Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9% of everything you do is for yourself.
And there isn’t one.
– Wei Wu Wei
I was recently introducing a group of Girl Guides to the basics of Mindfulness practice. We sat quietly tracking the breath as it flowed through our nostrils and then whenever we found ourselves distracted, shifted our focus back into the silky flow of breath.
After several minutes we stopped and I asked them about their experiences. Some felt physically still and relaxed, others noticed that their thoughts had calmed down or even subsided.
I then asked what had happened to all of the thoughts they had noticed, and a young girl in the front row shot her hand up into the air.
“They……dissipated.” She replied.
She’d had a direct insight into the nature of her mind and discovered that by shifting her attention away from her thoughts and into breath, they fell away by themselves.
I’ve had similar reports with teenagers who practice mindfulness to manage the stress and anxiety they feel prior to their exams.
“My mind was completely still” reported one fifteen year old boy, “There were no thoughts at all. I didn’t know my mind could do that!”
Both of these young people were developing something which our culture is in dire need of: Positive Mental Health.
We hear so much about mental health and its importance, but the term is often vague at best. If we want to improve our physical health then we know what to do, we can run, walk, stretch, dance or review our diet, but what do we do to develop our mental health?
Where is the gym for the mind?
I spend much of my time speaking and writing about mental health, not because I am a Doctor or health professional, but because I have spent nearly half my life training my mind through meditation and self-inquiry.
For me, our mental health is simply our relationship to our thoughts. That’s it. And just check right now how that relationship is? Are you able to put the mind down when it’s not required? Can you choose to detach from unwanted thoughts or dramas? Are you able to focus-in on what’s useful and life-affirming, rather than becoming snagged on what’s dysfunctional and habitual?
Why? Because our culture lacks the kind of mental training which cultivates and develops these capacities. We have lost these basic wellbeing skills and spend our lives drifting through a perpetual sleep-walking state fuelled by sugar, screen-time and entertainment.
This may sound like the very apex of civilisation until we see that the flip-side of this is a life characterised by distraction, isolation and destructive behaviour. When an entire culture lives in this way their impact upon the planet can only be detrimental.
When we fail to develop an awareness of this mind with its ever-changing thoughts, states, moods, dramas and reactions, we cannot see it, and if we cannot see it then we are condemned to be swept away by it.
Our lack of mindfulness renders us mentally and emotionally illiterate, victim to the minds every craving, impulse and desire.
But of course, this can change because we have the power to change it. The more we purposefully develop positive mental states and traits, the more skilfully we can navigate the shifting rise and fall of thoughts, emotions, sensations and circumstances without being swept off course, or wrecked on the rocks of helplessness.
This is what these young people above were cultivating, and should they continue their practice, their mindfulness will gradually transform and enhance every moment of their lives.
But there is an elephant in the room here. Much of the mindfulness and mental health advice available at present is valuable and effective, but there is still something vital which we need to address, because without it our understanding of mental health will always be limited.
Our culture is still operating from the paradigm of a fixed solid self living in fixed, solid world.
This is a fundamental problem simply because neither of these things exist, or have ever existed.
From the oldest spiritual texts to neuroscience and quantum theory, a completely different paradigm is being communicated; there is no solid self inside you which needs to be fixed, healed or enlightened.
Just as we have discovered that the earth is neither flat, nor is it the fixed centre of God’s perfect creation, we have realised that there is no real permanent self at the helm of our experience.
The idea that we are a fixed self in control of our lives is a well entrenched urban myth. Much like the bogey-man under the bed, we all assume he’s there, but have yet to find him.
This lack of a substantial findable self is not just idle cafe-talk but an enlightening experiential discovery. We can actively investigate our felt experience of self and watch it dissipate before our eyes. Thoughts, feelings and sensations we have assumed to be concrete and ever-lasting, can be observed to arise and fade like weather drifting through the sky.
What we discover through mindfulness is not a solid block of concrete self, but a continuous shifting flow of no-self.
It’s this momentous discovery which has the most lasting impact upon our mental and emotional wellbeing. And if we do not investigate this core trouble-maker called self, then all of the meditation, self-help and mental health advice in the world, will not bring us closer to authentic happiness and fulfilment.
The paradigm of being a self is the experience of suffering.
As long as we feel separate from everything else then we will always long to merge with everything else, as long as we feel that we lack love and fulfilment then we will seek those qualities in others, and as long as we consider ourselves as permanent, we will fear impermanence and death.
In fact, selfing and suffering are two sides of the same coin.
The good news is that mindfulness is not just a system for training the very best of ourselves, but for dissolving this phantom self with all of its endless needs and wants.
And if the phantom self can be deconstructed (which it can) then how real was it to begin with? What were we actually investing all of our time and energy in if this “me” we constantly pander to is in some real sense, make-believe?
But if there is no real self reading these words, then what is there? Because there is something here, the something I refer to as “me.”
What exists right now is the effortless flow of no-self: the impersonal arising of thoughts, sensations, emotions and moments, continuously popping in and out of existence.
The universe flowing as you.
And just as the word “Universe” cannot even begin to convey the sheer mind-blowing mystery of what that label refers to, the term “Me” does not in any way penetrate the depth and richness of this marvellously lucid flow.
My suggestion (and personal experience) is that true and lasting mental health does not come from the position of being a real self, endlessly attempting to control our lives, because this can only fail at some point.
Authentic mental health and emotional wellbeing comes with the letting go or transcending of that limiting paradigm, and discovering that we are much more than we have been told.
We can know ourselves as the dynamic, effervescent and ungraspable movement of life itself, allowing all thoughts, emotions and sensations to flow through, dissipating, dissipating, dissipating, without biting into them as “Me.”
This is the wisdom paradigm. The discovery that the universe does not create fixed entities, but flows on, even now expressing as each new moment of you.
Operating from this revolutionary perspective we can continue to evolve the mind, out-grow our fixed ideas (cultural and personal) and transcend our stuckness.
When the prison walls fall down, what’s left is freedom.