The Way It Is

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change but it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
-William Stafford

Mindfulness means non-judgmental attention to the moment to moment flow of our life. For me that’s the “thread” the poet is referring to. When we are able to be present to that ever present moment unfolding before us with curiosity rather than condemnation or judgment, we can attend to and feel more connected to the situations of our life, even when “tragedies happen; people get hurt.”

The practice of mindfulness then, is an inner discipline focused on cultivating attention in order to meet the situations and stresses we face in caring for ourselves and others.

I like to say, life is out to get us. Life is beyond our ability to control it. It flows and changes moment to moment, therefore there is no solid ground, no certain foothold for us to stand on. Life therefore has a way of breaking open the rigid positions, thoughts and notions we hold in our mind and heart. Given that life is constantly changing, it is natural that we will experience unwanted and uncomfortable emotions like anger or fear in the face of it’s flow and flux. Though these emotions can make us uncomfortable, they, like all emotions are a natural part of being human, and as such, will visit us from time to time. So we must consider how we treat them when they do. Although life is not going to go according to our plan, we can choose curiosity and receptivity in relationship to what occurs. Mindfulness is also a discipline because we are hard wired biologically to employ a “fight, flight, fold or freeze” reaction in the face of a real or perceived threat. And while these reactions are helpful to us to survive real threats they are not useful reactions when situations don’t go our way. Actually, they can cause more emotional and physical distress. It seems to me that, given the fact that everything changes, we must ask ourselves the questions: how do we find freedom given the fundamental ambiguity of life? How do we can transcend fearful reactions to life stresses in a more constructive healing way?

Here is where practicing mindful attention can help because it is about being with an experience rather than the instinctual reactions of numbing out or trying to “kill off” the fears or anxieties. This attempt is about turning away from life as it is, hoping to have the life we wish for. As the television therapist Dr. Phil likes to say: “how’s that working out for ya”? Again, we long for certainty when there is none. In times of stress, we long for imaginary solid ground. It is understandable; we all would like a sense of certainty, predictability and security. One war correspondent in an interview described this as “the moral ambiguity of human existence”.  Although we all know on some level that this is true, the essential cause of our stress and suffering is our resistance to the fact of the groundlessness of life and that whenever we turn away from this fact, whenever we resist change in accord with our life, we suffer.

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