sit in”
Expectation is a sneaky feeling: the expectation that you will become relaxed, the expectation that when you sort out the stresses in your life, then you will have enough time to sit mindfully for an hour a day and then be calmer and kinder to everyone. Expectation leads to hope for the future and how much better everything will be and fear that life won’t work out that way. And its more difficult to let go of hope and fear once they have started a run.
So to practice mindfulness with expectation leads to problems of grasping on to something or pushing it away. This in turn leads the mind away from the present moment; we become disconnected from attention. Joseph Goldstein refers to a mantra he uses
“It doesn’t matter to what we don’t cling”from Audible version of Joseph Goldstein ‘Mindfulness’
In other words in today’s practice, as we sit, stand or walk we are already able to not cling to what arises; whether it is raking over the past or running future plans. We do not need better conditions or more years of experience. We merely ‘not cling’ to what is arising in this practice right now. I find this idea really encouraging and empowering. Nothing else is needed. The content of practice is not so important, its how we relate to it that is key. Noticing and letting go of this sensation now. That is all.