“I want this…I don’t want that.” How often this goes through our minds and drives our actions. We are masters of perpetually seeking what we like and rejecting what we don’t like. If we could pause long enough to see what’s right in front of us – really check it out, we may discover that things are mostly okay just as they are, and maybe even more than okay. Certainly there are circumstances and habits that don’t support our well-being and need to be changed, but we can’t make those changes unless we take the time to know what’s there.
A few years ago I decided to give up sugar, cold turkey. For many years my daily breakfast was oatmeal with fruit, caramelized pecans and brown sugar on top. Quitting sugar required changing some deeply ingrained habits. What I thought would be extremely challenging, turned out to be quite natural, though I was partly motivated by an internal competition to see if I could actually do it. But I had made up my mind to change, and while I was focused and determined, I was also curious.
Many months later while on a meditation retreat, where one graciously accepts whatever is offered, oatmeal was served for breakfast. There were also beautifully displayed heaping bowls of stewed and fresh fruit, roasted nuts and an assortment of sugar and honeys. Without giving it a thought, I automatically filled my bowl and gave it a healthy sprinkling of sugar. I thought to myself, “Look at that, you just covered your oatmeal with sugar. Well, I guess you’re going to eat it.”
This was several days into the retreat and my mind was fairly quiet so I wasn’t particularly perturbed or bothered that I was about to break my sugar-fast. I was mostly taken with just how hard it is to break one habit and form a new one. Let up on the vigilance and discipline and zap! The old habit is right there ready to take over.
I distinctly remember taking the first bite and recognizing the taste but not quite able to name it – like something I used to know so well but now found somewhat foreign. “Oh, this is the taste of sweet,” I thought. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant and I didn’t want more or less of it, and coming from me, this was a monumental shift in perception.
It reminded me of a pithy teaching from Ajahn Sumedho, the prominent Buddhist teacher who often reminds us that whatever we’re experiencing, “it’s like this.” Whatever it is – joy, contentment, anticipation, fear, frustration or boredom, it’s like this. And THIS is just what meditation practice trains us to see and feel.
It’s so easy to be in those continual states of wishing things were other, completely blind to the beauty around us. Mindfulness practice asks us to be still long enough to get absorbed in the changing colors of the sunrise instead of making plans to get up early tomorrow to see it again. It habituates us to be present now instead of making plans to be present later. It takes awareness to see what’s in front of us, to see how it is right now. And even when right now is difficult, uncomfortable or painful, “It’s like this” helps us stay right here right now, smack-dab in the middle of our lives.
As strange as it sounds, meditation may reveal that we are happier than we thought we were. We may discover that ancient conditioning rather than present circumstances is causing our dissatisfaction, and that this moment is quite sufficient or even wonderful, and we simply hadn’t noticed.
– Wes Nisker, Buddha’s Nature: A Practical Guide to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos