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A few months ago, I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class, which was honestly one of the most transformative experiences of my life so far. I am really lucky I had the opportunity to take it and that I was brave enough to take advantage of it. I haven’t said much about MBSR on here because a lot of what I’ve discovered sounds really obvious when I try to put it down in words. Part of that is because it sounds like a lot of cliche sayings that we’ve all grown accustomed to hearing for our whole lives. Hopefully, you’ll see what I mean by the end of this post.
The retreat I went to was 9 hours long. During this time, we did a series of sitting meditations, walking meditations, mindful eating, and our mindfulness teacher spoke a couple times about how to deepen our practice. Almost the entire time was conducted in silence with the exception of briefly sharing our experience in pairs at the very end and practicing mindful listening. It was a very lofty amount of time and in the beginning, I wondered how I was going to go for 9 hours, but by the time lunch rolled around, I felt like I had hit my groove and the time went by rather quickly. Some people snuck out early!
Here are some thoughts I had during my time on retreat. They seemed really revolutionary to me, but as I said, as I write them out in words, they seem very obvious:
Other people have their own lives and own minds: I am generally a “rule follower”, so I tend to get really annoyed when people are not following the rules or if they just seem to be following instructions incorrectly. When this happens with people I can’t say anything to, I tend to get really irritated and sometimes I become silently angry over it. When it happens with people I can say something to, I’ve historically felt compelled to correct them or make comments to try and encourage them in the “right” direction. MBSR has helped me accept the fact that everyone has their own lives and their own minds with which to make their own decisions. These decisions may be different than the ones I would make if I were in their position and it is their right to decide as they see fit. It is not my right to control other people, nor am I able to see life through their eyes, so who am I to think I know what’s best for them? At the retreat, I found myself annoyed with people who weren’t following directions like I thought they should be followed, but I was even more annoyed at people who didn’t seem to be taking any of the practices seriously. I had to remind myself that we all paid money to be here at the retreat and people don’t generally spend time or money on something they don’t care about. I also had to remind myself that it wasn’t any of my business if that person doesn’t want to get anything out of his time on retreat. That is his choice, even though it is not one I would ever choose for myself.Once I thought this through and accepted it, I was able to return my focus to my own retreat experience and stop myself from worrying about his.
As I mentioned earlier, some people left early. I was irritated and shocked by this. I thought this was disrespectful to our teacher and I wondered if they left because they didn’t see the value in what they were doing.After the retreat, Tom reminded me that people have busy lives and it’s possible that they had prior commitments. That didn’t even dawn on me! Now that the retreat is over, I have accepted that it’s their choice to leave and they have a right to decide what their personal values are. I acknowledge that I can be overly concerned about what other people are doing, when it’s really not my place to care so much nor is it worth the distress I feel when what they are doing bothers me.
Putting your own inner peace before others: This one took me a while to work through in my head because it seemed selfish. Our meditation teacher had just gone over all these things that do not define what our “selves”are, but she did not say anything about what does make up our “selves”, leaving me to think on this on my own. I didn’t settle on an answer to that, but I did reflect on the sense of peace I have found for myself. I acknowledged that I have attained a sense of peace in myself as a result of the time and effort I have spent taking care of myself and really figuring out what my feelings are and what I want/need. I don’t think a lot of people do this, even though I also think we spend a lot of our lives searching for a sense of peace. I think a lot of people think that they will find a sense of peace if only other people would act in a different way, so they spend a lot of time and energy trying to change other people’s behaviors. Sometimes this energy is spent in the name of “love” and “caring”, which makes people think that makes it okay. It sounds selfish, but I think if we were able to focus on finding our own senses of inner peace, we wouldn’t feel the need to change other people’s behavior. We would already have what we are looking for. It ties into the idea that you have to love yourself before you can love others, which is an idea people express a lot regarding romantic relationships. I would argue that this approach is just as important in other relationships as well.
I feel like I have spent too much of my life worrying about what other people think and bending to their wills. When someone wants me to act a certain way, I feel the need to oblige in order to make them happy. I don’t want to make life difficult for other people, so I do what makes things better for them. I didn’t realize until recently that I have been doing this at the expense of my own sense of peace. Sadly, doing this doesn’t help anyone achieve any sort of inner peace. You cannot find peace by changing other people and not looking inward. You also cannot find peace by catering to other people’s feelings and not tending to your own. This leads me to my next point.
People who have hurt me are the ones who are hurt: I have recently been putting mindful effort into finding a way to forgive those who have hurt me in the past. I decided that to me, forgiveness does not mean that I will necessarily ever want to be connected to these people again. Forgiveness to me is being able to sincerely wish them well. I have been angry and bitter and have not been able to sincerely wish people well, but I don’t want to hold on to that kind of negativity. As I reflected on the ideas described above, I began to realize that the people I held bitterness toward had hurt me simply because they did not have a sense of peace within themselves. For some reason or another, they felt inner turmoil that they felt could be quieted if they could just change what I was doing. In turn, I felt inner turmoil, constantly trying to live up to who they wanted me to be. Doing what they wanted did not bring them peace, so they were never satisfied with what I had to offer, which left me disappointed, dejected, and inadequate. I was left desperately trying to appease them, only to have them push me farther and farther away. For a long time, I wondered what I had done wrong or what I could have done differently to hold these people close. Now I realize that holding them close was not the right thing to do. They were searching for things that I could not give them and our relationships would never flourish until they found what they were looking for. This was the first time that I was able to truly wish these people well and hope that they will someday find their way to inner peace.
Fear: This is not necessarily something I discovered about myself for the first time at the retreat, but I continued thinking about it during the retreat. I am a very fearful person and I often allow that fear to dictate what I do and don’t do (mostly the latter!). I acknowledge that fear has held me back from a lot of things. It was fear that made me want to decline the invitation to speak at the Better Together: California Teachers Summit. It was also fear (uncertainty) that made me not want to take the MBSR class to begin with or attend the retreat. I could list a bunch of examples of how fear has kept me from experiencing life. I know fear is a tool used to keep ourselves out of harm’s way, but my fear instinct is in overdrive. It prevents me from doing a lot of things I don’t actually need protection from. I am challenging myself not to allow fear to make my decisions for me. When the thought, “I’m too scared to…” crosses my mind, I am taking that as a sign that I need to consider it.
Alright, so that’s all for now. I’m sure there’s more to say, but that seems like the most important. If you have never tried MBSR or meditation, I really recommend it. I know it sounds super hippie-dippy and it is a little unfamiliar for me to think like this, but I truly feel like my quality of life has grown exponentially. I have noticed a difference in my relationships, my marriage, and my overall happiness on a day to day basis.
I have found that meditation and mindfulness are really valuable, but they will only help if you approach it with an open heart and an open mind. The whole experience can feel very foreign and uncomfortable and if you approach it with a stubborn or skeptical mind, it probably won’t do much for you.