I think I just lived my first mindful decade ever. In reflecting on my last ten years, I’ve experienced more life than ever before. My memories are vivid and numerous. Life and everything that comes with it means more to me.
This could be, in part, because all my other decades are relatively way back. But it’s not the only reason those decades are less memorable. So much happened way back then. The 90’s were my formative years, high school and college. I entered that decade a 9th grader and came out a professional. Same with the aughts: I started the decade as a financial auditor in DC and ended it a full-time yoga instructor in Pittsburgh.
The past decade had much less contrast for me. I haven’t regarded myself as fundamentally different from beginning to end. And yet, when it’s typical for personal growth to plateau, my 42-year-old self is finding so much more meaning in people, places, and events.
I credit meditation. A ten-day meditation retreat in 2013 brought my attention into sharp focus. Before that (around 2007) I started to meditate in earnest. With that earnestness came the expectation that meditation makes things easier.
But, yeah, no. As it turns out, meditation is almost designed to make things more stressful. Meditation reveals not only our good habits, but all the bad ones. We see in full force what compels us to do what we do. Sometimes it’s good news; compassion, joy. At least as often, it’s fear, anger, or despair. Why do I act the way I act? Meditation tells it like it is.
A Zen master once said, “we should not fear the arising of thoughts, just fear being slow to notice them.”
Habits are not evolutionarily designed to make us happy; they are meant to keep us alive, and our nervous system cultivates habits. After all, you’re still alive, yes? Perhaps what you now consider a bad habit was helpful at some point. So our brains decide to keep this habit in the toolkit, for future use.
To get rid of a habit, we first need to examine it, which means we need to slow down. If we are able to slow down, we can watch our brains search the toolkit. Developing a new habit is like choosing a new tool, which is a choice we need to make over and over again. Successful meditation is when we can choose the tools that work best for us.
“When we practice the Dharma, we are like a satellite launched into the sky. At first the satellite will have to struggle against gravity, but once it enters outer space, it orbits easily and automatically without effort. Initially our practice is a struggle. We must fight against our tenacious habits, yet as time passes, our practice becomes natural and effortless.”
Life is a series of projects. In the past ten years, my ability to choose the right tools for a project has always been a benefit. I’ve had better relationships. My workshops and trainings have been focused. Even small daily projects like conversations, cleaning my house, or running errands feel more joyful.
Most New Year resolutions center around a few things: diet, exercise, relationships, and getting things done. Changing your diet isn’t ultimately about food; it’s about your habit patterns surrounding food. In the same way, exercising isn’t ultimately about movement. Relationships become better when we have awareness and control of our responses to the other person. We can realize our goals using the right tools, the ones that we choose.
When I first started to meditate, I had to trust that it was good for me because it was nothing but the stress of realizing how much of my life I lived on automatic. In the beginning, meditation is always the bearer of bad news.
But I’m here from the future to tell you this: if your only resolution is to become mindful, all other changes in your life will become easier to make. Your toolkit will be overflowing and you’ll learn how to use everything in there. Life, with all the good and bad, will become meaningful. For me at least, that is the only goal I need.
“A Selection from the Smith Collection of Found Tools” by byzantiumbooks is licensed under CC BY 2.0