Thursday, 9 September 2010

Our Ineradicable Faults?

In a comment on my last post, Charles referred to what he sees as a fault in himself which he had always seen as ineradicable - a lack of mindfulness, getting carried away by a full heart, that sort of thing. Actually, the people who scare me are those whose hearts never do fill, and who do apalling things with great calmness - but anyway, I want to develop Charles' prompt a bit, because it very much relates to mindfulness practice, and a lot of other things too.

Something a mindfulness course seeks to develop in people is an acceptance of themselves. Here's a paradox, then.We might well join such a course to be different,to move on, to improve, to develop something in ourselves; it may be a relief from pain or depression, a greater calmness and emotional balance, less fear about the ending of life, relief from anxiety in an over-stressed and rushed working life. But then the course tells us - or rather, seeks to develop in us - acceptance of who we are, just as is.

Almost looks like a classic paradox. Remember the sheet of paper which has written on both sides "The statement on the other side of this sheet is untrue"?

I don't think the "change me/accept myself" thing really is a classic paradox as in the example above, unless you bang away at it with your powers of reason. In any case, surely the point about a brain-teasing paradox is that it defies reason - in which faculty I am generally a great believer, incidentally, so I'm not walking away from reason into a comfortable cloud of alternativism for its own sake. I think this self-image puzzle works like this, and it's very simple.

Through guided meditation you can relax the muscle, as it were, of your self-critical attention, and accept your thoughts and feelings just as is. You may also be able to accept people in the session who would normally drive you swiftly towards the exit and a large G&T. So it can help you to be less quickly judgemental about others. Outside of meditation, you will of course sometimes need to exercise both your self-critical muscle and your judgemental muscle in dealing with others. Fotherington-Thomas is not the goal ("I forgive you molesworth for those uncouth words...") or you will get ridden over. But. The practise of mindful meditation creeps up on you somewhat. You may find that you are changing, not by trying with naked willpower at the point of contact, but simply because you are calmer about your self-preceived flaws. You can change youself by accepting yourself just as you are, not by trying to change yourself, or giving up on yourself. So that's the paradox - you change yourself by not trying to change yourself.

Dammit, this stuff sounds so bland when you try to write about it. That's because it's experiential, not very yielding in terms of analytical categories or abstract concepts. But here's an example. Readers of this noble work will know that in my view, trying hard to empty the mind for meditation is like trying to chew your own teeth. The brain's job is thoughts,as long as it's conscious, thoughts in a great long string. So the simple techniques in a mindfulness class help you to hold your mind in one place, as it were, and when, not if, your thoughts start wandering off, you are encouraged to bring them back to that one place (e.g. your breathing, or part of your body, or the act of walking slowly.) Not to fight it or fuss about it - "I must try harder to meditate, I must try harder to.." - but just to return to base, no comment, no self-criticism. If you have to do that a hundred times in ten minutes- there you go, just do it and don't fuss. (That's the hard work bit.)

Little by little, that acceptance works outwards. A young mother practising mindfulness commented that instead of her usual swift, unthinking reaction to her teenage daughter, that sent both of them them off down well-worn routes of argument and recrimination and left her feeling crappy (daughter too, no doubt) she paused just a moment, said something a little different and more thoughtful, and domestic miracles ensued - no row, more constructive outcome, no feeling crappy about herself. That's not about willpower, trying to be different, it's actually about inhabiting the present moment and responding uniquely to it. That's a powerful thing.

The book title that drew me towards mindfulness: "Wherever You Go, That's Where You Are." Very simple. Unavoidably true. I'd add "whoever you are, that's who you are."

There are no ineradicable faults. There are only ways of feeling and behaving. We can change them by accepting them. In any case, a fault is a virtue when the context changes.


  1. Very, very thought-nourishing thoughts. I'd guess that the person most people find most difficult, infuriating and disappointing to live with is themselves. Anything that can teach us to accept ourselves all-in-all and thereby promote amity has my full attention!

  2. Gloria,

    This afternoon I was reading a story about Milton Ericson, a very significant hypnotherapist and psychotherapist.

    He grew up on a farm, and one day a stray horse arrived in their yard - wearing a saddle and bridle, but they did not know where the horese lived or to whom it belonged.

    He mounted the horse and took it back to the main road. Here he let go control of the horse and it started off in a definite direction.

    Occasionally the horse would be distracted by something in a field. Or on the side of the road. He would just nudge the horse back onto the road.

    The horse turned left here, and right there and eventually they came to a farm 4 miles away and the horse strolled into the yard.

    "How did you know the horse lived here?" they asked him.

    "I didn't - the horse did"

    It strikes me that perhaps mindfulness is a bit like this, in that you just let the mind find it's natural direction "back home" and if it stops or strays or wanders you just nudge it on. Back on track.

    That's my thought for the day. . .

  3. A good thought and an excellent analogy, Arkers - just nudge it back on track and nit'll make progrsss, force it fuss it and try to gully it back on track and it'll get confused and give up. More thinking to do in the area of wanting to be different/allowing yourself to find a difference, and a bit of a challenge materialising, I think, from something Matthieu Ricard wrote about meditation - I want to look into this.

  4. Arkayeff, I really shouldn't try to type comments late at night - that should of course be "it'll," and "bully" not "gully," sorry. But this horse finding its way is in there with thoughts about The Flow, with people who are entirely present with the entire self feeling that the enterprise is unfolding independently of themselves (whatever the enterprise is.)Caught ten minutes of a radio play this p.m. about young men learning to fly Spitfires, and one of them says, delightedly, that it seems to be flying itself. (I seem to remember reading that in fact they were quite hard to fly well, and certainly not easy to take off and land, but that doesn't negate the point) - mindful immersion in something that is being done as well as one can do it results in a sense of total identification, and control anxieties drop away.