What defines you?

I was struck today by how much we are defined by external conditions, which the led me to thinking about what really defines us.

For me, the thought of what defines me came to me this morning when my 16 year old son pointed out that my current situation around money does not define my worth or how I should or shouldn’t view myself. Sometimes we are all in that situation of not being able to see the wood for the trees.

I’ve been dealing with some very challenging circumstances over the past few months around my work and finances. Although I have some semblance of a plan, every now and then I question what I’m doing and completely lose myself in the conditions I am presently faced with.

My son pointed out quite simply that far too many people base their whole self worth around what they do or do not have in their bank account.

‘It is just paper’, he pointed out, ‘it does not make you one thing or the other, it has nothing to do with who you are.’

I love synchronicity – when you are seeking something or an answer, a solution; how the universe just sends you whatever you need. The trick of course is being open to noticing it when it comes your way.

The second synchronicity (there have been a few today) was a video of a guy who asked specifically what defines us. Some people say their job title, being a mother, father and so on. He told a story about his father who in the end said he is defined by love and when stripped back said, ‘I am love.’

I’ve pondered over this all day and realised that at the moment, I am choosing to allow my external circumstances – the life situation I am currently in, to define me. In following the Buddhist path you live in a way that keeps you centred – this is why it is often termed, the middle path – where no matter what life throws you way, you return to your calm centre where you can choose how to respond (or not sometimes) rather than react. This isn’t literal in the physical or location sense – there is no middle or centre, it simply means returning to the heart of you or the core of your being where there is a river of peace and where everything is just as it is and you are ok, strong and sure of who you are. Truly you are love and in a wider sense you are everything and everyone because you are a finite part of an infinite universe.

So today, ask yourself this question, what defines you?

[Image copyright Kah Lok Leong Unsplash]

What happens when you be yourself?

I am listening to a book that was originally published over 70 years ago… by Dale Carnegie. You may have heard of it; How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Most self development teachings of today mirror the principles of this book and others like it. What I love about books written so long ago is that the teachings are often simpler and more straight forward.

This morning I listened to a story in the book about a singer. She was blessed with an amazing voice but felt she lacked in the looks department because her front teeth protruded so much. For her first appearance on stage she was crippled with fear that if people saw her teeth they would laugh at her and ‘boo’ her off stage. So much so that when she did finally begin to sing she did in such a way to keep her top lip firmly covering her teeth, which of course affected her singing. Not only did it affect her voice but it also made her look somewhat ridiculous because it was incredibly difficult to keep her top lip curled over her teeth while singing!

A man in the audience, who happened to be in the music industry, saw something in her and realised what she was doing. Afterwards he spoke to her and explained that by disliking her teeth so much she was not only affecting her voice, but her confidence and the way she came across on stage. By trying to hide her teeth, she was actually bringing about the circumstances she most feared. He encouraged her to look at her teeth differently, to accept them and to embrace them as something unique to her. He said that rather than curling her lip over the top of them she should instead open her mouth wide to let her singing voice shine through. Own the fact she had protruding teeth – who is to say that isn’t attractive? In stopping trying to hide what she was most embarrassed about and trying to be who she thought others wanted her to be, she became – free to be herself. This changed her into a singing sensation almost overnight and totally changed the way she felt about herself and the way she looked.

This story is the perfect example of the simplicity of this book, yet you could think about your own life, today, and I would bet that you too hide parts of yourself you dislike or are embarrassed about. Do you act differently or try to be someone else around others because that’s who you think they feel you should be? If we are honest, most of us could say we do this.

“When you stop trying to hide the things you feel embarrassed or dislike about yourself and striving to be who you think others want you to be, you become free…to be yourself.”

Maldives for the Mind

When you stop hiding parts of yourself either through being embarrassed about them or disliking, even hating them, you are faced with the truth. Simply that you are who you are. Why spend your life trying to be someone you are not. Be yourself and love every aspect of that. When you do this, you ‘own it’ and although you begin to see that it truly does not matter what others think of you, because you are exuding so much self confidence, people feel the difference and they see you as you see yourself.

[Image copyright, thank you, Nitish Meena Unsplash Instagram @nitishm]

This is life…

Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering and sets out a path we can choose to follow that eases the suffering, somewhat. One of the fundamental teachings is simply; it is what it is. That isn’t to mean we become passive and accept whatever comes our way without any emotion – we are human and truly that’s what causes the suffering. What it means is that life is what it is – we can’t control everything that comes into our lives day by day. We are surrounded by billions of other humans and on a daily basis, hundreds and thousands of others who come and go around us. Each with their own thoughts, feelings, behaviours and actions. In addition, nature does its thing and in every second billions of tiny things happen. It would be an absolute impossibility to even comprehend how we could control all of that. Not to mention exhausting!

What we can control is our response to it. Buddhism teaches us to remain centred whatever the weather, so to speak. For a long time I always thought of this more in times of trouble – so when there’s a storm and life is flinging you about and blowing you this way and that. What I’ve come to realise, experientially, is that being centred is just as important when life is up as it is when it is down.

Life doesn’t differentiate between good and bad. It is the meaning we place upon things that make it so – that make our experience what it is. If we are always striving for the highs, the lows become unwanted and harder to manage. That isn’t to say we can’t be happy or content – it is more about accepting that life is not intended to be that way all of the time. When you can truly accept that deep within, you begin to see that when bumps in the road occur – or back to my weather analogy, when we get blown about a little or experience full on storms, they’re easier to deal with. They’ll come and they’ll go.

This week I was quite hard on myself about something I did – not involving anyone else, just an experience I had that I deemed not good for me. A friend said to me that a couple of days before I was on a high and just to remember that. Suddenly it was as though I was transported somewhere high above and given a different perspective. One where I could see my experience on both occasions – both what I had deemed high and then low were simply experiences – they were not good or bad, they just were. My perspective or the meaning I had placed to each experience is what made it so – what made it good or bad to me.

I’ve got several situations going on in my life right now that are challenging – as we all have at points in our lives. This is life and if we can remain centred – whatever that is for each of us, we can weather the storms without immense suffering. Experiencing emotions is normal – but being overcome and dragged along by them daily is what creates suffering. There are varying degrees to suffering – losing someone and grieving is suffering we often must endure and go through. However, suffering to life’s ups and downs is a choice. For example, worrying creates suffering that is most often totally unnecessary. We worry about things don’t even happen, yet in our minds the worries have become very real. There are times when this incessant worrying actually brings about what we are most worried about!

So what is being centred?

It isn’t so much about being in the middle because what is your middle may be different to mine or the next persons. It is about finding that ‘centre’ within, that place of peace or knowing, belonging where you feel centred. In my experience most people have to practice at this because to know that place is to know yourself. Finding time to be quiet, still and look within.

Meditation and mindfulness is a tool you can use for raising your level of self awareness, allowing you to create space to see the way you think, behave and act in a way that is objective. Meditation connects you with your ‘true self’ that can only be found within and truly the place of centredness. Seek and you will find – start a regular daily meditation practice. Over time as your self awareness grows and you create space, being able to bring yourself back to centre becomes something you do naturally.  It becomes a sanctuary and a place of peace where you can rest and restore from whatever life brings your way.

[Thank you for this beautiful image…Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash]

Where do I start?

One of the most commonly asked questions when talking about mindfulness is, “where do I start?” The answer is simple; start where you are. If you have no understanding of mindfulness (although that in itself is a paradox in terms) then there’s this lovely little story I heard that explains it perfectly…

A Buddhist master is walking with his student in the mountains one day.

” Master, I want to practice mindfulness as you do, but although I have been practising for 6 years, I don’t know where to start.”

“Can you hear that stream?” the master replied.

The student couldn’t and stopped for a moment to listen.

“Yes,” he said, “I can hear that now.”

“Then start there.” said the Buddhist master matter of factly.

They continued to walk and a little further on the student turned again to the master.

“Master, might I just ask, what would you have said if I had said I couldn’t hear the stream?”

The master simply smiled and said to the student, “start here.”

Mindfulness is nothing more than immersing yourself in the present moment and each moment as they happen. Through your senses, taking in everything you hear, see, smell and feel in any moment. Often we can’t grasp it because of the simplicity. We need to see something to understand it or we need an explanation to grasp something.

There is nothing to see, nothing to grasp, just being with what is. When you attempt to describe the ‘is-ness’ you have lost it because it is nameless, without form and indescribable. We use words because that’s how we communicate and if I were to publish a blank page everyone would assume I had done so by mistake.

So to begin to meditate or to practise mindfulness, start here. Where you are at, in this moment…and the next, and the next. There is only ever one moment.

[This mountain stream photo is by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

“Life is like a slice of pizza…

…it looks delicious in an advertisement, but when we actually have it, it is not as good as we imagined.

If you envy someone’s life, remember the pizza in the ad.

It always looks better than it is.”

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

Photo by Nicolás Perondi on Unsplash

Be kind, be humble…

I have always tried to remain a student – this could apply to literally everything in life from yoga to parenting. I am qualified to teach yoga for example, but I remain a humble student, practising under my own teachers when I can. I work as a brand expert and yet I am continually learning from clients, colleagues and others around me. I can teach others how to meditate and practise mindfulness and yet I aim to remain in my own practice as if I am sitting for the first time. I have worked hard to be a good mum and yet I am constantly faced with new parenting challenges, even though now one of my children is actually an adult and the other is almost there.

Everything and I mean everything is in a constant state of flux and so even when you do feel you know or understand something, it changes. Seeing things with fresh eyes as if for the first time then often enables you to gain a completely new understanding or perspective.

There is a spiritual teacher who I hold in extremely high regard. He has a wonderful sense of humour and adds a lovely chuckle to his speaking when amused. However, after listening to him on a recent retreat he talked to the audience a lot about how those who are ‘unconscious’ go about their lives. The way they perceive this and that, behave and think about themselves and others, fixate on problems and spend their lives stuck in patterns of dysfunctional behaviour. Although I could totally see the point he was making and the examples to which he referred, the fact that he was joking about it in a mocking way and the audience laughing in response, made it seem rather derogatory. It felt very much a ‘them’ and ‘us’ – a ridiculing for the masses of ‘unawakened beings’.

I am aware of course this is my perception and perhaps hitting a trigger within me to bring up those feelings. Nevertheless, it was present while I listened and I was struck by a sudden feeling of sadness for those who aren’t fully ‘aware’ or ‘conscious’. Not so much, ‘poor them’, but just in that, it is what it is. You can only know what you know, right?

I recently experienced what I have since learnt to be ‘innocent perception’, the fourth and final stage of mindfulness, which in of itself is incredibly difficult to articulate because it is completely experiential. For several days afterwards I was struck with a surreal perception that was something akin to the movie, Matrix, where you are wandering around and everyone else is completely unaware of what is going on. After a short time I accepted what had happened and slowly resumed some level of normalcy in my day to day life, without feeling completely separated from myself and everyone else around me. However, it left me with a huge sense of empathy and compassion for other people. People can only be who they are and act and behave upon their own experiences, thoughts and feelings. Until something triggers in your own life to where you embark on a different path, you continue as you are, simply because you don’t know any different.

The point of my post today, and there is a point – just getting there – is that no matter where you are on your own journey of self development and spiritual fulfilment, keep it real….don’t ridicule or judge others. This is not to say that you do, but enlightenment is not entitlement. Be present but know from where you came and the journey that bought you here. Obviously keep yourself out of harm’s way, but accept that people can only be who they are and act accordingly….

I was once completely unconscious, oblivious of my thoughts and actions and the effect they were having on myself, my family and the world at large…it isn’t good or bad, it simply is, it was the way it was for most of my life. Just because I am now ‘awakened’ does not mean I am any better than anyone else and my recent experience of listening to the spiritual teacher talking about those who are ‘unawakened’ brought up within me a much stronger sense of compassion for others who are not spiritually awakened. It has grounded me and I continue to aim to practice kindness above all else and remain a humble student…

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash I love this photograph – I see kindness and humility.

The Butterfly Effect

You may have heard of this before; in chaos theory where one small change causes much more dramatic changes further down the line. In simple terms, where an action causes ripple effects that go on and on. There is a brilliant little book, of the same name, I read that introduced the theory, by Andy Andrews. He gives some brilliant and utterly surprising examples of the butterfly effect in action. If something so tiny hadn’t happened, something so huge would not have occurred. The tiny flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a typhoon on the other side of the world.

You could then look at this in many ways. If you were able to choose to go back and eradicate seemingly negative events or experiences from your life, would you? Most people could probably think of a few things they wish they hadn’t experienced and could erase from their lives. However, in doing that there are so many other things that wouldn’t be in your life right now had it not been for those experiences, let alone the infinite number of things that your’ event or experience caused for others. So you can see that these experiences we have in our lives not only affect what happens further down the line for us, but for others, our environment and who knows humanity and the world at large too. The book explains some of those gargantuan types of examples.

These days, when I am going through something that would from the outside be perceived as negative, I try to see it differently. It is just so – not good or bad, just simply as it is. That isn’t to say I don’t suffer through it – all humans suffer, that’s part of what makes us human. However, looking at experiences through a different lens, one where I am accepting of what is, means that I am not interfering with what is meant to be – the butterfly effect. It also makes you see that we are as we were originally born to be, part of a bigger whole that works in complete harmony, perfectly well without our interference. Often times our suffering comes from trying to change what is, from going against the grain or seeking to control what is out of our control.

This way of living, where you accept and let go, surrender to each moment and experience what is happening isn’t giving up. In fact it is more about actually being present in your life as it unfolds, to witness and experience each day fully, rather than being in a constant state of worrying or feeling anxious about what is happening and what you can (or can’t) do about it. When you live that way you spend your time either ruminating over the past or being fearful of what is coming. You miss the present moment entirely and that’s where you life is. That’s where your life matters, right now, in the moment, this moment, creating those tiny ripples or the small flapping of wings that spread far and wide….trust that and be present.

“By your hand, millions – billions of lives will be altered, caught up in a chain of events begun by you on this day.”

– Andy Andrews from the Butterfly Effect

[Image – years ago, when I first began writing, I wrote a series of stories called Rainbow of Love and this image was used for the story around the colour blue; Blue Butterflies…]