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Covering the Soles of Our Feet
Why carpet the world when you can put on shoes?
Once upon a time, long ago, people walked about barefoot. One day, the queen, walking across a rock field, cut her foot on a sharp stone. Annoyed, she called together her ministers and ordered the Queendom carpeted with leather. One wise minister stepped forward and suggested an easier way. “Rather than covering the entire realm, let's cover the soles of everyone’s feet.” The queen agreed and that was the origin of shoes.
Protecting our feet by covering a kingdom with leather doesn’t make much sense. But often, what we do in our daily lives is an attempt to cover our world instead of learning to protect ourselves from the world.
Pain is Inevitable. Sorrow is Optional.
Each of us experiences pain in our daily lives as sure as the sun shines. Someone breaks up with us, we lose our job in a corporate layoff, and a “safe” investment becomes a losing proposition. We read stories daily of greed, corruption, rape, murder, and war. Sometimes we create our sorrows. We eat foods that don’t support good health, gossip about others, and procrastinate on vital personal projects.
Pain by itself is not a problem. Pain is just pain. Headaches go away, broken bones heal, and distressing emotions come and go. The problem arises when we resist life and attempt to cover our pain.
Suppose my partner breaks up with me, and I yell at her and tell her what a terrible person she is. In that case, I’m now compounding my original hurt and creating suffering—for her and me. My anger may be justified, and verbally attacking her may temporarily relieve my pain. Still, it won’t resolve the situation and can only create more sorrow.
If I eat a bag of cookies, I may feel guilty. I may criticize myself for not honoring my agreement to eat sweets only on the weekend, thus compounding the original regret. “I can’t believe I ate an entire bag of cookies. Who does that? Only worthless and disgusting people do, that’s who.”
If I show up fifteen minutes late for a coffee date, I might blame it on having to shovel snow off of my car. I knew I needed to allow extra time for shoveling, but now I’ve compounded my friend’s initial disappointment by making an excuse. I didn’t honor my agreement with my friend, and now I’m not taking responsibility for my actions.
Protecting Us From the World and Ourselves
A better way than attempting to smooth over our pain with anger, self-hatred, and making excuses, is learning to understand the point at which we make contact with the world.
One of the most fundamental ways to do this is through practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is knowing what is happening while it is happening. It is training the mind to see life as it is rather than through the often distorted lens of perceptions and ideas about what we believe to be true and not true. In essence, mindfulness trains the mind not to get lost in thinking, opinions, and reactivity.
In the same way that shoes protect us from sharp rocks, mindfulness protects us from the outside world. But unlike shoes, mindfulness also protects us from internal negativity and self-delusion. We are protected externally and internally because we can see what is happening more clearly. This allows us to respond to life with discernment and strengthens our ability to act beneficially rather than react harmfully.
Mindfulness training is finding the point of contact with life: what is directly tasted, seen, felt, heard, smelt, and cognized in the present. It is a search for the issue at hand. Often this is how we are relating to our direct experience.
If someone honks at me and I give them the finger, the other driver is not the issue but what is objectively happening internally. Sound waves enter my ear, which gets translated into honking. Emotions like fear and confusion arise, followed by wondering if I did something wrong. If I determine that I didn’t do anything wrong, then I may get angry and flip the other driver off. Lastly, upon realizing how I reacted, I may feel embarrassed by my behavior or fearful of retaliation.
If I regularly complain about where I live, the issue is not the city or the other people but perhaps the loneliness and individual isolation I feel living in a big city. If I frequently argue with my partner, the issue might be the direct, repeated experience of not feeling seen, heard, and understood, which won’t be discovered through blame. Instead, the matter can be revealed by learning what we feel. That isn’t to say that we can’t discuss issues, but rather that we don’t lose immediate contact with ourselves or each other.
The issue at hand is seeking what is most tangible here and now. If we drive late to an important meeting, we may feel tension in our body, contraction in our mind, shallow breathing, and anxiety.
When anxiety is most prominent, mindfulness deliberately attends to what it feels like to be anxious. Where is anxiety felt in the body? Is it experienced as a particular shape? Or perhaps a color? Is it vibrating, or does it feel solid? If we can see the qualities of anxiety more clearly, it can help us to release our grasping.
Awareness developed through mindfulness does not judge, oppose, or hold onto anything. With awareness, we learn to surrender our habitual reactions and begin to develop a wiser and friendlier relationship with life, others, and ourselves. But awareness is not the same as being self-conscious, whereby we judge our experience against our beliefs and self-perception.
If we meet someone for the first time and forget their name, a self-conscious reaction might be, “I can’t believe I already forgot their name. I always forget names. I’m terrible with names.” Practicing mindfulness develops an awareness that notices shame’s presence without condemning it—we note, “Shame is present.”
Final Thoughts on Staying Safe
So what do you think? Does protecting your inner world by controlling the outer world or cultivating internal awareness make more sense? How might you be attempting to cover over your world and your pain in your daily life? And what would it mean if you were to put on shoes instead?
In our immediate contact with ourselves and the world, experiencing life without grasping is possible. We can relax our grip on life, release our judgments, and learn to surrender to what is. With practice, perhaps we can learn to relate to our experiences, others, and ourselves with the same care and intimacy that a mother feels for her child.
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