Two books I’ve read recently have helped me to clarify my thoughts on where peace and contentment come from in our lives. These are, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön and Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner. In this post I’ll explore some of the ideas from these books. They don’t present many new ideas. What they do however is highlight three important points in a way that made me rediscover them. Three simple ideas which often slip away from us each day. They need to be reviewed over and over again from different perspectives so that they become a natural part of who we are and what we do.
Read on to find out more ….
Peace and Contentment
Take a moment to consider where real peace and contentment comes from in your life. For me these feelings and emotions should come from realising that life is a process to engage in. Life is a journey down a path that we can choose to experience as magical. When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of having a goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is incredibly empowering. This shift of focus requires that we embrace the idea that all of life is practice in one form or another.
This requires us to be in control of your thoughts. Marcus Aurelius said,
Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy. (Bk. II.8).
If you’re not in control of your thoughts then you are not in control of yourself. Cicero put it like this:
Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with both reason and the way of nature. (On Invention II.53).
And this is a paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them. We erroneously think that there is a magical point that we will reach and then we will be happy. We will never reach this point. Instead embrace the idea that actively practicing something is very different from passively learning. With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable. Remember though, you will never reach a level of performance that feels complete, so learn to love the art of practicing your skill. Epictetus phrased it like this:
Forget about controlling what happens; learn to wish that everything that happens happens just as it happens. Then . . . all will go exactly as planned. (Handbook, 8)
One of the best practices for everyday peace and contentment is to notice our opinions. We tend to take them as truth. Label them as opinions, just as we label thoughts as thoughts. All ego really is, is our opinions, which we take to be solid, real, and the absolute truth about how things are. To have even a few seconds of doubt about the solidity and absolute truth of our own opinions, just to begin to see that we do have opinions, introduces us to the possibility of egolessness. We don’t have to make these opinions go away, and we don’t have to criticize ourselves for having them. Don’t let ourselves be swept away by opinions of good and evil or hope and fear. The less our speech and actions are clouded by opinion, the more they will communicate.
The Process versus The Goal
Learn to focus on and embrace the process of experiencing life. Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process. This is true whether we’re working toward a personal aspiration or working through a difficult time, we begin to free ourselves from the stress and anxiety that are born out of our attachment to our goals.
Most of the anxiety we experience in life comes from our feeling that there is an end point of perfection in everything that we involve ourselves with. To attain peace we must allow ourselves to drop the idea that ‘I can’t feel happiness until I reach my goal’. This ‘goal’ always takes the form of someplace we have not yet reached, something we don’t yet have but will at some point, and then, we believe, all will be right in our life. It is our ego that makes us create false ideas of what perfect is and whether we have reached it. When you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it toward you.
In every moment that you look at the goal and compare your position to it, you affirm to yourself that you haven’t reached it. In reality, you need to acknowledge the goal to yourself only occasionally, using it as a rudder to keep you moving in the right direction.
Instead shift toward both focusing on and finding joy and peace in the process of achieving instead of having the goal. Once you can do this then you’ll a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering. However, the practicing mind is quiet and at peace. We have to aspire to stay awake and open to what were feeling in the present moment and be completely aware of what we are experiencing. It also requires us to approach each moment, each task, each person, without expectations. In other words, non-judgment is the pathway to a quiet mind.
Patience and Habits
Habits are learned so its important to choose them wisely. You enter a new habit with the expectation that it will be amazing, change your life, and you’ll do great. And when it is inevitably harder than you thought it would be, and you’re less successful at it, you’re disappointed, discouraged, frustrated. So you lose motivation, and give up. If instead, you let go of the fantasy of how this habit will go, and just be open to what emerges … you can just do the habit. Just be in the moment with it. Then, no matter how it turns out, you’ll learn something.
But often you are unaware unwanted habits exist. And you cannot change what you are unaware of. As the habit is forming, it can be analysed in three parts: the cue, the behaviour and the reward. The cue is the thing that causes the habit to come about, the trigger of the habitual behaviour. This could be anything that one’s mind associates with that habit and one will automatically let a habit come to the surface. The behaviour is the actual habit that one exhibits, and the reward, a positive feeling, therefore continues the “habit loop”. A habit may initially be triggered by a goal, but over time that goal becomes less necessary and the habit becomes more automatic.
What is required is that you are aware of what you want to achieve, that you know the motions you must intentionally repeat to accomplish the goal, and that you execute your actions without emotions or judgments; just stay on course. You should do this in the comfort of knowing that intentionally repeating something over a short course of time will create a better habit to replace an unhelpful old one. Simplicity in effort will conquer the most ingrained of habit. Just remember four ‘S’ words which will lead you to success:
- Simplify. When you work on changing a specific habit, simplify it by breaking it down into its component sections. What is the cue, the behaviour and the reward?
- Small. Be aware of your overall purpose behind wanting to change the habit. Remember to use it as a rudder or distant beacon that keeps you on course.
- Short. Now you can also bring short tasks to change the cue, the behaviour and the reward.
- Slow. Incorporating slowness into your process is a paradox. Work at a pace that allows you to pay attention to what you are doing. Anything you can do in a rushing state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down.
By following the four steps above will much of the stress is removed from habit change. It will become much easier because you won’t experience all the anticipation that results from not having any idea of how long it would take to form a new more beneficial habit. First be at peace, relax and repeat the exercise and stay in the process, knowing that the learning is occurring.
You may worry that you don’t possess the patience to change a habit. All the patience you will ever need is already within you. Constantly reviewing your thoughts creates, in a sense, a new habit of perceiving and processing our lives, a habit that brings us the sense of clarity we long for every day. Experiencing impatience is one of the first symptoms of not being in the present moment, not doing what you are doing, and not staying process-oriented. The first step toward patience is to become aware of when your internal dialogue is running wild and dragging you with it. The second step in creating patience is understanding and accepting that there is no such thing as reaching a point of perfection in anything.
If you can keep your mind in the present, out of the past or the future you can let go of any expectations of how long it will take to acquire a new habit. If you are feeling bored, impatient, rushed, or disappointed with your performance level, realize that you have left the present moment in your activity. Look at where your mind and energy are focused. You will find that you have strayed either into the future or the past. Instead, enjoy what you are doing right now. Focus your energy on the process and through patience and discipline you’ll achieve peace. You’ll experience a joy that is just not present when something comes too quickly or easily.
When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease. With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable. In fact, the real thrill of acquiring anything, whether it is an object or a personal goal, is your anticipation of the moment of receiving it. The real joy lies in creating and sustaining the stamina and patience needed to work for something over a period of time.
When you learn to approach life with patience and discipline, as one long practice session then it transforms everything. New worlds open up to you. Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. Practice is not just for artistic or athletic skill, but practicing patience, practicing communication, practicing anything you do in life. The process/practice itself is the real goal, not the outcome. Self-discipline, focus, patience, and self-awareness are interwoven threads in the fabric of both true inner peace and contentment in life. Together, living in the present moment and being process-oriented is the path that leads us to these all- important virtues. Here are just a few examples of the benefits:
- Procrastination: Let’s say you have been putting off a big task at work because you’re dreading doing it. Maybe it’s a big project, and you have this feeling of overwhelm. It’s a lot of work! You are expecting to have to do hard work you’re perhaps not good at, expecting failure or difficulty. But letting go of the expectations means you don’t know how this task will go … you go into it with an open mind. You try it and see how it goes. You learn from the experience no matter how it goes.
- People: People may frustrate you. Perhaps they’re being inconsiderate somehow? Your frustration stems from an expectation of how this person should act. They don’t act according to this ideal, and so you suffer. Instead, you can put aside this expectation that people will live up to your ideals … and just be open to them. Indeed our concepts of ideal and perfect are always changing. So, at some point someone will always behave imperfectly, just as you will. Accepting the person as they are doesn’t mean you do nothing … you can let go of the frustration, and see how they’re having difficulty, and it as a teaching opportunity or an opportunity to help them … with no expectation that they’ll love your lesson or follow it, but just with the intention of helping someone.
- Body: You aren’t happy with your body, because it’s not perfect. It doesn’t meet your ideal, your expectation, and so you dislike it. That’s not good, because this self-discontent means that you’re less likely to do healthy things. Often we think that dissatisfaction with ourselves motivates us to change, but in my experience this discontent means that you don’t really trust yourself to stick to changes and so you make excuses when things get hard, and quit. I’ve done that a lot. When I am content with myself, I trust myself more, and I stick to things more. So let go of expectations that your body will be perfect, and just see your body as it is, for the beautiful thing it is, independent of society’s ideals of perfection. You’re great!
- Each moment: As we enter each new moment, we expect things from it. We want it to be fun, amazing, productive, according to plan. And of course each moment has its own plan, and will be its own thing. So we are not happy or at peace with it. Instead, we can drop the expectations and just see the moment as it is. Just experience it, noticing, appreciating, being grateful. This is mastery.
And there are many more benefits which I’ve not listed. Ultimately the main benefit is a realisation that we may not like the way reality is now and wish it would go away. But nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
Of course none of this is easy. It comes down to practising a few simple rules:
- Keep yourself process-oriented.
- Stay in the present.
- Make the process the goal.
- Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish.
All of life is practice in one form or another. Learning to be mindful, to see the frustrations, anger, sadness, loneliness, irritations as signals of the expectations you have and didn’t notice is part of life. It means practising letting them go. That means a lot of practice, and remembering to practice. Drop the that you’ll be perfect at this practice, and just try it. You learn from the trying. You get better and you learn some more.
Thinking that you have ample time to try this is a myth. If you knew that tonight you were going to go blind, you would take a longing, last real look at every blade of grass. If you knew that we were going to be deaf tomorrow, you would treasure every single sound. Each moment, along the way, is to be appreciated and enjoyed, so the process of mastery is a succession of moments. But beware: as you get better at practising being mindful you may feel less peace, a degree of fear. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. Things become clear when there is nowhere to escape.
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Links to the books referenced in this post: