Exploring Impermanence, Gratitude and Compassion.
As I reflect on my own journey of mindfulness I can see in retrospect, that there were key concepts that I needed to learn in order to better access the practice of mindfulness.
These concepts were impermanence, gratitude and compassion.
At the time I learned these concepts mental health, wellness, gratitude and affirmations - the whole wellness boom hadn’t happened yet. I didn’t learn about these things growing up. Nowadays we are inundated with wellness “experts” and need to carefully sift through it all to figure out what is helpful and what is just another gimmick on the market. Luckily, you don’t need gimmicks. Everything you need you already have!
Mindfulness is awareness of what you are doing, thinking and feeling at any given time. Becoming aware of something allows us to be more responsive (compared to reactive) to the needs of the situation. Clarity arises, you don’t feel confused or distracted. When you are being mindful, you are present and in the moment. This is living meditation.
What I share below is for context. I began my mindfulness/yoga journey in earnest in my mid-twenties angry, grieving and fearful. My mom passed away the year earlier, I was in chronic pain from a recent car accident and I was under a lot of stress living and working in a foreign country. I had just started taking a series of yoga classes and one particular teacher taught about the concept of impermanence.
The raindrops do not remain the same. From raindrops to a body of water to evaporation to a cloud and condensation. Raindrops remind us that everything changes and nothing remains the same.
Impermanence is the concept that everything in and about life is in constant flux and is changing; we are never the same person moment to moment but we are under the mistaken belief that many aspects of life are fixed or certain. Ultimately, it helped me realize that I wasn’t going to be sad or needed to be angry my whole life. I was in a state of grief and felt angry AND could do things that would help shift this feeling state. Imagine accepting that it’s okay to be sad, to miss what was once an important part of your life, be able to know that it’s okay to honour that part and still nurture and strengthen other parts of your life. This is where a skilled teacher or therapist who can hold space for you to the feel and work through fear, grief and anger can be immensely helpful. A gratitude practice helped to cushion the discomfort and discover all the things around me and within me that I could appreciate and be grateful for. When asked to make a list of 10 things I was grateful for, I was hurting so badly that I just couldn’t even get started. There was nothing. I didn’t even really understand what gratitude was. Little by little I started to identify external things (with help) that I could be grateful for. I kept practicing and my list expanded and even notably, the speed at which I could create my list quickened. Practicing gratitude is an act of Mindfulness. When we become aware of all the things we are grateful for, no matter how small, that is an increased abundance in your life. You start to feel lighter and happier because there is something to appreciate.
Last summer I attended Every Brilliant Thing at 1000 Islands Playhouse and it inspired me to start my own list of 1000+ things I am grateful for. I think I will start it this summer. I challenge you to start a gratitude practice too, if you haven’t already.
During the time I was learning about impermanence and gratitude I harboured a lot of anger, and looking back, I was likely very rigid in my thoughts and beliefs and was reactive to external events around me. I believed most people were rude, unthoughtful, entitled, and all the other judgemental things you might think. Impermanence, gratitude and compassion, turned my beliefs about external things/people/circumstances back towards me. It was never about other people, it was about me and my lack of awareness of myself.
For me, Compassion practice arose from offering forgiveness for my judgemental thoughts (I’m not saying to forgive everyone for everything but start small, start with strangers and people you don’t know very well or your kids!). It offered me another, softer, kinder perspective. Compassion arises when you care for someone. When you are judgemental of others, it’s hard to be compassionate. If you are constantly judging others you are likely judging yourself too. Do you act compassionately towards yourself? This might look like allowing yourself to rest when you feel tired or unwell. It’s not being hard on yourself and berating yourself. Compassion is softness and gentleness. It requires understanding and empathy. A Loving Kindness Meditation can help you practice this as well.
As I practiced compassion, instead of being so quick to judge (I realized later that this was a protective mechanism I developed – and yes, could change), I first, noticed when I was doing it (which was usually accompanied by a physical gripping in my chest, tension in my neck, jaw and shoulders and holding of breath) and then chose a different thought - maybe the person I was mad at had a bad day, maybe they are rushing to an emergency, maybe they got fired, a family member is sick and they didn’t get enough sleep, they are stressed out and equally unaware of their actions/behavior. So first, notice when it is happening, then what physical sensations are associated with it. Then, change the narrative. You don’t actually know what is going on with that person. Just like, they don’t actually know what is going on with you. Choose to show them compassion. Give ‘em a break. Give yourself a break. This allowed me to soften towards others and forgive what I perceived as rude behavior. I would literally walk around and in my mind offering forgiveness to people who had ‘wronged me’ and forgive myself for my snap judgements. It was liberating.
In the evolution of my mindful living, I began to practice becoming more present. That is, aware of myself in the present moment. I started to notice things like, how did I behave or think differently when I was having a bad day? Why not let myself off the hook and do something fun instead of berating myself and punishing myself for something I was unhappy about. These little behavior changes, these changes in perception is mindfulness in practice. It is expanding your awareness of how you are living your life, awareness of the choices you are making. I started feeling so much calmer. I became less reactive and could make better decisions in response because I was more aware of myself. There was less urgency, and more calmness. It is important to understand that we cannot change other people but we can change our perspective, our thoughts, our beliefs, our behaviors just by paying attention. I invite you to choose a specific scenario or event to practice with. Mine was transiting to and from work and to and from my home to the yoga studio. Hong Kong, where I was living at the time, is a very densely populated city so I got a lot of practice. Mindfulness is not an overnight transformation. It is a lifelong practice. I’ve had many teachers and experiences since I started practicing mindfulness in my life. I think too, the physical practice of yoga, when taught well, asks us to pay attention (be present with) the sensations we are experiencing. A physical practice can elicit experiences of gratitude and compassion and impermanence. You can know it through feeling. Being grounded in the body helps us to cope with what is happening in our minds.
One of the reasons, I think people don’t want to practice mindfulness is because of promises of transformation and change. There is a fear that they will lose their personality. For me, I wouldn’t say I’m a completely different person, the process of building awareness reveals more of who you truly are in the very best ways.
My challenge for You:
1) make a daily list of 10 things you are grateful for - the end of the day may be easier than in the morning.
2) contemplate what in your life makes you a different person moment to moment or day to day? The air molecules you breath will also be different every day (I know my mood drastically changes from breathing in wildfire air vs city air vs countryside air vs ocean air), the food you eat acts differently on your body, movement changes your physical body, a smile changes your bodies chemistry… when you feel anxiety or grief, remind yourself that everything in life constantly changes, we all go through the lifecycle - honour and accept where you are at. Please note, this can be a very challenging activity and you may wish to seek support of a therapist or counsellor to guide you.
3) Consider what situation makes you feel angry or stressed out? What other perspectives may be available for you to try on? You might need to ask a friend or someone neutral to the situation to offer ideas! When are you reacting vs responding?
4) Tell your friends you love them. Give them a hug. (This was very hard for me but with practice, it got easier and let me tell you, it feels great! And it’s great to be on the receiving end too!)