Practicing Mindfulness in Difficult Times

At times we encounter experiences that feel very difficult--physical illness, loss of a loved one, economic hardships, social or political turmoil. Most everyone would agree that these experiences are inherently difficult to deal with. And yet, it’s very important to remind yourself that you live in two worlds: the external, objective world, and an internal, subjective world—the world of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

 Objectively, in the world of time, space and form, you can experience pain and loss, but how much you suffer depends less on external events than on your internal response to these events. You may or may not be able to change the objective circumstances in your life, but you always have an immense influence over your subjective world.

 One can easily be seduced into believing that our inner world is a perfect mirror that accurately reflects the external, objective world. It can be, but for most of us there are distortions in that mirror. Most of these distortions are caused by past conditioning. We don’t see the world as it is, but as it appears through the distorted mirror of the conditioned mind.

 The distortions (samskaras) will cause suffering if you believe the distorted reflections are objectively true. You will then believe that an outer event or circumstance is the actual cause of your suffering.

 External circumstances and events in the world can trigger the samskaras--but the events themselves are not cause. It’s very important to remember this distinction, otherwise you may experience much suffering.

 To give a rather graphic analogy: if you were to step on a landmine it would explode and cause much pain. The cause of the explosion is not the step that you took, but the landmine itself. The step was the trigger--but not the ultimate cause. So it is with all of the “blow-ups” in your life: the external event can trigger suffering only if the true cause is already present within you.

 In practice we have the opportunity to “get out of the way” of the exploding mine before we are injured. The key is to be aware of the difficult experiences and when pain occurs to not engage in the mind’s reactivity. Notice the pain and let yourself feel it fully- if you can. Pain, met with awareness and nonresistance, is like the landmine exploding harmlessly, when you are well out of the way. This doesn’t mean the pain will necessarily disappear, but the suffering will. Pain, without suffering, is just another experience that passes through you; it is impermanent.

 But if there is resistance to the painful experience then suffering is inevitable. And the suffering is seldom confined to yourself. It is very easy to then project the cause of suffering outward—seeing another as the cause of your suffering and then labeling them “the enemy.” If you act from this mindset then you end up inflicting more suffering upon others, as well as upon yourself. This happens collectively, between tribes and nations, as well. This dynamic has caused immeasurable suffering throughout human history.

 Some persons see this dynamic at work and choose to adopt a strategy of being objectively passive--refusing to engage in any form of warfare or military action. This is far better than unconsciously inflicting harm upon others, but it may not always be the wisest choice.

 It’s better to first be subjectively passive-- practicing nonresistance internally-- then you can choose the optimal objective response. To be subjectively passive means facing, feeling, and nonresisting all of your inner experiences—and then choosing the appropriate action. Action can then be taken mindfully and with clear intention.

 Joseph Campbell tells the story of a samurai warrior…

 A samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And after some time, he found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. He was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away!

 Why?  Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have been a personal act, another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.

 If he had killed the overlord it would have been from an unconscious response to the anger. The warrior sheathed his sword because he knew that he had to deal with his anger before he acted objectively-- his act would no longer be conscious and intentional.

 Refrain from the impulse to act automatically and first attend to your internal experience. Let your emotions play out before you act. And then, when you do act, act intentionally--with integrity, and with no regret.

 Do you have the patience to wait

until your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

until the right action arises by itself?

                                                              Tao Te Ching