A friend once shared his secret for cycling the steepest mountain pass:
“When it gets difficult, when your head is telling you you have to stop, when every muscle fibre is screaming out – get out of your head and start counting as you pedal – 1, 2 , 3 , 4 then again 1, 2 ,3 4, – if it’s even tougher narrow your focus even more 1,2, 1,2,”
He was right – it works – stripped of all extraneous thought and scattered focus the unmanageable becomes manageable and I’ve found it can be applied to suffering in a wider sense.
Believing that life is always going to be comfortable is like thinking “I shouldn’t have to feel the wind blow”. Life is inherently painful and attempting to set up conditions in order that our preferences are always met, means curating our experiences into ever narrower subsections attempting to shelter ourselves from anything that makes us uncomfortable. Hiding from reality.
I’ve spent – or possibly wasted, a considerable time trying to manufacture such a life – infact I think this is the reality of the human condition, to attempt to manipulate our enviroment in order as far as possible, to maximise pleasure or at least contentment and minismise suffering. Of course in some ways this is quite justifyed, but a good proportion of the time we become so focused on the environmental control that this constant striving for freedom, to keep the conditions of life just so, ends up creating a prison as we tell ourselves we can only be happy if X Y and Z are met. Of course this is an impossibility and over the years I’ve discovered, at times somewhat painfully, that life is much better when reality is accepted head on. The conundrum from here becomes not to avoid or manufacture a perfect life but how to confront a less than pleasant experience and then either act wisely to change it – or accept it with equanimity as beyond our control.
So what’s the wise response when things are difficult? The “go to” tends to be to think a way out, to procrastinate, ruminate, figure it out intellectually. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, in practice it’s rarely helpful and infact tends to perpetuate suffering, tying us up into fairy tales of our own making or setting in motion a perpetual cycle of denial and avoidance.
It’s calming in the broadest sense of the word, to connect with something rhythmical – I used to ride thoroughbred horses, fractious, sensitive animals, coiled beneath me; overwound springs, awaiting a moment of unbalance or tension from their precariously perched jockey, an excuse to unleash their wild, spirited energy. In those times it came naturally to sing – repetitive rhythmical songs – I suppose in some way it was a kind of chanting. It had a magical effect, the animal’s ear would flicker to listen, taking the horse’s focus away from the perceived hidden dangers of the verges, providing a steady rhythm to move to, a kind of focus for both horse and rider. At the same time it forced me to breath – something which when in a tense situation tends to be forgotten with breath coming in tense, stilted and erratic bursts, creating further anxiety ad infinitum. The nursery rhyme “Daisy Daisy” worked brilliantly, a tuneless incantation echoing around the Sussex lanes.
The 1,2,3,4 technique begins with exercising some restraint on the storyteller in our heads, coming back into the body, exercising our best quality awareness, and simply feeling how it feels; adding nothing to it and taking nothing away. Receiving reality without judgement. Sometimes that takes immense effort, particularly when with emotions running wild and everything internally screaming. All sirens blazing: “Do something!”
The captain of a container ship explains how he taught young officers to steer the unresponsive behemoth through the South China seas, alive and teeming with with the lights of tiny fishing vessels:
I always said don’t panic, don’t try to see them all at once. Bring the radar in close. Deal with what is in front of the ship. Let the fishing boats come to you
This is, I suppose, mindfulness at it’s most practical and basic level – it’s a kind of stabilising manoeuvre which breaks the manically anxious thought pattern. On a very basic physical level, focusing on watching breath, or the sensation of foot fall gives a connection with the body that essentially re connects with that which is solid, real and reassuring.
So, when life is difficult it’s worth playing with the counterintuitve – instead of having a wide and scattered focus, slowing down and looking at what’s right in front of you in the moment.