In the early ‘80s, I traveled to teach in Zimbabwe. The landscape there was breathtaking.
One night, I took a boat tour down the Zambezi River at sunset. It was virtually silent except for the sounds of animals on the shore and brightly colored clouds glowing over us. Strangely, nothing around us seemed to mark us in time. Drifting there on the boat, I felt small in comparison with the vastness all around. I was connected with what felt like the birth of creation. In that moment, I felt completely separated from the rest of the world and all of its troubles, big and small.
As we floated along, my traveling and teaching partner, Joseph Goldstein, turned to our tour guide and asked if we could stop ashore to take a walk and enjoy the scene by foot while it was still light out. The guide made a quizzical face and answered, “You’d better not. The whole shore has landmines from the civil war. Animals get blown up. Children who wander there have been killed or damaged for life. It’s not a good idea.”
Definitely not! But I remember feeling disappointed, suddenly aware that my idyllic feelings were overthrown by a troubling reality hidden beneath this transcendent scene. I couldn’t stand to think about all of the people and animals harmed by these landmines. The fact that the danger was hidden troubled me even more.
After that trip, I learned that there are more than 100 million landmines around the world. Of course, landmines are almost always mired with a fraught history of war and hatred. The irony is that landmines stick around long after wartime blood has been shed. They lurk hidden in the ground after armies have left and conflicts have ostensibly been resolved. Landmines are undiscriminating: they will explode regardless of who or what it is walking over them. To this day, thousands of people are killed each year by landmines, and even more are injured permanently.
I bring all this up not to dwell on a traumatizing international phenomenon, but because the fear I felt about landmines struck a chord for me emotionally, too. It is much more expensive to remove a minefield than to lay one down, which led me to think about the way that negative thought patterns happen so easily, seemingly without any effort.
Beginning an unconscious habit never really accounts for the long-term consequence. Telling yourself, “I’m so inadequate,” repeatedly throughout an inefficient day of work, for instance, may not strike you as terribly damaging at first consideration. But as time goes on, you might start to realize the effects of this pattern.
Learning how to neutralize these corrosive habits of mind requires effort. When you more fully understand a path to freeing ourselves, this effort isn’t nearly as overwhelming as ridding the landscape of landmines can sometimes seem. It requires the patient effort of mindfulness and self-compassion. The thought of making this effort can be scary, because it shocks us out of a routine, even if that routine isn’t making us feel great. The reality of that effort isn’t grim and awful; it’s a great harnessing of love for ourselves. To make that effort is a big relief, and a big adventure.
We all have inner landmines. Each of us has unique life experiences and unique interpretations of those experiences, both of which add up to the stories we tell ourselves. These stories aren’t always negative, but we all share the tendency to create stories. Odds are some of those stories are characterized by self-judgment, regret, guilt, and other uncomfortable habits of mind.
The Buddha’s story is about freeing himself — and others — from suffering. That means believing that going through painful experiences consciously and compassionately — facing our inner landmines — can be healing and lead us onward. This clear-eyed recognition of all of our experience — the wondrous and joyful, as well as the difficult and unappealing — is what makes us whole, and allows us to recognize ourselves in one another.
Inner landmines, like the real ones, can give us a sense of danger when we think about going near them. Sometimes we may not even want to think about doing the work to acknowledge those parts of ourselves inside that are hurting. But unlike real landmines, we won’t be permanently hurt when we go near them. We may feel more pain for a while, for sure, but in that pain there is presence, renewal, and love.