Do you ever feel you should be doing something other than what you’re doing? In your head an inner nag keeps reminding you of all the things you have to do. You can’t focus. Your attention’s on the next task. When you finally get to it you’re still not focused; still thinking about other things. You’re tired and you’re overwhelmed.

You may feel like a hamster on a wheel, but hamsters don’t seem to agonize the way we do. They get on with it. Imagine going with the flow. It’s efficient. It’s satisfying. It builds self-esteem. It feels good. Why can’t we get on with it? Are hamsters cleverer?

Cleverness is part of the problem. We make up excuses: life is complicated today; you can’t rely on anyone else; these things just have to be done. It’s easy to avoid responsibility, but it comes at a price. Instead of training our attention and containing those overwhelming feelings, we’re at their mercy. Distraction is harmful.

You don’t have to be cut off from the world to train your mind. In fact, focusing your attention on everyday tasks is the way to go. That’s exactly where you need it.

We’re adapting, but what we’re
adapting to is defeat and denial

Some mornings I set off for work looking forward to my interesting projects. Then I get sideswiped by an avalanche of insistent chores. Then I get anxious. I don’t think clearly. My efficiency falls. Instead of feeling fulfilled, I end my day tired and discouraged.

Not all days are like this. I don’t mean that unexpected and uninteresting things don’t happen. I mean, I manage them differently. When I feel that sense of unease creeping up on me, I’ve got to step back or lose the flow. I need to check my inner dialogue.

Sensing procrastination before you’re completely overwhelmed presents you with an opportunity. There’s still time to change direction. The trick is to bring your attention to what you’re actually doing and forget about what you wish you were doing. Unfortunately, it’s not just a one-off decision. You have to train your mind and its reactivity.

Fortunately, it’s not the tasks that overwhelm; it’s the thoughts. We do all this to ourselves.  We submit to procrastination and fear of failure. We’re adapting, but what we’re adapting to is defeat and denial.

The big things in life are the most important: marriage, family, success, but if you don’t sweat the small stuff, the big stuff never works out well. We earn self-esteem by paying attention. We show our concern for others by paying attention. We keep our balance by paying attention. We get what we want by paying attention, although too often what we want is not what we need. By paying attention then too, we learn more about ourselves. We grow. We cultivate the art of life.

We’re not the rational creatures we think we are. What drives us is force of habit. If you’re in the habit of being overwhelmed, then it’s just a matter of time before you’re back in that rut. What you need is a counter-habit.

Properly applied, mindful reflection brings subconscious reactions to the surface, enabling you to rethink them and undo old habits. It reveals just how few pressures are really thrust on you. Most are self-imposed habits of reactivity, rooted in forgotten experiences. We follow them without asking why, but we don’t have to.

Stephen Schettini offers a new Mindful Reflection™ workshop on six Thursday evenings from Oct 7 to Nov 20 (except Oct 23). For more information and to register, click here or call 450-458-8030.


It Begins with Silence

The following is a republished version of one of my first posts on this blog, updated here for those who may not be familiar with my Mindful Reflection workshops and writings. It was prompted by a recently podcast interview on the Present Moment website: listen here.

The following is a republished version of one of my first posts on this blog, updated here for those who may not be familiar with my Mindful Reflection workshops and writings. It was prompted by a recently podcast interview on the Present Moment website: listen here.

Ever since my Mindful Reflection Workshops started in 2002, students have asked me to write a summary of what I teach. They want a handbook for their own use. They also wanted something that would convey to their loved ones that what goes on in those ninety-minute sessions is not weirdly spiritual but utterly practical.

I determined to write reflectively about what I teach in everyday language. I wanted to avoid Buddhist jargon while using an entirely traditional structure. The result is It Begins with Silence, a guide to the teachings of the historical Buddha in just over a hundred pages.

I’d just completed a ten-week workshop and was on holiday in Cuba when the idea came to me to use the ancient Sanskrit style of verse and commentary. The verse, called the Essence, is terse; the commentary, in prose, goes over the same ground at length. There on the beach I composed ten sets of verse, and in the following year back home in Montreal I polished the verses and worked the commentary. The voice is more personal than classical, more reflective than conventional.

The book encapsulates a ten-week workshop, presenting the Buddha’s teachings in modern terms while sticking closely to the traditional outline familiar to generations of Buddhists. It teaches the skills of concentration and insight and presents the four tasks, the five heaps and eightfold path, the two levels of truth and the development of loving kindness and compassion. It also rephrases the often misunderstood teachings of karma, detachment, wisdom and nirvana.

It Begins with Silence is neither dry philosophy nor a superficial gloss. Written in the same personal style as my memoir The Novice, it’s designed for gradual contemplation — one sentence or paragraph at a time. The rhythm and voice is meditative, to trigger the very states of mind it describes. This isn’t a passive read but an active engagement in self-discovery and personal freedom.

To learn more about or to purchase It Begins with Silence, see Guidebook in the Mindful Reflection Workshops menu over on the left. To learn what people are saying about the workshops, see the Feedback page.

When Loyalty Betrays

Sometimes the most carefully laid plans for life disintegrate around us like dust, It’s traumatic. I’m happily married now, but like a baptism of fire I first had to go through a divorce. Before that, leaving the monk’s life was an even deeper divorce, as if I’d been cut away from myself.

Both times, blame and self-pity sucked me into a downward spiral. Somehow, I faced my disappointment. Strewn before me like the unpromised land were all my illusions about life and love. It was simple. It was unflattering. It all came down to insecurity and the urge to belong.

The dream of security is sealed by the glue of loyalty

I’d become a monk to take control of my mind. I’d married to take control of my life. I’d focused on what I wanted, not on what I needed or even what was possible. Explained like this, it’s a no-brainer — but that’s just theory.

Family, friends and society support our illusions more readily than our insights. It’s human nature to wriggle ourselves into a nice, safe huddle. The dream of security is sealed by the glue of loyalty.

But it also leads us to betray ourselves.

Buddhism requires the faithful to be loyal, but also to
figure things out for themselves. How’s that work?

With a bit of luck, the huddle triggers first claustrophobia, and then defiance. I remember arguing with my soon-to-be ex-wife and a group of friends. The ex took it for granted that I’d stand by her, but I didn’t. I thought she was wrong and said so. She was outraged, which I understood. She was also sincerely perplexed, which made me stop and think. I was risking our relationship for something I believed in. She was doing what people do most of the time — looking for support.

Monastic life makes similar demands. In Catholicism it’s simply called ‘obedience.’ Buddhism requires the faithful to be loyal to the teacher, the community and the teachings, but also to figure things out for themselves. How’s that supposed to work?

We always have a rationale, but it’s not always rational

It seems like an impossible paradox, but it’s not as immobilizing as it sounds. Once again, it’s all theory. The awful truth is that what we believe depends on how we feel. How we rationalize depends on what we want to believe. If you’re feeling vulnerable and need to belong somewhere, as I felt when I was ordained and when I married, your judgment will simply take a back seat. It’s called survival.

Philosophers have long tried to turn this equation around. It can happen, but it’s rare and there’s no formula. The human brain is a trickster. We always have a rationale, but it’s not always rational. Without mental and emotional agility we fall for that assumption that we call common sense. It’s not necessarily unfounded. It’s sometimes right, but it needs constant rethinking; hence the need to expose yourself to doubt.

The insecurity of being makes us crave stability

The insecurity of being makes us crave stability in life, and also in thought. We want issues to be black and white. Fortunately, they’re not. Imagine that life were as secure as we wished. How dreary it would be. Occasionally, getting what we want helps us along our path. More often, it’s simply not what we need.

How can we know? By looking back on it once the dust has settled. “No, no,” the insistent little inner voice cries out, “How do we know in advance?”

You’re joking, right?

People expect you to be loyal in love and in business. Family and community takes it for granted. Mafia clans and gangs are bound by rigid ethics, and guess which one tops the list. What do all these expectations have in common? The preservation of inter-personal relationships. They subvert ethics to the need to belong.

Introspection combined with intelligent, balanced feedback
is the shifting ground of personal and interpersonal growth

Loyalty enables us to partake of the great feasts of social engagement, but it’s fraught with treachery. It causes religious communities to conceal abuse and rationalize that concealment as ethically necessary. It enables people to stop thinking for themselves. Surely there’s nothing recent, modern or unusual about this. It’s been going on for millennia. Any community claiming to represent The Truth, or The Law, or Civilization is sooner or later caught in webs of its own hypocrisy.

And then there’s the compounded danger: how often has the spotlight been shone and the truth been told, only to see the new Guardians of Truth fall into the same trap. It’s easy to point out someone else’s hypocrisy, to feel smug and right. What does it take to admit that we’re all driven by the same instincts for survival, comfort and love? We can’t constantly adapt to changing realities alone. We all need support. We need family friends and society, but we also need the courage of our convictions, to take the risk of being wrong — even of being alone.

Our motivations are a wily target, always one step
ahead of us but never entirely beyond reach

Healthy loyalty exists, but not just by good intentions. It’s an ongoing commitment, a fragile combination of hard work, self-doubt and human warmth. Anyone can shout from the rooftops, hurl insults and claim to be right, but righteousness is insidious. Once the battle’s over thoughtful people make change happen.

I discovered the pernicious role of my own sense of belonging while writing my memoir, The Novice. With the help of my editor, friend and wife Caroline, I saw through the compromises I made. That relationship is important. Introspection combined with intelligent, balanced feedback from an honest friend is the shifting ground of personal and interpersonal growth. In my earlier marriage that support was taken for granted; it wasn’t honest. Because it took no risks, our foundation crumbled.

We’re told that everyone wants to be happy and loved, but what actually motivates us is on the other side of that coin: it’s the fear of being unhappy, unconnected, unloved and unimportant. From the moment we’re ejected from the womb we seek something to cling to. Whatever we find, we hang on to for dear life. Those primal urges are damned hard to let go of, if that’s even possible. Once we recognize them however, we no longer blindly submit. Just knowing that they’re constantly lurking, waiting for a moment’s inattention, changes our perception of who we are.

They’re a wily target, always one step ahead of us but never entirely beyond reach. Being mindful of the breath in the present moment is pleasant, but seeing our own motivations for what they are is transformative. It makes better people of us, and the world a better place.


What if everything doesn’t happen for a reason?

Maybe you’ve got life all figured out; maybe you’re not quite there yet … but did you ever consider whether such a thing is even possible?

Supposing life is inexplicable. What if all our knowledge is just vanity? What would that mean? Listen to this three-minute streaming audio download from the latest Quiet Mind workshops.

(2m 55s)

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more audio

Mindful Reflection: How to Turn Shopping into a Spiritual Practice

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.

Happy shopping!



Mindfulness is not just smelling the roses

Mindful Reflection Tip #4

Being attentive to the present moment has its own rewards, but it’s also part of a long-term strategy.

Mindfulness is being aware of everything as it happens, but that’s not as complicated as it sounds. Everything means what you see, hear, feel, taste, smell or think — no more, no less. The Buddha suggested that as you pay attention to any of these things you consider the following Three Marks of Existence:

1) They all pass because they’re composed of things that eventually fall apart. Watch them pass. Example: someone (perhaps you) did something wrong; be aware of guilt, blame, frustration, etc; see how the feeling arises from conditions that trigger your habitual reaction (stimulus-response).

2) Nothing that’s composed of parts can deliver permanent satisfaction. See its unreliability. Example: the next time you feel the same way, see how even though your habitual response doesn’t actually help, you keep trying; see the vicious circle of stimulus and response.

3) None of this experience is you; it’s just something that happens. Experience it and let it go. Example: when you choose to see your feelings as passing events that won’t last, and that you can’t rely on, it’s easier to let them go; keep practicing this new skill.