Image: San Sebastian, El Greco
Trying to explain to a friend recenly why mindfulness and meditation can be useful, three cases sprang to mind.
1. The second arrow.
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the anaolgy of the second-arrow. If you are shot in the arm by an arrow, it hurts a lot. If you are shot in exactly the same place again by another arrow, the pain is not twice, but ten times worse.
We constantly shoot ourselves with second arrows. If someone says something unkind to us, it hurts. If we then turn over and over in our minds what they have said, then our unhappiness becomes ten times worse! There’s the second arrow.
Mindfulness helps us avoid this, by learning to recognise when we are perpetrating our own suffering by turning something over and over in our mind. We watch the mind at work, realise when it is out of control, and change focus back to the present moment. Slowly our suffering diminishes as a result.
2. Recognising our Habits.
The other day I was pulling my son up the street by the hand, in a hurry – not a big hurry, just a little hurry as usual! An old man stopped as we passed and jested, “Daddy, you’re going to pull my arm off!” – as if he were my son talking to me.
“I don’t like what that man said,” said my son. But he was quite right, I was pulling my son along on a hurried shopping exhibition, just as my mum used to pull me around Oxford when I was small. She was usually in a hurry, it was usually stressful and exhausting for me at the time, and it’s a habit I’ve inherited from her and am passing on to my son.
In more aware moments, mindfulness helps me to stop, realise I am rushing around, and say to myself, “Hello mum! I think we can slow down now!” Immediately I slow down, stop pulling my son along by the arm, and let him carry on living his wonderfully mindful life in the present moment! I even start enjoying the shopping trip more too!
This time the old man had been my “bell of mindfulness”, and although my son didn’t like what he said, I was extremely glad to have picked up on his hint and reigned in that old habit.
3. Our Body’s Secret Codes.
Hurry is just one of the habits I have inherited from previous generations, which mindfulness is helping me to pick up on and change.
We all have others that can be still more damaging to us and those that are around us – anger, of course, is the big one, and mindfulness can often help me to catch it in time, and let me cool off before it explodes and harms those that are in close proximity.
Being mindful of the feelings in my body has let me develop a sense of when anger is bubbling up – usually, I’ve noticed, it starts as a powerful tension in my stomach. And my most difficult moods usually start as a feeling of bound-up tension in my chest. Tuning in to these in time lets me do something about it – leave the room, take some deep breathes, splash some water on my face, go for a walk, calm down again…
I manage to catch one in ten these days, so I’ve still got a long way to go, but it feels like I’ve discovered a secret code – something that I’d heard over and over, that if you listen closely enough, the body has all the answers. But if I hadn’t started to take time out to listen, I never would have known.
The Mindfulness Toolbox
In a recent Q and A session, someone asked Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “When you have arrived on the other shore (When you are enlightened) do you still think? Do you still suffer?”
To which Thich Nhat Hanh, the very embodiment of a living enlightened being, reassuringly replied, yes, you still suffer, but you have the tools to deal with it and transform suffering back into happiness again.
And the tools he always reminds us to use, are the many practices of mindfulness.
How to develop mindfulness? Read these books, and practice!
Has mindfulness helped you? Please feel free to share your experiences in a comment.