When we see life as a mirror we become accustomed to being open to the many surprising and magical ways in which life can teach us. Whether we say that the teaching comes from life, God, nature, the universe or whatever doesn’t really matter – opportunities for learning come nonetheless. Here I would like to relate to you 3 events which all had something to teach me and which happened within the space of one week.
Thorns can be allies
One day I decided to trim a shrub in the back garden which was beginning to grow out of control. I often find that I enter a state of Oneness with nature when I am gardening and find activities like pruning and weeding very therapeutic.
To my surprise the first thing I did when I started to prune the shrub was prick my finger on a thorn. I had forgotten that the plant was a pyracantha (firethorn) and that it had rather long, sharp thorns. The pain in my finger signalled to my brain that the plant was potentially dangerous and threatening. In that moment I was aware that I was presented with a decision about how to proceed: I could put on some very thick gloves to insulate myself against the thorns; I could use a hedge trimmer and have no contact with the plant; or I could prune the shrub mindfully, taking care to place my hands gently on each part that I was cutting. I chose the latter option.
Instead of seeing the plant as a threat I chose to see it as a guide in helping me with my spiritual practice. Although the original purpose of the thorns would have been to protect the plant from predators, in that moment they became my allies and teachers: every time my mind wandered away from the present moment the thorns would remind me to be here now and to bring my awareness back into the present.
Pushy salesman reminds me about loving kindness
I had been looking for somewhere to live and the house hunting had been a long and frustrating search. Finally I thought I had found the perfect house and I was due to go and view it that morning. 10 minutes before I was about to leave I received a phone call from the estate agents to say that the house was no longer available. Having become attached to the idea of living in that house I felt annoyed that it had slipped through my fingers at the last moment.
Before I’d had time to calm down the doorbell rang. Through the window I could see a tall man dressed in black who had a mobile phone earpiece in his ear and was busy talking to someone on the phone. I asked him to come round to the back door and I could hear him continue his phone conversation. I opened the door and said hello to him. He thrust a leaflet towards me and said that his company provided property maintenance services. I looked at the leaflet in his hand but declined to take it from him saying “We don’t need anything doing, thank you”. He continued to hold out the leaflet and said I could keep it. I replied by saying “It’s OK we don’t need anything doing, thank you”. I was annoyed that he was bothering me as I hadn’t asked him to call. He was annoyed that I didn’t take his leaflet. Then he said “Well don’t you think your driveway needs doing?” I replied by saying something like “I think perhaps you need to leave now as I’ve already said we don’t need anything doing”. Visibly annoyed he said “Well be nice about it”. I told him I was being nice and had said “No thank you”. He walked off and I went back inside, even more annoyed than I was before.
After a short while I wondered why he might have come into my life and what I might need to learn from the experience. I realised that although I had been polite I hadn’t been very kind. I took my anger from the phone call about the house into my interaction with this man. The colour of his clothes and the fact that he was talking on the phone were mirrors for my anger. On one level this man was just a pushy salesman, but on another level he was one of my teachers. Having realised this I decided I needed to honour this teaching and quietly gave thanks for this message.
On the surface people may appear to be unkind, pushy, interfering or rude, but these interactions can often serve to bring things to the surface which we need to work on, so in that way they are doing us a service. They will have the opportunity to learn from these interactions just as we will. Whether we agree with the way they interacted with us doesn’t matter – the important thing is what we can learn from the experience
Learning not to fight
One day I went to a health food shop to buy some oats and seeds. I had been struggling to get clarity regarding a difficult challenge in my life and just felt that today I would receive some guidance from somewhere. In the shop window I could see some date slices and made a mental note to ask about them inside the shop. After I had put some things in my basket I went to the checkout and asked the lady behind the counter if the date slices were vegan – she said they were so I decided to buy some. Then I saw some chocolate gingers on the counter and asked if they were also vegan. Another lady said they were also vegan so I said I would like some of those as well. The first lady said to me “It’s your lucky day”. At that point a man who was standing next to me said “It’s not my lucky day – I’ve just been to the dentist” to which I replied “Ah yes but you’ve been to the dentist and you got out alive so maybe it is your lucky day after all”. He thought for a moment and then said “Yes I suppose being alive is something to be thankful for”. “Yes, you’ve lived to fight another day” I said. “Oh no, I don’t fight anymore” he said “Having been punched, kicked and stabbed I learnt not to fight”. I replied by saying “Well there you go, that’s another positive thing – you have learnt not to fight”.
“It’s the company I keep” he said, at which point, having paid for my shopping, I said jokingly “In that case I think I’d better leave”. As I left the shop he followed me and said “I’m just a slow learner” to which I replied “We all are”.
I don’t know if this man was just an ordinary man with a troubled past who just happened to be there that day and just happened to say what he said, or whether he was an enlightened soul in disguise, purposefully there to give me a message. Either way it doesn’t really matter – what I took from the whole experience was that I was being reminded not to fight and not to struggle. The lady in the shop had drawn my attention to the fact that something positive would happen to me that day and helped me to pay attention to what happened next. I thought the man was a bit unhappy and that I was cheering him up, but maybe he helped me more than I helped him.
As I look back on these three events, I can see how the same lesson was being given to me in each of them, in a different way each time. Just as the firethorn shrub had taught me to yield when presented with a perceived threat, the man in the shop reinforced the same lesson. The pushy salesman reminded me not to react with annoyance when confronted with a challenge.
As I ponder these events now I can see that it is only ever the ego which perceives other people or situations as a danger or a threat. The soul cannot die. All that can die within us is our ego. When it feels threatened it will push back and fight. I concluded that maybe it’s time I taught my ego to practise Jujutsu, the art of yielding.
A few days after the last of these 3 experiences I had to face a very difficult personal challenge in which I needed to be mindful, to yield and to not fight. It was a particularly difficult challenge because my early life experiences taught me that the world was a dangerous place full of threat. My early childhood experiences showed me that people can employ bullying tactics in order to take something from me or control me in some other way. I had to learn to protect myself against this and so I learned to be defensive. As a reactive behaviour strategy defensiveness certainly served its purpose up to a point – it prevented me from getting too deeply involved with people who I thought might hurt me – but it also had a rather unpleasant side-effect, insofar as it stopped me from forming intimate relations with anyone. Not only that, it was, after all, only a reactive behaviour strategy. Mindfulness teaches us to be present in the moment and to act accordingly, to respond to life and be responsible. Reactive behaviour is pre-conditioned – it is behaviour we learned in the past and which now gets employed automatically without any conscious thought and usually with little awareness and presence.
If we are reacting out of pain from the past or anticipation of the future we are not truly present. Only by being present, here, now, can we truly appreciate what life has to teach us. Sometimes we forget to be present – I certainly forgot to be present when the salesman called – but thankfully I remembered to become present afterwards and so I was able to learn from the experience and send out a more peaceful energy.
*** This chapter is taken from my book The Light Within ***