“The essence of life is suffering.”
“The essence of experience is change.”
This morning I started Mindfulness in Plain English. The above two sentences are right there in the first chapter. Combine them and you get the impression that we suffer throughout our lives, just in many subtly different ways.
But how do we deal with it?
What has always intrigued me about mindfulness is that it presents itself as an antidote to this unhappiness. More specifically, a way to cope with the things we don’t control that causes us pain.
I see it as closely linked to the tenets of Stoicism, especially, the dichotomy of control. The Stoic dichotomy is that we control only our own actions, our own thoughts, our own intentions and our own character. Nothing else.
At the beginning of the book, Gunaratana talks about unhappiness. I wrote the words, “the antidote to unhappiness.” I then listed off some things that I believe help us to conquer the diseases of doubt and misery:
Gratitude. I’ve found the easiest way to approach gratitude is to ask, “what more do I really need?” Once you get past the inevitable—more money, more time, more this, more that—you realise that the answer is in fact, you don’t need much at all. Recognising that you need less makes you appreciate more.
Presence. It’s a nice way of saying living in the moment. Getting drunk isn’t living in the moment. Neither are all the other destructive behaviours we engage in. They’re ways to escape the moment, in fact, they’re attempts to escape our lives. Living in the moment is listening to your thoughts, noticing your breath and focusing on the single task you are performing right now.
Perspective. The best way to get perspective is to find a way to laugh at yourself and your situation. We risk a lot of heartache when we take ourselves too seriously. The next best way is to compare your situation to someone whose is worse. Because we exist right in the centre of our own problems, we often forget how banal they are compared to those of others.
Generosity. When you feel awful, it’s hard to do anything for yourself. It’s hard to go out, to be creative, to move, to do anything. It’s easier to do something for someone else. Force yourself to meet someone for coffee or lunch, and decide to do something for them. It could be as simple as listening, or helping them to solve a problem they’re having. It’s difficult to focus on your own misery when you’re busy being generous.
Attention. This is different from presence. Presence is concerned with what going on inside of you, attention is concerned with the external. Wherever you happen to be, pay attention to your surroundings. Try to notice as much detail as possible. Watch people and how they interact, how they move. Or watch animals, or the sky, or the river, or how the wind rustles the trees. Wherever you are, pay attention.
Curiosity. In The Sword and the Stone, Wart was stuck inside on a rainy day.
“I think I ought to have some more eddication,” said the Wart. “I can’t think of anything to do.”
Take the advice of the wizard Merlyn. It may be raining, either metaphorically or literally, but you should still learn. Learning something new helps to ease the pain of the old.
In my mind, when I was writing about the antidote to unhappiness, I was asking myself a question. How can I not feel like shit? These are my answers.
Gratitude. Presence. Perspective. Generosity. Attention. Curiosity.