If only I had a girlfriend, I’d be happy.
If only I had a better paying job, I’d feel secure.
If only I wouldn’t react so quickly, I could be a better person.
I often find myself saying “if only” when I get presented with something that seems nice, but not quite complete. And many things seem to meet that description. This tendency serves me well in my work as a lawyer—I spot risks, opportunities, and mistakes—but it can be less helpful when applied broadly and frequently in identifying the shortcomings of things, ideas, plans, and, unfortunately, people. I wish I could say it’s my profession’s fault for honing this from a tendency into an often-practiced skill, but I think I would have become very good at this no matter my profession.
“If only” is great at doing two things: it undercuts and demotes what is there, what is present, and it sets a requirement beyond what’s present that marks completeness, wholeness, happiness. When applied to myself, it takes the form of saying that who I am, what I have, is insufficient. And it tells me that to be complete and happy, I have to strive for something else. It’s a problematic way of looking at the world, particularly when applied to myself and others. It’s a kind of innate poverty mentality that makes me think I can’t do myriad things because I’m not complete and, by saying I could do things “if only” x, y, or z were true, it strips me of agency—my ability to do things—and hands it over to some future condition or other person or future me.
The Still Water Tuesday/Thursday sitting group in Takoma Park has been reading The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh. Tuesday morning, we read a snippet where Thay speaks of a glass of home-pressed apple cider that mirrors what happens when we meditate: over time, the pulp and seeds sink to the bottom and the clear juice rises to the top. When I heard that metaphor, I first wondered how to keep the juice clear while bustling about in our daily lives. But for me, I think the story is more about accepting that the juice and the pulp are always separate—happiness is always possible when we recognize it’s there. We decide, or we get pulled, to move between the layers in the glass: we move from being mindful and clear to lost and in the pulp or somewhere in between. When presented with a tumultuous day, we could say “geez, if only I were on the cushion I could handle this” or we can recognize that the clarity and calm are there and we can touch them even as we also see all the pulp of what’s happening around us.
I also like Thay’s analogy of the cider because the cider is only complete when all of it is within the glass. You don’t discard the pulpy part and declare the sweet juice to be cider—then it’s apple juice or strained cider. Similarly, we are only complete if we accept all of what we bring to the container. Yes, we work to have the pulpy parts settle and not interfere with our clarity, but the juice came from the pulp and wouldn’t be there without it. Similarly, while the pulp can settle, it’s part of who we are and probably has some important nutrients and lessons for us. Pema Chodron emphasizes in an excerpt below that it’s when we when come to see ourselves as complete as we are and not demand something else that we can find wholeness and happiness—enlightenment.
I’m curious about your experience with this reflection. Do you struggle with “if only”? Do you buy that we have to embrace all parts of ourselves? Do Ani Pema’s words resonate with your experience? I also invite us to experiment with a guided meditation this Thursday that asks how we see ourselves and others—a rough summary of it is below as well.
I hope you can join us,
From The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron
It’s very helpful to realize that being here, sitting in meditation, doing simple everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, using the toilet, and eating, is actually all that we need to be fully awake, fully alive, fully human. It’s also very helpful to realize that this body that we have…and this mind that we have at this very moment are exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, and fully alive. Furthermore, the emotions that we have right now, the negativity and the positivity, are what we actually need. It is just as if we had looked around to find out what would be the greatest wealth that we could possibly possess in order to lead a decent, good, completely fulfilling, energetic, inspired life, and found it all right here.
Being satisfied with what we already have is a magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted, and inspired way. One of the major obstacles to what is traditionally called enlightenment is resentment, feeling cheated, holding a grudge about who you are, where you are, what you are. This is why we talk so much about making friends with ourselves, because, for some reason or other, we don’t feel that kind of satisfaction in a full and complete way. Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have. Our wisdom is all mixed up with what we call our neurosis. Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, and therefore it doesn’t do any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness. We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves.
Sit for a couple of minutes to settle. Bring your awareness to your heart, and breathe in and out through your heart. Feel the spaciousness that’s naturally there, in and around your chest.
Now let descriptors flow through your mind that describe your qualities and attributes. They can be words, feelings, colors, sounds, textures, or temperatures—just let them come. If a narrative or judgment starts, just bring yourself back to the descriptors. If the descriptors won’t come or stop, stay with your breath and stay open. After a couple of minutes, stop and focus on your breath around your heart again. How does this feel? Has anything changed?
Now do the same thing by first bringing to mind someone you love dearly. Let the descriptors flow that describe aspects of this person. Again, don’t tell a story or paint a complete picture, just see what comes to mind. How does that feel as you come back to your breath and breathe in and out of your heart?
Finally, do the same thing with someone with whom you are struggling or having difficulties. How does that feel? Do you notice a difference between the three? How was your heart feeling after each of the exercises?