It has been a very long time since my last email message to this wonderful and diverse community. Like many of you, I have been doing my best to navigate these constantly challenging times. Perhaps ‘challenging’ doesn’t even begin to describe them? Even though I have not been emailing, as I was doing for a concerted period during the pandemic from March 2020 – March 2021, neither this course nor this community has been far from my thoughts. As you may be aware, we launched a major update a few months ago, and I have been fortunate to have received many messages from course participants. I’ve even been able to talk with some of you over Zoom.
As this year slips, slides, and staggers towards its end, I’m writing today mostly just to check-in with you. This time of the year can be stressful and difficult even in the best of times, so I’m more than aware that many of you are probably struggling right now ...
... This year has been such an ordeal and, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you were holding onto the hope that the end of the year would mark the end of a difficult episode and the beginning of something fresh and new … or even just ‘normal’? Perhaps it feels as though Omicron has extinguished the light at the end of the tunnel? Perhaps you’re exhausted and it’s a struggle to hold onto something like hope at the end of 2021?
From your messages, I know that many of you are feeling despondent about all kinds of things; your energy and motivation are depleted, which seems entirely understandable. Naturally, this also extends to your mindfulness practice. Some of you have even written to apologize to me for having let your practice drop! So, if I may, the first thing I’d like to do today is to encourage you to reflect a little on the tone of gentleness and compassion that imbue mindfulness, and I’d like to encourage you to extend that towards yourself. This is more than simply cultivating that quality of non-judgemental awareness (although that’s a great place to start); it is also about compassion in the face of things as they actually are (rather than as you’d prefer them to be). Given all the things you’re coping with and have coped with this year, of course you’re exhausted! That’s entirely appropriate. And when you’re exhausted, you need self-care not self-reproach. So, rather than feeling guilty or despondent about ‘failing’ to do your mindfulness practice every day, what might it be like to congratulate yourself whenever you do manage to do it? We don’t start this journey with 100% and lose 1% every time we ‘miss’ a practice. Rather, we all start at the bottom of the hill, and each step we take is a step forward. And no matter how fast we want to go, we can always go only one step at a time. So, be proud of yourself for each step.
If it helps, just take a few mindful steps right now. Literally. If you can, stand up right now, take a single, slow step to your left, stop, take a breath, and then a single, slow step back to your right. There you go. After all, mindful walking is always comprised of just one mindful step – that’s the only one there is, in this very moment, right now. So, you’ve accomplished something today already
Walking the Narrow Mountain Path
Some of you might already be aware of little conundrums called kōan, which are used in some traditions of Zen Buddhism to supplement meditation practice? One that has been stuck in my head for months now is this one: ‘how do you walk straight on a narrow mountain path which has ten thousand bends?’ There are all kinds of answers to this, of course. Perhaps you already have one in your mind or body? For me, I have an image of a precarious, crumbling path in the high mountains, winding its way around sheer cliffs and drops, such that any little misstep will send me plummeting into an abyss. How can I possibly walk in a straight line on this path? Isn’t a straight line always the fastest route between two points? But if I go straight on this path, I’ll die. And yet, this kōan is a question not a (death) sentence: how do you walk straight? And again, for me, my answer requires me to rethink what it means to go straight. Perhaps it means straight forward in time rather than space? So, I walk straight simply by taking one step at a time, even as I bend and wind around the precarious path. The fastest route is still straight, but it means accepting the shape of the path I’m following, and perhaps even accepting that I’m not sure where it will end up. Does it even have an end? Does it matter? I can just walk straight. Or perhaps ‘straight’ means something like upright – how do you walk with dignity on a narrow mountain path that’s full of dangers and precarious falls? What do you do when you trip or stumble or get sick? You can just walk straight, one step, this step, however it is. And now this one.
From your messages, I get the sense that many of us are trying to walk that narrow mountain path at the moment, and that we’re extraordinarily good at making that scarier, more stressful, and even more dangerous than it needs to be by putting so much pressure on ourselves to get ‘straight’ to the end of the path. How many things in nature are actually straight? None. We know that not even light moves in a straight line. So, how can we walk straight on the path we’re on right now? Slowly. Carefully. Gently. Just this step is enough.
I began this email wondering how many of us feel like the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out, and I suggested that this feeling adds extra layers of exhaustion and debilitation onto our already considerable burdens. But that feeling of hopelessness can be hard to shake. For many of us, hope is such an important and vital source of energy and motivation. When it feels like we’ve lost it, it can feel like we’re falling into despair.
There is a deliberately provocative slogan in Tibetan Mind Training (Lojong) which seeks to encourage us to reflect upon the ways in which hope is a form of desire or attachment or (in the scientific terms of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in our course) ‘discrepancy-based thinking.’ That is, when we hope for something to happen or not to happen, we are declaring that we want things to become otherwise than they are. Even when we hope things will remain the same, we’re declaring that we want change not to happen, but that’s not how things are - change is basic to everything. So, Lojong slogan number 28 is simply this: abandon hope.
In terms of our mindfulness course, this ostensibly shocking idea is closely allied with cultivating mindful awareness of the present moment. That is, mindfulness invites us to release our preoccupations with the past (which is not here now) and with the future (which is not here now), and instead to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement. So, if I am practicing a mindfulness meditation and my mind is attending to hopes for the future, then I must release those hopes and return to the present moment. In the spirit of gentleness, perhaps we might call this ‘releasing hope’? The feeling of hoping might be here in the present, the feeling of being attached to a certain outcome might be here in the present, but the hoped for outcome is not. Can we embrace the feeling of hope without becoming attached to the future outcome?
In the Zen tradition there is a parable that helps me understand this. Imagine a man is being chased by a tiger. He finds himself on the edge of cliff. Desperate, he spies a vine and lowers himself off the cliff out of the tiger’s reach. Above him is the hungry tiger, below is a lethal fall. As he dangles he looks around and sees sharp rocks, lethal drops, circling vultures, and a beautiful strawberry plant growing out of the cliff-face. So, what does he do?
He eats a strawberry.
To be clear, this ‘releasing of hope’ to reside in mindfulness does not mean giving up on action or progress, it just means residing in the way things actually are. It means fighting for what’s right even without hoping to win. It means recycling plastics even if the climate disaster is already inevitable. It means living right here and now in the most upright and dignified way we can, given the resources and energy we have right now, no matter what happens next. It means walking straight on that narrow mountain path with ten thousand bends. It means: eat the strawberry and savour it, and by then the tiger might have given up and left; the strawberry will taste better if we can eat it without fretting about the tiger, about which we can do nothing in the present circumstances!
And again, to be clear, eating that strawberry doesn’t mean that we are denying that the tiger and the cliff are there. We know they’re there. They’re part of that moment. But it means allowing mindfulness to support us in making skilful decisions and taking skilful actions. It means allowing neither fear nor hope to overwhelm the clarity of our understanding of things as they actually are. Right then and there, in that moment, there’s nothing we can do about the tiger and there’s this amazing, juicy strawberry right there within reach!
Likewise, if someone turns off the light at the end of the tunnel, can we make the most of the quiet and darkness to sleep for a while and then see what happens next, when we’re a little more energized after our nap?
So, my main point here is that if you’re exhausted and frustrated and feeling hopeless at the end of this year, then that seems entirely understandable; you don’t need to be hard on yourself about those feelings. And perhaps mindfulness can support you in finding ways to eat a strawberry, take a nap, put one foot in front of the other, and move with dignity rather than despair in your heart.
Sending only good wishes,
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.