Things I have learned from mindfulness
Number 1: Impermanence
“We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.”
This comment from mathematician Norbert Wiener is a beautiful expression of both our predicament and our possibility for living fully as human beings. The predicament is that we get caught in eddies of our habit patterns. These are the whirlpools we get sucked into – our tendencies, ways of thinking, behaving and reacting, We act out patterns that seem so similar year-by-year that we think it’s the whole of who we are! I’m the person who gets angry or the one who isolates, or who isn’t intelligent enough - fill in your own blanks here. The stories that we tell ourselves, based on our habit patterns, are like the sucking of the water into a whirlpool.
However, if we open up to the bigger picture, a whirlpool is just a very small part of a river and the water that’s going into the whirlpool also comes out - it just seems like it’s stuck, going round and round. So it may look like we’re all in our isolated eddies in different parts of the river. But when we open up our view to the whole river, we notice the whirlpool is part of a bigger flow, and that there’s an exchange or water, an exchange of energy continually happening– it’s just that we usually see it in such a small way.
So when we see that the whirlpools are but patterns within the wider experiences of being, great possibility arises because then we can work with the exchange of energy, the exchange of water. We can open to the reality that things are continually changing and that the water is continually being exchanged. This is true even of our bodies - did you know that you get a new stomach lining every 5 weeks? And that the epidermis completely changes every 9 months? You get a new skin with completely different cells and all the old ones are gone. We get a new liver each year! So we are continually changing as physical beings. And mentally if we look back 10, 20, or 30 years, the things that we believe, the ways that we might act, the skills that we have are constantly evolving. Life is much more flexible than we expect. What does this mean? It means that we can relax a lot more!
We can let go of the attempts to control the whirlpool. If you try to resist a whirlpool you get sucked under or if you put your hand up as a barrier to the whirlpool if creates a blockage, a bigger wave to knock you over. So we can relax – saying “Aaah – here is this particular whirlpool, that’s me right now.” And from that place, we might be able to swim a little, to go with the flow in a way that allows things to loosen up, that allows us to recognise that we are part of the wider river and flow with it, until we get caught up in the next whirlpool, which is ok because we can work with that one too, trusting that these patterns are changing moment to moment, month to month, year by year.
So by understanding the predicament, by training ourselves with mindfulness to notice and let go into the bigger picture of the changing experience that we are, we are not so stuck and there’s much less pressure. Our meditation practice in a nutshell is recognising what’s happening, and opening to the whole of reality, the whirlpools and the flow of the water – to see it all and go with the flow, whirlpools and all. We can practise investigating this in our own lives. Being not just ‘little me caught in my stuff’ – my whirlpool - but seeing this a part of the wider river flow, life becomes an interconnected playing together. From this perspective, we might feel more connected with others, our dramas might not be such big dramas, and we might be able to manage the flow of life more easily.
This is an edited talk given at the Mindful Morning practice session for 8-week mindfulness course graduates at Mindfulness Sussex on 7th September 2022. For details of all events, please see mindfulnesssussex.co.uk