A few years ago there was an anti-terrorist campaign plastered around public places with the admonition, “If you see something, say something.”
That slogan was referred to briefly in a movie I watched yesterday, and later my mind was looping that phrase like a hamster on a wheel. Once I turned my attention to it the question arose: What if that slogan, formerly used to promote fear, was instead used to promote love? What if it was a loving reminder to express appreciation for this gift of life?
What if the slogan for each moment was, “If you see something beautiful, say something.”
From a yogic perspective, our actions create mental impressions called samskaras, and as these impressions get deeper and more entrenched, they become vasanas (a behavioral tendency or karmic imprint). The usual analogy is that of a record, but I like to think of samskaras as one block from a Jenga game, and vasanas as the entire tower. As we move through life, we create all flavors of mental Jenga towers; some that promote a sense of well-being, such as exercising daily, and some that don’t, such as being extremely self-critical. The bigger the tower, the more apt we are to climb it and add more blocks to it, day after day.
As humans, we’re going to create these towers—that’s part of life (at least until we get to some super advanced stages of spiritual practice that, personally, I can only dream about). The question is, which kind of towers are we building? Towers that support us in experiencing life as a gift, or towers that cause us to experience life as a burden? The practice of meditation helps us start to get clear enough to see what towers we’ve built in our minds.
An important part of starting to understand our mental landscape is to hold everything that we see lightly.
There’s no need to judge the towers, or to beat ourselves up for creating them. We can choose to look at the contents of our mind and accept what we find because recognition and acceptance are the first two steps of creating change. The practice of meditation is the practice of learning to turn the mind inward. If we don’t bring a sense of acceptance to what we see inside, why would we ever want to do any sort of a practice that makes us go in?
How do we cultivate acceptance? How do we remove the landmines of self-judgment so that we feel it is safe to go inward and understand the mental Jenga towers we’ve built over the years? Many times these towers were coping mechanisms that helped us at one time but now are obscuring our essence.
One way to cultivate acceptance is to use witness consciousness or bare attention. We can grow our ability to observe ourselves and our minds without making up a bunch of stories about what we see, or without adding judgment or blame to our observations. On many days that works, but then there are other days where no matter how much I try to step into the witness, what’s really happening is witness plus judgment. I guess there are some pretty huge self-judgment towers in my mind. Perhaps you can relate.
Appreciation is one way to open the gates of acceptance.
Appreciation one way for us to cultivate acceptance of ourselves so that when we do look at our coping mechanisms we can see them without identifying with them. Just like every other new skill under the sun, appreciation is a learned skill that gets more refined with practice.
When I first started working with appreciation, I would get a physical sense of creepy crawlies up my spine. Think of that discomfort as the body’s manifestation of those misery-creating mental towers getting rattled at their very foundations. As I changed my filter from what was wrong with me to what was good about me, voices saying, “You’re being selfish,” and, “You’re going to get a big head,” started clamoring in my head. I acknowledged those perceptions, and I stuck with the practice anyway. As I changed my filter from what was wrong in my environment to what was good about it, life felt less hard and took on a sweeter tone. Viewing friends and family through the lens of appreciation rather than criticism deepened many of those relationships.
To start a practice of appreciation, I would offer the prompt: If you see something beautiful, say something.
If you see something kind, say something. If you see something loving, say something. Train the mind to see and express what is good in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our world.
Every time we have a thought, it sends an energetic ray through our body, breath, and mind. That ray is reflected in our ability to hear our own wisdom, and in the access we have to the pool of joy that is within us. When we train our mind to genuinely appreciate what is good in ourselves and the world around us, the corresponding energetic ray is of service to our ability to accept ourselves, know ourselves fully, and to live our purpose in the world. When our thoughts cut us down, the energetic ray that courses through us causes contraction in our body-mind and shakiness in our breath. It causes us to push away our own wisdom and it shrinks our access to the pool of joy within ourselves.
Each moment is an opportunity to create a new habit, to build a large mental tower of appreciation that will serve us in investigating all the other towers in our mind.
If you see something beautiful, say something. It’s that simple. This is not about manufacturing false appreciations or saying something is beautiful when it isn’t. This is about cultivating our ability to see what is good in us and around us. Even when we’ve fallen into depression or anxiety so deeply that it seems there is nothing to appreciate, we are alive and we are breathing. Start there. Even something as simple as, “I appreciate this breath,” or, “I appreciate waking up today.” We can build the muscle of appreciation from that place.
Appreciate the people around us. We are mirrors for each other, and so whatever beauty or kindness we appreciate in someone else, and express to them, it’s a kind act toward that person who now knows their awesomeness has been witnessed and appreciated. It’s a kind act to us because we wouldn’t see that awesome trait unless it was already within ouselves.
Appreciate the world we live in where we can get an education, where we have a bounty of choices, where we give and receive love with friends, family, and partners, where technology makes our lives easier and keeps us in touch with people who are far away, where we have this gift of life and we can make of it whatever we want.
If you see something (beautiful, kind, luminous, loving, authentic, and good), say something.
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Assistant Editor: Jane Henderling
Photos: elephant journal archives