This week I came across a post on social media that read, “Sometimes you need a ‘stop doing’ list as badly as you do a ‘to-do’ list.”
The timely insight came in a week when I had been reflecting on how we can think about our flaws in a way that doesn’t sink into self-criticism and yet allows us to chip away at unhelpful patterns of behaviour.
One of my long-standing flaws is impatience. It arises more within myself than towards others, and typically occurs when things don’t happen “fast enough” or “obvious solutions” aren’t put in place. I’ve been aware of this for several years and have struggled to strike a balance between helpful self- awareness and the kind that takes on an inner parental voice that shovels on the self-criticism.
I found a metaphor offered by Buddhist monk Ajahn Jayasaro recently to be helpful in figuring out how to reduce the self-critical voice and take steps to manage unnecessary reactions: He asks us to imagine a house that gets broken into and reminds us that we wouldn’t say the house is useless or bad – it’s not the fault of the house that a burglar manages to break in.
Nevertheless, the owners of the house will likely strengthen security, perhaps install CCTV or a better gate, or maybe they’ll buy stronger grills, and so on. They don’t criticise the house; instead, they take steps to protect it.
Similarly, we can’t simply “choose” what thoughts come into our minds, nor can we simply decide to stop ingrained behaviours as though anything so complex as thought and behaviour are governed by an on-off switch.
In this sense, there’s nothing wrong with us for having any kind of thoughts or feelings that come up, but we can take more notice of them so they won’t cause us to act in ways we might regret.
The advice from Ajahn Jayasaro is to build on our awareness and – to whatever degree we can manage – do our best to avoid “feeding” the thoughts or impulses that arise. For example, if you’re someone who gets easily angered, you might resolve to pause, take a few deep breaths, and try to react more calmly than usual the next time you’re triggered.
It’s crucial, though, to realise that we’re unlikely to overcome any unhelpful behaviour with a few deep breaths and some pauses. What we’re doing with this practice is, over time, training ourselves to react in more considered ways. The intention to pause and breathe serves as a reminder.
Often, change can be presented as a quick-fix option. Depressed? Write down three things that went well today. Anxious? Take deep breaths. Stressed? Try mindfulness. As much as I love mindfulness, it irritates me that it’s commonly presented as a shortcut to positive vibes. Any worthwhile inner work is a process that unfolds over time. And to be sure, there are times when anger, impatience, and other emotions are called for within the right context.
The goal of how we manage ourselves isn’t to become saints but to learn how to make use of our thoughts and emotions in the right way at the right times.
To begin to chip away at unhelpful behaviours, it’s useful to begin by being aware of how they affect us. By doing this, we begin to see why it’s worth putting in the effort to reduce whatever troubles us. For instance, getting angry at an injustice might lead to helpful action, but when you get frustrated and angry in a traffic jam, does it feel good? Does it help the situation in any way?
A commitment might be, “Whenever I feel frustration arise when I’m in traffic, I’m going to pause, take a few deep breaths, and just sit and enjoy my breath or the music on the radio”. The awareness here is twofold: (1) Being angry won’t shift the traffic, and (2) you’re the only one being affected by the anger – it just makes you feel worse.
As Ajahn Jayasaro advises, “The good things in a garden grow well when the gardener works hard to keep the garden free from weeds”. Gardening can require a lot of hard work but the effort is well worth it – how much more joy there is in keeping a nice garden! To look at it brings tremendous peace. It’s the same with our minds.
To be aware of the weeds isn’t enough. Unhelpful thoughts and feelings might arise but we can have enough awareness to say, “Not this time – I’m not getting hooked like before, it’s exhausting”. We can start our mental gardening just like that.
Those weeds might come back time and again, and that’s OK – it’s just the nature of the mind. The more we work on our mental gardening, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes, whatever the weather might be.
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 email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.