Week Three of the 2020 Real Happiness Challenge

This week we are going to focus on mindfulness of the mind: thoughts and emotions that come and go. These objects of mindfulness can be subtle and fleeting, as is especially the case with thoughts. Whether thoughts or emotions, we tend to identify with them a lot. As much as we identify our true selves with our bodies, we tend to do that a lot more with our minds. We might hit an elbow and say, “My elbow hurts,” but we are unlikely to say, “I am a sore elbow.” But if we experience sadness, guilt, anger, we are much more likely to build a whole self-image around that, “I am such an angry person, and I always will be.”

Our goal is not at all to wipe out thoughts and emotions, not even very negative or painful ones. We couldn’t succeed at that even if we tried hard. Our goal is to establish a more spacious relationship to thoughts and emotions, so that we are empowered. We have a choice in that space: for example, “Do I really want to send this exact email?” if we have no space, we have pressed send even before we recognize we are feeling angry.

The work is to not fall into and be dominated by every thought and emotion that arises, and also to not push against them and dislike or fear what we are feeling or thinking. Mindfulness avoids both of these extremes. Instead, we can have a balanced and interested relationship towards all that comes up. We can have more compassion for ourselves with more negative or painful states, and notice and enjoy more pleasant states, instead of being so distracted, we hardly take them in to appreciate them.
In Burma, there is a teaching story that is told about a hunter who goes into the forest to try to capture a bird. He may wander for a long time in the forest and, in the end, may not capture the bird. But that is all right because, in all that wandering, he has learned the ways of the forest.

It is just like that for us in meditation. We may have the idea that there is something we would like to capture, perhaps something we can show off to all our friends. But any meditation experience we can show off doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are open to learning the ways of the forest, the ways of the body, and the mind. What matters is that we learn how to wander, how to explore, how to make this journey of discovery. To learn how to have wonder at the changing array of our own experiences. That means there is no particular experience that is “good,” while the rest are considered inferior. It’s all “good,” in that we can learn from everything.

If at any time it feels too ephemeral or ungrounded, it’s perfectly fine to go back to mindfulness of the body. It’s not regressive to do so. We’re just trying to cover the scope of where mindfulness can touch and improve our lives.