We cannot help but strive toward things. In fact, we very often strive before we know what we want at all (see my previous post on “Feeding Distractions”). What striving does is put us into the future. When our “presence-of-mind” is replaced by a “future-of-mind”, our lives are a little less lived – and the results can be pretty obvious.
Receptively placing attention on the present unfolding of experience rather than the planning of future experience is easier said than done, but it is possible with intentional effort and a tranquil concentration.
When we plan for anything, what is generally happening is that we are recognizing our current state (i.e. in pain, comfortable, satisfied, hungry) with an imagined future state (i.e. alleviating pain, loosing comfort, becoming unsatisfied, appeasing hunger). What this means is that our minds are on constant alert for disequilibrium in our psycho-physical system (the system of the mind and body). Once a disequilibrium (an imbalance, a perturbation, a dislike) is found, we attack it at all possible sides.
There are some basic conditions of life that are unavoidable: pleasure-pain, gain-loss, high status-disrepute, and praise-blame. The oscillation between these conditions could be called vicissitudes: the fluctuation of state inherent in life. Through all these vicissitudes, it is a natural tendency to attempt to hold on to the positive ones and avoid or push away the negative ones. Everyone wants to feel better more often and eliminate as much pain and discomfort as possible!
Through this search for equilibrium, however, a highly difficult set of mental habits can emerge. As we “train” ourselves to view positive conditions as something to clutch a hold of and negative conditions as something to push away from, we can find ourselves stuck in a never-ending process of chasing: chasing gain and chasing away loss, chasing praise and chasing away blame, etc. Simply noticing the process of constant fluctuation can provide the opportunity to free ourselves from playing this game.
The move from “chasing equilibrium” to “embodying equanimity” takes a strong intentional effort and a degree of calm concentration. Pushed too hard, we may develop a hopeless frustration. Left uncaring, however, and effort can dwindle like an un-watered plant. Before any concentrated action of effort can take place, the process of vicissitudes must first be receptively known.
Roughly speaking, being receptive to experience means maintaining a curious and open attitude toward whatever is unfolding at the moment. Receptivity, in contrast to reactivity, is marked by a stance of acceptance and non-judgement. Non-judgement here does not mean non-discernment… we definitely should still have a discerning way of knowing what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think; it’s just that we do our best to see that the things known in experience are not given any added value or worth.
This could be thought of as some sort of “bare” or “pure” knowing: knowing what is happening without interfering with it. In other words, the one experiencing life (the “me” taking it all in) perceives with a sort of “beginner’s mind”… a mind that observes all things with newness and wonder.
This takes practice.
The practicing of seeing life (I use the word “seeing” here as loosely synonymous with “experiencing”) with newness and wonder is made possible by an intentional effort to do so and a calm or tranquil concentration to support the endeavor.
This is a tough one. It takes resolve to begin viewing the entirety of life – from the most cosmic contemplations to the most inconsequential action – with intention and effort.
Beginning small is wise…
Look over and pick something up. Anything: a pen, your phone, a crumb, your other hand… anything.
Did you do it? Ok, now put it down.
This time pick up the same object with the same motion and in the exact same manner except do it with intentional effort.
That means, as you look at the object, noticing the form and color of it; notice the way you can sense your arm prepare for the motion before you even move it; now that it is moving, sense every little motion and feeling of pressure, contraction, stretching, etc. – really feel your arm move. As you begin to pick it up, concentrate on its texture; its contour; its weight and pull; focus the feeling of it in your grasp as you lift it off the surface. As you place it back down, try to map each micro-moment of “letting the object go” until it is left back from where you picked it up.
What did you notice? Was that the same pen, phone, etc. you are familiar with? Was there any “newness” to it? Was it somehow more interesting?
Regardless of your answers to these questions, play with this exercise some. Obviously you can break every action down to that level (sometimes you need to hit the brakes in your car!), but experimentation may lead to an openness in experience that is the sign of an intentional effort.
Before we do ANYTHING intentionally, we are required to conjure up at least some amount of concentration…
Concentration is the tool that the mind uses to direct or orient the rest of itself (along with the body) toward a certain goal or object. To take advantage of concentration, we must first cultivate it.
I add “tranquil” or “calm” to the description of concentration here because there is a real danger of pushing too hard when attempting to develop a very focused attention. It can be helpful to allow a balancing of intense focus and even calm to occur. Think of the concentration being like a beam from a flashlight and the openness of tranquility being like the light from a candle.
The practice toward increased concentration can take many forms. One can focus on the breath and return the attention when (not if!) it wanders. One could also think of a word, phrase, or image to bring to mind to place and hold the mind on in order to strengthen focus.
Another method of increasing concentration is to focus the eyes on a certain actual image in the short space in front of your body. Pick a spot on the wall, find an odd shape on your desk, or even draw a dot on the center of a piece of paper and tape it on something in front of you.
As you focus on this actual image, attempt to let yourself become absorbed by the image while simultaneously absorbing it [incidentally, this is also a VERY rewarding exercise to do on a clear day: lay on your back and try to absorb and become absorbed by the blue sky]: a kind of “two-way absorption”.
If your eyes get dry or tired, simply close them, bring a mental image of the object to mind (as though you were still looking at it), and continue. When your eyes feel rested again, open them and return to the actual image.
The “tranquil” part of this exercise comes in when your mind starts to feel strained. When that happens, loosen the attention’s grip on the object, and allow your focus to become broader and easier. Rest here in this space of open-focus and allow your body to relax – try quickly scanning the body and observe tension; then imagine each in-breath filling your body and soaking up the tension; visualize each out-breath carrying the tension out of your body in the form of a colored mist.
Once the body is relaxed and the mind is less strained, continue focusing on the object-image while trying to increase the “two-way absorption”.
Now What?! – Embodying Equanimity
This last “step” is where the aforementioned components can be synthesized.
Calmly using a well-developed concentration (strengthened through practice), you can begin to intentionally place effort (noticed through practice) on as many details of life vicissitudes (the process of perpetual oscillation between “positive” and “negative” conditions) as possible. Observed with a receptive stance of “beginner’s mind”, life experience can become stripped to its “bare” components (sensations, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and thoughts/feelings).
The “embodied” part implies a shift from knowing life vicissitudes under the microscope of effortful concentration to a seeing or experiencing that gives deeper understanding of the everchanging nature of life events. Calmly and intentionally, try to begin to experience newness in life events (no matter how big or small) throughout the whole psycho-physical system.
Once placed in this context, vicissitudes may still be pleasant or unpleasant, but the way the vicissitudes are allowed to affect us can drastically change… as everything else does.