Have you ever noticed that you see more and more of the things your mind dwells on? When we were planning a house move, I saw ‘For Sale’ signs everywhere we went, but as soon as we were no longer looking, I just stopped even noticing them.
My son and I often play a game when we are travelling in the car, where we count cars of certain colours. We started off counting cars in colours that were easy to spot, maybe silver, blue or black. But then he started suggesting more unusual colours, which we thought we would be lucky to see. On one occasion, within half a mile of our home, he suddenly said he would look for turquoise cars and that I would spot pink! Well, I didn’t see the pink car that day, but he did see turquoise around the very next corner! For the next few days, he would say that he would spot turquoise – and it was amazing just how many turquoise cars there were! I started noticing them even when I was driving on my own – and one day I was able to tell him that I had seen five turquoise cars, just on one roundabout! We moved on to lime green (dark green was too easy!) – not quite the same results, but still more than I would ever have expected.
So the things we are concerned with, the things our mind dwells on, are what we tend to notice in our lives. So if our expectations of life are more and more stress, bad luck and unhappiness, that is what we tend to encounter. We will notice the bad things, and the happy events will fail to cheer us up as much as they could. On the other hand, if we anticipate that our lives will be generally happy, then that will be our experience. We will notice the good, and weather the bad times more easily. We cultivate a more optimistic state of mind. We see the best of our situation, and magnify it by the power of our attention. I would rather magnify the good than the bad.
But we all have genuinely horrible days, dreadful days where it all goes wrong. At such times, it can be truly too difficult to see anything good in our lives. It can seem as if we will never smile again.
At these times, the best we can do – and this can be hard in itself – is to avoid magnifying the bad and making it even worse. Just trying to stay with the bad feelings, without spinning off in all directions, thinking we know how it is all going to work out. We don’t. One of the hardest – and bravest – things we will ever have to do is to stay with our negative emotions without trying to smother them. However bad it seems, just knowing that it will get easier, without us trying to find a way out. Making sure we don’t block out the sunshine with our own personal raincloud. Remembering we don’t know it all. Remembering that we probably have felt this way before, even if we don’t think it was this bad. It most likely was, and we most likely will get over it this time, in just the same way.
And in the worst of times, remembering the best of times. Not blocking out what happiness is still there for us. Just keeping that awareness in the corner of our minds, and, if we can, maintaining those practices which make us feel good. Not to run away from the difficult feelings, but to learn from them. Pema Chodron writes movingly in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’, about how our emotions soften us and help us develop spiritually. We learn to stop building up our armour against the slings and arrows of life, but to let them open us up to life in its entirety. If we only take notice of the ‘good’, then we will never see that which we label as ‘bad’ as anything other than an interruption in the charmed life we believe is our right. Not much growth going on there. But if we can learn from the whole pattern of our lives, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, then we will surely continue to grow, day by day.