We practice mindfulness, or insight meditation, to discover a more skillful way to be with our life. We learn to be less reactive. Normally, we are very reactive when it comes to our present moment experience. Our life is a series of moments of conscious awareness, and we find ourselves endlessly reacting to the contents of this awareness. We decide whether we like it, or not, and we go about either trying to hang on to it, if we like it, or trying to make it go away, if we don’t. We do this endlessly and compulsively. This is suffering is – the inability to be at peace with what is here in our life, and the inability to be at peace with life itself.
The way out is to study this reactivity, to shine the light of awareness on the reactivity itself as it unfolds in our life. To see the cause of the reactivity, to see the effects of it, and to see the release that comes when it ceases. To do this, we don’t need to try to force the mind to be a certain way, we can just learn to observe it as it goes about its business. Our goal is simply to see how the mind creates suffering. This leads to a mind that can be peaceful and calm regardless of what it is happening.
So on this path, whatever is there, is fertile ground for practice – especially the difficulties we encounter, including the uncomfortable emotions and mind states that arise. These tend to evoke strong reactivity in us and so are excellent opportunities for practice. So we just look at what is happening in the mind, as it is happening, when it is confronted with a difficulty. If we pay attention, we can see that there is the experience itself, there is an unpleasant feeling that accompanies the experience, and then there is a sense of aversion to the experience – from there the mind starts to concoct and create all sorts of stories about what is happening. “Why is this happening? There must be something wrong with me. This is never going to get any better. This is too much to put up with. I am not going to be able to go on if this keeps up.” We start creating a storyline about how we either do or don’t deserve what’s happening and how it will be if we don’t find a solution to this difficulty. The mind concocts endlessly in this way. This is the creation of suffering. Our practice is to step out of this reactivity and concocting, and simply observe this action of the mind with equanimity.
So in this way, we can use difficulties themselves as our practice. While this might sound like a difficult practice, if you try it, you might find that it is not so bad. After all, we’re not actually increasing the difficulties in our life, we’re just using what’s already there – using it for something useful. In fact, taking up the practice of being with the mind in the midst of the difficulty, rather than compulsively trying to correct it, actually relieves us of a huge burden. This is because we are letting ourselves off the hook of having to feel good. In our culture, we think that we should be feeling good all the time. If we’re not feeling good, then there is something wrong with us, or the way we’re living our life. But, letting go of the need to feel good, just this shift in attitude, can bring a big reduction in suffering. It’s OK that this unpleasantness is here now, I am just going to be present with what is arising now in my body-heart-mind; I don’t need to try to fix it. If there are changes that are needed in my life, I will consider that later and make those changes. For now, I am practicing by simply knowing my body and mind, from moment to moment, in the midst of this unpleasantness – using a sense of the movement of the body, or the breath, to keep us from getting lost in stories about the experience. Letting go of these stories is like setting down a huge load that we’ve been carrying.
If we are diligent with this practice, and can connect several moments of this self-awareness together in a continuous manner, insight arises, and we experience our mind and the world in a very different way. The thoughts that harass our mind and cause suffering are naturally released, and we experience a great sense of freedom. By practicing in this way – using our difficulties as the path, we are making lemonade out of lemons. We are taking something unpleasant, and using it for our spiritual growth.