Wishing Things Were Different

Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63 – about a time-traveling high school English teacher who arrives in Dallas a few years before that sunny, ill-fated November day referred to in the book’s title, with the intention of thwarting the assassination of John F. Kennedy and thereby changing the course of contemporary history, presumably for the better – raises a psychological issue that is highly relevant to our ongoing exploration of engaged mindfulness.

Before proceeding, however, let me assure any of you who are currently reading – or planning to read – this book that there will be no plot give-aways in what follows!  My intent in this post is not to recap or comment on the contents of King’s novel, but rather to examine the significance of his fictional hero’s desire that past events might have been different.

This kind of wishful thinking can range from the most trivial, self-involved kind of desire as “I wish it weren’t raining today” to the most significant, history-changing kind of desire as “I wish John Kennedy had not been killed”.  What all variations of wishing-things-were-different have in common, however, is the unwillingness of the wisher to be completely accepting of things as they are (or were).

And right away, with that last statement, we are plunged into the familiar pool of paradox that mindfulness practice invariably draws us into.  For is it not a useful human trait to want things to be different?  And is it not this very trait that motivates so many worthwhile human endeavors?

The distinction we need to make here is the one made famous by Robert F Kennedy, who paraphrased a line from a George Bernard Shaw play when he remarked in one of his most inspiring campaign speeches, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask Why?  I dream of things that never were, and ask Why not?”

Those who only look and ask Why? are so preoccupied with their complaints about the current state of affairs, that most likely they are not even truly seeing what they’re looking at.  Everything is being filtered through the lens of their aversion to things as they are.  Merely wishing that things were different from the way they actually are, and feeling sad or angry that they are not, is the antithesis of mindfulness, which always begins with a clear vision and acceptance of things exactly as they are.

Those who go on to dream and ask Why not? have moved well beyond aversion and complaints.  Their dreams of how things might actually be different in the future are based upon their ability to see things as they truly are in the present – which is the very essence of mindfulness.  From that clear vision, uncolored by the lens of aversion, of how things truly are, these dreamers are able to envision how things could be made better.

These dreamers who ask  Why not? and then take appropriate action are true practitioners of engaged mindfulness.

And we could certainly use a few more of them in the world today.  Or rather, I should say, a lot more of them.

So, let’s begin with ourselves – each of us.  All that’s required is to take a look around us, see clearly what’s going on right there in our own vicinity, put a check on any aversions that may arise, and get busy with some appropriate action that contributes to making things better.

And of course, we can still enjoy the occasional philosophical speculation on what might have been, in our own life, or even in the history of the world, if things had been different.  We can even indulge ourselves in reading a novel on what might have happened if John Kennedy had lived beyond 11/22/63.

We just need to remember that the skillful practice is never merely about wishing things were different – it’s always about mindfully engaging with the world in order to transform that which could, and should, be made different.

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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