Often when there’s a craving for something that we know is not good for us, we try to overcome it by logic (eating that whole bar of chocolate will make you feel sick!), or willpower (don’t do it, put it down!), or self-criticism – (don’t be so stupid!). Sometimes those methods work, but very often they don’t. It’s because the craving is reaction to vulnerability, it’s a desire to escape something unpleasant and to replace it with a different, more pleasant, experience. When we apply logic, or will power, or self-criticism to the craving, the part of us that’s feeling tired, or unwell, or sad or anxious, hasn’t been listened to. (Let me make it clear that I’m not talking about full-blown addiction here, which is a condition requiring professional help).
Although the craving is fuelled by the desire not to feel vulnerable, it also hides the vulnerability, so that all we’re aware of is an overwhelming urge to eat the biscuits, or buy the expensive shoes, or have another drink, or immerse ourselves in Facebook. Underneath, however, is something that wants our attention, and some kindness.
What am I avoiding?
I’ve come now to see cravings as signals that there’s something I’m experiencing that needs my attention. It prompts me to ask – ‘what am I avoiding? What is there in this moment that I don’t want, that I want to get away from?’ It’s not always easy, and there are times I forget, or I ignore the inner voice and obey the craving instead. But what a difference it makes to actually acknowledge your suffering with kindness, to allow yourself to be a human being that has bad days, that feels pain or fatigue occasionally, that is affected by interactions with others.
What do you really need?
As well as asking ‘‘what is going on with me in this moment that I don’t want?’, a further question helps - ‘what do I really need in this moment?’ It may be to talk to a friend, or to take a short break, or to get some fresh air, or have a bath. And sometimes it may be that a little of what you fancy is what you need. Maybe it would cheer you up to go shopping, or watch TV or eat ice cream. When we’re driven by the craving, it’s hard to stop because stopping will make the feelings we’re trying to avoid come to the fore again. So we keep going and going until we feel worse than when we started. But if you're aware that eating some ice cream, say, will make you feel a bit better for a short while, that it’s a way of responding to how you’re feeling, rather than a way of escaping how you’re feeling, then you’re more likely to be able to stop when you’ve had enough.
On another occasion, I sat down to watch TV one evening. Something about the way I turned on the TV made me aware that I was all set to binge watch, which would mean getting to bed really late and being exhausted the following day. I asked the question – ‘what is going on with me that I don’t want?’ and realised that I was feeling a bit blue, a bit melancholy. And what did I really need? To get to bed and get some sleep! I watched one episode of my favourite programme and then went to bed. So I cheered up a bit, and got the sleep I needed.
True kindness – listening to yourself
So next time you find yourself gripped by a craving that won’t listen to logic, or will power, or self-criticism, see if you can listen to what’s under the craving. Just asking yourself – ‘what is going on with me in this moment that I don’t want?’ – can be enough to dissolve the craving and see the tender spot beneath. Then asking yourself, ‘what do I really need in this moment?’ to tend to that vulnerability. We sometimes think that being kind to ourselves is indulging our cravings, but this is true kindness, responding to your own vulnerability with care and love.
So when I came across this well-known quote from Samuel Beckett, it struck a deep chord:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Worstword Ho, 1983)
(See Maggi Dawn’s blog post for a great reflection on the meaning of this quote).
I realised that it isn’t about ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’, it’s about keeping going. The New Year brings lots of talk about new beginnings, but actually we keep on beginning, over and over again. Begin again, fail again, begin again. Rather than aiming to ‘succeed’, what if we aim to find what we love, what we find meaningful, and to keep beginning with that, over and over again? That we measure ‘success’ by our ability to discover and nurture what feeds our spirit, and by our ability to keep re-discovering and re-connecting with it.
No finishing line
About a year after my son was born, I took up running, mainly to try to get fit and lose weight. I set myself the goal of running the Women’s Mini-Marathon, but three weeks before the race, I got a sinus infection that lasted two weeks. I managed, just about, to run the whole 10k, but was disappointed. I entered another 10k a few months after, but the same thing happened, and kept happening over two years. It was very frustrating, as I felt as if I wasn’t progressing at all. I was on the verge of giving up altogether, when I re-assessed why I run. I run because I love being outdoors in nature; because I love the time by myself; I love the renewed energy I feel when I’m running regularly. That’s my motivation to starting again, not a goal that marks my success or failure. Don’t get me wrong – having goals to aim for can be hugely helpful and motivating. But for the perfectionists among us, setting goals can sometimes be counter-productive.
When you steer a boat you are constantly correcting, constantly going off course and bringing the boat back om course. Each time you go off course with your intentions, don’t beat yourself up, re-adjust the boat and get back on course, knowing that you’ll veer off course again, but also knowing that you can get yourself back each time too. For anyone that meditates, you’ll know that this is what we do in each and every meditation. We focus on the breath, we wander off, we come back to the breath, we wander off – repeat ad infinitum. Meditators learn that the more you interpret the wandering mind as a ‘failure’, with all the self-criticism and frustration that comes with that, the less your meditation flows, and the less inclined you are to keep at it. Accept that your mind will wander and trust that you will notice and bring it back to the present moment.
What works in meditation is what works in the rest of your life. Set your intention, accept that there will be times you will not follow it, and trust that when that happens, you can and will, in time, re-connect with it.
I’ll leave the last words to Brendan Kennelly, from his poem, ‘Begin’:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.
I heard this at a follow-on meditation course I took some months after I’d first learnt to meditate, and my heart sank. Then I was taken aback by the implication of my reaction. Why would my heart sink at the prospect of becoming more me, more myself? Did I dislike myself so much that I actually wanted to be a different person? Is that what I’d hoped, deep down, to get from meditating? Painful though it was, that moment was a turning point for me, the first step on an on-going path of self-acceptance.
It seems to go against the grain of self-help and personal development to accept yourself, warts and all, to not work hard to smooth out all the creases and bumps and glitches in our personalities so that we’ll finally become the perfect person we yearn to be. Self-acceptance smacks of resigning ourselves to being stuck as we are. If we don’t recognise and criticise our failings, how will we ever improve?
But it’s a bit like the joke about the reply a man gets when he asks for directions – “Well, I wouldn’t start from here!” You have start where you are and really know where you are before you can move forward. Mindfulness is a practice in that knowing – of how you are, how you feel and what’s happening for you, in the present moment. Self-criticism is like a fog that obscures the view, preventing us from seeing ourselves clearly. Kind acceptance of what is there, in that moment, allows us to see through the fog, to observe what’s actually going on, without judgement - even the ugly thoughts about your boss/spouse/friend; even the horrible panicky feeling in your chest; even the fantasies about being better/calmer/cleverer/richer/kinder.
"We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses." Carl Jung
In my own practice, I have found that the longer I practice letting myself be as I am in the moment, the more I do actually change. It’s not that I have become, or am even becoming, a perfect human being, but I am kinder to myself, more accepting of the fact that I’m not perfect (and never will be), that I sometimes mess up, but that overall, I’m ok as I am. Of course there are times when the old habits of self-criticism kick in, but I’m getting better at catching those thoughts, accepting them and being kind to the feelings they evoke in me.
One of the traits I used to actively dislike in myself is a tendency to forget or lose things. It has caused a lot of stress over the years, usually followed by a bout of mental self-flagellation, which caused yet more stress. I had high hopes that mindfulness would transform me into a model of efficiency, but alas, I’m still waiting (though I have improved, thanks in no small part to a great, simple practice, Starting & Finishing, which I wrote about in an earlier blog). But mindfulness practice has done two things – firstly I have more perspective - I’m not as forgetful as I used to think I was, and secondly, I don’t get as stressed about it. I haven’t become a ‘better’ person, I’ve become kinder to myself for not being perfect.
“We don't meditate to improve ourselves; we meditate to end our compulsive striving to do everything better.” Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
Try it and see for yourself. What is it in yourself you would like to change, that you feel is holding you back from being the person you want to be? Maybe you don't want to be shy in social gatherings, maybe you hate the way you get so irritable when you're tired, maybe you wish you wouldn't turn to eating or drinking too much when you feel a bit down. How would it be to become curious about it, observe it without judgement? How would it be to let go the self-criticism and be kind to how you feel? To allow yourself to be imperfect, to be human?
I love the way Leonard Cohen puts it in Anthem:
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in.”
Through a kind awareness of our cracks and imperfections, we can let in the light of understanding and compassion and empathy and allow ourselves to be fully human.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the default setting of the mind is to wander. Recent research, however, has shown that ‘the wandering mind is an unhappy mind’. When our minds wander off into random thoughts, we’re unwitting passengers on a thought-train that can take us anywhere, to places and states that may be unhelpful and even distressing. Not only that, but when we’re caught up in thoughts in this way, we’re missing out on what’s around us – the presence of people we love, the feel of a cool breeze on the skin, the scent of flowers, the taste of delicious food.
Mindfulness is a way of being more present, and one way of doing that is to be more aware of what we experience in our bodies, through our senses. The more we practice, the more present we are and we’re hijacked less often by the thought-train.
A few years ago, I regularly cycled a particular route. It’s a pleasant journey, by the sea for the first part, then along tree-lined roads, then through a lively area with shops and cafes and pubs. I love cycling, and yet I noticed after a while that I would arrive at my destination hot and sweaty and out of breath and with no sense of having enjoyed the journey. What was going on? I began to notice that during the cycle my mind was racing with all sorts of thoughts, and because my mind was racing, my legs apparently wanted to race too! I was caught up in my thoughts and cycling very fast, and wasn’t getting any enjoyment at all. So I selected a few landmarks along the route that would be my mindfulness triggers, and when I passed them, it would remind me to ‘come to my senses’ – to pay attention to what I could see around me, what I could hear, the feel of the wind on my skin, the sense of my body moving and my breath. Of course, after a short while, my mind would wander off again, but then I’d pass the next landmark and come to my senses again. The whole experience was transformed – I got such pleasure form each journey, and I arrived at my destination calm (and not sweaty!).
Why not try this on the routes you take regularly, whether walking, cycling, driving or public transport? Pick out a few landmarks, like a crossroads, or a church, or shopping centre, or a hotel, and when you pass them, take a few moments to ‘come to your senses’ – what do you see around you? What can you hear? What can you smell? What do you sense in your body (e.g. what are your hands in contact with? Your feet? Do you sense wind or rain or heat on your skin)? Just a few moments of mindfulness will change your experience, even of a very familiar journey.
I wish you ‘bon voyage’!
The start of a new year is a time for new beginnings but also for endings. We usually think of this in terms of the end of one year and the start of the next, or the bringing old and unhelpful habits to an end and starting to develop new and healthier ways of being. I’d like to share with you, however, a practice of starting and finishing that I’ve found very
helpful, if challenging at times. I came across it in a book called Life with Full Attention (by Maitreyabandhu, pub. Windhorse), in the chapter on Day-to-Day Mindfulness. The practice is, quite simply, to finish what you start, or to put it another way, to complete your cycles. This means seeing your actions through, for example, putting the milk back in the fridge, washing dishes you’ve used, cleaning the shower after using it, finishing the tasks you started. When you do this, you’re demonstrating an awareness of the consequences of your unfinished sequence of actions on others. So, for example, if you just place a used cup in the sink, someone else has to wash it and dry it and put it away.
It also has an effect on your own peace of mind, in that we feel less pressured by the thoughts of myriad uncompleted tasks. When I started this practice, I was taken aback by how scattered my attention was. I would start to put away laundry, for example, remember a text I meant to send, which would lead to some other task and so on, and only a while later would I remember that the rest of the laundry hadn’t been put away! It took effort to follow through completely on each task, but now that it’s become more habitual, I find that I feel less pressured by time and have the sense of getting more things done. It’s also a very good example of how much effect the little, everyday things can have on us. Forgetting things and feeling pressured can make us irritable, which has consequences too for the
people around us, so anything that helps to reduce that will also have a positive effect on ourselves and others.
I’d like to share with you part of a talk I gave to meditators at Oscailt, on kindness. I was prompted to explore this topic by the questions occasionally asked by people in a mindfulness or Loving Kindness class – what exactly is kindness, and what do I do to be kind to myself? It seems to me that kindness is a process.
It starts with seeing – simply seeing that someone is suffering. This can be as simple as noticing that a friend is tired, or that someone is struggling to get a door open while carrying bags. However, it’s not enough just to see. Sometimes we see someone’s suffering but ignore it, or we judge them for it (‘they deserve it’, ‘what else did they expect?’), or we just don’t want to let in anyone else’s pain. Sometimes we feel that because we can’t ‘fix’ (i.e.get rid of) the suffering, there’s no point in doing anything.
So the next step in the process of kindness is empathy, an imaginative leap into how the other person is feeling. This comes from our own awareness of what it is to feel tired, or stressed or ill, or to have experienced a loss.
Finally, we respond, and if we’re responding from empathy, it’s a heart response to someone else’s suffering.
Practising kindness benefits the receiver and giver – the receiver sees that they are not alone in their suffering, and the giver opens their heart each time they give. Both enhance that connectedness with each other that is so vital to our well-being and happiness.
We can follow this process to be kind to ourselves, especially in meditation: by seeing when and how we’re experiencing difficulties, when we’re suffering; by opening to the unpleasant experience without expectation or desire to get rid of it, we develop empathy for ourselves; and we can then respond compassionately to the difficulty we’re experiencing.
[…] Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and send you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye