Staying present to experiences, embracing difficult emotions

/ April 4, 2017

What a thrilling end of the Spring Term it has been! There was the fantastic, well-attended Family Mindfulness Day and, on the following Tuesday, I was amazed at how well the children from our small school performed in the ‘Let’s Dance’ celebrations. We hardly paused for breath to mark Red Nose Day and raised a little shy of £400 in the process.

It feels that we are a generous and friendly community. Sometimes this also means guarding ourselves and reflecting on our reactions.

I was thinking about this as I rode along the Lewes Road today on my way to some training. I reflected on how I was feeling. Riding my bicycle is an opportunity to be present and, in terms of safety, it is really important to be so. (The more I think about ways of accessing mindfulness for children, the more I reflect on activities which, by their nature, lend themselves to immersion and present-time. These activities have as qualities…absorbing yet expanding, enjoyable, not stressful or goal-oriented, often embodied and relaxing). Cycling in a wide cycle lane can have aspects of that but then, suddenly, a bus comes too close, there is no chance to think, I just react. Fear! Intake of breath; contraction.

Another day, another situation and I am driving my car. It is pleasant; I am mostly present. I have turned off the radio to allow my mind to expand into the quiet alone space. I have the illusion that I am ‘safe in my shiny metal box’. Someone at the roundabout does not signal and I narrowly avoid a crash. No chance to think, I just react. Anger! As I breath out quickly, I hit the horn aggressively; tension.

My reaction is so instantaneous and so unwanted. After feeling the fear, and my vulnerability, I feel helpless, become angry, go into thinking about the busy city, uncaring drivers…and on and on. After being angry whilst driving, I chide myself for this anger, this becoming of myself into an angry person, and create yet more pressure and stress, and so on.

It gets worse. I tell myself one of my stories. I decide that I am not a good person for being angry, totally ignoring what arose and the wider context from which I created this series of thoughts. In Buddhism, this is known as ‘papañca (pronounced papancha) – the tendency of the thoughts in the mind to proliferate in an uncontrollable and unbidden way,creating a stream of thoughts that we then think are real, because we thought them!

A story illustrates this nicely (thanks to Leigh Brasington):

A woman wants some potatoes for the meal she is cooking, so she sends her husband to the marketplace to buy potatoes. As he walks out the door, she calls after him “be sure to get a good price.” So all the way to the marketplace, the man is thinking about potatoes and what he’ll have to pay. If he buys the very best potatoes, he knows he’ll have to pay more than if he buys lesser quality potatoes. On the other hand the lesser quality potatoes are just that – not so good. In fact he knows he’ll have to be very careful in buying other than top price potatoes because the seller might try to stick him with a bad potato, even a rotten potato. When he thinks of someone cheating him by giving him a rotten potato, he gets really mad. “Why do people have to be so greedy as to stick me with a rotten potato?” Just at this point he reaches the stall of the potato seller and screams at him “You can keep your rotten potatoes!” and walks off.

So, left unexamined, the mind will run off into the strangest places!

Luckily, there is scope to examine this process of the birth of suffering. The model in Buddhism is the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. The diagram below  is a super illustration of what is in fact a universal and impersonal process.

Back to my examples and referring now to this model: I cannot help the unpleasant feelings arising on contact with the situation (touching, the whoosh of air of the bus close to me, seeing the car driving dangerously). If I have been born with six senses (including the mind), it is their function to sense. I can, however, interrupt the tension that arises as a result of the initial feeling. In the diagram, this tension is the ‘craving’ (in this case, the craving for the feeling NOT to be there.) If I relax at this point, and release the tension, if possible, then I stand a chance of moving on with the present moment.

Another way of interrupting papañca is by using humour and lightness. If anger arises and I laugh, then the anger dissipates, ‘ah! I’ve been caught again!’ Frankly, after this initial feeling – the stories, the justifications, all that papañca is a waste of my time and energy. It takes me away from myself and creates further stories, entrenches further unhelpful habits. The Buddha recognised that the mind’s tendency towards papañca is unavoidable and instead of fighting the inevitable, he teaches us to ride and tame this tiger mind.

This may seem rather technical but I would urge you to experiment with it and model it to your children. There are so many conditions that feed into our everyday experience and it is important to give ourselves a break and realise that the vast majority of them are not in our control. It is in the act of letting go and relaxing, especially around our friends, family and children that we realise the impersonal nature of what is happening to us. Ironically we are all different and also the same. How important it is to do one thing at a time and give ourselves space; our essential goodness is something we all want to pass on.

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