Mindfulness at the Holidays: When what ordinarily brings you pleasure winds up causing you pain.
A Key point to understanding the philosophy of mindfulness is to fully grasp the concept of attraction and aversion: We are attracted to things that bring us pleasure and we are repelled (or averse) to things that bring us pain. But in mindfulness we learn that these seemingly opposing forces are just two sides of the same coin.
Upon closer examination, you will often see that the object that is the source of your pain is actually something that previously brought you pleasure. When your children misbehave, when your new car breaks down, when you get a permanent stain on your favorite shirt or whenever you lose something that you truly loved, you will surely experience pain from something that formerly gave you pleasure.
When our kids were little, we’d see this happening to them on Christmas. My wife and I would give them a gift that we knew they really wanted, and we would watch with vicarious pleasure as they excitedly opened it. Sometimes they’d play with the gift for hours but if the toy unexpectedly broke, or upon putting it together, didn’t work as advertised, voila, the source of their happiness was now the source of their pain. (AND that pain was vicariously passed on to us!)
When I was 23 years old, I bought a brand-new car and said goodbye to living with my parents in Connecticut and moved to California. I was on top of the world. I rented an apartment in Los Angeles, and in that apartment building, I had an assigned parking spot. What could be better?
But it just so happened that that the guy who had the assigned parking spot next to mine, owned a Volkswagen Minibus. The pointy corner of his car door opened higher than the door guard on the side of my car. So every time he opened his door a little too far, it left a little ding in the side of my brand new car. Every couple of days I’d come to my car and there would be a new ding in a slightly different place. I was not a happy camper.
It took me a while to figure out exactly how I was getting those dings and then to track him down, but as you might imagine, that conversation did not go well. So now I had an aversion to my car, to my assigned parking spot and to my apartment building because it was NEVER pleasant running into my parking lot neighbor. With this example, you can start to see how attraction and aversion are like a double-edged sword. If one side of the sword doesn’t cut you the other side will.
But mindfulness is all about observing the contents of your own mind and allowing you to objectively see this all too common phenomenon (and other situations that cause you pain) in play. Teachers of mindfulness believe that there is an unbiased observer inside every one of us that can make SENSE of these little moments by applying some distance between us (the inner observer) and what is happening around us and even inside of us. In other words, we can think about our thinking (meta cognition) and become aware of our awareness (meta awareness). In mindfulness this is often referred to as “cultivating an awareness below the level of thought.”
By observing the attraction and aversion cycles that came along with buying a new car (my next car got “keyed” all the way around) I eventually switched to buying used cars instead. That not only saved me a lot of money, it saved me a lot of pain as well. Attraction and aversion happen quite frequently in relationships, too. Learning how to successfully navigate through these periods when a formerly pleasurable relationship begins to cause you pain is what I’ll talk about in my next installment.