There’s a Buddhist meditation practice called “Lovingkindness” or sometimes “Befriending”, and it has many variations. Here’s the version I first learned:
May I be free from suffering.
May I be as happy and healthy as it is possible for me to be.
May I have ease of being.
The practice in which I learned this, a mindfulness and not a Buddhist practice, has the aim of developing compassion for all people. It begins with thinking of a certain person, someone you know and care about, and using their name rather than “I”. Then you repeat the phrases for a stranger, perhaps a person you see on the bus each day; and then someone who is problematic in your life. Then it’s your turn – May I be… – and finally, it’s everyone: “May all living beings” or “May we all”.
This is not a prayer. No matter who the focus of my thoughts – a loved one, that jerk I work with, myself – I’m not seeking divine intervention. I’m considering the ways in which I care about them, or wish to care about them. It’s about my attitude towards other people and towards myself.
I was doing a variation of this mindfulness practice yesterday (December 30th, 2020), and those final three words suddenly clicked for me. Only in this version, the words were “May you live your life with ease.”
Cue the light bulb.
When I was younger, I had this romanticized vision of myself and the life I would someday lead. It involved having a cool place to live, a partner (who was probably both a musician and a painter), and a few other details that didn’t matter nearly as much as the overall feeling of being a special person living a special life.
I not only never made that life happen, of course; I never understood what that life felt like, what that life could be. More critically, I never understood that what mattered in my romanticized dream wasn’t the details of that life, but how I lived.
And suddenly, after all these years, the how I never recognized suddenly became crystal clear. How would I live in this idealized version of my life I once had (and still long for to some degree)? How would I make that dream come true, even in my current circumstances? Simple: I would live with ease.
This is the complete opposite of living with anxiety. Living with ease does not mean your are living an ideal life, fulfilling your dreams and goals. It doesn’t mean you even know what you want to do with your life. Many people know exactly what they want to do with their life, and they go out and do exactly that, and they do so without a bit of ease in their life. They’re tense, wired-up, high-strung, Type A, etc.
Knowing what to do in life does not bring ease; being at ease brings ease. It’s like the saying (from AJ Muste):
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.
To live at ease you have to release that which makes you uneasy. For me, that’s what 2020 was all about: I was learning what it was that made me uneasy in my life. I explored my anxieties, thought through many of my life’s experiences, explored possible paths forward. Most of all, I learned the therapeutic method of ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a twin of Jon Kabatt-Zinn’s original MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) program but was developed independently based on the research of its developer, Dr Stephen Hayes.
Learning ACT was incredibly valuable for me. First, I realized that I had no idea what my values actually are. This is something I am still in the process of learning, but I’ve gotten far enough along to be able to know more clearly if a goal I’m thinking of setting is based in my values or my anxieties.
ACT is language-based; that is, it teaches that the words we tell ourselves as rules are not real things but creations of our mind. We are free not to obey those rules. We are free to let go of stuff, to feel our emotions, to examine our thoughts as they pass by. We are free to choose what matters to us and how we’ll live our life based on that. ACT opened my eyes to how I could let go of the hold I have on my anxieties and fears; it’s not easy, but it’s very doable with day-by-day work.
And on the last day of 2020, I came to understand what the nature of that freedom is for me. It’s not the freedom to do what I want, go where I want, live as I choose. The real freedom, for me, is in living at ease. What I finally grokked was that even though my future is as uncertain as ever and that my mental health still has a long way to go, in any moment of the day, whatever I’m doing, I can stop and take a quick look at myself and go, Yes, this is where I want to be. I’m glad to be here. I’m going to enjoy this.
Right now, unable to sleep because of the incredible fireworks barrage bringing in the new year out here in East Portland, I am writing up these thoughts and enjoying myself. I am where I want to be, doing what I want to do (given that sleep isn’t an option). So I’m happy. I’m at ease. I’m doing what I want, how I want.