Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

Living With Others

I often think about status and about how we act to try to increase our status. When human beings were evolving and we lived in small tribes of 50 to 250 people, status mattered quite a bit. Higher status people were able to reproduce and pass their genes along, while lower status people were not able to reproduce and pass their genes on. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in their book The Elephant In The Brain, we evolved to be status seeking machines, constantly aware of our status relative to others.

 

Today, this drive for status can be dangerous and drive us to act in ways that are more harmful toward ourselves and others than we often realize. Housing is an example that is coming to mind for me right now. Pressures to show our success lead to desires for houses with big common spaces for entertaining, even if we only host a party once every two years, and many people live with mortgages that max them out to afford the extra (and unnecessary) home space. In a race for status and signaling our wealth and importance, we are often willing to strain our finances to move up the social ladder.

 

What is worse, is that status is relative. For me to have more status among my co-workers or a group of friends, other people must necessarily lose status. Someone with more status than me will undoubtedly feel their status diminish if my status rises and begins to equal their status. The work we accomplish, the success we achieve, and the people we are, can fade away when we focus on status, and many of us we have experienced the desire to destroy another person’s life to either maintain or enhance our status.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh thinks this is a problem in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Hanh discusses the ways that meditation can help us live a more mindful and intentional life, and specifically, he writes about the ways that we can improve our relationship and values. Writing more about actual life and death he says, “We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of other’s lives is necessary for our own survival.”

 

His advice is something we should apply to our selves when we think about and recognize our drive for ever greater status. At a certain point, we have to recognize how much our actions, thoughts, and decisions are driven by status, and we have to find a way to value ourselves outside of our relative status position. By doing this, we can live at ease with others and it will no longer be necessary to tear someone down for us to rise on the social ladder and feel better about ourselves. It is not necessary for us to ruin another person’s reputation and destroy their social status for us to live a full and meaningful life. Just as we should value the other person’s physical life, we should value the other person, and allow them to pursue status while we focus on providing real value to the world.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.

Our Breath During Meditation

Any time I have worked on meditation, I have felt incredibly connected with the world. I have only ever done focus meditation, zeroing in on my breath and trying to keep my mind solely on the experience of air moving into and out of my body. Something about this focus on the air we breath has a natural feel that takes me away from the city in which I live (Reno, Nevada – its not too big and urbanized so imagining that I am in nature is not too hard to do) and helps me feel more natural.

 

This connection to nature seems apparent in how other people talk about meditation as well. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the way we should breath during meditation in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness by writing “Your breath should be light, even, and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand.” The connection to nature always feels calming for me. When I think about relaxation I often picture a vast water front, perhaps a beach along an ocean or a beautiful lake. When I think about calmness and pacificity, I often imagine solitary expanses of nature, open fields where I have gone running either in the mountains or in open valleys where I am not surrounded by other people and the hustle of every day life. Hanh equates our breath to a vision of calm nature, reinforcing the idea that meditation is something that should take away the complex, the urban, and the stressful in our lives and bring us to a simpler state of being that is more defined by the forces of nature that are non-human and beyond our control.

 

My descriptions above are my own experiences of meditation and how I have experienced the benefits of meditation. I don’t suspect that my experiences are universal or would be the best fit for everyone, but the connection to nature is something I have often seen in the way people speak about meditation. Focusing on our breath and remembering to keep our breath smooth and stable has physiological impacts on our body, relieving tension possibly reducing our blood pressure, and if we are taking full deep breaths hopefully helping improve the oxygen levels in our body. In a sense, this mastery of our breath is just an observation of a natural process that humans go through, and I think that is why metaphors and connections with idillic nature scenes are so strong.

Drinking Tea

A while back I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation. One of the key focuses of the book is being more aware of the current moment and appreciating experiences as they are happening. Hanh writes about times when we absentmindedly complete a task or when we do one thing with our mind on a completely different thing. We can still get through what we are doing and we may even want to be thinking about something different, but when we don’t focus our mind on the present moment, then what we are doing never really matters and we are constantly living in an imagined world in the past or future.

 

An example provided in the book involves tea. “While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future–and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” To actually live one minute of life would be to sit and truly experience what is happening and what we are sensing of the world. All we would need to do to take in the world around us is tune our mind to the our present experience, but it is incredibly difficult to do.

 

In Meditation we are trying to zoom our focus into one sensation, often our breath, to concentrate on just one experience. What we find when we try to do this, and what we may find if we try to truly live one minute of life, is that our ability to stay grounded is often limited. Many forces pull at our attention and move our mind out of the present into a realm of imagination. We think back to memories and past experiences, or we think ahead to the demands that life places on us. Rather than experiencing the present moment and where we are physically located, our minds occupy another time and place. The Miracle of Mindfulness focuses on the benefits of learning to live in the present moment. Meditation helps us understand how distracted our minds become and helps us learn to focus on what is important. Controlling, or at least understanding, the various impulsive thoughts of our mind helps us as we move through life to be more intentional and aware of exactly what we are doing and how the world behaves around us.

Perspective

In her book about her 50 state voyage, Packing Light, Allison Vesterfelt wrote, “Freedom is less about circumstance than it is about perspective,” while she was camping in the Rocky Mountains.  I love this quote because it shows how important our mental approach to life can be.  In my personal life I have had thousands of experiences where I feel limited or trapped by job, school, money, and more, but when I consider this quote and look at those times in my life from new perspectives, I see how instead of being trapped I was often times offered new opportunities or had the ability to choose how I spent my time.
Two of the most common forms of meditation are focus and awareness meditation.  With focus meditation your goal is to learn how to control your thoughts and bring them back to the things life you want to focus on, while in awareness meditation your goal is to become more aware of your surroundings and thoughts. Both of these practices help you find new perspectives in your life. (Unfortunately I have not managed to build any form of meditation into my daily life, but I do hope to get to a point where I do find a way to make meditation a habit.) Meditation can help you avoid the trapped feeling I mentioned in the first paragraph because it opens your mind to the world around you, and you begin to recognize your thoughts and actions so that you can focus them in a more productive way.
Feeling a sense of freedom when others may feel trapped really can depend on perspective and the mental approach you bring to a given situation. For me I have just moved out from my parents house into my first apartment. It has been easy for me to feel limited now that I live farther away from everything, must drive longer to get places, do not have a nice yard or large kitchen. With this whole process I have had to practice changing my perspective to see the positive changes I am making. Refocusing my thoughts helps me find a sense of pride in myself and where I am.  This is a process (and a state of life) that I am sure most people go through, but I have felt as though I have been aided in this process thanks to my commitment to self awareness which started about a year ago when I was introduced to a brilliant young writer named Paul Jun. His blog can be found at Motivatedmastery.com, where he writes all about meditation, self awareness, and self control.

A Mixture of Emotions

While camping during her 50 state journey, Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light writes, “one sense, its depressing to come upon our own insignificance like this. In another sense, it’s exhilarating.” To me this quote shows how one can change their point of view and focus to see things in positive or negative ways. While she gazed out at the Rocky Mountains Vesterfelt was awed by the beautiful landscape that has lasted much longer than human civilizations and will continue to last beyond her existence.  Her mixed emotions came from the beautiful peace that this thought created for her, while at the same time she was shaken by her small roll in the world.
I have been hearing about meditation a lot lately, and to me what is important about meditation is the way one can use it to change their thoughts. The practice is not designed to give you “a peaceful mind” but rather meditation is used to help build your focus, to build your awareness, and to help you then control your thoughts. Vesterfelt’s quote about her mixed emotions and thoughts shows how one can interpret the same event in multiple ways, and if that is possible, then meditation and learning how to control your thoughts, and ultimately reactions, can shape how you view the world.