This one is tough for me to practice with. Or rather, I should say that I frequently notice my mind turning into a battlefield. I make an enemy of certain thoughts and feelings. I sometimes want (subconsciously or consciously) challenging things to simply go away – I reach for my phone, turn on Netflix, pick up a book, or even meditate in the hopes they’ll be gone when I’m done. Likewise, I think this is something many of us might experience, and I hope that what I share below about my ongoing practice with it is helpful for you, dear reader.
Mindfulness as something non-violent is a concept in Applied Mindfulness from Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m not sure when I first heard it – I’m guessing it was some time during a dharma talk from Thay (the Vietnamese word for teacher and the affectionate name we call Thich Nhat Hanh for short). Elli found a reference for it in Thay’s book, The Sun My Heart, originally published in 1982. She referenced it in her 2021 PhD dissertation (Applied Mindfulness for Physicians: a prospective qualitative study, page 127, table 4.4). Elli also references this concept in some slides she curated for a mindfulness session that I recently adapted for a group of healthcare providers in Toronto. It was so fascinating to teach live that I thought I would reflect on the concept here.
Below I’ll describe the concept, quote Thay, discuss some of my reflections, and finish up with a discussion of “equanimity”.
Darkness Becomes light
In addition to being a zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet. There are many beautiful examples of him using very few words that have considerable impact. He simplifies concepts to make them easy to understand and offers so many concepts / examples / metaphors that we are rich in material to help illuminate the many facets of mindfulness.
I now want to invite you, dear reader, to read the quote below. Bring an open mind to it. Try not to judge it as right / wrong, applicable / not applicable, or accurate / inaccurate. Let the words sink in and see if anything comes up for you. You may discover something that no one has seen before. I will comment afterwards from my experience.
From the section titled, “Darkness Becomes Light” in chapter one: Sunshine and Green Leaves of The Sun My Heart, pg. 12-13 (all quotes and parentheses are original):
"Observe the changes that take place in your mind under the light of awareness. Even your breathing has changed and become "not-two" (I don't want to say "one") with your observing self. This is also true of your thoughts and feelings, which, together with their effects, are suddenly transformed. When you do not try to judge or suppress them, they become intertwined with the observing mind.
From time to time you may become restless, and the restlessness will not go away. At such times, just sit quietly, follow your breathing, smile a half-smile, and shine your awareness on the restlessness. Don't judge it or try to destroy it, because this restlessness is you yourself. It is born, has some period of existence, and fades away, quite naturally. Don't be in too big a hurry to find its source. Don't try too hard to make it disappear. Just illuminate it. You will see that little by little it will change, merging, becoming connected, with you, the observer. Any psychological state which you subject to this illumination will eventually soften and acquire the same nature as the observing mind.
Throughout your meditation, keep the sun of your awareness shining. Like the physical sun, which lights every leaf and every blade of grass, our awareness lights our every thought and feeling, allowing us to recognize them, be aware of their birth, duration, and dissolution, without judging or evaluating, welcoming or banishing them. It is important that you do not consider awareness to be your "ally," called on to suppress the "enemies" that are your unruly thoughts. Do not turn your mind into a battlefield. Do not have a war there; for all your feelings – joy, sorrow, anger, hatred – are part of yourself. Awareness is like an elder brother or sister, gentle and attentive, who is there to guide and enlighten. It is a tolerant and lucid presence, never violent or discriminating. It is there to recognize and identify thoughts and feelings, not to judge them as good or bad, or place them into opposing camps in order to fight with each other. Opposition between good and bad is often compared to light and dark, but if we look at it in a different way, we will see that when light shines, darkness does not disappear. It doesn't leave; it merges with the light. It becomes the light."
Sometimes, especially when I’m feeling stressed or anxious, it can be so hard for me to see a situation clearly. In these times, I try to hold up a concept as a lens through which to view myself or the situation. Some of the ideas presented can be powerful in helping me to see with new perspective.
If mindfulness is about paying attention to what is going on inside of and around me in the present moment, then I’ll take anything I can get to assist me to do that in a kind and compassionate way. Every so often, a little nudge in the right direction is helpful.
My question for this post
I want to share an example and a related question that will serve as a frame for this post. It’s an example that’s personal to me, although I hope that some aspects of it might help you to hold a mirror up to yourself. You are welcome to substitute in your own example as we go if you like.
So, I have noticed recently in my practice an unfolding of views around my consumption during times of stress / anxiety. I might consume a chocolate chip cookie, or I might consume Netflix, YouTube, online games, books, and even dharma talks. I sometimes approach any of these activities as a means of “soothing” myself in a difficult time. Occasionally, this is helpful. Watching a dharma talk might help kick me out of the “funk” I was in and allow me to find new perspective.
Every so often, however, I continue watching / consuming something as a means of escape. Even my sitting meditation can become an escape – I try to focus on my breath in the hopes that my difficulty will “disappear”. I am not always aware in the moment if what I’m doing is helpful or an escape, but it’s usually pretty obvious when I stop. My suffering is still there, and sometimes it’s stronger, or I’ve added new difficulties.
A simple example is eating a bag of chips – a few might taste nice, but if I eat an entire bag, I’ll have a stomach ache afterwards…
A common example for me is having trouble stopping a “spin” on something that happened during a difficult day. I can have a habit of rumination. In response to this, I might turn on Netflix and try to “relax.” Typically, when I finish watching (sometimes late at night), my mind just spins right back to the topic I was spinning on before. It’s like I hit pause on my own internal movie, and as soon as I stop receiving input from outside myself, the movie starts back up internally – whether I want it to or not.
At that moment, I have a perception that my actions (watching Netflix and staying up late) have caused more difficulty. When I make this judgement, I can make plenty of enemies in my mind. I might criticize myself for repeating the habit of watching TV as a means of “escape”. Maybe I stayed up late at night watching, and so I criticize myself for that, knowing that the next morning I’ll be tired. The list can go on.
I have long “known” that I should try to “avoid” judging in my mindfulness practice, but I’ve often found that trying to “not” do something has not been very successful for me. For example, dear reader, please do not imagine a pink elephant right now… How’d it go?
Similarly, I’ve tried in the past to deny myself the ability to watch TV, but that always ends with me resenting the part of myself that “took it away”. It’s like the inner child in me that wants to watch is angry with the parent in me that thinks there is a “better way”.
I know… I’m using a lot of air quotes here. Hopefully it will become clear why as you continue to read 🙂
So, rather than taking something away, is there something I might add? I’ve been asking myself the question quite a lot:
How can I love all the parts of myself, even the parts that continue to look outside myself (e.g. to TV) for the relief of suffering?
Let’s get back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas for some help with this.
The Light of Awareness
One of the metaphors that Thay uses in The Sun My Heart is comparing our awareness to the physical sun. He says to,
"Observe the changes that take place in your mind under the light of awareness.”
He encourages us to “illuminate” our mind and our feelings with the sun of our awareness. In this way, we become aware of the thoughts and emotions that are occurring in the present moment.
If I observe the physical sun shining on leaves and blades of grass, I might think that nothing is happening. I cannot see anything changing with my naked eye. However, I trust and know that there is transformation taking place. The process of photosynthesis is making possible a transformation of energy at a microscopic level. Growth of the plant is fuelled, in part, by this process.
When we notice some suffering within ourselves (Thay uses the example of restlessness – you could substitute in confusion, anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, despair, etc.), Thay encourages us to:
"Just illuminate it."
In this way, Thich Nhat Hanh provides a bit of a road map to follow. When I notice some anxiety in myself that persists, I can simply illuminate it with the sun of my awareness. He says that,
"Any psychological state which you subject to this illumination will eventually soften and acquire the same nature as the observing mind."
So, if I observe my thoughts and feelings with a certain kind of attention, then they will eventually merge with the kind of attention I apply? I think this is what he means by the title of the section in The Sun My Heart,
“Darkness becomes light.”
Mind state merging with the observer
Coming back to the example of binge-watching Netflix – I have tried to tell myself in the past that it is unhealthy, and I therefore should not do it. This self-talk has often been fuelled by frustration with myself, especially when I’m exhausted the next morning from a late night of watching.
If I water the seed in myself of frustration in this way, then inevitably, it resurfaces again later. For example, if I’ve had a particularly stressful day, I might notice thoughts of wanting to watch TV and then those thoughts can fuel frustration with myself. I am both craving escape and frustrated with my craving.
In this way, my attention is coloured by frustration. It’s as if I’m at war with myself (to use some of Thay’s language). With this habit, my stress/anxiety typically increase.
If, on the other hand, I simply illuminate my craving (a type of suffering in my case) like an “elder brother or sister, gentle and attentive” there is a different flavour. If I imbue my attention with qualities that I associate with the physical sun, e.g. warmth and light, the quality of my attention shifts subtly.
I can imagine the kind of attention I might have when tending to a crying baby (another helpful concept from Thay). I try not to be frustrated that the baby is crying, I try to simply offer it love and care. Likewise, I don’t throw the baby out the window or shove it into a closet, I actively bring my care and attention to it.
Rather than bringing frustration to my suffering, I set the intention of bringing love to my suffering.
I try to invite up kindness and compassion to hang out with my frustration and craving. I allow the suffering to stay, and at the same time I invite up other, more wholesome, parts of myself that can help care for the difficulty.
I have been trying to do this over the last few months, especially with repeating habits that I have seen contribute to suffering. They often don’t shift and change right away, but just like the sun shining on a green leaf, I do think there is transformation occurring. Slowly, there has been a shift in my relationship to my inner world.
Bit by bit, arriving home within myself, even when I am ruminating on something stressful, it feels more and more comfortable and at ease.
Mindfulness is non-judgemental
Embedded in the idea of caring for the suffering that is there, rather than pushing it away or covering it up, we apply the concepts of non-judgement and non-violence.
The idea that mindfulness is non-judgemental is probably one that you’ve heard before. It is, after all, in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s often quoted definition of mindfulness used in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. It’s the idea that whatever we are paying attention to, we should try not to judge or criticize it. It’s a helpful idea, but it’s one that I can frequently get caught in. I think Thay brings something different to it here.
Jon Kabat-Zinn first published his book Full Catastrophe Living in 1990 (which includes an introduction from Thich Nhat Hanh). He started running MBSR in 1979 and first published on it in 1982 in an article titled, An Outpatient Program in Behavioral Medicine for Chronic Pain Patients Based on the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation: Theoretical Considerations and Preliminary Results. In that article, Kabat-Zinn describes mindful awareness as a form of “detached observation” towards thoughts and sensations. He wrote that it is encouraged in the program for patients to, “Treat all thoughts as equal in value and neither pursue them or reject them” (Kabat-Zinn, 1982, pp 36). This makes sense to me as a way of “not judging” them.
I think he is pointing skillfully at what Thay points to when Thay encourages us to not make an “ally” or an “enemy” of our awareness or our thoughts/feelings. I find myself, however, getting caught with some of Kabat-Zinn’s words. If I’m to treat all thoughts as “equal”, does that mean that there are no thoughts that are unskillful? I find myself getting caught intellectualizing – trying to compare and judge to determine if I’ve treated my thoughts as equal…precisely what I’m being instructed not to do.
Broadening out from over-analysis
I think that both Kabat-Zinn and Nhat Hanh point at the same concept. However, I notice that for me, the word non-judgement keeps me up in my mind. When I stay in thinking (with words) for too long, I can get stuck in over-analysis. I can get lost in a certain memory, retelling the story over and over. I might be trying to figure out what I’m judging, or I attempt to find a “solution” to the “problem.”
Lately, I’m trying instead to practice shining the light of awareness on the part of me that wants to tell the story. So, rather than getting lost in the memory and retelling it over and over in my mind (which usually increases distress), I try to embrace the storytelling part of me. I say hello to the scared part of me that is at the base of the storytelling.
I’m a very visual person, and so when I do this, I like to visualize a mini version of myself telling the story. I broaden my attention to include that mini-me in my awareness. In this way, attention expands to include the emotional/feeling part of me, rather than only laser focusing on the words of the story. When I visualize myself like that, and put a metaphorical hand on the back of my mini-me, I often feel calmer.
The part of me that is scared is so often just asking to be seen.
Making an enemy of my thoughts
When I think about making allies/enemies within myself, I somehow know what it feels like to do that. Returning to my example of watching TV late at night, I can easily make an enemy of the part of myself that craves it. I can be quick to make an “enemy” of my habitual thinking.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
"It is important that you do not consider awareness to be your "ally," called on to suppress the "enemies" that are your unruly thoughts. Do not turn your mind into a battlefield. Do not have a war there; for all your feelings – joy, sorrow, anger, hatred – are part of yourself."
I notice that before I bring love/kindness/compassion to my unskillful habits, I have often made an enemy of the part of myself that is the habit. Even just by labelling something as “unskillful”, I sometimes feel like I’ve made an enemy of it.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a short poem that he writes in calligraphy, “No mud, no lotus.” He refers to our suffering as mud. Suffering is the thing that we usually consider dirty and gross, and yet it contains the nutrients to make the lotus flower. Without the mud, the flower would not grow. So, I can see my “skillful” and “unskillful” habits in the same way. Looking into my unskillful habits, I can transform and generate skillful habits. Unskillful habits are part of developing skillful ones that help me to relieve some of my suffering.
I try to remember that my unskillful habits are not my enemy. They are, in fact, the fuel, along with my mindful awareness, that I can use to nourish understanding and compassion. They transform into the “flowers” of my mindfulness practice.
In my original question for myself, that I wrote at the beginning of this post, I asked,
How can I love all parts of myself, even the parts that continue to look outside myself (e.g. by consuming TV) for the relief of suffering?.
This question is born out of me first making an enemy of this part of myself. A few weeks ago, I had a moment of insight, where I was like, “aha! I see all of these actions in my life that are a manifestation of me searching outside myself for happiness. Now that I see this, I just need to stop all of these things, and then I will find happiness!”
When I told a mindfulness mentor about my insight, he asked me about the moment that I notice this habit of searching outside myself for happiness. He wondered if I also notice my inner critic (and resulting shame) arise as well?
This cut deep.
A big part of my practice lately has been to try to notice what comes with this energy of seeking outside myself. I just expand my awareness to include potential criticism and shame, and very often they are all there together. Sometimes certain parts hide in the corner a bit and I don’t notice them right away, but if I shine the light of awareness, I often notice them along with everything else. As I allow the sun of my awareness to rest on them, I notice some calm after a little while. There is some transformation.
In this way, by illuminating the “mud” in my mind, a “lotus” can begin to form: the flower of peace and ease that is the result of transformation.
Slowly, with time, I being to accept all those parts of myself, and they transform on their own. Just like the process of photosynthesis.
Celebration and Rejection as two sides of the same coin
I’m often temped in moments of noticing transformation to celebrate. Even as I write this, I am smiling 🙂.
As I described earlier, I’m a visual person, and when I imagine my anxiety, critic, shame, joy, excitement, etc. within myself, I imagine them all as little “mini-me”s. If my mind is quite busy, there can be a group of me all sitting together, being illuminated by my attention.
Recently, I’ve noticed in moments of celebration that an entire crowd of me can show up in my imagination. It’s like I’m at a sports game and the home team just won the game, everybody stands up and cheers. This can happen whenever I start to notice the effects of my meditation, e.g. becoming calmer and happier, or when I start to feel that I understand the roots of my suffering (maybe these two aren’t so different?).
While a celebration is lots of fun to imagine, I’ve started to wonder if the opposite also occurs, and I haven’t quite been aware of it. Does a crown of mini-mes boo myself when I have frustration, anxiety, stress, etc.?
I can see in the moment of celebration that perhaps I am making an “ally” of my awareness and an “enemy” of my “unruly thoughts” – thoughts that I perceive as a cause of suffering. So, should I make an enemy of my celebratory habit? No, that is not the answer either.
Instead, I can once again broaden my awareness to include the celebration or the booing.
It’s not that we shouldn’t celebrate transformation and healing. The name of the game in Applied Mindfulness is looking into suffering and finding the way to transform suffering. The thing that I need to watch out for is my celebration turning into craving. I’ve noticed over the years that it’s possible for me to crave more transformation, or to look back on a time when I was more at ease and crave that. In turn, this can result in making an enemy of suffering when it manifests. Celebration and rejection can be two sides of the same coin.
This brings me to the Buddhist concept of equanimity.
Equanimity: learning to ride the bicycle of my mind
Larry Yang uses a wonderful metaphor of a bicycle when explaining the concept of equanimity in his book Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community (2017).
He relates learning to practice mindfulness to learning to ride a bike. As we start to learn, we might sway from one side to the other. Our balance might be a bit unsteady. In the same way, our emotional state might shift from high highs to low lows.
Over time, we start to balance out and ride our bicycle more evenly, with decreased intensity of side to side movement. Every once in a while, we might still hit a pothole and fall down, that’s ok, it’s part of the risk we take by riding a bike.
In the same way, the swings of our emotional state might start to decrease in intensity with mindfulness practice. We might hit a rut sometimes, and I this is part of the risk we take of being human.
Once I learn how to ride the bike, I can always get back on it. I don’t forget how. The muscle memory is there. If I take a long break from riding, I might be a bit rusty when I hop on it for the first time in a while, but it comes back.
In the same way, the more I practice shining the light of awareness, full of the energy of kindness, compassion, inclusivity, understanding and love, the more equanimity will manifest within me. My lows won’t be quite so low, and my highs need not be so high. My rejection or celebration of certain feelings won’t be as strong. I slowly start to feel more peace and more ease in everyday life.
The trick here is to let go of this goal.
This is the hard part. Brother Phap Linh spoke to this wonderfully this week in the class he is co-teaching with Elli at UofT. He said something like,
“The notion that I will get somewhere and not suffer anymore is stressful. That puts me on a timeline. Instead, when I suffer, I can also experience happiness.”
I ride the bicycle of mindfulness simply to enjoy the act of riding. I try not to worry too much about the destination. When I notice the craving of arriving at a certain destination, I can simply shine the sunlight of awareness on that habit of craving, and at the same time enjoy the quality of the sun.
I illuminate the suffering.
I know that it is a part of me and it is ok. Little by little, as I practice embracing with love, that craving will merge with my love.
Darkness becomes light. Craving becomes love.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a calligraphy that says, “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” And so, I endeavour not to search for the end goal of transformation, I simply walk the path of transformation. I walk the path of understanding and compassion, and slowly this merges with everything that I think, say, and do.
I hope, dear reader, that some of these words have been helpful. I continue to endeavour to discuss my experiences with Applied Mindfulness and how they support me in arriving home within myself. Today’s post is all about tending to my home within and becoming aware of the different battles in my mind so that I might care for them.
I invite you, dear reader, to reflect on the question: what have I made an ally of in my mind/body, and what have I made an enemy of in my mind/body?
Bring some gentle awareness to this question, go lightly, and if you discover something, shine some light onto it. No need to see any transformation right away. Know that there is transformation occurring with the simple act of illumination.
The shadows of our mind merge with and become the light that we shine.
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