You may think mindful reflection’s something different from everyday states of mind. Apart from being focused and deliberate, however, it’s really not. Awareness is awareness. For similar reasons, you might feel that to practice a true spiritual path you need to retreat from everyday life; even better, go to Asia.
All this avoids the obvious and rather unglamorous fact that your spiritual path begins wherever your feet happen to be — in everyday life. Mindful reflection faces each day head-on. It’s not just a relaxing escape; it’s an eye-opener.
Here’s an example: Although shopping usually irritates me, I experienced my most recent spiritual breakthrough at Wal-Mart. Yes, really.
An ex-Buddhist monk in Wal-Mart: shopping illusions
I was in search of socks. The prices there are great, and there really is good stuff for less if you know what you’re buying. Hey, I need stuff as much as anybody; I’m not a Buddhist monk any more. So, by the time I realized they didn’t have the socks I wanted, I’d already picked up a dozen gifts and other things — all bargains, of course.
These stores are manipulative; brilliantly designed. So even after I left I still didn’t feel tricked. Of course, everything has a price — even saving money. Today being a Saturday morning, the price was a long wait in the checkout line.
The walls around were hung with advertizing — pictures of people made gloriously happy by the merchandise in their arms. Lights illuminated one shelf after another to strategically guide my eye according to Wal-Mart’s game plan. There were no windows with natural vistas to distract from the shopping experience, and yet it all seemed perfectly natural.
That’s when my perceptions were transported in a materialistic epiphany. Instead of feeling stuck in an evil commercial space, I felt that everything was just as it should be. Each item, every color and shape, light and shadow, all the employees and customers seemed in perfect harmony with the natural laws of acquisition.
The marketers who designed this conveyer belt of spending were as helpless as I; they too followed the universal rules of appeal, desire to own and willingness to part with money; they too were cogs in the grip of the deterministic gods of shopping. The people and shelves, colors and signs, the chinking of coins and bustling of packers seemed like just so many billiard balls in a complex game of cause and effect.
At the same time, this is the world where we live, operate and — most importantly of all — get all frustrated and judgmental. It seems so inimical to mindful reflection, but it’s actually the reason we need it.
When I began my practice of mindful reflection I got frustrated. Everyone does. Trying to follow every thought, sensation and feeling — it’s as if you’re the enemy. I was afraid I’d never get it. But in those moments of true curiosity when you’re fully focused, it just clicks. Then the hopeless feeling doesn’t weigh you down in quite the same way; you can let go of expectations.
Spiritual awakening: it’s not a trip
Spiritual awakening isn’t a light show; it’s more like the clear sky of morning: No illusions, no confusion, no stress. It even has the bittersweet taste of disappointment; after all, you’re shedding your illusions.
Perhaps we expect spectacular experiences and quick results because we’re such well-trained consumers. That training doesn’t have to be an obstacle. With a bit of imagination you can co-opt it into your spiritual path — there really is no other way. Mindful reflection has nothing to do with fancy mental techniques; it’s just about seeing straight.
Our schooling, fear of failure and clinging to security all encourage us to be goal-oriented. Even today’s ‘spiritual’ technique of positive thinking encourages you to focus on what you want rather than what you’ve got. Really, that’s no way to get to the meaning of life.
Your true spiritual path is quite different. Not squandering the present moment, accepting all of life, is the real key to mindful reflection. That’s how you manage stress, irritation and all those other self-inflicted negativities.
Then you’ll truly be able to enjoy the love of friends and family, the pleasure of sitting in front of a roaring fire and sharing a meal. It’s a whole different approach to happiness.
Think about that when you’re stuck in the crowds, when you’re about to stretch your credit cards too far, when you’re guilt-ridden about spending as much on Uncle Jack as he spent on you last year. Step back and look again. Take time to reflect.
Before Christianity, this time of year was just the mid-Winter solstice— nature’s time to huddle and get introspective. Soon the days start stretching out again and we’ll be able to face the new year with greater balance.
Give yourself the gift of mindful reflection
Mindful reflection isn’t a formula or a road map to awakening and the spiritual life; it’s certainly not about being somewhere more ‘spiritual’ than right where you are. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with what you believe.
It’s just a phrase to remind you: Wherever you are, as long as your attention is on, just look at what’s right in front of you. A bit of attention, an attitude of curiosity, a sprinkle of imagination, and you open the door to awe. The rest is pure momentum.
So next time you’re standing in line at Wal-Mart or anywhere you’re tired, fed up and not in the mood for crowds, tip your head to one side and take in the surroundings from a different angle.