Reframing experience

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Every night this week, just as I’m about to fall asleep, a cat in the neighbourhood starts howling and shrieking for a good half hour. This is rather frustrating. After a few nights of this, I joked to myself that perhaps the cat thought it was a wolf and was howling at the moon. Then miraculously when the cat started up its howling, I began chuckling to myself. Each night from then on, I grew fonder and fonder of this cat that mistook itself for a wolf.

This got me thinking about the power of ‘reframing’ experiences, as well as how this shows up in mindfulness practice. In our mindfulness practice, when we pay attention to our minds we see that we are constantly framing, interpreting and judging our experiences, events and other people in a certain light. This is habitual, and for many of us, particularly when it comes to negative events, these interpretations are not only inaccurate but can cause us and those around us suffering, and reinforce harmful narratives, e.g. of self-criticism, or blaming others.

Mindfulness is a practice designed to help us first to notice and then to let go of all of these stories, reactions and interpretations that colour our experience, allowing us to be more flexible and open about how we understand ourselves, our experiences and other people. Interestingly, once we let go of all these interpretative habits of the mind, and we really inquire into what our experience actually is, certain ‘reframing effects’ come about as a natural consequence of our practice.

As we are able to inquire into experience more and more just as it is, without any extra colour of our own added, we become acquainted with the fundamental characteristics of experience, i.e. what all experiences have in common. Characteristics like ‘change’ or ‘impermanence’, ‘selflessness’ and so on. It is through repeated awareness of these fundamental characteristics that certain ‘insights’ arise. One way of thinking about the ‘insights’ that we can gain through practice are as reframing effects.

Take ‘impermanence’. On the meditation cushion we witness over and over again experiences arise and pass away, thoughts, emotions, desires, urges, pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, it doesn’t matter what, whatever has the nature to arise, will also pass away. The deeper our awareness of impermanence, the greater it reframes and transforms our inner landscape. When at first we clung so tightly to our experience, grasping at the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant. Upon gaining insight into this truth of impermanence, we see the fruitlessness of being so attached to experience when it won’t last, and we are no longer so buffeted by the winds of change.

As we see the impermanent nature of things we learn how to enjoy our life for what it is, without needing to be so personally invested in each moment. When unpleasant sensations or thoughts arise instead of reacting against them we are able to accept them knowing that they are only visiting. Pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, seeing their ephemeral nature, we gain a measure of equanimity, a steadiness of mind that isn’t shaken by the vicissitudes of life.

As the buddha said:

“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.”