A few months ago, you found me after class to talk about your racing mind. You shared your frustrations about lacking focus, feeling inadequate, and worrying about the future. I want you to know that I heard you. I want you to know that you are not alone, and that for a long time, I felt like this also. My response to you that day was awkward and unhelpful. It was late, and I was tired. If I could go back, I would tell you this …
Not too long ago, my mind was also rarely settled. No matter what I was doing, I was convinced the next thing would be better. Countless conversations and experiences passed me by. Deaths, births, marriages, graduations, meals, vacations, concerts, time with family and friends – everything came and went and I was barely there. When I experienced success, I sensed it was not enough. The next thing would be better. The next experience would finally bring me satisfaction, happiness, or a sense of self-worth.
Along with my dissatisfaction came a sense of existential insecurity. How was I going to make a living? What would people think of me? Anxious about the future and generally miserable, I tried everything I could to bury my distress. I read self-help books, exercised more, changed my diet, changed jobs, engaged in positive thinking, repressed my feelings, or simply escaped. Anywhere was better than here.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I have some ultimate answer, or that I am somehow beyond any of these things. I am human and still suffer from the same lack of focus, feelings of inadequacy, and anxiety about the future that many people feel. However, after many years of struggling with these issues, I decided on a different path. Rather than fight, I’ve come to accept my life is messy. Things aren’t always going to work the way I expect them to, and there, in learning to explore the part of me that creates expectations, is where things began to change for me.
As human beings, we have evolved to protect ourselves, seek happiness, and avoid suffering. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this. We take reasonable steps to care for and protect ourselves and our loved ones. We make goals and plan for the future. We seek meaning, positive experiences, love, worthwhile work, and opportunities to serve others. However, our minds can and often do deceive us. This happens when we become unreasonably fearful, feel threatened or overwhelmed, or are otherwise out of touch with our fundamental sense of self-worth. It can also happen when we lose sight of the world as it is – precarious, complex, and interconnected.
Under duress, and sometimes out of boredom, our minds convince us that what happens next will be better or more interesting than what is happening now. Other times, it convinces us that we must accomplish certain things, attain status, or please others in order to be fulfilled. When we look deeper, however, we realize that this function of the mind is not designed to be satisfied. How then, do we satisfy something that cannot be satisfied?
Humbly, I will offer some suggestions …
First, spend a few moments reconnecting with your basic sentience. With your sensations of breath, body, and environment. Cultivate a sense of gratitude for the improbable conditions that came together to create you, and for the poignancy of your impermanence. Our lives are finite and fundamentally beautiful. Who are you before the elaborate stories of who you should be enter your awareness? Consider the fundamental innocence, value, and potential of a child, animal, plant, or other living thing. This is in you also. What more do you truly need?
Next, consider your strengths, dispositions, skills, experiences, and what you’ve learned from failures and successes. This is your story. You do not need validation from anyone to recognize its value. When you teach, what do you bring to teaching that is unique to you? Maybe you have a wonderful intellect, or are an excellent communicator, or have a big, compassionate heart. What someone else brings to teaching is their business. There is no need to covet or judge, emulate or criticize. Be responsible for you.
When you make music, what is most natural to you? Maybe you are a great improviser, have wonderful technique, or are especially expressive. As a person, perhaps you are a wonderful listener, a loyal friend, or a good helper. These are your gifts, cultivated and sometimes granted. Decide if you want to engage the world from a space of psychological deficit or abundance. This is ultimately up to you. Don’t ever let anyone or anything take this choice away from you.
Finally, sift through the mud of unnecessary thoughts, unreasonable expectations, insecurities, grievances, and everything else that keeps you from being in the world, and join the living. Your gifts are ultimately all you will be able to offer anyway. Cultivate and give them freely without the need for validation. Maybe you will become conventionally successful and win that symphony job, earn teacher of the year, or record that critically-acclaimed album. Maybe you won’t. However, if you accomplish these things because of what others value, or because of unquestioned ideas about what you think might make you happy or fulfilled, then ask yourself if that is a life worth living? What happens when the clock runs out? When you realize you were absent from the life you we were given at the expense of an imagined life, one which may or may not have been any more fulfilling than what was always there in front of you.
Life is short, fleeting, and perfectly complete, don’t lose sight of that. And life, like you, is already enough.
The initial stages of MBWP are focused on developing physiological regulation and embodied grounding as a means of aiding meditative practice and artistic expression. Working with our breath and bodies helps to calm our nervous system, facilitating our ability to anchor our awareness in the present moment.
During the middle stages of the curriculum, concentration and awareness are cultivated through mindful and deliberate exploration of our senses, emotions, and patterns of thought, leading to greater clarity, stability, and equanimity.
As we non-judgmentally examine our habitual ways of feeling, thinking, and acting, we gain insight into how our perceptions color reality, giving us the opportunity to let go of unfruitful ways of experiencing and responding to ourselves and others. We then work on reframing our experiences such that they are aligned with our personal values.
During the final stages of MBWP training, after reducing our reactivity through mindful awareness, we develop the capacity to act intentionally in the world, using our experiences, aspirations, values, and ethics as a compass for wise and compassionate action.