At the closing of a year, the mind naturally turns towards reflection on the time that has passed and towards the new year that is to come. I’m reminded as I write of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, with it’s ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future. Ebenezer Scrooge the central character of the story, is gifted an overview of different time periods of his life through the visitation of each ghost. In being shown the past, looking back, Ebenezer relives the loves lost, the hurts, it is painful, but necessary for him to begin to wake up and see how these difficulties have conditioned his heart and mind to be the way that they are. It is when the future is revealed to him however that he begins to make changes, he sees that if he continues with his miserly, grumpy and cruel ways, the future will be very bleak.
We, fortunately, and unfortunately, don’t have visitations in the form of ghosts to provide us with an overview. We do however, have our mindfulness practice, the capacity to develop enough concentration and presence of body/mind, to be able to get to know ourselves, and what makes our life tick. In the literal space we create both in informal and formal practice, sitting meditation, breathing spaces, we begin to notice what our minds do, where they go, and what the consequences of this might be. We begin to notice, by being aware of the content of our thoughts and the sensory experiences of our bodies, the internal scripts (the ghosts) we carry that are conditioned by the past. Seeing this, we have the opportunity to discern whether these scripts serve us, and if not, to make the choice to patiently and persistently enter a process of letting-go.
We don’t always feel that we have choices however, it sometimes feels that we are fated to keep enacting the same habitual behaviours again and again, whether that be acting out irritation with our children, over consuming alcohol, food, shopping, overworking or over busyness. Carl Jung the Swiss Psychologist said, ‘ Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’ How do we make the unconscious conscious? There are many ways that we can begin to engage with this, including therapy, reading, study, honest friendships, as well as relational and solitary meditation practices. In these ways, we can begin to become aware of ways of being, that otherwise are hidden from view. Portia Nelson’s ‘Autobiography in Five Chapters’, a poem regularly read on my MBSR course, speaks to this eloquently, telling the story of a hole in the road that we just keep falling in. Initially we don’t understand why this keeps happening, we feel fated and sorry for ourselves, but after a while… and particularly with practices such as those outlined above, we eventually recognise the hole we are in, that we do have choice, and that we can make choices the next time we see ‘the hole’ coming.
It’s interesting that the very things that ‘haunt’ us, our difficulties, our unwanted guests, are the very experiences that show us where we are going wrong. If we have the courage, the honesty, and willingness to feel into the experience, to ‘look’ with an unflinching eye, we can learn about ourselves, and the impact of what we do on our lives, others, and the world. Rumis’ poem The Guest House speaks to this way of being:
‘This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all.’
This welcoming, this hospitality is friendly and kind, the willingness to ‘recieve’ our habits, difficulties and the things that haunt us. We change the things we can, and accept the things we can’t, as the Serenity Prayer advises. In our practice, the aim is not to throw ourselves away and become some perfect version of ourselves, but to develop a greater willingness to accept ourselves as we are, warts and all. The meditation teacher Ram Dass, humorously describes his process of maturation, as being one where he moved from completely believing and identifying with his difficulties, to one where they just popped in for tea now and again.
Ebenezer Scrooge cannot change his past, he cannot change the way he is conditioned, nor can he make change in the future, obviously. The only time he can make change, we can make change, is in the present. So whatever our ‘goals’ for 2016, and they may be good and worthy goals, what might it be to as Mahatma Ghandi suggested, ‘be the change you want to see’. Now.