I used to think that if I practiced enough, I could rid myself of all the bad stuff and become a better human being … perhaps even join the ranks of the enlightened.
Now I’m here to proclaim that while I will likely not renounce all my sense pleasures, and am from time to time distracted and aversive, I am a changed human being — a kinder, saner, and smarter one — because of my meditation practice.
(And drinking fewer margaritas. More on this later.)
Wise dharma teachers remind you not to expect to reinvent your personality through meditation, because that’s not really the point of mindfulness & meditation practices.
What is the point? It’s simple and it’s complicated: To see clearly what is there in each moment, to let go of that which is unwholesome and destructive, and to cultivate understanding and compassion. And to let go of the habits of body, speech, and (especially) mind that no longer serve us.
To Be Quite Honest, I Don’t Think I Ever REALLY Entertained Achieving Enlightenment.
It seemed that less suffering, more clarity, and more love were what I was going for. (Yes, that seems a bit simpler, although not always easy.)
And as the Buddha taught (and as wise teachers continue to teach), habits play a big role in this process.
I’m thinking of 5 habits in particular that I came to see clearly in myself and chose to let go of.
Apparently, some took longer than others.
My bet is you’ll recognize some of these from your own life experience, or at least your versions.
- Talking about hating people
- Speaking unkindly behind people’s backs
- Making a blender full of margaritas each night
- Honking the horn in traffic
- Devouring half a pint of ice cream when watching TV
I’d like to reflect on each of these habits with the hope of gleaning the wisdom, and sharing it here with you today.
HABIT 1: Talking about “hating” people
I remember a time when we all talked about the public figures that we “hated,” because of their views, behavior, and arrogance. Richard Nixon comes to mind, as does Charles Manson or O.J. Simpson.
And today many of us have a prime target for “hatred” in Donald Trump.
Back in the 70’s I sat around over cheap red wine and pontificated about what I disliked with great assurance, because I desperately needed to be right in my views.
When I spoke with this aversion I stirred up additional dislikes for other elements of my life, keeping my heart closed off to my fellow beings.
Young, sometimes ignorant, and often righteous.
Not able to see how tightly wedded I was to my opinions.
But thanks to the practice of mindfulness meditation, watching the ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings, I see how crippling it is to be locked into judgmental views, and I’m convinced that it’s possible (from my own experience) to disagree strongly with others and not hold hate in my heart.
HABIT 2: speaking unkindly behind people’s backs
There was a time when I talked unkindly about people behind their backs. I’m sure it came out of years in the schoolyard with my peers as I tried valiantly to shore up MY self image, to believe in MY inherent goodness.
I wasn’t able to see that “gossip” was an activity that divided people and reinforced a false sense of separateness and duality.
My pals Sue and Lynn and I would giggle behind our music teacher’s back and make fun of her, or I’d join one of my friends in high school as we maligned the perfectly dressed girl I thought was a “goody two shoes.”
You’re familiar with this habit, right?
It’s sloppy communicating and it’s disrespectful. At some point in my Buddhist practice much later in life, I discovered the Buddha’s teaching on Right Speech, which urges us to speak what is true, timely, and non-harming. This is one of the core pieces of the Eightfold Path, his road map to enlightenment.
As a writer who had always loved language, I always took words seriously, and I embraced this practice of Right Speech wholeheartedly because I understood the power of words. It’s a slippery slope, of course, because when we’re caught up in interacting, words have a tendency to tumble out of our mouths in various unmindful ways!
HABIT 3. Making a blender full of margaritas each night
I used to make strong margaritas in the evening before I had my dinner, elaborately going through the motions of squeezing the perfect limes and finding the special coarse salt.
I became attached to the habit, so much so that I came to take it for granted and lost sight of the effect this ritual had on me. Over time I saw how these exotic drinks affected my normally healthy appetite, dulled my thinking, and offered less and less pleasure.
A fibrillating heart led me to relinquish this habit, and now when I occasionally lift a cocktail to my lips I’m quite conscious of how it looks, smells, and makes me feel. If it were not for mindfulness and meditation practices, I might still be offering a “margarita homage” to Jimmy Buffett each night, instead of slowing down, being in my body, and feeling what my body feels (or does not feel)!
HABIT 4: Honking the horn in traffic
I used to criticize all those “rude” people who honked their horns while driving in city traffic and yet I practiced this heedless behavior myself! Behind the wheel of a car, even the most gentle of people — like myself — can morph into a fighter. I think we can all agree on that.
Absorbed with getting somewhere quickly, we are caught in the dance and forget to attend to how the mind and body feel. We lose connection with ourselves and become an extension of our automobile. Many of us live in speedy landscapes, and when surrounded by hundreds of moving vehicles it’s often hard to be mindful.
I don’t know when it was that I decided I’d watch that impulse to grit my teeth and honk the horn, and see if I could resist the urge to voice my discontent. I do know that I now feel calmer and happier as a driver because of all those moments I am able to catch myself in volatile moments and just breathe. I think it also makes me a kinder person. Less aggression and discontent being spread into the world.
HABIT 5. Devouring half a pint of ice cream when watching TV
One of my favorite things to do in the evening when I turn on my favorite British detective drama is to grab a pint of my favorite sorbet — raspberry and mango are at the top of my list — and sit on my couch with that pint and a spoon and slurp away while I focus on following Hercule Poirot or Inspector Morse.
The problem with this, of course, is that before I know it, I have consumed half the pint and not even paused to note all the delightful qualities of a good sorbet, like color, texture, sweetness, brightness of flavor, etc.
In time I took note of my unconsciousness and made a wholesome choice: put my ice cream or sorbet into a pretty little dish (little enough so that I’m not overdoing things), and then sit with that dish in front of me and be witness to my enjoyment of the dessert. Much better indeed. An experience where I am able to see all that sense pleasure come and go and still be happy.
It’s Called A “Practice”, not a “Perfect”
When I think about these changes (as I practice letting go of these habits), I’m grateful for all those hours and hours of sitting on the cushion in retreat after retreat, at home with my cat and dog as company, at the beach, in my bed – all that time training my mind and heart to stop and witness, and to love each passing moment of this amazing life.
Perhaps one of the largest gifts of the practices of mindfulness and meditation is that of becoming intimate with experience as I breathe into each moment. And in becoming intimate I am able to make loving and compassionate choices about my own life.
How about you?
What about you, what habits are you noticing? What are you ready (or almost ready) to let go of?
I think you’ll find, just like I did — and still do — that renunciation isn’t so bad.