Learning to Live in Harmony

by on 19 July

When I opened the front door this morning, and took in the beauty of the clouds, feel of the breeze, and smell of fresh moist air, I felt really alive. I also felt an urge to write about learning to live well through meditation and mindfulness (M&M).

 

Harvard University research several years ago revealed that people spend half their waking hours thinking of things other than what they are doing at the time. A subconscious part of our brain is constantly looking out for more interesting or more important things to think about than what we are actually doing – i.e., what our body is doing at the time. This can help us survive because our mind is watching what’s going on in our environment - peripheral awareness - as well as trying to address any big issues going on in our lives. But much of this habitual, distracted thinking can create problems for us.

 

It’s fair to say that being human being is not easy – it’s difficult, impermanent, uncertain and finite:
- it regularly throws up problems to address – health, finances, relationships, or work-related.
- everything we experience could change or disappear, whether our possessions, jobs, relationships, or bodies.
- the future is uncertain, no matter how much we strive to control important features of our life, and
- our life will end at a time unknown to us.

 

This is the reality we all face and try to deal with. But there are several ways we try to cope which just make life worse. Instead of acknowledging these realities and learning to live in harmony with them, many of us tend to create stress in our lives by resisting our situation and/or fearing the future.

 

We often resist reality by becoming irritated or angry, or working compulsively hard to control or change it. All of this resistance creates unhappiness – mental stress with negative emotions - and unhealthy bodies. Or, we might try to “make it better” by pursuing sensory pleasures which will help us “forget” reality – like food, liquor, or digital experiences. Since these are temporary, however, they don’t solve our problems.

 

Besides practicing aversion to life, we might be practicing fear or anxiety about what might happen in the future. Rather than analyzing the probability of a negative event and, where appropriate, devising a strategy to deal it, we can fall into the habit of imagining problems and fearing them.

 

The very high level of anti-depressants prescribed in western society is a measure of how many people are experiencing stress and unhappiness.

 

All of this mental “fighting, fearing or striving” is not just a problem in the short term because our brains are malleable, what’s called “brain plasticity”. Every time we engage in unhealthy mental habits, they grow stronger. This habitual, negative mental activity changes the neural pathways in our brain and strengthens these unhealthy habits. It leads to more negative thinking in the future, and negatively affects our physical health as well – our ability to sleep, our heart, and our immune system.

 

“What you practice grows stronger”.

 

Many people take great care of their physical health – a good night’s sleep, healthy diet, exercise, stretching and regular visits to the doctor and dentist. And our bodies reflect how we treat them. Our mind, our mental health, needs the same degree of attention and care to be well. If much of our day is filled with negative thoughts, our brains will get really good at that. We will get really good at living in disharmony – not liking ourselves, our situation in life, or the people and world around us.

 

There is a healthier and happier way to live - to live in harmony with reality. It involves getting to know ourselves deeply - our habits of thought, speech, and behaviour – and gradually making wholesome changes in how we live our life.

 

Many of the students in my M&M course over the last four years enrolled because of unhappiness in their life in some form – whether anxiety, depression or general discontent with themselves and their life. As they practiced M&M over the first few weeks – practiced paying attention to how they were living – they slowly began to see how their own habits were the source of their unhappiness. Their experience was similar to mine.

 

Since I started to meditate in 1999, and to pay more attention to my inner life – my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations – I have learned that I was the biggest obstacle to my own happiness:
- my visualizations of possibly falling from a high place could lead to fear strong enough to immobilize me. By letting go of these visualizations and focusing on my body, its movement and the surroundings, I learned to move with confidence at such heights.
- I came to realize that my occasional anger on the phone with representatives of retail corporations - internet providers, perhaps - didn’t help me achieve what I wanted from them. Moreover, it could lead to hours of bad mood and regret. I learned to resist that impulse and improved my "shopping performance" and happiness.
- For years, I tried very hard to avoid being late for a social event. Only through deeper reflection on this habitual striving did I come to realize that I was anxious about possible criticism of being late. When I thought about this possible outcome, I realized that it was quite ludicrous – “So, Peter, we’ve been discussing your tardiness and have decided not to invite you to our gatherings anymore. Sorry.” I learned to let go of that habitual impulse, and to work on fears of possible criticism under other circumstances.
- in my striving to fit as many projects as possible into my day, I once found myself irritated at the cat who just stared up at me w/o knowing that she was in “my” path. I learned to change that habit of frustration, to pause and tell the cat how much I appreciated the joy she brings to our home
- when traffic was slow, I learned that I had a choice between becoming frustrated, or just patiently sitting in the car and reflecting on what a wonderful city Ottawa is. The former was bad for my mood, my heart and my immune system. The latter lifted my mood and helped me be more mindful during the day.

 

A key to understanding the practice of M&M is that very few of us are aware of these life-long habits which impact our health and happiness. And, if we are aware, we usually don’t have the perspective or skills to change them.

 

Soon after I started teaching, one of my breakfast group asked, “Does a person have to be stressed in order to enroll in your course? I replied, “No, of course not”. Now, years later, I feel that almost all of us are “stressed out” to some extent because of our negative habits of thought, attitude and perception. But, most people aren’t sufficiently aware of the stress, or willing to admit and address it. It takes honesty and courage to seek assistance in learning to live well.

 

I was on stress leave from work in 1999 when I asked a health professional “What else can I do to avoid the stress I recently encountered”. She suggested a course on mindfulness. I fell in love with it and, over the years, have enjoyed:
- spending more of the day paying attention – living it more fully – and noticing more of what’s happening around and inside me
- getting better at “catching” myself before I act on old reactive habits which are not healthy
- a decreasing interest in thinking selfish thoughts which lead to unhappiness
- appreciating reality – there is an awful lot of wonderful coffee in our “cup” of life. If we focus on that, we can make life a lot more enjoyable.

 

“We cannot manage what we do not measure”. We need to honestly assess our happiness – our ease of living – in order to decide whether to improve it. We have only one life to live, one life to create. I’m trying to live mine in harmony with reality as much as I can. The more I can do that, the happier and healthier I feel.

 

Peter Black

Instructor: meditation and mindfulness

1 comment

  • Home Security Alarm Systems

    This is really helpful! Very Hard to find this type of information anymore. Appreciate it.

    Home Security Alarm Systems Saturday, 03 February 2018 08:14

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.