What gets in the way of mindfulness?
Picking and choosing…
I’ve recently started referring to an ancient Chinese poem in some of my mindfulness meditation classes. In the first couple of lines it speaks of the wisdom of not picking and choosing.
What does this mean? Surely we make choices every day? How does picking and choosing get in the way of a clear state of mind?
The poem is called ‘Faith in Mind’ and was written in the 5th or 6th Century C.E. There’s a certain irony in my using this text: the poem was written in defence of Chan Buddhism and against Pureland Buddhism, and I’m a Pureland Buddhist priest. I should probably say here that my reading of the text is based on my experience in meditation, and not an academic one.
The great way is not difficult
simply avoid picking and choosing.
We can understand this instruction to avoid picking and choosing on two different levels….
Both levels have some wisdom in them, but I think one is more profound than the other.
Usually whenever we choose one thing over another we have a particular expectation in mind: I’ll choose coffee instead of tea because I enjoy it more, for example, or because I’m looking forward to that extra boost of energy from the caffeine; I’ll hang out with this group of people rather than that one, because I’ll have more fun; or I’ll go to the park rather than the cinema, and enjoy the sunshine.
But sometimes the coffee is stale or burnt, our friends are in a bad mood, and it rains.
One way out of this might be to literally avoid picking and choosing: to only go where others want us to go. But this can cause its own problems: it can frustrate our friends and family when we don’t express any preferences, and it can mean we avoid making good choices because we are worrying about things going wrong.
The middle way seems to be about making good choices, but not clinging on to any expectations about the outcome…
I am reminded of an old Taoist story about a farmer and his son…
One day the farmer’s horse runs away. His friends and neighbours come to commiserate with him, but he seems to have taken the loss in his stride. When they say to him “bad luck” he replies with “maybe”.
A little while later the horse returns with a beautiful stallion following it. The farmer’s friends and neighbours come to congratulate him on his good fortune. “That was a bit of good luck” they say, “maybe” he replies.
The farmer’s son tries to ride the stallion. He’s thrown, and breaks his leg. The farmer’s friends and neighbours call by and say “that was some bad luck”. The farmer looks at them and says “maybe”.
Soon a recruiting sergeant comes to take all the young men to war. Raiding parties from the north have been attacking farms, and it’s time to mount a defence. All of the young men in the farmer’s village are taken to fight, apart from the farmer’s son whose leg is still broken. None of the young men return.
We never know how things are going to turn out. It’s wise to hold the choices we make lightly.
The second more profound meaning of avoiding picking and choosing is about awareness…
We can use it directly in our meditation practice, and in our daily life.
In our meditation practice when we see a thought, or feeling, or impulse that we don’t like our first response might be to push it away, or to push it down into some dark recess of the mind. “I’m not the sort of person who thinks that” we tell ourselves, and we squash the thought.
This creates a conflict in the mind between the initial thought, and the part of us that is judging and rejecting that initial thought. This conflict can set up all sorts of disturbances to our peace of mind. If we really pay attention in our practice we can see this happening. This rejection also gives the initial thoughts a hidden power. They sneak back in unexpected ways, sometimes even motivating our behaviour without us noticing. A rejected angry thought can lead to passive aggression, for example.
The mind is like the old arcade game Whack-a-mole: you hammer down the mole in one hole, and it pops up in another a moment later…
Avoiding picking and choosing means allowing everything into our awareness: whatever thought or feeling or sensation appears, no matter how distasteful, we notice it arising without judgment.
This doesn’t mean adding energy to that thought of feeling in the way that we often do. It isn’t about brooding, or turning things over and over in our minds. It is simply about a gentle noticing of what is really there.
Letting everything into our awareness in this way, with an open heart and a non-judgemental attitude, without adding energy to thoughts and feelings, allows us to become comfortable with how the mind really is. Our peace of mind becomes deeper as we become more at ease with what is actually present, rather than wishing something else was present.
Ironically those thoughts and feelings that we might have initially wanted to reject begin to lose their power, and there is often a genuine letting go.
In this way, avoiding picking and choosing, our mindfulness deepens.