I’ve learned that meditation is a way to practice the skills of noticing when our minds are wandering and returning our awareness to the object of our practice. I’ve often heard this practice as noticing when our mental train has left the station and choosing to disembark back into the present.
The Big Narrative
I have known for some time that there are quite a few deeply engrained habits of thought, emotion and actions that together form the train ride I’ve been on for most of my life. At my age, that train has been away from the Present Station for a long time!
It occurred to me lately that I could apply the same principles of mindfulness that I use in my meditations to my life as a whole. To the Big Train. The Big Narrative. That’s because it would be very fair to say that my life has wandered far from my true path over the decades.
This process started for me on a retreat when I decided to use the Labeling practice all day. Whenever I noticed the thought train leave the station, I’d apply a label to it. It didn’t take long before I realized the same labels appeared over and over again. In particular, I noticed that, although the details varied, most of my past and future journeys weren’t thinking as much as they were daydreaming, and the daydreams were remarkably adolescent – meaning they’d been part of the Big Narrative for a long while. The most common, for example, was re-writing the past or scripting the future so that I, a Lone Ranger-type, swept in and saved the day: A problem would ensue and there I was to fix it right up. Pretty embarrassing daydream for a man of six-plus decades to see, admit to myself, and accept as a part of who I am. But there it was.
In mindful self-compassion I learned the value of turning toward unpleasant emotions like embarrassment, and how to recognize that while emotions I feel are valid, they are not who I am. I also began to realize that by staying with my unpleasant feelings of embarrassment – rather than turning away from them – I could use the feeling of embarrassment to cultivate new levels of awareness and choice. For instance, I would rather not spend my valuable time on these daydreams. Instead, when I noticed my mind wandering down these familiar train tracks, I could call the past “the past” while planning for the future in more realistic ways.
Practicing mindfulness aa a means of staying with those embarrassment feelings also led me to realize one reason my daydreaming had stuck around so long. For me, it is because the daydreams themselves are very pleasant (as long as I stayed safely in my save-the-day narrative). I began to realize that if I wanted to change my daydreaming habit, to get off that particular narrative train, I’d have to be willing to give up the save-the-day parts of the daydreams as well.
It’s kind of like the effects of eating ice cream: The cold, creamy goodness tastes awesome going down. But once I step off the Ice Cream Express, I begin to notice the unpleasant bloated feeling afterwards…not to mention the expanding waistline. So maybe it’s better to limit my intake of ice cream?
For me, in-the-present mindfulness has served up a generous platter of tidbits about my life, but by itself it wasn’t effecting any change. For me, the wisdom mind, the part of the mind that steps back and can see what I’m doing – kind of like a silent witness – was the key to getting off the Big Narrative train. This is the part of our minds that, between stimulus and response, helps us choose to move toward freedom and happiness. This is also the part of me that saw patterns in my daydreams, looked beyond their fabricated pleasantness, and was able to admit that their stories were untrue. My wisdom mind is also what imagines me giving up the momentary pleasure of lifeless daydreams in return for more lasting happiness and well-being. And that’s the route I’ve chosen to take.
These three aspects of meditative practice: mindfulness, turning toward, and wisdom mind, work together to enabled me – for the first time in my life – to step off of my Big Narrative Train. And as I become more and more used to greater awareness of what is really here right now, I am finding that the only place where happiness is truly possible is in the present moment.
Note: I got the basic thread for this article after reading “The Power of Mindfulness” by Diana Winston in the September 2019 issue of Lion’s Roar. Well worth a read if you can find it.