Throwing Things Away
5 April 2019 | Mindfulness Practice
“I am shocked by the ignorance and wastefulness with which persons who should know better throw away the things they do not like. They throw away experiences, people, marriages, situations, all sorts of things because they do not like them. If you throw away a thing, it is gone. Where you had something you have nothing. Your hands are empty, they have nothing to work on.
Whereas, almost all those things which get thrown away are capable of being worked over by a little magic into just the opposite of what they were…. But most human beings never remember at all that in almost every bad situation there is the possibility of a transformation by which the undesirable may be changed into the desirable.”
The Little Locksmith by Katherine Butler Hathaway
Isn’t this brilliant?
We are all enculturated into a mentality of disposable living – nappies, cups, clothes, phones, computers and cars being made in such a way that they predispose us to toss them away. But this piece by Katherine Butler Hathway speaks directly to the missed opportunity for wisdom and nourishment when we throw away our experience on the basis of not liking it.
Buddhist psychology and now Western science can point us into the direction of understanding how we are hardwired to make split second decisions based on liking or not-liking. This is adaptive. We don’t want to have a nervous system which responds to our hand on a hotplate with open curiosity and inquisitiveness. We want a nervous system to immediately respond with fear and aversion, and moves the hand off the threatening heat source quick-smart. All of our liking and not-liking is based in this physiological response.
But what if the thing we are not liking is our pain, our distress, our confusion, our sadness, our grief. This puts us at odds with the very activity of mindfulness – of introspection, curiosity, tenderness and compassion. And it might be that this way of approaching things allows us to process the upset quite skilfully and make a good decision, and to find out how to engage in our lives more effectively.
So often in the learning of meditation, we immediately come across moments of not liking our experience. We might be listening to the Headspace app, and not like a particular track or the object of the practice, so we search through and find the track that we like, that “works better” for us.
On one hand this makes sense. Time is poor and we want to get the most of out of our practice. But I have a sense that one of the most powerful aspects of mindfulness training is becoming less reactive to our likes and dislikes, and seeing into them as shifting changing phenomena that we can observe with equanimity. If we just throw away a practice because we don’t like it, or it doesn’t feel good in the moment, we might be throwing away our very nourishment and indeed, the point of practice.
It does pain me the way that mindfulness is now offered as a kind of smorgasbord – like a range of fashion sunglasses or a tapas menu. It perpetuates the myth that our happiness is based on lining up our ducks and getting things just as we would like them, rather than on cultivating an understanding of our vulnerability and interconnectedness – and living from that place.
Matt Licata gets this so beautifully:
"Learning to suffer consciously is an art that has been lost in our times. By training yourself to enter into an intimate, curious, embodied relationship with difficult psychological and emotional experience, you reclaim your right as an alive, sensitive, empowered human being. And proclaim your willingness to practice transmutation for the benefit of life everywhere.
Each time we turn from a painful feeling, bodily sensation, or disturbing emotion, we practice self-aggression, encoding circuitry of self-abandonment, as we hope to end-run the reality of our vulnerability. The split-off material is not healed, but placed into the shadow, where it is sure to surge in less-than-conscious ways in our relational worlds. We need only look around (and inside) with eyes wide open to see the consequences of this."
So the next time we get hit by a wave of stress or distress, what our practice can offer us is to turn towards it in an openhearted way - to get curious rather than dismissive, to take some time rather than rushing into distraction, to open up, rather than shut down. I wish you well with this rather counter-intuitive project!