We all like to be in control, and in recent decades we’ve come to believe that life is all about getting your way. We’re convinced that happiness lies at the end of that set of tracks. Mindfulness shows you that you can be happy now. 

WHEN YOU learn mindfulness, you’ll discover two important things: firstly, that your mind is always in past and future and is always liking and not liking what it finds there. (If you want to get a better idea of this, watch this 3½-minute video.)

This liking and not liking can be termed “having preferences” and the point is that it’s not your preferences that are the problem, but how tightly you hold onto them—how insistent you are about how things should turn out. The irony, as Gautama, the Buddha, pointed out 2,500 years ago, is this: you think that having your preferences met is the source of happiness; yet, in fact, this very need to have them met is the source of all suffering. Sit back and think about that for a while. Take your time. It’s going to be a big think.

Another thing you’ll discover through the practice of mindfulness is just what a struggle it is to hold your attention on your breath, or any single thought, for more than a few seconds. By extension, if you were to beat your own heart and work any one of your organs by paying attention to it, you’d be dead within minutes. Fortunately, your autonomic nervous system takes care of that.

How often do you get your way?

Yet, despite this failing, you still think that you can control events outside of yourself and have them unfold according to your preferences—what you want or don’t want to have happen—simply by holding your attention on them, and figuring out ways to force your agenda onto the world. You may succeed for a time, but, even if you’re Robert Mugabe, sooner or later the party must end!

If you’re even remotely rational and scientific in your approach to life, you would see that you seldom get your way with everything. Yet, how much do you still try and remain attached to the outcome? You would be better placed to align yourself with this fact—that things don’t always go your way—and learn to flow with what life offers up instead.

Now nobody’s advocating that you should become a “shoo-wow” hippy, where everything is just “Groovy, man!” We’re not saying you should not be able to stand for anything, or fight for anything, or hold people accountable. Nor are we saying that you cannot have goals and work hard towards them.

The question of attachment

As we say in the Practical Mindfulness program, and as the Stoics pointed out two thousand years ago, it’s not the thing itself, but your relationship to the thing, that causes all the trouble. We all tend to have strong preferences for things happening or not happening, and you’re quite entitled to those preferences. The operative word is “strong”, and the question is, how tightly do you hold onto those preferences? It’s like you must have things happen the way you want them to, or else! Or else what? Or else you’ll die. At least, that’s the conclusion you—along with everyone else—seem to carry around in your head.

Take the simple outcome of a traffic mix-up. It can quickly turn into an altercation, simply because of how tightly you’re holding onto your preference for not having people push in, or whatever it happens to be. Then consider bigger issues, like the shape and outcome of a job interview or business deal, or your child’s career and romantic partner choices. How tightly wound up you can get about what you want in those situations!

Life happens to you as much as it happens because of you

If you look at life, you see that there is an irresistible force of growth always happening. Plant life is totally surrendered to this force. It grows without judgement. If the sun is to the left, it grows to the left. If there is a rock or a building foundation in the way, it grows around it and allows itself to be shaped by the experience. But not us humans. If you were a tree you would probably try to drill through the rock in order to grow the way you want to. You would try to move the sun so that you could grow to the right instead of to the left.

In Jungian dream symbolism, the tree is often seen as a symbol of the Self, that unique person that life wants you to become. It is considered to be so, precisely for this reason, that a tree grows into its unique form because of its circumstances. You do the same—or life does the same to you, it shapes you—only you don’t like it, and you spend a lot of time focused on what you like and don’t like, what you want and don’t want to have happen.

The alternative is what we call “equanimity”, which is the ability to be with things as they are. It means not minding (so much) what happens. That’ll be the subject of the next post, so don’t miss it.

Once again, this is not to say that you should not have goals, or intentions. You should. However, here’s the bad news: goals are not meaningful in themselves. They are useful. They focus your energy and attention. They enable you to make a meaningful contribution to the world. (Very few people set goals to destroy the world; most often, people set goals to make a bigger, better contribution to the world.) Recognise that, and use your goals, instead of letting your goals use you!

practical mindfulness the bookFind out more
This an adapted excerpt from the Practical Mindfulness book and online course. You’re invited to explore both options via the links provided.