I recently returned from a week-long silent meditation retreat where I learnt a great deal about the inner turbulence of my mind. While it was a silent retreat, it was certainly loud in my head.
I had a startling insight while sitting at the dinner table one evening. I was sitting in the booth side of the table that backed against the wall and a couple of people were sat either side of me. I suddenly felt I was ‘trapped’ on either side. Of course I could have gestured for people to move and let me out but all of them were still eating. Instead, I sat with that feeling and explored what caused me to feel trapped.
The insight that came to me was that my dukkha1.Dukkha is Pali or Sanskrit for an important Buddhist concept, commonly translated as “suffering”, “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness”, “unreliableness” or “stress”. It refers to the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of life. arises from my desire for things to be different from what they are or my aversion to things as they are. I instantly noticed that’s how I live most of my life, never at peace with this moment. I’m always looking at how something is not good enough or how I can make it better.
As a self-confessed self-improvement junkie this started to make sense to me. I’m constantly trying to optimise my life, looking for the healthier diet, the best workout or the most efficient way to do everything. I always want to learn from the mistakes of others or apply what they’ve already figured out. But here’s the dark truth about self-improvement, for there to be something I want to improve, there has to be something I currently dislike about myself. An aversion to who I am today and a desire to be a better person tomorrow.
What this insight was telling me was that tomorrow will never come, there will always be another tomorrow – so when will I be at peace with myself? When I’ve corrected this or that? Or achieved this goal? Or attained this status? I suddenly saw the folly in my thinking because there will always be something else to improve. Another hurdle to jump over. And so if I know I won’t be at peace then, the only other place to be at peace is now.
It won’t stop me wanting to improve myself, I like the pursuit of progress and betterment of myself and society. However, I’ve learnt that I can be ‘ok’ with who I am now. At peace with that, even when desiring it to change. Because change will eventually happen, for better or worse, I can only be at peace with who I am now, not at some point in the future, because that version of me doesn’t exist yet, but this present one does.
I can’t tell you how much relief this brought me. I think I had built up years of resentment towards myself. Years of not liking who I was and chasing a better version of myself, never stopping to notice my achievements or appreciate my progress along the way.
This didn’t just stop with me I realised. Because I saw myself in this light, I also viewed the world this way. I would be frustrated at people, I would label them as lazy, inept, uneducated. Making endless moralistic judgements about the world and people all because I wasn’t at peace with who I am.
Now I see that the world is changing but in the meantime, while I wait for it to change (and it will!), I can be at peace with the way it is now. At peace with the war, the famine, the climate emergency. At peace with the advance in medical progress, the decline in infant mortality, the rise in prosperity across large swathes of the world.
I hope to continue practicing seeing the world in this way because it is a much more compassionate and helpful way to see it and myself. It doesn’t matter if it is truthful but it certainly is useful.
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|1.||↑||Dukkha is Pali or Sanskrit for an important Buddhist concept, commonly translated as “suffering”, “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness”, “unreliableness” or “stress”. It refers to the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of life.|