Thursday, 27 December 2007

Christmas cheer

Every Wednesday I participate in a meditation group. We always start with a guided meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. We read pairs of sentences at intervals of five minutes or so, and reflect on them using our breathing to access the deeper meaning of the words.

Last Wednesday was Boxing Day and it so happened that some of the sentences very much resonated with me. In particular, these:
Experiencing the pain of fear in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the pain of fear in me, I breath out.

Experiencing the feeling of insecurity in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the feeling of insecurity in me, I breath out.

Experiencing the feeling of sadness in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the feeling of insecurity in me, I breath out.

Experiencing the feeling of joy in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the feeling of joy in me, I breath out.

The idea of these reflections (it seems to me) is to look deeply and truly at our selves and our experience, and to come to terms with every aspect of our current state. This process is a truthful process, for we see ourselves as we are. It is also a liberating process because, by smiling, we are freeing ourselves from the domination that our pain and other feelings can have over us. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his explanation of this exercise: “We must learn to recognize, acknowledge, and welcome each [feeling], and after that to look into its emotion… Mindfulness allows us to be calm throughout the appearance and disappearance of feelings.”

This could not be more out of sync with the usual Western experience of the Christmas period. Throughout this period we are bombarded with images of Christmas cheer: of people eating and drinking and making merry together; of families gathering together in warm homes and opening presents; of herald angels singing, merry gentlemen (let nothing them dismay!) and joy to the world.

And yet we all know that these images correspond very poorly to the average experience. For many people Christmas is a time of loneliness, of family arguments, of drunken foolishness and regrets. In short, Christmas is like every other time of year – inducing a mixture of every human feeling. And yet so strong are the media images that, despite knowing better, we too often fall for the propaganda and feel obliged to put on a happy face.

The result is that we flee in terror from feelings of fear, insecurity, sadness and anger, while we grasp desperately at any hint of joy, almost fearing its departure before it has properly arrived. Our family times can seem a pastiche of jolly scenarios, between which we lurch in desperate fear that the whole shebang might soon be exposed as a sham.

Oh to be free of the obligation to be happy – how much happier we would be! But Christmas is just the worst of it. Media propaganda is routinely couched in terms of happiness: We need to be cool, to be young, to be in a big happy beautiful gang, to go to parties and stay up late, to have a beautiful (wo)man on our arm.

You might be thinking, “oh but tell me something I don’t know.” And too true, the vacuity of media images is apparent to anybody who takes the time to stop and think about them. But even if we do this (and many don’t), we are not necessarily free of their power. I had a salutory lesson in this some years ago when I left the city of Perth and went to live in an aboriginal community in the desert in Australia. My lesson was in the question of beauty - when I first arrived out bush, it did not even occur to me that there was physical beauty to be found in the people around me. So deeply was the notion of what is beautiful implanted into me that I could not see what was before me. After six months of living free of a media obsessed with skinny, hairless teenagers in bikinis, the scales had started to fall from my eyes – and life became a whole lot more spicy.

Our (often inadvertent) consumption of images of the mass media prevents us from seeing the world around us clearly. We don’t just run in fear from our own emotions, we also cling to notions which are destroying us – and, in the process, we miss out on true joy and true beauty. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we meditate in this way:
Experiencing the feeling of attachment in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of attachment in me, I breath out.

In a world saturated with misleading images, it is vital that we meditate regularly in this way. For, if we do not, we will inevitably find ourselves attached to a myriad of notions that stunt our growth and that severely limit the depth and meaning of our experience. We need to look deeply into ourselves to see where these notions are rooted and, as we smile at them, to watch them weaken.

1 comment:

Gill said...

I like it. But you mention your experiences "out bush" and they seem a more powerful lesson than that gained from meditation. I'm all for meditation but perhaps there are other ways to learn about oneself?