“When we ask what makes a happy and meaningful life, one problem that can arise is the tendency to respond with an answer that doesn’t really come from the heart. At such times the conscious mind has one answer and the unconscious has another, so we become conflicted.”
Lorne Ladner, Ph.D., The Lost Art of Compassion
Ladner brings up, in a particularly clear and articulate way, a central problem in living a life centered on the principles of mindfulness and compassion, which is that we are unintegrated beings who often have not yet become aware even of our own lack of awareness.
Being unintegrated means that we are not whole beings, but rather are composed of many competing drives, motivations, beliefs, and habits. Sometimes the competition is overt and obvious, as when we find ourselves, spoon in hand, blowing a diet by digging in to a tub of ice cream, or when we find ourselves strangely reluctant to meditate on retreat. At these times the mind is like a rowdy parliamentary democracy, with insults being hurled across the political aisle separating the opposing sides. The ice cream tastes delicious but it’s strangely unsatisfying because of the howl from the opposition, deriding us for our lack of willpower. The “free time” we want to enjoy by not meditating doesn’t feel free because of the whispers telling us that we’re letting ourselves down.
Sometimes an opposing force in the mind appears, dreamlike, as an enemy with whom we argue. We imagine ourselves locked in arguments with some disapproving figure — perhaps a spouse, parent, or colleague — and have a full-fledged debate within the theater of the mind. These confrontations can be heated and even violent, with one part of the mind trying to force its will upon another. (When I find myself becoming locked up in one of these internal arguments I like to ask myself, “Who, exactly, are you disagreeing with?”)
At other times the competition can be more entrenched, to the point that it is no longer directly in consciousness. Yes, we tell ourselves, family is the most important thing in my life. And yet we find that we’re so busy running around that we don’t have the time to really enjoy being with our loved ones. We don’t even notice the discrepancy because head and heart have become so separated from one another.
Of course, we tell ourselves, I want my children to be nonmaterialistic. And yet we bombard them with material possessions and never teach them how to be content with what they have. And perhaps we ourselves are caught up in an endless round of material acquisition, never noticing the ways in which this conflicts with our declared value of living out our spiritual values.
Elsewhere, Doctor Ladner suggests that an easy way to tell if we have this kind of unacknowledged inner conflict is to observe whether the actions we perform in our daily lives actually jibe with our beliefs. For example, “if you say that helping others is important but you can’t think easily of recent examples of your doing so, then there’s probably a significant gap between the beliefs you hold consciously and the unconscious ones that are running your life.”
I think this is true, and that the basic form of mindfulness he’s suggesting we practice (being mindful of our actions and whether they are in accord with our values) is an effective way to start the process of becoming more integrated. We need, in living a spiritual life — a life founded on awareness and compassion — to become more consciously aware of our values, to bear them in mind at all times, and to use our awareness of those values when making moment-by-moment decisions about how to spend our time and energy. Our values become like a compass that we consult at almost every step of a journey. We stay in touch with the heart’s deeper longings for completeness and compassionate connection with others and, the compass of our values in hand, we find ourselves becoming more able to make conscious and more meaningful decisions.
Conflicts still arise, of course, but instead of simply choosing sides we realize that the competing voices in our heads are all us, are all ourselves, and that they need to be accepted with mindfulness and compassion. When craving for ice cream arises, threatening to upset our resolution to lose a couple of pounds this week, we neither argue with the desire nor acquiesce to it, but instead patiently observe the craving. How interesting it is to notice the precise shape and texture of a craving, to note where it’s located in the body, to see how it gives rise to thoughts (“Go on! Just a small bowl. It won’t do any harm!”), and to notice also how, thus observed, a craving loses its power. Perhaps we find that what we really wanted from the freezer compartment was a sense of pleasure and of being cared for, and perhaps we find that the simple act of observing our experience with mindfulness, care, and compassion has given us what we were really looking for in the first place (and which Ben and Jerry, no matter how worthy they are, cannot really offer).
With mindfulness and compassion we find that the competition within becomes lessened. We’re more in harmony with ourselves and the various parts of the mind — the drives, the beliefs, the habits — are more integrated. And when we look at our actions and what we profess to believe, we find that they are more in accord with each other. We’ve moved from developing integration to living with integrity.
Bodhipaksa is the founder of Wildmind. From time to time he links to have a good rant on his blog, Bodhi Tree Swaying.