Sunny Side Up: The true goal of mindful living – learning to live in the present


It is to learn to live in the present, not in fear of the future or mired in the past. Photo: TNS

When I was learning how to be mindful during stays at a Buddhist monastery, I was really working to avoid painful experiences. Turning up at the gates outside the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England, I thought to myself, “Here’s where I can learn to be peaceful and content, joyful and compassionate.”

On reflection, I had similar misguided notions when I first took a karate class. I thought I’d soon learn to fly through the air like Bruce Lee, but in reality I spent much of the first year learning not to trip over my own feet.

And so it was with my experience living mindfully in a serene setting. In one talk I attended, the monk spoke about love and loss, and how we’re bound to lose everything and everyone we love. This is the nature of life, he said. So much for feeling joyful. But then he spoke about how the nature of loss, when properly understood, leads us to open up more to those we love, to embrace new experiences, and even find meaning in the aftermath of loss, which tends to feel cruel and unfair.

Over the years, I began to realise that being mindful was not – contrary to belief – about relaxing, being happy and feeling joyful. These can be byproducts of the practice but they’re not goals to be attained.

Mindfulness is, instead, to develop what I call a “conscientious awareness” of our experiences and the reality of where we’re all ultimately headed.

Rather than being a morbid reflection (as I first believed), it deepens our appreciation of life. We savour more and our minds begin to cherish time spent with loved ones. With the awareness that “This too shall pass”, we give more of ourselves to the people and experiences that matter in the moment. Everything else can wait.

I recently read a post on social media that said, “Say ‘yes’ to positivity – leave no room for negativity”. In other words, ignore and suppress anything that’s uncomfortable and focus only on what feels good. There are several problems with this message.

Let’s imagine that I’m holding a device in my hand with a big red button on top. If you choose to press it, it’s guaranteed to rid you of fear, anxiety and sadness, and any other kind of unpleasantness. But there’s one condition: If you press the button, it will rid you not only of the unpleasant feelings we tend to label as “negative” but will also rob you of the ability to relate to the people you love the most and everyone else.

When your child is heartbroken, you won’t be able to help them, because you can’t recollect what it feels like to be sad. When a close friend calls you up in a state of panic, you won’t feel any empathy because you’ll have no idea what it means to be afraid. Knowing that you’ll lose the ability to connect and relate to others, would you still choose to press the big red button?

Clients I’ve worked with have always said “no” at the end of this thought experiment. Some recoil at the thought – “There’s no way I’d want to get rid of those feelings and emotions.” And yet, we’ve all received the message, time and time again, to say “yes” to positivity and leave no room for negativity

The irony is that, when we open up to the very feelings we try to avoid, such as loss, the more we feel feelings of love, connectedness and presence with others. When we cling to our fear of loss, it shuts us off to the love that we later wish we’d shown more of while we had the chance.

In other words, suppressing painful feelings that love will eventually bring means closing ourselves off to love altogether. This coping strategy is protective in nature, but it’s also what leads us to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The talk on love and loss from the Buddhist monk wasn’t meant as a pessimistic commentary on life. Instead, it was a call to cultivate, through mindfulness, an appreciation of what and who we have in our lives while we have those blessings, knowing that they’re not going to last forever. We miss out on enjoying what we have right here in the present moment when we allow our minds to fixate on what’s yet to come. Fear of loss is always rooted in the future

We’re all in a hurry to avoid, ignore or distract ourselves from whatever we feel is uncomfortable and unpleasant. We become so busy in these pursuits that we lose sight of what really matters. For this reason, spiritual teachers and writers encourage us to slow down, open up, and experience life as it is, not as the fantasy we would like it to be.

As the late novelist Terry Pratchett wrote, “It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.”


Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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