This winter I took a course based on Tara Brach’s book True Refuge with Penn Mindfulness Director Michael Baime. Over the course of eight weeks, he guided us through its complex ideas and intense exercises. This was hard work, but very rewarding.
As I’ve written before, when you first start practicing mindfulness, the focus is often on the breath. The goal is to become acquainted with our minds, since we spend much of our time on autopilot. When you actually sit and watch what your mind does, you can feel overwhelmed. Your mind is all over the place and you have little control over whether it dives into a dreadful memory or is already planning a romantic interlude with the person behind you in the checkout line. You learn to let go of each of these thoughts as they arise and return to your breath as an anchor.
Once you’ve developed awareness, — this ability to focus and to understand that you are not your thoughts, worries, scheduling, etc. — you can bring it to a specific thought, “take a step backward” as Brach instructs, to delve in and find out what’s really happening and where it resides physically in your body. You may discover a core belief you have about yourself (most likely untrue), such as I’m a failure or I’m unworthy of love, and let it go. (I found the Investigating Core Beliefs chapter very helpful.)
While this is hard work, ultimately it will give you more freedom as you unburden yourself of all these things you unknowingly carry around in your mind and body that affect what you do and how you feel.
At the end of Brach’s book and the end of our class, we arrived at the point when we turned this awareness we’d been developing on awareness itself. We asked, Who is observing? Who is the seeker? And in asking this question, Brach tells us, the observer, the seeker disappears.
It is this line from True Refuge that stayed with me: “Rather than being a human on a spiritual path, we are spirit discovering itself through a human incarnation.”
I walked around for a week, thinking: This is what it’s like to be human. This is what it’s like to be cold. This is what it’s like to hear a bus as it reaches the stop on the corner. This body, this limited human life, is how we experience the universe and how the universe experiences itself.
As always these thoughts, these discoveries bring me back to writing. Isn’t this what we do as fiction writers? We sit and wonder what is like to be our characters? We inhabit them, but at a distance. We grow aware of their bodies, their thoughts, the hopes, fears, and desires, the core beliefs that have led them to their actions, their self-image. But we can’t get carried away by any of these things and go spiraling down the rabbit hole. We must “take a step back” and see what is actually happening to create meaning, to create art. If we do our job correctly, we the seeker, the writer, disappears. Our readers never feel our presence.