It’s hard not to have expectations in life. When we set off on a journey we expect to arrive at the other end and we imagine what that will be like. If we wait for a bus, a train, our meal to arrive, we have expectations of having our desires met; perhaps with a certain standard of customer service along the way.
And what about expectations of ourselves? How much we should achieve in our lives; how much we should achieve each day. Did you get up and meditate today? Did you intend to and then somehow it didn’t happen?
In our relationships, if a family member, partner or friend is struggling we can sometimes ask ourselves what more we could be doing. If only we could find the right words to support them.
All of this can leave us with a deep and rumbling sense of inadequacy: ‘I’m not where I should be. I’m just not good enough. I’m not there yet.’
It isn’t helped when situations occur and we react with anger, jealousy or frustration before we’ve realised what’s happening. Then the familiar thought pops up, ‘If I was a really spiritual person I wouldn’t feel like that.’ It can seem like we’re a million miles away from the ideal of an embodied spiritual being that we hold as a cherished thought and towards which we continuously strive.
Except if we’re honest, we don’t really continuously strive towards it. Mostly we just strive to be quite good and only really strive towards it when we’re around other ‘spiritual’ people.
What we more often do is measure ourselves against it and realise that we’re always falling short, leading us to feel like we still have a lot more to do, further to go and endless improvements to make. There’s an inevitable gap between where we think we are and where we should be.
Of course this is just the judging mind doing what it does. It measures. That’s one of the most fundamental aspects of the cognising mind; it’s a comparison engine: ‘This is good, that’s better, that’s best. This is tall, that’s short. This is the way it’s supposed to be, that’s wrong.’
When we see this is how it operates, then we start to realise it’s really just doing what it does. That’s part of its function. Perception turns experiences into things; the judging mind looks for patterns and compares the things. We might say: perception creates the words, and mind writes the story. It’s part of this human experience and trying to ‘transcend’ it is very much akin to trying to cut off our own noses.
The freedom that comes from being awake is not freedom from these feelings or the judging mind, it’s freedom from believing it really is this way; freedom from believing this is truth rather than just the way things appear to be.
Have you ever noticed how desire shifts and changes? We can feel absolutely convinced that we need something desperately, only to find that if we don’t get it then and there, a while later that desire has moved onto something else or even disappeared completely. And yet it seemed so real at the time.
In the practice of mindfulness we learn to watch feelings as they arise and we watch the mind’s states and moods as we move through the day. At first our mindfulness can feel like a small bubble of awareness in the face of a huge and powerful emotion, when some event or other triggers us. There may be a little bit of space that opens up but it’s really quite small at first.
But with practice our mindfulness opens and becomes more spacious and aware. The when we’re triggered it feels more as though a bubble of feeling has entered the steady aliveness of aware presence. We can see it and we register it, but it hasn’t got the power to sweep us away. And as we steadily watch it, this feeling that has arisen moves, changes and fades back down. That energy is released through mindful awareness.
Now where that doesn’t happen, when we get triggered by something really big and it does carry us away, then we still watch this but with the realisation that there’s something bigger going on here. These are the things we need to take more time with and so we make a note and set aside time next chance we get to bring them into our meditation.
In meditation we deliberately go against the pleasure/pain principle and move our attention towards the unpleasant feeling or emotion that was so strongly triggered before. Taking the time to look closely at this, to allow that experience to be present, we often find that the layers of that experience become more transparent and we can start to see through them, to unpack the causes that led to the reaction we experienced.
This isn’t about fixing, there’s nothing to fix. This is about knowing and seeing clearly how this has arisen. When we really know ourselves and we can see this without judgement, then the same triggers don’t work anymore. Next time the reaction will be lessened, there’s a familiarity to it. Time after that, less again, and we may even laugh as we notice that old trickster of thought playing its games.
So freedom isn’t about reaching some state where anger never arises, where frustration or envy can’t happen; it’s about developing a mindful approach that sees these as they happen and notices them coming and going; just another part of this human experience. Would we really want to be some sort of spiritual robot that never has a feeling? No, there’s nothing wrong with feelings, we can laugh and cry and notice emotions as they come and go.
In fact when we’re fully open to it many of these ‘unpleasant’ emotions don’t seem so unpleasant. When we’re no longer identifying with them, even the tough ones can be received openly and instead of contracting, the heart takes them is as part of the moment.
Creating a mindful approach might seem like some sort of duality. As though there’s the object of awareness, and then there’s the mindful awareness itself. But there’s a twist. At some point we start to fully awaken to the truth: this mindful awareness, this presence, isn’t a thing. There’s no duality because the awareness itself isn’t any thing. It is the uncreated, the constant, the real. Then we may experience a shift…