Every time we have a thought it can be present for just the instant it arises or we can repeat that thought to ourselves over and over. It’s like water—if you pour water on the earth it can go anywhere. But, if the water starts to take a certain path, after a while it will make a groove and then the water has no other possibility except to go down that pathway. Each time it goes down that pathway it creates a deeper groove and the options become more and more limited. Thoughts and emotions are like this—due to our tendencies solidified over time we default to a habitual response. Without awareness we cut deeper grooves into our minds; whether they are good habits or bad habits we are creating habitual patterns of behavior. Through self-awareness meditation we begin to see this process. The awareness we develop in meditation is a way of getting us back to square one where the water now has different options of where to flow. This is the key to resolving problems caused by our habitual responses.
Habitual Patterns Limit Our Options and Hold Us Hostage
Let’s take an example of any kind of habit—recurring fears or habitual patterns that we have. Let’s say it’s a car accident, so whenever we think “car” we have a certain habitual reaction to that. And each time we have this reaction, we’re deepening that groove so the next time that stimulus appears, we’ll have exactly the same reaction. But with awareness, we recognize what’s happening in the moment and each time an experience arises it creates a new awareness. Each time we become aware a little more quickly. Eventually, we find ourselves right in the moment where we see our habitual tendency arise—this is the moment we have entirely different options. The water doesn’t have to go down that same channel because we’re at a place where the water is just flowing, allowing us to direct it in a different way. So our minds become flexible. The stronger our mindful awareness meditation practice is, the greater our freedom and skill in understanding problems and how best to work with them.
We can do this practice with our fears and habitual tendencies with difficult co-workers, family members and friends. Generally, we react with habitual patterns because we’re not aware of them and catch them too late if at all. But with awareness we can see it the moment it arises and can change our response to something more workable, more beneficial. Without awareness, we’re swept away because we’ve already reacted; it went too fast, we didn’t catch it in time. Meditation is the perfect training. If you develop the powerful habit of when something arises you come back to the breath, you are training yourself to be aware of what is arising. You’ve created a gap which allows you not to react habitually because you see what’s there in the proper context.
I remember one time when I was in retreat and someone used up all the honey. People in our small retreat group became upset about it. In that magnified context the missing honey became this massive two-ton pot of honey. When I later went to the store to buy more, that imaginary massive pot of honey shrunk back down to the little pot it actually was. And, my perspective totally changed. We blow all kinds of things out of proportion—our thoughts, emotions and fears. It is only due to awareness that things shrink back to normal, they fall into proportion. In this way we can have a more balanced and sane relationship with what is really going on. This is how to resolve problems and deal directly with issues that arise. But this only comes through awareness and cultivating a kind of confidence in resting with the breath. Try this and see for yourself what subtle changes it makes for you. Meditation is not something that happens only on the cushion. Awareness, focus and presence happen when we’re sitting, but there’s no reason they can’t happen every moment of each day.
Meditation Awareness Doesn’t Only Happen on the Cushion
When these intense kinds of situations happen, whether it’s a fear or anxiety or conflict we’re having with somebody, normally that’s when we’re the most swept away. But, actually because it’s such a strong experience it is a red flag to remind us that it’s workable. Somehow because it’s so in our face, it’s the easiest moment to recognize it—it’s so present. The subtler thoughts and fears are actually more difficult to work with because they remain more hidden; we don’t really see them. Many times it’s the big things we experience that bring us back to our training. They remind us we have this tool, this gift that we can use to change our experience of the situation. When we change our experience, we effectively change the whole situation. We probably can’t do it 100% of the time, but our reactions can be more measured and sane because we’re not habitually reacting. There is a huge difference between acting through awareness and reacting through unawareness.