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Life Instruction Book. The Missing Manual

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

Sometimes I look on my life and think, "How did I get here? Did everyone else get a life instructions book, and I missed the call? Who could I have been if only I had done this rather than that; chosen this path rather than the other?" If this sounds familiar to you, then allow me to invite you into my exploration of these questions.

As I was driving my daughter to school this morning, we passed a young boy, who looked to be about 14, leaning against a big old cedar tree and crying as a police officer spoke to him. At that moment, I was aware of a series of stories about this scenario going through my mind, along with so many thoughts of "I wish…" I wished that I could help in some way, and the various ways in which I might be able to help -- say something or do something -- went through my mind.

Whenever you are drawn away from the present moment, more often than not you will be immersed in vignettes that your mind has created -- a virtual fantasyland made up of alternate characters, situations, and circumstances.

When you analyze these vignettes closely, you notice that they literally pull you out of the present moment. Whether you are driving, shopping, running an errand, listening to a conversation, or meditating, you will notice that suddenly your mind is a million miles away, and you are starring in your own "mini-movie."

Mind movies

These stories or movies that our minds create can be pleasant daydreams or unpleasant, limiting beliefs about ourselves and others, or they might reinforce painful emotions that we carry with us from past experiences. This pleasant/unpleasant notion is based not only on our external experiences but also on our internal experiences of life. Our mental ability to view and experience the world is based on the experiences, thoughts, and feelings we bring with us to each moment. I had compassion for that young boy because I saw him as feeling alone, something I had felt when I was a young girl, who felt alone when I immigrated to Canada from Uganda.

Everything we experience, we judge as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. (In Buddhism, this range is called "feeling tone" and in Western psychology it's called "Hedonic tone.")  Perhaps you, like me, have been looking to change negative states of mind into positive, or at least neutral, states.

It's important to stop often enough to tune into what's happening emotionally and mentally (this is something that mindfulness classes and training can teach you). When you feel good about something, simply notice and label it as pleasant; hence nourishing that experience and giving space for that pleasant moment instead of feeling it just under the surface, or disregarding it and moving on to the next experience.

For example, when I'm driving my daughter to school and we are both quiet, instead of letting my mind wander into another "mini movie" that may involve planning what's next on my to-do list, by taking a few minutes to notice the peacefulness of that moment and label it as "pleasant," I give it some space to "fill my well."

The reactive mind

What if something unpleasant happened, such as an argument with a spouse, sibling, or child. Our inner and outer experiences affect each other. What we have already experienced and the external event in the moment both determine how we react to unpleasant events. Reaction is largely based on projections of our inner experiences, past associations, judgments, and memories. So how can we not be reactive?

This is something I've been working on for a long time. I've learned that by taking a moment and labeling an interaction or experience as "unpleasant," I create mental space to notice it. I can then quiet my mind from frustration, fear, anger, guilt or myriad of other emotions. The stillness allows me to go deeper into my experience and see what might be coming up from the past that is causing the reactive emotions.

If we react and are reactive, we can't see what's deeper; we move on without understanding the real in-depth reason for our reaction. We also end up being, as I like to say, a "puppet" to whatever comes our way. Some things make us feel good, so we feel good, some things make us feel bad, so we feel bad, others make us feel angry, hurt or worried, and the strings attached to us pull us in every direction.

What we don't understand or accept, we can't change. There is an analogy I once heard: when a river is raging, you can't see beyond the surface, but when it's still and quiet, you can see what's beneath it and all the life, colours, and calm within that river.

The centred heart

Tuning in to that inner sense of being helps us to see our state of mind and heart. The compassion, kindness, and empathy within our hearts has a lot to do with what we think and feel. Having a heart that is centred can carry you in moments of turmoil, anxiety, or worry.

When we are able to separate the outside experience or stimulus from our inner world of experiences that we carry with us, we become free. When our heart remains centred and intact, we exist independently of the situations around us.

We can label external experiences, give space to the positive ones, enjoy the moment and not be catapulted into the heavens by a pleasant event or interaction and then dropped to the depths the next minute by a negative one. Instead, we can stay grounded within ourselves. That's when we are free -- when our hearts are not unduly affected, and we are not a puppet of circumstances around us.

I wish I'd known this growing up, I wish I had some of these mindfulness teachings in my teens and young adulthood and through my early parenting years. I work with these thoughts every day, and each day I learn something about myself. And I wish upon a star for that young boy standing at the tree, that he finds a strength and quality of heart that carries him home to a place where he stands centred and grounded.


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