My wife asked me to host her mindfulness group last week, as she was away on a course in Edinburgh. I was pleased to do so, and I was delighted to spend time with so many lovely people in Stonehaven. One of the things we were talking about, in passing, was doing mindfulness meditation on a train, which may be why on the way home I found myself humming the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Homeward Bound”. You know the one … “I'm sittin' in the railway station, got a ticket to my destination …” and realising I was singing it, I started wondering whether that’s the problem a lot of people experience. We believe that we’ve got a “ticket to my destination”; in other words, we think we know where we’re going. And life’s not like that!
We’ve got lots of ways of expressing the same idea. We sometimes talk about someone whose life “has been changed for ever”. Well, of course it has, every day everyone’s life changes for ever; if it didn’t, it either wouldn’t change at all or any changes could be turned back and cancelled, and neither of those options are possible. But that’s not what we mean, is it? What we mean is that the person in question had their life mapped out in front of them, and something happened to ruin what was “supposed to happen”; they “knew where they were going” and something spoiled it.
We even talk about getting someone “back on course” after an illness or an incident has “changed their life”. The underlying assumption is that people are like boats, they might stray off course due to a storm or something, but with a handy chart and some deft navigation work we can soon work out how to get “back on course”. I’m not sure if I’ve missed something along the way, but … where do we get those charts, please? Actually, seafarers are usually very aware of just how limited the belief in getting where you’re going really is. I don’t know how true it is, but I remember hearing that the reason sailors traditionally wear an earring is that according to ancient Greek legend, seafarers who drowned at sea had to cross the River Styx and had to pay the ferryman a gold coin to be taken across. In order not to lose the coin they had it made into an earring because “you never knew when you were going to need it”!
But I digress. The only way we could know if our life had been “changed for ever” is if we could see into the future and know where it was supposed to go. We can’t and we don’t. But still, when certain things confront us in life many of us adopt a posture of “That’s not right, that’s not fair; that’s not where my life is going”. And while that may have a certain appeal when we’re feeling “cheated” of our preferred future, it misses the point that we are where we are, and that’s it. I don’t know if there is any sense in which there is “a plan”; but if there is, none of us know what it is. It’s strange, in a way, that so many people seem to believe that there is a plan, which I guess can be comforting, but when something happens in their life that they don’t like, complain bitterly that whatever it was that happened “wasn’t part of the plan”. Why bother believing in such a crappy plan? Surely, if there is a plan then everything that happens is part of the plan!
But still we hold on to our belief in a plan, but it’s not The Plan we believe in, it’s Our Plan, and when the two don’t match up we start to complain that our life has been “changed forever”. What I was thinking as I was driving back from my wife’s mindfulness group was that the point of mindfulness meditation is to help us let go of these ideas about “plans”, and especially ideas about our plans. By letting go of our attachment to what we want to happen we are much more able to accept, and accommodate, what does happen. By bringing that “sense of gentle curiosity”, which we adopt in the Body-scan exercise, to life in general we can begin to accept and explore life without the preconditions we usually apply, and which are the source of so much of our stress and discomfort. Acceptance is at the heart of mindfulness meditation.
I remember hitch-hiking with Graham back around 1978 or so; we were heading to Oban and, as so often happens when you’re hitching, we got stuck, in this case at Tyndrum for about four hours. Eventually a car stopped; the driver said he was going to Fort William and Graham jumped in. I quietly pointed out that Fort William wasn’t anywhere near Oban (Oban is west of Tyndrum, Fort William is north) to which Graham replied, “That’s okay, we’re going to Fort William now.” We got a lift straight to Fort William and then another all the way up to Ullapool and had a great few days up in Ullapool, which I still remember more than forty years later. No ticket. No destination. Just life. Enjoy it!