By Brent Purple Oliver
As a mindfulness coach, I emphasize a trio of attributes that strongly supports meditation practice.
I call them the Three Pillars: curiosity, skepticism, and humor. In my experience, they’re integral to pursuing this path with aplomb. Good meditation teachers all have their own style. My self-deprecation is usually reluctant to let me throw myself into the “good” category, but I’m not bad at this. I’ve also been encouraged by my own teachers (all of whom are great and not merely good) to be my own kind of mindfulness coach.
I have a personal history that has shaped me—specific strengths and characteristics, wit, wisdom and weaknesses that are all mine. It’s boring as fuck to teach mindfulness by rote, from a script. It’s just another droning voice in the sanitized world of soft-spoken self-help. Finding your own approach is almost as important as accumulating enough experience and knowledge to be an effective guide.
I’m grateful to have been pushed by several amazing, unique mentors. They’ve given me the confidence to teach my own way, to relax and let my natural voice take over. This means I don’t just repeat what I’ve been taught, and how it was taught to me. I don’t strive to be different, I just am different, and I think the Three Pillars are indispensable, even though none of my own teachers specifically told me so. They are ways of relating to ourselves, the world and our practice that help us stay on track.
Let’s look at curiosity first.
No matter why you started meditating, if you want to continue, try not to see the practice as a chore. Many of us pursue it because we know it’s good for us, but if we just put our heads down and grind it out like we’re cleaning the tub, we’ll eventually dread and even resent our time on the cushion. However, if we can raise a little curiosity, things become very different.
Curiosity lends us a fresh perspective in each moment. Why did my mind just do that? Why do I always react that way? How can I change that habit? Where did that feeling come from? Who’s asking all these questions? If we approach practice always wondering, always looking closer, taking delight in the mystery, it will become a source of joy and inspiration.
Instead of gritting our teeth and bearing it, we can come at this with a sense of real interest and a high level of engagement. This is a puzzle we’re working on, and nobody puts together a puzzle just so they can stare at the final assembled picture. It’s the assembly that is the pleasant challenge.
The term mindfulness is absolutely every-fucking-where these days. It’s out of control. Even as a mindfulness coach, I’m exhausted by the word. Vapid articles about mindfulness are filled with half-truths and outright nonsense, often taught badly by untrained people and its benefits are exaggerated by the hopeful and the ignorant. It’s remarkably difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, learn what mindfulness really is, what it’s good at, and what it’s not.
This is where skepticism comes in.
It’s sad and cliched, but still accurate: if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Mindfulness is not a panacea or a magic bullet. It’s a fantastic, versatile tool but it’s not the solution to all our problems. It won’t get rid of hemorrhoids, for instance. With meditation, we don’t have to take anything on faith because some authority figure said it. I strongly encourage you to question claims that seem outlandish or unrealistic. Do your own investigating and experimenting.
We can also bring skepticism to bear internally and stop being so credulous in regard to our own bullshit and repetitive stories. Looking critically at our thoughts, habits and patterns helps us break the iron grip our constantly shrieking monkey mind has on us. But it’s important not to take it too far—to become so skeptical that we refuse to believe anything. If that happens, then it just becomes sneering, sanctimonious scorn. I spent a lot of time at this stage and was a walking, scoffing buzzkill who never got invited to parties.
Humor encourages us to laugh, often at ourselves, and not take this so seriously all the time.
People practice mindfulness for a huge variety of reasons, most of them quite sincere and earnest. Dealing with chronic, debilitating pain is no joke. Pursuing awakening is exhausting and requires diligent effort. Working with emotions like overwhelming anger and crippling anxiety is a frightening endeavor.
I’m not suggesting we approach this flippantly, giggling at our challenges or making wise cracks to bypass real issues. But humor is vital. It helps lift us up when things are grim and terribly difficult. It provides a sense of lightness when everything is far too heavy. It gives us some playfulness when all this just seems so fucking tedious and harsh.
Sometimes, meditation feels like a matter of life and death. All the more important to be able to bring some warmth and playfulness to it. This isn’t looking on the bright side; this is being struck by the glorious absurdity of existence and our place in it. There’s no need to chortle like a crazy person at the madness of it all, but a good laugh can really work wonders.
This practice shows us things about ourselves—some of which are revolting and horrifying and churn our stomachs. Some are transcendent and sublime and move us to joyous tears. We’re scraped through the disgusting sewage in the basement of our consciousness and then vaulted into sky-high bliss.
What the hell can we do but laugh?
We only get one whirl on this ride so we should get the most of it. Meditation practice can make us better, happier people, and there are things we can do to make our meditation practice more effective.
Be inquisitive, be dubious; see the comedy.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.
Latest posts by Brent Purple Oliver (see all)
- Three Pillars of Meditation Practice to Help Stay on Track - February 28, 2019
- Back to High School…to Teach Mindfulness to Teenagers - January 24, 2019
- Making a Gratitude Adjustment - November 22, 2018