The Comparing Mind

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I just got back from a camping trip in an area we enjoy around Carson Pass on Highway 88 in the Sierra mountains. We set off for a hike we had taken before, up the trail to Lake Winnamucca. The previous hike had been so glorious that my husband, the artist Will Noble, had come home and commemorated it in paint. (See painting at right) That time there were thousands of species of wildflowers in bloom, literally every inch of hillside was gloriously festooned with color.

On this hike either spring was late or we were early. There were just a few tentative blossoms, mere hints of the wildflower explosion to come. “This will be really something in another month,” my husband said. We were both seeing this beautiful mountainside through the filter of our last experience. Much as we admired the beauty of the snow-capped peak before us, the rushing stream beside us, the rock outcroppings, the towering trees and the brilliant green of new shoots emerging now the snow had melted, we couldn’t seem to free ourselves from the heavy overlay of the vision of loveliness that had so captivated us on our last visit. We remembered how long it had taken us to walk back down the hill because I was stopping every few feet to take another photo of yet another spectacular flower. We remembered that there had been so many other hikers out enjoying the glory of it all that it had been festive and celebrational. Now we had the muddy trail pretty much to ourselves. We tried to enjoy the solitude, but finally decided perhaps with the limited time we had on this trip we might want to try a trail we hadn’t hiked before. And so we turned around half way up to the lake.

It is our nature to compare and contrast experience. It is part of the function of mind to notice similarities and differences. It is a skill set that is useful in decision making. It keeps us from getting stuck staring at a menu or paint chips for hours ad nauseum. But the mind often fails to distinguish when comparitive analysis is useful and when it is unskillful.

My memory of that hillside covered with wildflowers got in the way of my simple enjoyment of the beauty of the moment I was living. But at least I noticed my comparing mind. Years ago I would not have noticed it. I just would have whined and complained and made myself miserable.

Noticing is really all our practice asks of us, noticing with as much compassion as we can bring to ourselves when our minds get caught up in the tangle of preferences. To whatever degree we are able, we bring our attention gently back to the present moment. For in any present moment there are incredible riches to be noticed. You don’t have to be on a mountainside to feel the glory of just being. You can look up from your computer right now and notice the light and shadow, the colors, the textures, the feel of the air on your skin, the sensations in your body. Every single moment fully noticed is illuminated and beyond compare.

When we meditate we often find ourselves comparing this meditation to some other meditation we did before. Perhaps we had some glorious wordless wonder of a meditation where we were in a state of bliss. Lovely. Had we only known we would turn around and use this exquisite meditation as an instrument of torture in every subsequent meditation, it would not have been so blissful!

All we can do is notice our comparing mind and smile at its capacity to get itself caught up in a tangle, like a little kitten in a ball of yarn. “Oh sweetheart, look at you, caught up in the tangle again,” we might say to our mind as we bring ourselves back to the present.

(Yes, we can be that kind. It doesn’t matter if we feel we deserve kindness. It is just the practice. Nothing personal. Be kind! It’s good for you. You don’t have to earn it! It’s free!)

Over the past weeks we have been exploring creativity and the challenges to accessing the bountious flow. Comparing mind is certainly one of those challenges. We compare our creative abilities to others, not just in our immediate circle but artists throughout the ages. I remember in art school my friend saying, “What’s the point? It’s not possible to be original. It’s all been done.”

Sometimes we do feel as if there is no point in adding one more painting, poem or ceramic piece to a world already so full of art. But accessing the creative flow is a rich and glorious experience. Whatever comes out of it is simply by-product. Yes, the world is awash with the by-products of others of our species who have also accessed the creative flow. Imagine it! All that luscious creativity flowing through us all! What a rich festive generous world of wonder!

Is it possible to let go of needing our by-product to be unique, special, best in show? Is it possible to put away the ruler by which we measure our creative output? Is it possible to allow the process to be so nourishing and enriching that we have no need of admiration or comparison of any kind? Is it possible to simply rejoice in the celebration of life?

Of course it is possible. But the practice is not about striving to achieve this ideal where we have gone beyond any need for praise. The practice is simply noticing with great compassion the tangle of thoughts and emotions that pass through us as we go about creating, meditating or living our lives. We notice. We give gratitude for noticing, for noticing is the gateway to the present moment. With tenderness and understanding, we usher our minds and hearts back, even if very briefly, to the present moment. The present moment where we are able to relish the process rather than some end product, where we can tap into the infinite source of love and creativity, and where we see with new eyes and beginner’s mind the beauty of the world around us in this moment, a moment beyond compare.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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