Yesterday, I was having lunch with two of my oldest and dearest friends. I've known them both since our early High School years, so we go way back. While paying the bill and figuring out the tip, one of them joked that his simple mental math skills, never his strong suit, have actually started to get worse.
"Well, you have to realize something," I ventured. "We're 46. That means that, in every conceivable facet of our lives, we've peaked. This is it. We'll never get better. Physically, mentally, whatever--we're as close to perfection as we can ever dream of getting. Hopefully it's a gentle slope, but it's all downhill from here."
At that point, they wondered why, exactly, they decided to spend time with me. But, they didn't actually argue...
But, I did thrown in an exception. I said, "Except, I guess, we can grow in kindness*." Maybe a bit pretentious for the moment, but I was trying to find a bright side.
* "To grow in kindness" is not my phrase, but I can't remember from where or from whom I'm stealing it.
I didn't tell them this background, but on the drive to see them, I had been listening to a podcast from "Crooked Conversations." This one was a conversation between host Ana Marie Cox and ABC News’ Dan Harris about meditation. Apparently, Harris has become a pretty well-known evangelist for meditating, and he's been effective in part because he's not what most people think of as a typical meditator--very few mentions of "psychic energy" or "souls," and more curse words than most of these types of books deliver. Worth checking out if you're interested in meditation, but get turned off by the ethereal, new-agey tone of a lot of those books.
Anyway, one of the points that Harris makes is that, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, most of us assume that our personalities are more or less set in stone. Certainly, once we become adults, we are who we are. If not completely, then awfully close to it. Oh, sure, we can learn things, in terms of knowledge, skills, and the like. But, our basic, core personalities, our personal qualities, are really not malleable any more (if they ever were). We're as generous as we're ever going to be. We're as kind, as forgiving, as patient as we're ever going to be. And, maybe more to the point, we didn't get to choose these qualities, any more than we chose our height or our hairlines. I might wish I were kinder, but that's just wishing. I can pretend to be kinder, I guess. But, at my core, kindness is something I have (or don't have) in some predetermined measure. There just isn't much to do about it.
The entire point of a spiritual life, the entire point of spiritual practice, and the entire point of a meditation practice (which, he's eager to point out, doesn't have to be a spiritual meditation practice) is that we actually are able to change. And, we're able to change deep, important, fundamental parts of ourselves. It's not easy, by any means. It takes dedication, determination and not a small amount of constancy. But, bit by bit, slowly but surely, it is possible, without any doubt whatsoever, to change who we are. If we want to, and if we are willing to do the work, we can become kinder. We can become more generous, more forgiving, more loving. More patient. More open-minded.
I've been seriously engaged (albeit sporadically) with mindfulness practice for a number years now. It's getting close to a decade, actually. And, there are times when it feels like it hasn't really had an effect on me--that it isn't "working." But, there are also times when I think I can see a change. That, although I am far from perfect, my work has made me more patient. More understanding. More generous. I think I'm a better person than I was 5 years ago. I think I'm more worthy of admiration (my own, anyway) than I was. There's no false modesty when I say that I've got a long way to go. I am not, in any way, claiming to be adequately kind, or exceptionally generous, or in any sense a paragon of virtue. I've got a lifetime of work ahead of me, and I'm sure that, when it's all said and done, I'll leave this earth a deeply, deeply flawed person. But, I sincerely hope, and somewhat expect, that I'll be less so than I am now. And, I like that direction.
The podcast is a good listen--two smart people talking, openly and honestly, about some very personal stuff (including drug addiction and recovery). Give it a go--I'd love to hear what you think.