What is a Good Life? #21
Good day to you all,
If this is your first time reading this newsletter, please click here for background information on the project and how it is structured (4 separate sections).
The key theme this week is Mindfulness. The interviewee speaks about how impactful moments of awareness and attention can be, while I reflect on misconceptions / misinterpretations of mindfulness techniques.
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1. This week’s interview
Each week I share direct excerpts from an individual interview
This week’s interview is with Jon*. Jon is now a Coach, after leaving a senior position at a large multinational to study psychology. He speaks about the importance of experiencing and playing with life.
*Not the participant’s real name
What is a good life for you?
A good life for me is life where I get to experience as much of life as I am capable. On one hand, I'm creating experiences to see what I am made of, and as I discover what I am made of, I get to be changed by life itself.
It's a bit self-directed by moving out of the routine and automatic way of living that we have as human beings. Then it's a complete opening up to what a new experience is going to bring from me and how I'm going to show up to that.
So, a good life is a life where I've got the chance to reveal as much of myself as I possibly can. There is no attachment to whether that is a good experience or is that a bad experience. It's more like you've been given a toy, and you want to experience all the functionalities.
It's to use life as a playground, to stretch your imagination and curiosity to the limit, to see what is possible. A good life is that sense of aliveness - a fierce sense of aliveness.
Can you elaborate on not judging an experience as good or bad?
When labelling an experience as good or bad, we are forming a judgement. You will be informed by some emotions, for some situations you say, "that's comfortable, it's safe, it's good." Other situations, you will say, “whoa, it's new, it's scary, it’s bad.” I still feel the emotions, which are simply limitations of my past experiences, but at a meta level, the experience is not good or bad.
It's simply an experience; it's an expansion. It means something is new; there's something in me which is not ready for this. What is it?
How do you balance an appreciation for what is and and an expansion?
It seems that expanding my range is kind of an elimination process of what is no longer needed, instead of seeking more. It could take the form of people in your life; it could be a coping mechanism, these active layers that we have. It's not because I want more or to move forward necessarily, it’s more de-layering myself by seeing that I don't need this and that.
It’s not that you don't appreciate and enjoy what you have. On the contrary, as you get to experience more, to feel more, to see more, there is an underlying current of gratitude and appreciation, because there is more aliveness.
You get much more nourishment from life. You get stimulated. You get a higher volume of life, as your senses are heightened to some extent, so that's where the appreciation is coming from. You get in sync with what is happening much more, and you become so much more sensitive to what is. You don't need more, you need less. You don't need more comfort. You probably need to have less, to awaken your senses.
Can you talk to me about how this shift in perspective occurred for you?
By being broken down, by resisting life, by not willing to embrace what was happening, and by using tremendous resilience. It was like being in a river and trying to walk upstream - at best you can stand still. And that's what I did until I broke down. And when I did, it was at the end of the three years that my wife was recovering from leukemia.
I became a nurse for six months of the treatment. We had just moved to a new country, bought a house, and got the kids into a new school. I didn't speak the language and we also had contractors for the house. This stuff was okay. I switched off. I was on survival mode.
But to become a nurse I had to bring my humanity, to bring the emotions, which we can't switch off like a tap, not selectively. During my project management time periods of the move, I didn't feel strong negative feelings, because I didn't feel anything at all.
To keep it short, at the end of the three years we were coming back from a holiday which was worse than any other holiday because she was really sick. I asked her whether me looking after her was working for her, she said, “it's not working for me." Initially I thought, “thanks.” After all I’ve done, bearing the cross for the last three years.
She said, “yes, but when I wake up in the morning, there's just a small ring of light and the next thing I see is your shadow, you cast a shadow on me because you scan through my face, starting to wonder how good or bad today is going to be and it creates huge expectations.”
I asked how she would like it to be, and she said, “when we met you used to be the source of light and now you've become a shadow. Bring back the light. Don't try to save me, bring back the light.” I didn’t know if I was capable of allowing myself to be me in this situation.
But I went inwards, through everything, my beliefs, my assumptions, etc. I didn't know anything, but the only thing left that I could see was a spark.
I then did the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I gave myself permission to bring the spark back. When everything in every fibre of my being was telling me it's not right to spark - how do you dare to bring joy, humour, lightness to a situation like this? And this is what broke me.
This is where I had to let go of the part of me which was in control. This had to go, and when this died, a lot of things happened. I left my job, I went back to university, everything which kept me afraid died too.
“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” - Thích Nhất Hạnh
2. This week’s insight
Each week I share an overall insight from reviewing 100+ interviews collectively
Mindfulness was mentioned by approximately 15% of the participants in this project as an important part of a good life.
Participants most frequently cited meditation as a tool for developing mindfulness. A handful also referenced breathwork. Numerous participants experienced multiple benefits from developing mindfulness practices: compassion for themselves, appreciation of the moment, presence in the moment, reduced stress, and greater focus.
Many participants lamented the various ways in which modern life looks to colonise our attention, while suggesting nature was an important part of their mindful experiences.
“In today’s rush, we all think too much - seek too much - want too much - and forget about the joy of just being.” - Eckhart Tolle
3. This week’s reflection
Each week I share a personal reflection on the weekly theme
Mindfulness and meditation are often misinterpreted. Much of this stems from how they are typically sold: as wonderful panaceas that will completely remove stress from your life.
Firstly, there’s typically an assumption that “good” meditation means not thinking at all. Your mind will practically always be thinking. The key difference is whether you are merely observing what comes up or getting drawn into your thoughts. Attachment to moments of not thinking when starting your practice results in resistance, and your meditation can become a grind.
Secondly, there’s the mistake of equating “good” meditation with peacefulness. Practitioners can become addicted to peacefulness and a mediation is “bad” if you experience unpleasant feelings. I don’t use meditation to go to a happy place. I meditate to become more aware of whatever it is that I am feeling. Attachment to peacefulness can generate much judgement of, and resistance to, your practice.
Finally, for me, it’s important to recognise that my meditation practice is only a small part of my waking day (30 mins = 3%). If I don’t try to bring more mindfulness to the rest of my day, it can be like learning a language but never speaking it with others. Mindfulness can be practiced while going for a walk and noticing the wind on your face, and in the office by noticing the sensation of your weight against your chair.
If you are just beginning your mindfulness practices, realise that it takes time and consistency, and that your mind is likely far wilder than you probably ever realised. Patience and compassion, and not comparing your practice to others, are key to maintaining these practices.
“What would it be like if I could accept life – accept this moment – exactly as it is?” - Tara Brach
4. This week’s questions for personal reflection
Each week I pose questions to support your own inquiry into what a good life is for you
Take a moment to feel the weight of your body as it comes into contact with the ground you’re standing on or the chair you’re sitting on.
What areas of your life would you like to be more mindful and aware? What benefits would come from these developments?
That’s all for this week. I’d greatly appreciate you sharing this newsletter with your friends. I’d also really like to receive any feedback with suggestions for what you would like to see from these weekly updates. If you want to contact me directly, here’s my email and LinkedIn.
I’m a coach, based in Berlin (via Dublin, Ireland). I formerly had a 15-year career in Capital Markets, and for better or worse, I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to make a discovery around human thought / behaviour.