As we move into this season of celebration, celebrating the victory of the light of wisdom and the birth of unconditional love, it is an opportunity to return to these qualities of wisdom and love within our own hearts. One of the ways I like to bring myself out of mental confusion and back into an awareness which is expansive, loving, and hopefully wise, is by imagining moving through life with the freshness of a newborn with no experiences with which to compare this moment.
Imagine there were no known social norms that told us how our bodies should look or how we should think or what we should fear or who is included or excluded from our community? Imagine if we simply experienced life without the verbal and linguistic labels that we use to categorize our experience? What would it be like to just be yourself? The newborn mind is something like this. It is a mind that is eternally open to the newness of each moment because each moment is literally brand new.
I have been blessed in recent days to be spending more time with a lovely, vibrant four year old girl who has been revealing to me new vistas of wonder and magic. With her, I have had the chance to enter into states of awe as we’ve watched and touched colourful flowers in a garden, or stood beneath the wide-open sky looking at the smiling crescent moon at dawn. At other times I have encountered the beginner’s mind watching her struggle to try to zip up her jacket before her body has developed the muscle memory to do so. Yet at other moments, she is dancing and singing like there’s no tomorrow and as if nobody is watching! With the beginner’s mind, there is such a sense of joy, wonder, presence, and deep appreciation for life’s gifts.
At the same time there is much we have learned during our lifetime that is useful, even essential, to us. As I watch my little friend struggle and get frustrated learning to write the alphabet, I am reminded of all the many little things that I do all the time with ease, unconsciously, and that I now take for granted. One of the tasks of our mindfulness practice is to bring all of these little actions and movements back into our conscious awareness. Bringing a beginner’s mind to the little tasks of zipping up jackets, riding a bicycle, or opening a door knob requires a great deal of conscious awareness.
The reason bringing conscious awareness to the small actions of life is difficult, is because we have learned to rely on something called our implicit memory. You could say it is our “unconscious memory”. This part of our memory is essential and keeps us alive. For example, it allows us to drive without having an accident when our mind wanders off. Unfortunately, our implicit memory is also the part of our memory that brings the emotional content and physical reactions of past experiences into the present moment unconsciously. This aspect of our implicit memory may keep us stuck in old patterns and behaviours that no longer serve us. For example, a survivor of an earthquake might find their body tensing up with terror every time a streetcar rumbles by without knowing why. Similarly, someone who, when a child, was told they are stupid by their teacher, might feel the same anxiety, shame, and anger every time they encounter a person in a position of authority as an adult. With their implicit memory activated, they are likely to misinterpret current situations. For example, they might now think that their boss has judged their work as being inadequate when actually their boss loved it and was trying to give some constructive feedback. As a result of this misinterpretation, they might feel so anxious that they cannot complete the tasks required and then actually be told that they are performing inadequately. All of this because they are perceiving that person through the lenses of their past experiences of fear, shame, and anger. Yikes!
Fortunately, there is a way out of this predicament. First we must accept that most of the time we are reacting to life in an unconscious manner that restricts our ability to truly be present to what is happening right now. We may have a patterned belief system that we are always being victimized or that the world is an uncaring place. When we have such beliefs we are stuck in our implicit memory. Once we can accept that our unconscious mind is largely responsible for creating the world we believe we live in, we can start the process of becoming conscious.
We can become conscious by bringing a beginner’s mind to the present moment experience of our bodies and emotions. In this moment we can feel sensations as if they are brand new. In this moment we can feel emotions as if we’ve never felt them before. In this moment we can listen to our thoughts as if we’ve never heard them before. We can watch them and be curious about them. We can become interested in them the way we become interested in watching a movie, knowing that the movie is not ultimately true or real. We can become interested in our inner experience the way a child is fully engaged with learning to tie their shoe lace. It is only in this moment that we can free ourselves from stuck patterns by bringing deep steadfast compassionate awareness to what is actually happening right now inside of ourselves. These days I often sit and watch emotions pass through me with the same sense of awe and wonder that I feel when I watch a beautiful sunset. It is all part of the miracle of this life!
Of course it is difficult to stay present to our internal experience all the time. It takes practice, like learning to zip up a jacket. We need to practice over and over again so that our habitual pattern of the mind becomes a pattern of presence. In the beginning it requires patience and tremendous courage to face our fears and our pain over and over again. With time it becomes a more natural way of being in the world. Gradually, without even knowing how it happened, we start to open to the wonder, awe, and play of life again. We see radiant sunshine filtering through autumn leaves and feel the joy of being in this miraculous world. We feel our inner experiences flowing through us and know that we are alive, right here, right now.
May you be present to every moment that greets you during the holiday season!
With much love,