I take a blackberry from its box, wash it with others, put
them in a bowl and set them down between us. I take one. It is
delicious—perfectly ripe, sweet, tart, juicy, firm and succulent. How many adjectives
for a humble berry?
Perhaps an infinite number. You see, the berry is changing
every moment, and so are you, and so is your perception of the events taking
place in your mouth and sensory nervous systems, and so is your sense of where
and who you are.
Look: I begin to bake and am tempted, when opening a jar of clover honey, to place a pearl of it upon my tongue and let it dissolve. It lingers deliciously, cascading endorphins far beyond my mouth.
And then half-consciously, while reaching across the counter for a measuring spoon, I pluck a blackberry from its bowl. Realizing suddenly that this is a treat worth savoring, I bring my full attention to the bite of the fruit.
It’s as juicy as ever, but now it’s tart on my honeyed tongue—no treat at all. The magic is gone.
Zoe’s parents were very protective and shielded her from any danger and discomfort.
Her parents lavished all their love on her, and little on each other. They never held hands or kissed. They were often short with each other. They held opposite views on politics and religion. Neither would even consider the possibility that their marriage was in trouble. They agreed on one thing: to keep their conflict hidden from Zoe.
But Zoe lived there too. She didn’t ‘know’ what was going on (or not going on) with her parents, but she lived amid the tensions they were trying to suppress, and did what she could to ease them. It was a burden, but she accepted it with the same sense of responsibility.
Zoe’s mother was easy to get along with. Most of her anxiety came from her father. On the one hand he couldn’t handle conflict; on the other he’d sometimes fly into a rage. In either case, he went out of reach. When this happened, Zoe took responsibility for bringing him back.
If she didn’t, who else would? Keeping him happy became her raison d’être. She adopted subconscious behavior that in time became an automated role. Throughout her life Zoe felt competent in these sorts of conflict situations. She was drawn to them.
Sadly, her first marriage resembled her parents’ marriage.
At the time, Zoe’s parents claimed they were ‘protecting’ her. What they didn’t know was that they were setting her up in her role of peacekeeper. The peacekeeper’s dilemma is that she holds all her anxiety inside. She doesn’t talk about stressful situations, and believes that thinking about them makes them worse. She believes the solution to conflict is to avoid it, and that it’s a best to not challenge people.
Zoe’s role is inherently unstable because it’s based on these limiting beliefs: 1) talk threatens peace; 2) silence keeps the peace; 3) ignorance is safer than knowledge.
Who suffers from these beliefs? All three of them. When did they choose them? They didn’t, they simply adapted to their reality. So what can they do? They could examine their behavior and their motives. They could trust Zoe’s intelligence and speak to her (in age-appropriate language) enabling her to see how they handle conflict through healthy open dialogue.
These changes require nothing but natural skills that we all possess—courage, empathy and effort. They take practice, but that’s what mindfulness is for.
Each of us is a process—an unfolding of conscious and unconscious behavior. By taking shortcuts and automating routine tasks, we get more done. Sometimes we use the wrong shortcut, or it doesn’t work any more. Too much automaticity gets us into trouble.
Things get complicated because automaticity is contrary to mindfulness. Instead of being present, you let things happen without paying attention. Automaticity takes care of business but leaves you with no sense of ownership or responsibility. Instead of learning about yourself and continuing to grow through life, your behavior is governed by old, blind habits. You wonder why your thoughts keep on running, and why you’re stuck in old patterns.
With mindfulness, the confining story of who you are (dictated by those who raised you) loses its power. You let go of unnecessary beliefs and have nothing to prove. You see the self-limiting beliefs that hold you back, such as, “I’m not smart enough,” and “I’m not worthy.”
Mindfulness instantly turns off automaticity and brings your conscious mind to the fore. It gives you a say in your decisions. It helps you understand your choices in life, and where they lead.
Mindfulness takes effort. It never happens automatically. But it is instantly rewarding. You experience the wonder of the present moment; you weaken the attraction of old habits; you learn about yourself in ways that no one else can. Mindfulness reveals your unconscious expectations and enables you to let them go. Mindfulness brings you to your full potential.
There are times when everyone wants to stop their mind. That’s why I got into meditation in the first place, and it’s what everyone always tells me when they come to learn mindfulness. They say, “I feel like my mind has a mind of its own!”
There’s definitely something about being human that makes us yearn for control. When it comes to dealing with anxiety, we all want to be able to hold up a hand like a traffic cop and stop the flow of thoughts.
Unfortunately, mind is not a device that you can switch on and off. It’s a process—the entire package of you holding yourself together—bodily perceptions, emotional feelings and mental thoughts. You are a whole person, changing constantly.
In mindfulness we don’t try to stop the mind. Instead, we learn to accept it. We look closely at ourselves and how we’ve turned out. We watch out for patterns like stress, anxiety, and guilt to see how they emerge from mind processes. And, as you begin to understand these patterns more intimately, something natural happens—you fine tune them. The end result is less struggle, greater joy and personal growth.
When it comes to struggling with your story and how you fit in, thoughts and beliefs are a big part of the package. In fact, what contributes more than anything else to your mental balance or imbalance is your story.
This story doesn’t have to be realistic. It just has to be complete in ways that you can accept and defend. Without work it tends to be soft, mushy and confused. With effort, it becomes wise and kind.
Ordinarily, your story consists of memories, opinions and expectations. It describes who you should be (according to yourself and/or others), and in that way can be quite a burden. In either case, the way you deal with it makes you you. It also makes you vulnerable.
Into this very personal story we fit our beliefs. There’s what we believe in, like god or science. There are conclusions we came to a long time ago and have never reexamined, such as “I am open-minded.” There are logical beliefs in ultimate truth or ultimate relativity, and emotional beliefs such as, “I’m not worthy.”
Somehow, this story must hold everything you think you are—all your thoughts and all your beliefs. Your very self seems to depend on it. Too little and you have no direction. Too much and it weighs you down. How do you sustain your integrity while not taking yourself too seriously? With mindfulness of your story, of your beliefs and of your thoughts you become naturally less defensive and less judgmental. You become more accepting of yourself and others.
These are not trivial matters. Nothing’s more important to each of us than ourselves. Without that, we have no life, no relationships, no significance.
At the end of my last mindfulness workshop I announced that the subject of the next one would be ‘Beliefs.’ Around the room heads nodded slowly as people thought about what that could mean.
I was encouraged, but wasn’t entirely sure myself. After all, it’s a big topic. Was I opening a can of worms? Beliefs are necessary, right? I mean, at the very least you need to believe in right and wrong.
There are more complicated beliefs. I don’t understand particle physics but I believe particle physicists—as much as I understand them. Students believe that what’s being taught makes sense, until the point where they make sense of it for themselves. Now it’s no longer belief but understanding. So some beliefs are provisional, a stepping stone to knowledge.
Beliefs get really personal too. I know that to do well in life I need to believe in myself, but what sort of belief is that? I also have subconscious voices telling me to sit down and shut up because I’m stupid. I don’t really believe them but that memory can upset me. Somehow, for a while, I believe it viscerally. Can I undo that deep layer of self-limiting belief?
And there’s belief in systems. Raised as a Catholic, I was handed all the answers to life’s quandaries. Then I became a Buddhist and learned a whole other set of answers. When I abandoned that too I went into crisis. With nothing to believe in I foundered, afraid of drowning.
But the water was barely ankle deep. The clouds didn’t open and the earth didn’t swallow me up. I got to my feet.
Apparently, there are some beliefs you can do without.
It’s up to you to accept the beliefs of your tribe or to believe whatever you choose. Beliefs sometimes lead to good behavior, sometimes to bad. The notion that there is one right belief is no longer credible.
Beliefs, however, have power. To have a say in that power you must understand why you believe. So—what is your motive?
Once upon a time, in the days before automatic dishwashers, I learned to work with draining boards—flat wooden shelves with grooved channels that drained into the sink. There was no special place for crockery or cutlery. Everything was piled face down. You’d think a draining board would be overwhelmed by just a few dishes and spoons, but they never remained there long. We had dryer-uppers (people!) to keep the board clear.
It was an important job. Dryer-uppers wiped excess water from the washed items, then inspected and polished them. Items were sometimes returned to the washer with disapproval. There was an attitude to the art of washing and drying up. Quality control was personal.
I learned all this in my father’s restaurant. It trained me for a career I never followed, and yet that training guided my life. After a preliminary wash, the dining room silverware was put aside until morning, when it was plunged into boiling water and polished while hot with linen napkins. Then they were arranged in nested regiments—the original ‘spooning.’ This whole process brought attention to every knick and scratch, so that over hundreds of mornings you came to recognize each utensil.
One day a dish rack appeared impudently on the draining board. Now there was no place for the huge frying pans that arrived every few minutes. I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was stupid. It got in the way, disrupted kitchen routine and upset everyone.
It disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared.
Then one day Dad announced another purchase: a brand-new automatic dish washing machine. Designed exclusively for the hotel and catering industry, it would outperform and replace washer-uppers and dryer-uppers, saving on wages and producing superior results.
Except it didn’t. First of all, someone had to stack and unstuck them. Plus, while they took their sweet time, sauce-encrusted plates accumulated in ugly piles, causing another log-jam in the kitchen routine. Next day Dad had it removed. “Bloody waste of time,” he fumed. “What a shit job!”
Today at home fifty years later, dishwashers haven’t come all that far. Never mind the baked-in stains, they undermine any notion of old-school care. Most objectionable is that they make drying-up obsolete. When I suggested to our daughter that it would be good to polish the cutlery, she looked at me as if I was losing my mind. Labor-saving devices promote this attitude.
I get it. Dishwashing machines help us cram more into our busy days. I don’t seriously have a problem with the dishwasher—I’m just ranting. The real problem is the cramming.
People learning mindfulness for the first time complain that their minds are running uncontrollably. With practice they see that they have a part in that lack of control, and that shifts their attitude. The point is to stop the endless cramming and let some space into the mind.
I call it stopping. One way to practice is by hand-washing dishes. Go slow, watch your body at work as it turns, reaches and holds each item. Pay attention to what you see and touch. Notice how your breathing reflects your mood, and how anxious or relaxed you are. Get to know yourself. Value the moment.
You can try to build a practice of mindfulness using the 10-minute guided meditations on my website. However, they’re probably not enough in themselves. They’re definitely here to support you—that’s why I made them—but establishing a practice tailored to your own life experience takes reflection. That’s why we put on workshops throughout the year.
The workshops bring your life into it. What are the situations that trigger automaticity? Why are mental patterns so hard to break? We discuss and demonstrate mindful thinking and attitudes that nudge you towards a mindful lifestyle. In today’s multi-tasking, consumer world, this is no small thing. In that uphill battle you need all the help you can get.
The workshops teach, demonstrate and encourage that process. The technique of mindfulness is simplicity itself—much easier than learning a new musical instrument for example. However, it can be elusive. Making it a lifelong practice takes a steady shift in perspective and repeated recollection. It’s something you gradually get better at.
Everyone has the occasional mindful moment. What enables mindfulness to change your life is daily commitment and recollection.
Best of all, you'll meet and share your mindful experience with like-minded people. You will be inspired.
Celia couldn’t stop. She was the administrator of a retirement home, busy from dawn to night. Everyone depended on her and, as she always said, “The only way to get something right is to do it yourself.”
She loved the home. She knew each of the residents by name, as well as their history and their family visitors. She loved to see the old folks relax and settle in, and especially to see the young folks feeling less guilty. It didn’t always work out that way, of course, but that was her measure of success, and on the whole she was pretty successful.
However, the time finally came when she could no longer hide her exhaustion. It was profound. She went to the doctor, who told her to rest.
She tried, but the calls poured in from staff. They needed decisions. The realization that she couldn’t escape her work suddenly scared her. She felt confined by her own creation—almost imprisoned.
The doctor was right. She should rest. But just being told that wasn’t enough. Resting meant a 180° turn-around in her work ethic. That much change intimidated the hell out of her.
When a friend told her how she’s managed a huge transition from a 20-year marriage with the help of a life coach, she decided to see if that person could help her too.
The coach listened to Celia's story, interjecting questions to make sure she didn’t gloss over anything. Before, she’d always thought of her life story as a series of anecdotes. Gradually she came to see it as a continuous narrative, with all its connections of cause and effect. She began to regard her exhaustion not as something that had happened to her, but something she’d done to herself. That was Step #1.
Next, Celia’s coach suggested she practice some self-compassion. Celia didn’t see the point. “That’s indulgent,” she said. “I was taught to put others first.” Still, she agreed to give it a try.
Things started to change. As Celia began to take care of her own needs, she noticed that she had more to offer. She let go of control and began to delegate.
It turned out that some staff did as good a job as her, if not better. Instead of telling them what to do she listened to what they had to say. She allowed them to explore, and they began to flourish. The spirit in the workplace changed. There was more cooperation. Everything improved.
As for Celia, she felt free in a way she thought she’d forgotten. For the first time in years she booked a holiday. She didn’t receive a single call during her week away from the home. She returned to find everything just fine. In her absence, problems had arisen and been resolved. Instead of putting out fires, she heard all about her staff’s innovative ideas.
On their last meeting, her coach narrated Celia’s journey back to her, from the first session till now, in the very words that Celia had used at the outset when describing her frustration and resentment. It all sounded so foreign to her. She hardly recognized that person and realized that the intimidating journey she’d envisaged was indeed huge, but that she’d made it, and it felt entirely natural.
All because she chose to be compassionate towards herself.
It always shocked me to see Dad helpless. It didn't happen a lot. Mostly, he was larger than life, unafraid, defiant.
I have a memory of him standing in the hallway of his restaurant, staring at me blankly. I'd asked him for my birthright, his legacy to me. Irritatingly, I had to clarify that I wasn't talking about money. Then it happened: he squirmed.
In my mind's eye I reached out to him with my arms wide open, but some memories aren't trustworthy. I doubt I’d have opened up like that. I was emotionally stunted in those years. In any case, it was his look of helplessness that made the scene indelible.
The son reached out to the father, and the father knew not what to do. It sounds biblical doesn't it? It certainly the sort of primal story you might find in the big book: about the paradox of having to love, and about the gulfs that exist between fathers and sons.
These days men are increasingly judged by maternal standards, as if we should be as cooperative and empathetic as mothers. It doesn't help. We operate differently. We're less cooperative and more self-protective, One big no-no is to appear at a loss.
Which brings us back to the day that Dad was at a loss. I witnessed it as directly as can be, from a distance of about five feet.
Right there and then something fell out of me. I'd always imagined that one day my father would bless me with the secret of life's purpose, or at least of manhood. He spent a lot of time in prayer with his god, or in confession with his priest. I'd always assumed that he was pondering the infinite and his place in it.
What I began to realize that day was that what prompted him was not the wonders of creation, but guilt. He'd done wrong by some people in his life and was no saint, and he hung on to that judgment so tightly and harshly that he felt unworthy to give me—his own son—his benediction.
Today, what do I wish he'd said? That in time I'd be able to accept and even celebrate myself. That I would do good for others by doing good for myself. I wish he'd told me that there was a way to befriend myself. Because like him I always expected more of myself. I was never good enough.
I always saw dad as unhappy, and I mostly remember him that way. I would have loved to share some joy with him. Still, he role-modeled courage and determination. That's a part of him I picked up young and am happy to carry. It's served me well.
On that day, inadvertently but quite decisively, he also spurred me to go out and seek life's purpose for myself. That's what I've done. Not just for me but for him too. It's been a journey, and it gets better every day. That's what I'd love to tell him.
“Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.” —Albert Einstein
Mindfulness is easy: all you have to do is be there and pay attention. However, weaving mindfulness into your life is hard. It takes practice, motivation and the courage to keep going even when it seems pointless—even when your loved ones think you’re nuts.
The mindfulness teacher inspires by demonstrating what is possible and how you can discover it for yourself. In short, how to deconstruct the flow of experience that is your life.
It starts with raw information delivered by the five senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch, but it’s not raw for long. Almost immediately, it's colored by the feelings that accompany every experience, and then it’s overrun by a torrent of thoughts that want to know what’s going on and how it all relates to you.
The role of mindfulness is to gradually reveal all those layers of interpretation, judgment and planning with which you lay claim to the experience—to bring them from unconsciousness into your conscious purview. This sounds nice, but in fact it’s chaotic. You advance by fits and starts. Sometimes it’s unpleasant, but it's always enlightening.
The teacher’s skill lies in helping you slow down all that automated mentality so you can see for yourself how consciousness takes shape. What “slowing down” actually means depends on you as well as the teacher. You must be temperamentally suited to each other. There’s more to mindfulness than sitting in peace, and you may have to challenge the teacher.
This could not be more different from the teaching and learning that goes on in school. That is all about information. Mindfulness is about unlearning old, automated patterns and reminding your self of its natural freedom.
Forget about emptying all thoughts. As long as you’re conscious, there’s always mentality in some shape or form. The skill is to be aware of it, whether it makes sense or not. This is what it means to accept what is. It doesn't mean you condone everything but that you see what's before you without sentiment or judgment. A skilful teacher helps you accept paradox by holding views loosely, and is always content to admit, “I don’t know,” for this is the root of integrity.
I learned all this from my teacher Lama Yeshe, who I thought the funniest man I’d ever met. He made me want to teach like he taught and care like he cared. I too wanted to be a storyteller, a stand-up artist with an eye for human foibles. Every aspect of my teaching style is colored by his example. He was the perfect teacher for me and although he died 34 years ago, and although I didn’t actually spend that much time with him, I’m grateful for him every day.
Most importantly, a mindfulness teacher helps you become self-reliant, guided not by rules and regulations but by the intelligence that grows from attending your own experience. The very essence of mindfulness practice lies in the determination to figure life out for yourself.
That doesn’t mean you’re on your own. On the contrary, the teacher’s job is to keep nudging you back to that observational space, to lay bare the preconceptions, expectations and judgements that overwhelm your attention. You let go of views not because they’re wrong but because they’ve served their purpose and no longer need to occupy your mind.
Once views have been formed however, they do not go quietly. They protest their importance and claim your attention. The great and indispensable skill of the teacher is to show you that you can let go and be yourself without any props.
All this takes practice. Lama Yeshe’s confidence in me when I was unsure of my abilities was his great gift to me. Since then, all I’ve ever wanted to do is to pass it on down.