Cultivating the Longer View by Focusing on the Present Moment

by | Jun 9, 2017 | Archive

Here’s my confession: On my way to the five-day silent meditation retreat for animal activists, hosted by the Pollination Project, I had a momentary thought: “I never take this much time off of work. Maybe I should have gone to one of those spas where you sit in hot springs all day and they give you massages and pedicures—or just stayed at home and slept.”

Like most animal activists (those who work in the movement and those who volunteer their off-hours advocating for animals), I work long days, in the evenings, and over the weekends. I love my job and feel privileged to do the work that I do, so I don’t generally feel any desire to get away. Taking this much time off was a first for me, and although I was excited to see friends (even though I couldn’t talk to them, this being a silent retreat), I also wondered if I shouldn’t be doing something more entertaining or more familiar.

There were fears too. I’d never been able to meditate successfully before; my mind was always racing in a million directions. Meditation seemed like an ethereal aspiration, something for a fifth level yogi who had renounced the world and was living in a Himalayan cave. It couldn’t possibly be for someone preoccupied with all of the injustices in the world. Would I be left sitting on my meditation cushion, frustrated, while everyone else entered a state of transcendental nirvana?

And there were expectations. About a week before I departed for the meditation retreat, I came across a video on my Facebook feed in which celebrities praised the benefits of meditation: I would have better concentration, more energy, more gratitude, more centeredness, and more creativity. “Sign me up,” I thought, but what if it didn’t deliver?

All of these worries evaporated on the very first day of the retreat when Tashi Nyima, a Buddhist monk who co-led discussions with Nirali Shah, a mindfulness teacher, explained that a state of peace and comfort is our natural mental state. Using the analogy of a snow globe, Tashi pointed out that in order to clearly see the image inside the globe, it’s not necessary to pluck out every snowflake from the globe; we can just set the globe down, allowing the flakes to settle. Similarly, if we just rest our minds (doesn’t that sound delicious?) and sit in calm, the thoughts, distractions, and beehive of activity that prevent us from seeing clearly also settle down; and we can achieve meditative clarity. It was that simple. And with that, like an empty vessel, I was ready to receive the luminous teachings.

I filled up the pages of my notebook with insights on our relationship with our emotions; on how to use meditation to cultivate the four Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy (rejoicing in the virtue and victories of others), and equanimity; avoiding the two wrong views of separation and supremacy; and on the suggestion, stated eloquently by Ari Nessel, the Pollination Project’s Founder, that “we needn’t see people as they are, but rather as they could be.” In the Buddhist tradition of numbering everything, here are my two favorite lessons from the retreat, with added corollaries for my activist friends.

Lesson #1—Avoiding the Second Arrow:
Nirali related the Buddha’s story of the second arrow. In life, and particularly as activists who hunger for justice, we (routinely) encounter situations that lead to pain or dissatisfaction. This is the first arrow—an assault inflicted on us by the world. The second arrow is the assault that we inflict ourselves by thinking about, getting upset over, and revisiting that assault—compounding our suffering. It’s as if our response to being shot by an arrow is to shoot ourselves with another arrow. We can avoid the second arrow by simply experiencing discomfort without reacting to it. The key according to the Buddha (and Nirali) is being mindful and cultivating an attitude of equanimity. Nirali clarified that equanimity isn’t a state of non-feeling or apathy; it’s a state of freedom from habitual patterns of thought and emotion that lead to further pain. She said that when we experience this freedom, we become happier.

I’ll be honest: Through my life, I’ve rolled my eyes at the idea of being happy. With so much suffering on this earth that is, itself, in the throes of the sixth great extinction, shouldn’t we be more concerned about leading lives that are meaningful and that contribute to the greater good than leading lives that are happy? It turns out that the latter can contribute positively to the former. Who knew?!?
By refusing to be shot by the second arrow (which we can achieve through a regular meditation practice), we shut off the incessant chatter of the conscious mind—saving the energy that’s expended paying attention to that chatter and opening up the opportunity to become mindful. The clarity that we achieve allows us to distinguish things that are real from things that are merely stories or fictions that we tell ourselves. This sharpening of our focus on the mission—to keep our eyes keenly trained on the prize—allows us to be better peaceful warriors in the cause.

As Matthieu Ricard, aka, the happiest man in the world, writes in his book, “Happiness”: “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken. It doesn’t mean giving up what is truly beneficial, but finding out what really matters and what brings lasting fulfillment joy, serenity, and above all, the irreplaceable boon of altruistic love.” (Side note: I’ve since learned that Ricard has written a book called, “A Plea for the Animals.” It’s next on my reading list!)

Lesson #2—Rewiring our brains to cultivate gratitude:
Tashi increased our vocabulary at the meditation retreat, introducing us to the Tibetan word, “Eh Ma Ho,” which is an exclamation of delight, wonder, and amazement that means, “How wonderful!” Tashi explained that along with loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity, rejoicing in the virtue of others is one of the four Buddhist virtues. He counseled that our pride, envy, and jealousy can get in the way of rejoicing others’ victories; but since life isn’t a zero-sum game, we should recognize that others’ victories are our victories (“Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself,” as a wise person once said, “It’s thinking of yourself less.”). By focusing on positive outcomes in our movement at large, we move away from dwelling on scarcity, and our ability to act is energized. And by making a practice of cultivating gratitude—keeping a journal where we, each day, commit three specific reasons to rejoice—we can rewire our brains. Eh ma ho!

Since returning home from the retreat, I’ve been devoting at least ten minutes each day to morning meditation and I’m now initiating an evening meditation practice as well. I notice my mind wandering, but I rejoice in the victory of bringing my mind back to my breath. The sense of peace and tranquility is heavenly. Those ten minutes are more relaxing than any hot spring and more decadent than the most luxurious spa. More importantly, the sense of calm and equanimity that I feel through the day is priceless. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still be putting in long hours at work reading about the suffering of animals, sitting at my desk watching horrible video footage, and witnessing a world too distracted by the latest shiny object to care about what is happening to animals. But I’ll do those things with a bit more detachment, cultivating a longer view by focusing on the present moment.

Written by Carolyn Ashworth