Student: I’ve been working on a project for someone I love. It isn’t something I enjoy doing, but I’ve felt tremendous joy as I do the work. I feel connected to this person and very loving because I project what I’m doing is of value to him.
Teacher: I sense a “but.”
Student: Well, while I was working on this project, this person called me to discuss something unrelated, and in the course of the discussion made a comment that cut me to the quick. It was trivial but revealed a level of insensitivity to “me” that I felt the joy in the project evaporate. I am not sure I can be enthusiastic or joyful or wholehearted about the project anymore!
Teacher: So, there is a story, perhaps, that “he” robbed you of joy by what he said?
Student: Yes! He hurt my feelings and I can’t get past that. There’s no energy or inspiration to work on the project.
Teacher: Is he going to appreciate it any less now than previously?
Student: No. But I don’t feel the same way about him.
Teacher: Do you think you were doing the project for him or for how it made you feel?
Student: I’m not sure. There was definitely joy, and then the joy evaporated. It was a shift in energy. That’s all I know. Now I don’t want anything to do with him or the project.
Teacher: So he is the enemy, you are the victim, and the project is abandoned?
Student: And there is no joy. I want the joy back.
Teacher: Are you sure the joy came from doing the project for him?
It’s a familiar process to be excited by an idea, thrilled by an experience, enamored with a person, stimulated by an activity, inspired by something we hear or read, and come away believing that the idea, experience, person, activity, book, or teacher is the reason for the way we feel.
We are then surprised to find ourselves not feeling the way we felt previously when we pursue the idea, experience, person, teacher, or activity. So the idea, person, experience, activity, author, teacher, or practice is discarded as we go off in pursuit of a new idea, person, experience, teacher, practice, or activity that promises us the experience we are seeking. To be disappointed again!
We are deeply conditioned to believe that our well-being, happiness, joy, and peace of mind stem from “externals”: from the job, relationship, event, project, idea, person, house, car, insurance policy.
If “externals” are the source of our happiness and satisfaction, it follows that if we are unhappy or dissatisfied the problem is with the “externals” and we need to “fix” those “externals” in some way.
This orientation traps us in endlessly rearranging the content of our lives.
- Having problems with a partner? Get rid of the partner.
- Coming up against a painful situation? Pop some painkillers to numb the pain.
- The service was not good? Demand a refund.
- Something is not going to plan? Find someone to blame.
- Having issues at work? Look for another job.
- That experience was not fun? Don’t do it again.
- There’s too much to do? Work harder.
- Excited by an idea? Figure out how to put it in action.
- He said something to hurt my feelings? I am no longer going to do that thing for him.
It takes a lot of practice to “get” that when we experience “something wrong, not enough,” we don’t have to change the “externals.” Rather than firing the employee, breaking up with the partner, finding a new job, etc., we practice losing interest in, letting go, firing, ignoring, breaking up with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate!
With practice, it also eventually becomes evident that satisfaction in any flavor (joy, love, happiness, peace) is not the result of the external object to which it is usually associated (sunsets, vacations, perfect jobs, dream lovers).
In fact, joy, love, happiness, and peace are some of the labels we associate with being present. We might even say that whenever we are HERE, whatever the “external” circumstances, we feel joy, love, peace kindness, happiness or compassion.
To make that concrete…
It’s not the gorgeous sunset that fills me with a wonder that breaks my heart open. My heart breaks open when I am present to the sunset.
We know this is true, because we’ve all had the alternate experience. If I am attending to a conversation in conditioned mind—planning dinner, rehearsing an argument, reviewing an interaction with my boss—the beauty of the sunset doesn’t even register.
This has wide application in our lives!
Suffering as a process has many flavors—judgment, comparison, criticism, hatred, fear, anxiety, anger, intolerance, separation, longing, dissatisfaction, deprivation, resentment, hostility, inadequacy. When we are attending to suffering, we experience one or more attributes of the suffering process.
Awareness has many flavors—beauty, joy, peace, compassion, acceptance, oneness, equanimity, love, connection, adequacy, generosity. When we are attending to awareness, we experience the flavors of awareness.
Attention is either on the process of suffering or on awareness.
When we experience the attributes of suffering, we can redirect the attention to awareness and experience any flavor of awareness!
This takes practice. Don’t be surprised if the first hundred instances of redirecting the attention “don’t work.” This is what often happens when “it is not working.” Say I am practicing with anxiety.
- I notice I am anxious.
- I redirect attention to peace, say.
- Wait a minute! Am I feeling less anxious?
- No! This is not working. What am I doing wrong?
Instead of staying with peace (step 2), attention rapidly moves to conditioned mind to see if “I am feeling less anxious” (step 3). The anxiety producing process says, “Of course not. You are still anxious! This is not working!” What else would an anxiety producing process say?
It takes practice not to check back with the suffering process to determine if we have stopped suffering. In fact, it takes practice to stay with the experience of attending to awareness.
So the next time you are thrilled by an idea, inspired by a book, enchanted by a beautiful flower, excited by a project, or enamored with a person, practice attending to what it feels like to be thrilled, inspired, enchanted, excited, or enamored. Recording the experience, feeling it in the body, being wholeheartedly present to the sensations allows us to register the experience in awareness and then return to that flavor of awareness at any time. Listening to recordings of what “is” also supports us in this practice of attending to awareness.
In the absence of the process of suffering that objectifies life, we have a direct experience of what is. What is is always a process—it is a how not a what.
For example, when we feel joyful, we are in the process of joy. Joy is. We recognize that joy is object independent, and we can experience joy whenever we turn attention to Joy.
Conditioned mind is likely to chime in with an “object-ion” here.
“So,” it might say, “if I can attend to (as if that were possible!) peace or joy or love, does that mean I no longer want a loving partner, a fulfilling job, a project that excites me, or an activity that lights me up?”
Of course not!
Being present opens up the possibility of being in any flavor of awareness, and to bringing that flavor of awareness to whatever content is arising in the moment. With a shift of attention, a “dull” project can become exciting, a boring event can become fun, or an irritating person can be viewed with compassion. We can stay in the excitement of a possibility without putting it into action. We can feel connected to life even when we are alone.
How we are becomes how we experience life.
In the words of Ram Dass:
Unconditional love really exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It's love for no reason, love without an object.
There is no Love greater than Love with no object. For then you, yourself, have become love, itself. ~Rumi
For the next 48 hours, practice directing the attention to a flavor of awareness.
Begin with an object, if it is easier—someone you love, some object of beauty, an idea that inspires you, the tree that fills you with awe, a child that delights you. Follow the projection and register the flavor of awareness in the body. Make a recording of this experience of awareness.
When you find yourself getting identified, listen to the recording and practice redirecting the attention to this flavor of awareness.
For extra credit: As you approach a task or activity that you normally avoid, dislike, or resist, practice turning your attention to a flavor of awareness. Can you stay in that awareness as you do the task or activity? R/L