It is hard to stay mindful when the fountain of youth is bubbling inside you.
This was the first sentence I wrote on my phone on my way back home from a 10-day meditation retreat in rural Belgium. I cannot consciously recall how this formulation formed in my head; probably my unconscious mind picked the phrase ‘fountain of youth….’ up from somewhere and then combined it with ‘it is hard to stay mindful’. Of more importance, however, is the fact that, after 9 days of total silence with 10 hours of meditation per day, the biggest insight I had was that my inner desire to stay mindful, that is, to be aware of myself without clinging to whatever sensations come up, was conflicting with another desire to be active and experience things. Part of me desires to be that Buddhist monk you see in the picture; serene, grounded and focused. Another part of me desires to be like his punk-brother; outgoing, hedonistic, hyper-active and scatter-minded.
I think most people, especially people in their late teens or early twenties, experience their desires in a similar way. There is a constant struggle between chaos and order, hedonism and wisdom, childishness and maturity. You have a desire to eat healthy so that that bikini will look good on you this summer, but you also want to splurge on Ben & Jerry’s while watching re-runs of Sex and the City. You like running and know that it is good for your stamina and loads of other things, but you also wouldn’t mind bumming on the sofa all day watching others do the running for you. Lastly, you really like partying and social gatherings, but you’re also passionate about your study and often face a trade-off between the two.
My point is that we are often split between two or more conflicting desires, one of which we objectively know is bad for us and one of which we objectively know is good for us.
Now, if we were perfectly rational beings, we would make a cost-benefit analysis and decide to cease all activities bad for us and continue the ones good for us. I have a choice between going to this rad house party tonight and finishing this essay that is due in two days? I choose to write this essay and skip the rad house party because I know that writing that essay is better for me. Problem solved. Same goes for other conflicting desires; based on a rational calculation I pursue the desire which I objectively know is good for me.
But fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) we’re not robots and irrational in so many ways. Drunken on the rush of adolescent hormones, some of us confuse the sensation of fearlessness with being invincible. Others are easy prey to peer pressure or rebel against their parents and ‘the system’. And then there is a large group of sensation-seekers, seeking out new experiences which sometimes includes activities that are bad for them.
Thus, what we get is a situation in which many people are split between two or more conflicting desires, which remain in a state of conflict because of our irrational nature.
With this observation, I’ve arrived at what originally drove me to write about this topic. I think that, in an environment where living healthy seems to be the new norm, many of us are grappling with this inner conflict and I would like to share my personal insights on it.
There are many ways to go about conflicting desires, suppression, extreme behavior or mind-boggling cognitive dissonances – but what I think is of primary importance is acceptance. That is, to accept the fact that you’re an irrational being and to thus accept that there is a conflict of desires. Recognizing this and giving yourself this space frees up a lot of mental energy. Note that acceptance differs from mindfulness in the sense that acceptance means accepting whatever goes on inside of you while mindfulness means you are aware of it.
Acceptance is best grasped by referring to its opposite: denial, a form of fear. Let me explain by means of a small example. Two persons, person A and person B, are addicted to smoking and both decide to stop. Person A is frustrated at herself for not being able to quit and constantly tells herself that she MUST quit, otherwise she’s an even bigger failure. Driven by her angry resolve, she passionately suppresses her desire to smoke, only to collapse into excessive smoking a few days later. Person B accepts the fact that she is addicted and, recognizing the negative effects it has on her body and psyche, has a desire to quit out of love for herself. She fails to quite a few times but, accepting these failures, calmly tries again and eventually quits it. Of course, I know that a smoking addiction is way more complicated than what I just sketched since it involves an interplay of genetic predispositions, physical addiction and social environment. However, all things equal it is more probable that person B succeeds at quitting than A because person B has freed up so much mental space by just accepting the fact that she is addicted.
I can speak from experience; no I’m not addicted to smoking but I’ve been into meditation for a while now and at some point became so frustrated at myself for not being able to make it a habit that I started keeping up a calendar and force myself to hit streaks. Every time it would work for a couple of days but then something came up, a house party or a weekend of going out, and my streak would get interrupted. The day after I would look at the calendar and feel pangs of guilt for not having meditated. At some point I ditched this method because meditation started feeling more like a chore than something enjoyable.
The moment I accepted that I had both a desire for partying and a desire for meditation and that this is totally fine, I freed up a lot of mental space. Less and less I was seeing the two desires as excluding opposites and now I just meditate whenever I feel like meditating and party whenever I feel like partying. Funny enough, the times that I do meditate I feel its positive effects way stronger than when I was forcing myself to. Also, probably because of its enhanced positive effects, I’ve developed an intrinsic desire for meditation; whenever I haven’t done it for a while I am naturally drawn to it. The same goes for exercising, eating healthy and all the other good stuff; when you do these things from a place of acceptance, you will be naturally drawn towards that which is objectively good for you. It is about whether you are driven by denial or acceptance, by fear or love.
Because, you see, I’ve been using the word self-acceptance but self-acceptance is but one aspect of this bigger thing called love. Love is a crucial factor when trying to tackle psychological dilemmas such as the one I’m writing about. Like a rising sun casting its increasingly powerful rays over the dissipating morning fog, love casts rays of clarity and insight over conflicting desires. Instead of some sort of romantic feeling, love is an active attitude of caring for and about something for no other reason than the mere fact that it exists. That could be you caring for yourself or others caring about you, just because you exist.
Not only does love free up mental space; it also allows one to face hard truths. Maybe your desire to smoke comes from a place of self-loathing. Maybe you want to party 4 times a week in order to distract yourself from more urgent things. Maybe the Ben & Jerry’s splurges are not because you like cookie-dough ice-cream so much but because it gives you a sugar rush which temporarily makes you feel better about yourself. And the list goes on.
It can also go the other way; maybe you’ll realize that what you perceived as conflicting desires are not actually conflicting but can also be seen as complementary. I, for example, noticed that I’ve become more socially skilled and developed a deeper appreciation of social gatherings precisely because of meditation. Most people don’t associate working out with smoking weed, but a friend of mine once told me this story about a Jamaican Rasta who would light up a spliff every morning before starting his work-out ritual. He explained that the weed made him feel more focused.
Smoking weed and working out is obviously not a combination cut out for everyone. But the the point is that, when we fully accept and love ourselves, some desires will naturally peter out and others will seem less mutually exclusive.
So next time you slipped up and pursued a desire of which you objectively know is bad for you, chill down. Accept the fact that you have those desires and try and develop some love for yourself, after all: it is hard to stay mindful when the fountain of youth is bubbling inside you.