Words by Ed Halliwell

According to my parents, I was never a child for quiet being, relentlessly active from birth. With three much older brothers, I remember it seeming there was no time to lose. The goal somehow to catch up in growing so I could join the exciting, secretive world that they left the house for each day. Escape to the future was thus my plan from an early age – round the corner always promised better, stronger, bigger, happier if I only I could run with my little legs.

A few years later, I found I was good at schoolwork, and that praise came my way along with the grades. The way to success was clear – the harder I worked, the better my results, and the better my results,
the brighter the future seemed.

And so I kept on. Success did come, in certain conventional terms, but such was my determination to keep ahead of the game that I never stopped to enjoy it. Set on this treadmill of seeking more thrills, more plaudits, more recognition, I knew no other way of life. I couldn’t relax so I drank and smoked dope at night – only after I’d finished work late and been to the gym, of course.

Breakdowns came when relationships failed – other people had an irritating habit of refusing to fit in with my perfect life project, especially when I treated them as possessions to be sought and kept. When the fantasy bubble burst, I fell into depression. My mind told me the answer, surely, was more success. “How many degrees do you need to be okay?” asked my therapist, when I told him my plan to go back to college.

And so, finally, I came to meditation. I approached it at first like all the other attempted fixes. “Maybe this will set my mind straight,” I thought as I sat to follow my breath. But there was something in the practice that short-circuited the loop of endless struggling, because the instructions invited a different mode of mind. Much as I wanted it, in meditation there was nowhere to run to, and indeed the suggestion on discovering the mind at large was to gently return it to here and now – back to the breath, over and over. Sitting still, with attention directed inward, I finally learned how to be.

It felt like a battle, at times. But in this war, my job wasn’t struggle but surrender, again and again and again raising the white flag of acceptance – “I don’t feel good,and I can let this be, just for this  moment.” It was work certainly, but nothing like the kind I’d engaged in before. The gentle graft was to cease rejecting the present moment, and instead to embrace with kindness what was. What was, was depression and anxiety, so this didn’t make it easy.

At the time, I knew nothing of the science of mindfulness. I didn’t know stopping and dropping the war with reality enabled the body to balance. I didn’t know I could unfollow the racing thoughts that urged me to fix my feelings, with stern, unforgiving warnings of disaster if I didn’t rush for solutions, this way and that. I had no idea that the habits I’d built over a lifetime, which have stuck in our species as we’ve struggled for survival, might begin to be undone by practice, practice, practice (gently, gently, gently). I didn’t know it was possible to shift the structure of the brain and theexperience of mind and life in health-producing  ways, just by paying attention. Happiness by non-action – it went against the stream, of my mind, my life, our world. But somehow I grew a trust that this utterly counter-intuitive approach might actually lead to the peace I craved.

I had begun to understand a little of Buddhist teachings, and their practical wisdom chimed in my heart. Here was a diagnosis of suffering, my suffering, and an apparently workable path to serenity. I saw the old ways weren’t working – I felt I had nothing to lose. Perhaps this is what’s made it possible finally to let go.

Episodically, with repeated daily practice, glimpses of well-being came. Like the shining sun on the August morning when my three-year depression first lifted, joy magically appeared from behind the deep fog of depression, for a few hours, then days, then weeks at a time. The world shimmered alive, within me and around me. I still felt the powerful tug to do, achieve, push and avoid, but it began not to seem so valuable, compared to the riches of being. From battlefield, to workplace, to place of leisure, and pleasure. This was a great transformation indeed.

Years later, I came across this by the poet Rumi. “This is a rented house”, he wrote. “You don’t own the deed. You have a lease and you’ve make your living sewing patches on torn clothing.  Yet only a few feet underneath are two veins of pure red and bright gold gemstone. Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation. You’ve got to quit this seamstress work … Rip up one board from the shop floor and look into the basement. You’ll see two glints in the dirt.”

I still have a habit of hiding the jewels. It’s a old, old pattern, and one reinforced by everything in our world that says we must make life happen more than let it happen. Deeds are often needed of course, but unconsciously driven, automatic re-action – what the developers of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy call the ‘Doing mode’ has long become a pathology. “All of humanity’s problems come from man’s inability to sit still in a room,” wrote Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century. The gender pronoun may still be appropriate here – in a recent experiment, two thirds of men invited to sit quietly with themselves for 15 minutes preferred to take an alternative option of self-administering an electric shock (compared to a quarter of women in the study). One man put his finger in the buzzer 190 times.

Stillness rarely starts off feeling comfortable – often far from it - and yet, in time, it can lead to contentment. Sitting on the battlefield, taking off the armour of habit, raising the flag of surrender. We might seem easy prey for all we fear will assail us, but it’s actually the beginning of working, and walking, in freedom.

Ed is a mindfulness teacher and writer. His latest book, Into The Heart of Mindfulness, has just been published. Visit for more information.

This feature was first published in Issue One of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri