Yesterday, the skies were crystal clear and the sun beat down on us all day in London town, turning the city golden for a whole afternoon before the sun set. Today… ha, what an entirely different ‘world’… parts of the country battered by a cyclone and the rest of the land (including this capital city) draped in grey and pond-sized puddles. In trying to use my umbrella after leaving (bravely I thought) the sanctuary of my little flat this afternoon, I got embroiled in an amusing game with the wind. I inevitably lost, ditto the umbrella. I arrived back indoors looking like I’d been dragged through several unkempt hedges (and RIP John Lewis elegant floral brolly). The cyclone, or whatever it was that came to our shores today, will be gone tomorrow (so they say). But who really knows what lies around the corner.
Apologies if the metaphor is too obviously heavy handed, but the utter stark contrast between yesterday and today is a genuinely good analogy for how our minds and emotions can go from one state to another with abandon. How we can be bright, clear and focused one minute, day or phase in our life and muddled, restless and lost the next. And how an external event, or person, or happening can make us happy and optimistic, while yet another event, person or situation can turn the tide of our emotions in one swoop.
This, of course, is ‘normal’. The reactionary way we humans live, thrive and depend on external circumstance for how we think and feel is ‘the norm’.
No wonder an attempt, let alone interest, to ‘work’ on our minds feels difficult and why there is so much resistance to doing this, particularly compared to say ‘working’ on our body, bank account or even the buildings we live in. Look at the pride, time and money we invest on up scaling our homes.
I’m sure if we asked anyone if they would like to be able to train their mind rather than let their mind own them, or if they would like to be able to regulate their emotions, rather than have their emotions control how they feel about the world and themselves, most people would answer ‘yes please’. Yet few engage in this kind of ‘work’- or at least not until something happens in life to shatter things, or, when stress takes over and there’s a realisation that only by turning inward and looking at what is there can we navigate what we are dealing with. As tough, difficult and life shattering as these kinds of situations are that make us look at our mind’s role in it all, the upshot is that they make us look at our mind’s role in it all! This can be the beginning of a great relationship and an appreciation of what each of us has embedded beneath layers of distraction, stress and conditioning: a beautiful mind.
There is a third motivator that has developed in recent times and become popular in terms of getting people to ‘look at their minds’ and that is the great sell: do this and you can get ahead and/or attain happiness.
The problem with this third ‘motivation’ is that it is dependent on something to be acquired and largely externally related. Training your mind can lead to… better performance at work, being more creative, succeeding with a project or furthering a cause. Ok, that sounds great.
Managing your mind in order to be happier has huge merit and is definitely a reason I would cheerlead for, however… the ‘attaining’ of something, or pursuing ‘happiness’ keeps our mind a servant to it, to an external thing. Actually the mind itself could be honed for our inherent betterment and a kind of happiness that blooms from within.
Thinking back over my childhood, my school days and my time at university, I honestly cannot remember anyone talking to me about the possibility of ‘training my mind’ for the sake of developing my mind – bar one person. Lots of people would have spoken about how I could apply my mind – be it to schoolwork, projects, tasks, exams and plans for the future. But what of the thing itself, of the very faculty and tool and part of me they wanted me to use towards an external gain?
So that ‘bar one person’ was a chap who tutored me in Maths for a short while. He was not a school teacher yet had a brilliant propensity for all things mathematical. He was a young dad of two, originally from southern India, then living in a humble little bungalow in a village next to where I grew up. I’m not sure how my father found him, but somehow he did. As it happens I was doing fine in Maths, top of the class no less. Why on earth, you may ask, did my father then introduce me to this chap in a bungalow for some Maths tuition? Well, my father thought I was doing ‘too well’ at Maths at school, that I completed homework assignments ‘too quickly’ and that I needed to be challenged. (That was my Dad for you). Anyway, back to the subject in hand… when I would attend these maths’ sessions, I would present the tutor with the topici and assignments we were covering in class that week. He would give them a cursory look, and then ignore it (seemingly). He’d then bring up something unrelated (seemingly). He would scribble something down (in pencil, on a blank white sheet of A4) and ask me to “explain it’”. For the first couple of sessions, I had now idea what he meant or why I was being asked to do what he proposed. I complained to my father. My father, as loving as he was, was also quite austere (particularly when it came to maths, science and anything vaguely practical) and he said I had no choice but to attend the sessions. It was on the third visit to the bungalow, while watching the tutor’s two young kids playing in the garden outside the window, that something in me kicked in – and kicked out the ‘why is this relevant and how is it going to keep me top of the class’ question. I began to wonder, with interest, what the symbols on the white A4 sheet meant and where they even came from. Time got lost, and quickly, as I found myself immersed in enquiry and let my mind follow clues and go down various numerical twists and turns. Then the alarm clock would ring. Time was up. And off I would go back home, attend to the ‘normal’ things with my ‘normal’ level of superficial attention and ‘school kid’ goal or pleasure seeking focus.
It took me years to realize the preciousness and value of what I actually learnt and experienced in the six months I would visit that Indian tutor in the ‘burbs. It took me until my 30s, when I started practicing meditation, to realize that what that tutor was showing me was how to use my mind – and that I could.
Nowadays meditation is offered and shared as a stress reliever, mind calmer and as a tool to help us sustain the things in life we love or navigate what we have a struggle with. This is all great and I would not disagree with the potential of meditation to do all the above.
Applying meditation is like those formulas they gives us to pass exams: if you do x + y, you’ll get your z (maybe).
Or, you could practice meditation in a way and with an intention that inbuilds you with a ‘z’, meaning, you don’t have to rely on something else or certain conditions in order to get it, and eventually, the formula itself is not a priority anymore.
So it could be a blustery day, that maybe led to a cancellation of an important event, possibly even destroying a wedding marquee, or exacerbating an already low mood that you woke up with.
Or it could be a fine sunlit winter’s afternoon that meant you had a wonderful time outside, maybe it lifted your mood so much that you attracted the attention of someone you’d had your eye on, or perhaps it just helped you feel better on an otherwise mundane day.
As humans, we will always be susceptible to the weather, conditions, people, the love we receive or don’t, the attention we get or didn’t want. We wouldn’t be human – or interesting – if these things didn’t affect us.
But meanwhile, there’s no reason why we can’t hone and develop the very part of us that makes us unique and wise: our minds. And were we to choose to do that, well, we may be surprised how in time happiness grows independently and is founded on a wisdom that there was there inside of us. How we use our minds is the key.
-picture credit: Drawing a Blank, artist unknown.